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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AO3 name: Brigdh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway. He's got a book! :D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1526 words. Also available on AO3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7216 words. Also available on AO3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And now I will try to catch up on everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
10:09 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. A comedy novel set in Victorian London (...sort of. It's not remotely historically accurate, though to be fair, it's really not trying to be) about a shallow feckless poet who marries for money, loses his muse when he realizes that having to spend your life with someone you can't stand sucks, accidentally sells his wife to the Devil (yes, the literal Devil), is overcome by the realization that he actually is in love with her, and sets out to rescue her with a zany cast of supporting characters that includes his super-competent butler, an Arctic explorer, the inventor of a flying machine, and an overly curious 16-year-old girl. Also the whole book is being edited by the poet's disgruntled cousin-in-law, who frequently butts in via footnotes to critique the poet's style or disagree with his assertions.

That's a lot of stuff for one novel! Unfortunately it ends up being merely a bit silly rather than laugh out loud funny. The blurb made comparisons to Wodehouse and Monty Python, and while I can see their influence, this book isn't quite up to either's standard. But that said, it was a fun read and kept me turning the pages; it's certainly not at all a bad debut.

There was one thing that annoyed me. I hate to single out Leo for this, because it does show up everywhere, but this was such a blatant example of it that I couldn't skim past it:
Lancaster and I give voice to our displeasure. Lizzie stamps her foot again. There is as much threat in the stamp of that little foot as in the negligent handling of two loaded weapons.*
* This is unquestionably the case. I have become very dear friends with Miss Savage, and I do not think she would be offended to hear me say that her anger, on the rare occasions it is displayed, is more frightening than anything I have yet witnessed.—HL.

No, it is not unquestionably the case. A sixteen-year-old throwing a tantrum is not as threatening as a loaded weapon, and it is unbelievably patronizing to pretend otherwise. (This isn't the only time Lizzie is described this way. It appears over and over again throughout the book, by everyone who meets her – though again, she is a normal, unarmed, not particularly aggressive teenage girl.) It is not a compliment to women to pretend to be afraid of them; actually, I find it just the opposite – an insult bordering on outright misogyny. If you want to write female characters who are scary, do so. Don't act like a stomped foot or raised voice is the equal of actual violence, or would be enough to make reasonable adults cower. It's an over-the-top exaggeration that suggests you don't take women's real anger seriously, and it irritates me enormously every time I see it.

Anyway. The rest of the book really is fine! I just couldn't let that go. Overall it's a pleasant way to waste an afternoon, if a bit forgettable once you've finished.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David. An academic book on dangerous clothes, focusing on the late 1700s to the early 1900s in western Europe and America. Most of the stories here are fairly well-known – arsenic green, mad hatters, flammable clothing, body lice, Isadora Duncan's scarf, the health issues of workers in textile factories – but David tells them with a great depth of detailed research and an engaging prose style that makes the book worth reading even if you're familiar with the topic. Fashion Victims was written in conjunction with a museum exhibit, which for the reader means there are lots and lots of pictures. And not just photos of the items of clothing themselves (which are not always the most interesting thing, to be honest), but of historical advertisements, postcards, political cartoons, and more. These vary from hilarious to strangely disorientating – the past is a different country indeed, as radium hospital blankets, asbestos yarn, and lucky lice make clear. Though despite that, David does an excellent job of pointing out that it's easy to laugh at the past, and fashion today is not nearly so safe and blameless as we might like to believe.

If the topic sounds interesting at all, this is definitely a fascinating read. Highly recommended!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The First Unsolved Murder of the Victorian Age by Paul Thomas Murphy. That is too much subtitle, dude. But at least it conveys everything you could possibly need to know.

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Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
4:56 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman. A nonfiction book about the history of American cooking. Lohman organizes the book around eight popular flavors, arranged chronologically as to their appearance in mainstream American food: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha. Each has a chapter dedicated to it, which Lohman fills with stories of the people involved in the invention or popularizing of a flavor, such as Edmond Albius, a young slave on Madagascar who discovered how to artificially pollinate vanilla, allowing it to be farmed; Ranji Smile, a celebrity chef in the late 1800s/early 1900s who promoted Indian food; William Gebhardt, a German immigrant to Texas who was the first to sell commercial chili powder; and others. Some of the stories here are probably ones you've heard before if you read a lot of food writing (the Chili Queens of San Antonio, "Chinese restaurant syndrome" being not a real thing), but others were completely new, at least to me: I knew very little about soy sauce, and had absolutely no idea that sriracha was invented in California (did other people know that? I totally thought it was made by a Thai company!).

I was surprised at first by her inclusion of MSG, which feels to me to be much less common in the US than in other countries; when I was in India, for example, I saw a lot of kitchens with a bottle of MSG like a shaker of salt, and I have never seen that in an American kitchen. But Lohman's historical research showed that once happened in the US too, which was cool to learn. My favorite part might have been the final chapter, "The Ninth Flavor", where Lohman attempted to guess the next big trend in American food. Her suggestions all seemed reasonable to me, and predicting the future is always a fun game.

Lohman also includes recipes, some by current chefs and some adapted from historical cookbooks. I haven't had a chance to test any of them, but I was particularly attracted by Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies (based on a recipe from Martha Washington), Country Captain Chicken (an American "curry" popular in the 1800s), and Garlic Soup (a French recipe that became popular with the "Lost Generation" expats). The writing was unobtrusive and included lots of personal anecdotes in between the research and recipes. Overall a fun book with lots of interesting information.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler. Travel nonfiction about the Amur River, which – to be completely honest – I had never heard of before this book. Apparently it is the ninth longest river in the world (well, depending on how you measure it), starts in a mountain range in Mongolia, forms the border between Russia and China, and finally flows into the Pacific. It's also known as the Heilongjiang, which translates directly into "Black Dragon River" – thus the title. Ziegler is the type of travel writer that I prefer: very little memoir-like accounts of his personal experiences or background, and lots and lots of interesting research on the area, in his case mostly history with a bit on the environment (descriptions of local plants and animals, accounts of the destruction wrought by humans, you get the jist).

Much like my experience of the river itself, I knew practically nothing about the history Ziegler covers. He starts with Genghis Khan, who was (probably) born in the same mountain range as the Amur, and that wasn't too new. But then Ziegler goes on to cover the Russian exploration and colonization of Siberia in the 1600s, primarily for the fur trade, led by the Cossacks; the movement of Tibetan-derived Buddhism into the local people; the recapture of the Amur by the Qing Dynasty, leading to the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the first major treaty between China and a European power; the Decembrist revolution and their exile; the reconquering of the Amur by Russia as China was being carved up by various imperialist powers in the 1800s; and the 1969 battle over Damasky Island, as Russia and China vied for control of a small island in the river and the rest of the world freaked out about two nuclear powers fighting. A lot of this history was depressing, involving the usual sort of torture, murder of unarmed innocents, rape, and more that you can always expect from stories of colonization and war. But the history of the Russian Far East was a topic that I had absolutely no awareness of previously, and so I found it fascinating. I can't comment on Ziegler's accuracy or political slant since, again: new to me. I have to leave that to better-informed reviews, though I can say it all seemed well-researched and reasonable.

The book was a bit slow at the beginning, but once I was engaged, I plowed through the rest of it quite quickly. It was very readable, with unobtrusive prose. It's an unusual topic, at least in English, but I'm glad that I know slightly more about it now.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. A comedy about a Victorian poet who accidentally sells his wife to the Devil, then sets out to rescue her. I'm not very far into it yet, but it's amusing so far!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything I've missed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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