Saturday, June 22nd, 2019
5:14 pm - Finally it returns: Reading Wednesday! (Yes, on a Saturday.)
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. A fantasy novel set in an Early Modern-ish world, where most (perhaps all?) of the characters are people of color. Oh yeah, and there's a f/f romance. Basically, this book is FANTASTIC.

To me, Foundryside's worldbuilding stood out as the most remarkable thing about it. It's wonderful and complex and extremely different from any other fantasy novel I can think of. Being Early Modern rather than Medieval or present-day is enough to stand out all by itself; this is a world with factories and colonies and sugar plantations and merchant houses and patents on inventions. I mean, when was the last time you need a fantasy novel that had insights to chattel slavery? (I don't feel Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad counts, since it's not a secondary world story.) Plus, as I said: it's a world where brown people are the default. I picked up a slight Southeast Asian feel to the descriptions of food and climate, but overall it's too different from any specific real-world culture to draw a direct line. In addition, Foundryside is a world with magic and I absolutely loved the rules that Bennett set up. Basically, magic works like computer coding. You write a line of logic, but for it to function you must be absolutely clear and not include any lapses that might be self-correcting to a human reader but would cause a strictly literal reader to misinterpret the whole thing. For example, let's make someone fly by reducing their gravity! Except whoops, they actually exploded instead, since there's no longer anything holding their parts together.

Our main character is Sancia, an extremely skilled thief who for some reason (even she doesn't know why) can hear magic and talk to inanimate objects. This talent obviously is very helpful for a thief, but it also makes everyday actions like wearing clothes and lying on a bed difficult, since she doesn't know how to turn it off. Sancia is hired for what seems like a simple job – steal a small box – except that it turns out whatever is in the box is immensely, world-changingly, valuable, and now everyone in the city wants to kill her to get it for themselves. She slowly gains some allies, including Gregor (quite possibly the only person in this world who believes in the concept of impartial justice and who wants to start a police force), Orso (a loud, self-involved, arrogant head magician), Berenice (quiet and competent; Orso's assistant), and Clef (a magical object who has lost his – its? – memory but who is quite literally the key to solving all sorts of mysteries). Together they have a wonderful found-family vibe, despite many overt differences.

Foundryside combines fun action and bloody battle scenes and multiple incredibly well-done heists with big questions like the concept of freedom in a capitalistic society, the veneration of war heroes in the aftermath of atrocities committed on the battlefield, if a few individuals are capable of changing the whole system, and the price of power. It's emphatic and enthralling and exciting and just so, SO good. Foundryside ends in a satisfying place, but I absolutely cannot wait to read the sequel.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. Part murder mystery, part gothic horror, part f/f historical fiction. In 1820s London, Frannie Langton, a black servant, is found blood-covered and asleep next to the violently stabbed bodies of her employers. Despite being the obvious murder suspect, she swears she would never have done such a thing, having been in love with her mistress. Unfortunately she doesn't remember what did happen. Memory loss not being a great legal defense, her lawyer provides her with paper and pleads with her to write down anything she does remember. Frannie starts at the beginning: her childhood as a field hand on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is this first-person, autobiographical account.

Frannie is not your usual former field hand. Ferociously well-read and highly knowledgeable, she's the sort of writer who can casually throw around references to Latin classics or the latest scientific discoveries. Her education came about partly due to her role as a pawn in the bitter games played between her owner and his wife, partly due to an experiment in the possibilities of black intelligence, and partly due to Frannie's own love of reading novels. It also turns out that such memory blackouts are not a new experience for Frannie, having first started as a result of her traumatic early life and encouraged recently by the laudanum addiction her new mistress pressed upon her. As Frannie reveals more and more of her life, from the horrors of slavery to sexual abuse to petty arguments with her fellow servants in London to her complicated family history to her tangled sexual relationship with her London mistress, the mystery of that specific night grows more complicated: If Frannie commited the murders, why? If she didn't, who did?

The writing is absolutely beautiful and the horror is very real. It specifically involves medical experimentation and vivisection on enslaved people; personally, I was incredibly grateful that The Confessions choose not to get graphic, but perhaps violence doesn't need to be explicit when its emotional weight is the black hole at the center of the narrative, the obscene gravity warping everything around it. The historical research is outstanding; I actually spent about half the book convinced that Frannie's London employer, George Benham, was a real historical figure. (He's not, but he so closely resembles abolitionist leaders who were also dickheads such as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson that I think the mistake is understandable.)

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a dark, angry book that offers absolutely no escape to its characters or its readers, but I loved it. It's gothic horror in its original, most awful, sense. The haunted house has long been the power structure of the patriarchy and classism, but now it's white supremacy and homophobia too.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019
7:10 pm - Reading Wednesday
God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England by James Warren. Nonfiction about New England in the 1600s, specifically regarding interactions between Native Americans and the English. Warren does an excellent job of explaining in detail the Narragansett religion and government, and their complex trade and political alliances with other Indian nations (the Nipmucks, Mohegans, Montauks, Niantics, Pequots, Wampanoags, and others). I particularly liked his emphasis that, from the viewpoint of the early 1600s, it was not inevitable that the English would win control of the region. It's easy to look back now and assume things could only have gone the way they did go, but Warren reminds us that the Puritans weren't actually destined to defeat the Native Americans.

My main criticism is that Warren seems to struggle in finding a focus. Is this book a biography of Roger Williams? Not really, though he certainly gets more attention than any other individual person. Is it about King Philip's War (1675-8)? Also not really; though the war forms the climax of the book, two chapters out of eleven don't make for a "focus". Is it about the Narragansetts? I suspect Warren wanted that to be his focus, but without many written sources, he ends up spending way more time on the English than the Native Americans. Is it about the founding of Rhode Island? Eh, that's the closest any particular topic comes to summarizing the whole book, but there's far too much about the internal dynamics of the Puritan colonies (Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven) and the various nearby Native Americans to quite capture it. In the end, God, War, and Providence comes off as some neat facts without a clear beginning or end to give them structure and explain why these neat facts and not some other compilation of equally neat facts.

Despite that, it's an easily readable, gripping book, written for a general audience rather than an academic one. It's a great look at a time and place in American history that hasn't received enough attention.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte. Nonfiction about what actually happens to your garbage (and recycling, compost, and everything you flush down the toilet) after it leaves your house. Royte follows her own household's garbage to tell a larger story about how the United States deals with trash, though it's pretty applicable to the western world in general. She takes a ride on her neighborhood's garbage trucks and hangs out with the "san men" (sanitation workers) who drive them; hikes and canoes over landfills; visits separate recycling plants for plastic, metal, paper, and glass, and one mega-recycling plant that claims to handle them all; tracks her poo to a water treatment plant; accompanies her food waste to a municipal composting center; participates in a Christmas tree recycling project; visits people who have actually achieved the no-waste lifestyle; and more. I have to admit, one of my reasons for reading this book is that Royte (and therefore her trash) lives in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn where I also live. Which doesn't that mean her facts and general idea aren't relevant wherever you might be, but there's an extra little personal joy I get from recognizing the specific streets and parks she describes.

As you probably already knew, trash is a major problem and we don't have any particularly good ways of dealing with it. Throwing things into landfills isn't a solution (they leak toxic chemicals and can continue doing so for thousands of years), but it turns out that recycling isn't all that great either (it costs more energy, isn't currently cost-efficient, produces its own waste, and often takes place in poor neighborhoods or countries, dumping the health costs of pollution on them). Also, it turns out that household waste is only 2% of the total waste the US produces. So even if you managed to entirely and efficiently clean up your own trash, you'd barely be touching the larger problem.

Royte wonderfully balances between these two extremes. On the one hand, most of us feel a much greater responsibility for our personal trash: it's what we can see and touch and believably do something about. Certainly Garbage Land made me want to really improve my own recycling habit. Most of the book deals with this kind of trash. But on the other hand, none of that matters compared to the mostly unseen specter of commercial and manufacturing waste, which Royte acknowledges. As she puts it, all the talk about recycling makes people "enthusiastic and active in largely meaningless solutions." She does make some suggestions for how to deal with such systemic issues, but of course they're equally systemic solutions and so don't have much for the average person to do, except perhaps lobby politicians. One such idea that really struck me was the suggestion that manufacturers should be made responsible for the cost of disposing of their goods. For example, a company that makes soda has to pay for either the cost of recycling or otherwise safely discarding the empty plastic bottles by paying a fine to the local government (similar to the idea of a carbon cap-and-trade) or they have to do it themselves, by providing places in stores where customers can drop off the empty bottles. This would obviously incentivize companies to use less plastic, or to replace it with materials that are either biodegradable or more easily recycled, or to reuse the bottles. This is one of those ideas that was absolutely alien to my worldview – it never in a million years would have occured to me on my own – and yet now that I've seen it, I can't unsee it. I mean, why shouldn't disposal costs be considered part of the original cost of manufacture? I love it. I have no idea if it has any chance of coming into existence, but I love it.

Royte's writing is fun, relatable (from being grossed out by the process of weighing her garbage to sneaking under a fence because she really, really wants to get a personal look at a landfill), and full of interesting tidbits (just a few: the famous anti-litter "crying Indian" commercial was paid for plastic corporations who wanted to keep the responsibility for trash seen as an individual action; sanitation workers are three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers; in the early 1800s, most houses didn't have trash cans, which themselves had to be advertised and explained to become part of daily life). The subject matter is somewhat depressing, in that we are absolutely destroying the planet and may not be able to fix it, and some of the specific numbers are a bit out of date (Garbage Land was published in 2005), but nonetheless I can't recommend this highly enough.

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Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
11:59 pm - Reading Wednesday, slipping in right before midnight
Watchers of the Dead by Simon Beaufort. The second in the Alec Lonsdale series, murder mysteries set in Victorian London and starring an intrepid newspaper reporter. Watchers of the Dead opens with the murder of Professor Dickerson, who was working with the brand-new British Natural History Museum to put on a human zoo: a supposedly educational but usually horrendously racist display of real people, in this case ~~savage cannibals from the darkest jungles of the Congo~~. Unfortunately the Africans disappear on the same day as the murder, making them prime suspects. Lonsdale and his fellow reporter Hulda Friederichs set out to find and protect the Africans and simultaneously catch Dickerson's real killer. They soon discover multiple similar murders, all of prominent men, which have been covered up. Are the deaths connected to Roderick Maclean, who years earlier attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria and who has recently escaped from his insane asylum? Or is the culprit the mysterious gentlemen's club known only as The Watchers, who have an "unspeakable Happening" planned for Christmas Eve? Or does snobby and pompous Sir Humbage, father of Lonsdale's fiancée, know more than it seems?

It's an intriguing premise, but unfortunately the writing in Watchers of the Dead dragged it down beyond recovery. There's an enormous and hard to remember cast who are given little characterization beyond the shallowest of caricatures. Even Lonsdale, who as main character should get more depth, is bizarrely unemotional about topics such as his fiancée, death threats, friends' secrets, and change of job. There's extremely little descriptive writing of setting, background, or characters' looks, and what few bits we do get is poor:
Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum was imposing and rather frightening. A giant complex encompassing fifty-three acres within its secure area, its entrance was through giant metal gates housed between two massive rectangular towers.
A giant complex with giant gates! Such a rich vocabulary on display here.

There are major plot mistakes, as when characters know things they shouldn't (and in a mystery, you really need to keep track of who has what information). Another mistake that bugged me is that early on, Lonsdale is given a deadline for the Dickerson investigation, as the newspaper's editor is heading to Ireland to investigate a different case and Lonsdale will have to take over editing duties. A short while later, we're told that the Ireland case has been solved, but the deadline remains Lonsdale's major motivation for the entire rest of the book, despite the regular editor presumably no longer needing to leave town. There's also no resolution to this at the end of the book – does Lonsdale ever become editor? How long does he remain so? Who knows! Certainly not the reader of Watchers of the Dead. There are also minor mistakes that I found equally annoying, such as this complaint from Lonsdale about his fiance: Anne talked about independence of spirit but would rather admire it in others than express it herself. He thought she might, when they had first met, but since becoming engaged she had fallen happily into the role of the traditional Victorian lady and all that entailed. Would anyone in the Victorian era actually think of themselves as, well, "in the Victorian era"? I certainly don't see myself in such broad historical terms. If no one in 2019 is priding themselves on being a proper Second Elizabethan lady, why would people in the past do so? I know it's a minor point, but it feels so weirdly anachronistic.

But my biggest problem with Watchers of the Dead is that the whole book feels rushed and summarized, like a plot outline that hasn't been fully fleshed out. The idea of a mystery centered around a human zoo is fantastic, but the Africans barely appear on screen and their situation and its ramifications is given little attention. Characters consistently enter and exit scenes without acknowledgement, chases and fights are recapped rather than allowed to be exciting action displays, and conversations break off suddenly. It's hard to describe exactly how frustrating such summarizing feels, but imagine an entire book that reads like this scene, where Hulda needs to write a secret message that the intended recipient will understand but that no one else will be able to parse:
Lonsdale handed them over, and she went to lean on a wall to write. He read over her shoulder, marvelling at the cleverly cryptic nature of her words. She phrased the message in such a way that no one but Peters would know she was the sender, or that she wanted him to hasten to Cleveland Square at his earliest opportunity.
Really excellent writing there. Tell the readers how awesome this note is, while not bothering to come up with anything to actually show us. And yet somehow there's enough time for not one, not two, but three twist endings.

In short, there are far, far too many other Victorian mystery series to bother with this one.

Also, because I really need to complain about this despite spoilers: the Africans' hiding place is eventually uncovered because Lonsdale smells them out. Yes, really. In a book published in goddam 2019. I mean, it's described as a nice smell, and it turns out to be the scent of their favored bush tea rather than the Africans themselves, but that just leads to another problem. Bush tea (better known as rooibos these days) is not particularly strong-smelling. It wouldn't linger after it's been drunk, nor would you be able to smell it from the next room over when it's still in the packet. What a bizarre plot point.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James. An epic fantasy novel, the first in a proposed trilogy, which has been marketed as "the African Game of Thrones". I have a lot of complicated feelings about Black Leopard Red Wolf, but the most clear and strindent of them all is that this marketing decision is the worst thing that could possibly have happened to the book. Black Leopard Red Wolf is African, I suppose; that's the only accurate thing about that statement. Honestly I'm not even sure it should be called a fantasy novel. I think "magic realism" better captures the baroque, surreal worldbuilding, which conveys the experience of folk tales and fables more than it does the rules and logical consequences of the modern-day fantasy genre. Black Leopard Red Wolf is fantasy as political critique, fantasy as psychology, fantasy as metafiction, and not remotely fantasy as Game of Thrones, or even fantasy as Tolkien. Even describing the plot of Black Leopard Red Wolf is a challenge, since the book deliberately obfuscates and complicates and reverses the flow of events, so while I could lay out in a sentence what it's "about", it took me several hundred pages to decipher that sentence, and so giving it to you here at the beginning seems unfair.

The story is told in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness first person, as our main character (who claims to have forgotten his real name but sometimes goes by Tracker) is imprisoned and questioned by an Inquisitor, who wants to know about a young boy Tracker was hired to find. Tracker (for lack of anything else to call him) doesn't particularly want to answer, and so we get several hundreds of pages of backstory, side-stories, and episodic adventures before finally circling back to the boy and the central mysteries around him: who is the boy? where is he now? why does he matter? who hired Tracker and his companions (including Tracker's ex-lover/current best friend Leopard, who can shapeshift between a man and a black leopard)? who is the Inquisitor working for? why is Tracker imprisoned? This structure feels deliberately obtuse, as though James is challenging the reader to fight their way through a dense jungle if they want to find the meaning and emotional connections deep within. The opening is severely off-putting (there's graphically-described murder, child rape, and torture in just the first three pages) and I believe it's there for the same purpose; Black Leopard Red Wolf is incredibly uninterested in accommodating its readers. James has apparently said that the two subsequent books will retell the same events from different perspectives, Rashomon-style, and betraying the usual narrative conventions to instead focus on subjectivity, nonlinearity, and ambiguity really seems to encapsulate everything he's going for here.

Do I recommend it? I don't even know. I spent at least half, possibly two-thirds, of Black Leopard Red Wolf hating it and wishing I'd never bothered opening the first page (I always feel obligated to finish books once I begin them), and then somehow I got to the end and really wanted to read the sequel immediately. Recognizing that everything I hated about those early pages was an intentional choice didn't make it any easier to slog through the confusing, violent, opaque, disjointed reality of them. And yet, it did pay off in the end; much of what had seemed random and rambling ultimately tied together for a powerful climax. But is that enough to make it all worth it? I've been considering that question since I finished reading, and I still don't have an answer. If you wanted African Game of Thrones, read something else. If a magical realist, literary, post-modern hallucination with every possible trigger warning in existence sounds up your alley, then maybe you're the person Black Leopard Red Wolf was written for.

I ended up giving it four stars, because, well, I'm pretty certain James succeeded in everything he set out to do. Which is a very different matter than succeeding in everything I wanted, but it's the closest I could possibly come to giving a single numerative value to this experience.

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Wednesday, May 1st, 2019
4:40 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs. A nonfiction account of various illegal goings-on in the production and sale of truffles, from small-scale individual hunters and farmers to vast, multinational corporations. The main thing I learned from this book is that a) despite eating a lot of food labeled "truffle", I've probably never had a real truffle (either black, technically the Italian winter black truffle or Tuber melanosporum, or white, technically the Alba white truffle or Tuber magnatum) and b) there are way, way more species of truffle than I ever realized. Indeed, a great deal of the "mystery, mayhem, and manipulation" involves substituting a species worth less for one of the culinary greats. Which brings me to my main problem with Jacobs's writing: a desperate need for more background information. What does it mean, really, if you buy an Italian black winter truffle and get a Chinese truffle (Tuber indicum or Tuber himalayensis) instead? Is it more or less the same thing, just lacking a certain terroir and cache, like buying a sparkling white wine instead of authentic champagne? Is it good but noticeably lesser in quality? Is it straight-up poisonous or otherwise something no one would ever knowingly purchase? Based on Jacobs's book alone, I have no idea where Chinese truffles fall on this possible spectrum. (The internet suggests Chinese truffles would be the middle category, with maybe a very rare chance of the third, if certain chemicals have been used to enhance the flavor and scent.) The same question applies to desert truffles (grown in the Middle East and North Africa), black summer truffles (France and Italy), pecan truffles (USA), and truffles of various species grown in Eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Croatia, Hungary, or Slovenia). I wanted to know more about the basics of truffles – what they are, how they differ – but Jacobs jumps straight to fairly complicated questions without laying out the groundwork.

However, substituting one truffle for another isn't the only kind of crime Jacobs covers. He talks to truffle farmers who see their orchards regularly hit by thieves, truffle hunters who have their dogs poisoned or kidnapped (there is a lot of dog harm in this book, for those who are sensitive to that), import companies that serve as fronts for the mob, crime syndicates that use young teenagers to carry out thefts,business innovators who retreat into isolated paranoia, million-dollar heists, and several murders. Which leads me to another problem: Jacobs talks to a lot of people, in multiple countries, involved with many companies, and as a result there are an abundance of names, many quite similar to one another. I had a great deal of trouble keeping everyone and every scheme straight. The Truffle Underground could really have benefited from one of those character lists you get at the front of epic fantasy novels.

Overall it's a fascinating topic, and Jacobs certainly kept me turning the pages. (And craving truffles.) But I think there's a much better book on the same topic waiting to be written, by someone who's better organized and more skillful.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan. A novella in Milan's Worth Saga, set between Once Upon a Marquess (which I ADORED) and After the Wedding (which I haven't yet read). Daisy Whitlaw is a poor woman in a working-class neighborhood of 1866 London, caring for her sickly mother and working in a flower shop. Crash is the son of a sex worker, mixed race (he doesn't actually know his exact origins, but probably African, South Asian, white, and Chinese), and bisexual. They have a romantic history together, which broke off due to a slightly contrived misunderstanding and Crash's desire to go to Paris to learn about his obsession: velocipedes. Now he's back, just in time to see Daisy join a competition for funds to start in a trade. She wants to open her own store, and after all, it doesn't technically say that women can't compete. Daisy has the numbers and connections to put together a solid business plan, but she is absolutely terrible at public speaking, so Crash, who has an abundance of confidence and charm, volunteers to give her the lessons she needs to win. Will all this close contact cause them to fall in love again?????

Yes, it is an actual historical romance with people of color! queer people! poor people! sex workers who don't have to reform! All of this is amazing. I also loved both Daisy and Crash's characters, the way their backgrounds had believably shaped their personalities and differing troubles, as well as their chemistry together. The scenes of Crash teaching Daisy to ride a velocipede were particular favorites; so adorable and unique, and with the power to make me want to cheer like the climax of a superhero movie.

On the other hand, as I said the earlier break between them felt like the classic "if you just talked to one another there wouldn't be a problem" contrivance, and novellas never have the space to dig as deeply into the emotions and world as full-length novels do. Still, Her Every Wish is incredibly charming and another reminder of why I'm such a huge fan of Milan.

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Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
5:03 pm - Reading Wednesday, Part 2: All Hambly Edition
Pale Guardian by Barbara Hambly. The seventh book in the James Asher series, which stars an ex-spy/current Oxford linguistics professor; his wife Lydia, a former heiress who renounced Society in order to become a medical researcher; and their buddy/more than platonic third partner/monster they've both sworn to kill, Don Simon Ysidro, a 400 year old Spanish aristocrat and vampire.

The previous book, Darkness on his Bones, ended with the opening shots of WWI. In Pale Guardian it's now 1915 and Lydia has volunteered as a front-line nurse (her own research and expertise on X-rays not counting for much, as a woman) placing her in the trenches of northeastern France. Also with her is pretty much every single vampire from Europe or further abroad; why bother putting themselves in danger by hunting back home when they can easily hang out on the front lines and eat some of the hundreds or thousands of soldiers dying daily? Ysidro is also there, having promised to protect Lydia. James remains back home in Oxford, recovering from pneumonia.

Ysidro, Lydia, and James all separately encounter revenants – a form of zombie-like undead that's as dangerous to vampires as to humans – and as they investigate their origins, begin to fear that the British government is planning to use the revenants as a weapon of war. Which is horrifying enough, even without the extremely likely possibility that things will go wrong and the revenants will overrun London, Paris, or the whole world. Whether ends do justify their means is a major theme, and not only in regards to the scientist eventually revealed to be leading the revenant project. Lydia is constantly forced to examine her own reliance on and regard for Ysidro, who after all is killing humans nightly and psychically manipulating others to enable his lifestyle. Just because he's always been kind to her and they have a special understanding doesn't erase that reality.

I've enjoyed all of the Asher series, but Pale Guardian is a real high point. The descriptions of the trenches are vivid and horrifying, the cold immorality of the governments conducting WWI contrasts wonderfully with the vampires, and the climatic action sequence (in the underground chambers of a former convent) is full of absolutely delicious angst and desperation and last-minute rescues. And also a vampire on a motorcycle. I'm pretty sure Hambly is conscious of the ridiculous potential of her genres and occasionally choses to indulges in it, for which I love her.

In short: WWI, vampires, mad scientists, spies, and evil government agencies. What more could you want out of a book?

Prisoner of Midnight by Barbara Hambly. The eight book in the James Asher series. At the end of the previous book, Pale Guardian, Lydia swore that she never wanted to see Ysidro again and that she didn't want him secretly guarding her. Two years later, at the opening of Prisoner of Midnight, she is contacted by him in a dream, leading to a crisis of conscience. As she writes to Jamie:
Don Simon is a prisoner, somewhere. The dreams that I have had were unclear – uncharacteristically unclear – but I sense, I KNOW, that he is being held captive, in terrible and continuous pain. If he were not, he would not have asked for my help – as he did, as he is. His voice, crying out of darkness, was broken up, like fragments of a torn manuscript. The only words that were clear were, ‘City of Gold’.
The American liner SS City of Gold leaves Southampton on Wednesday, for New York.

Luckily, Lydia's extremely wealthy and extremely obnoxious aunt, Lady Mountjoy, has already booked a first-class suite on that very City of Gold. Lydia agrees to take the voyage with her, despite two immense problems: A) she's not actually sure what she should do if she manages to find Ysidro – free him or kill him, which would at least put him out of his misery while also stopping him from killing future humans, and B) in 1917 passenger liners are frequently targeted by German submarines, meaning everyone might end up dead on the bottom of the ocean before she solves the first problem.

Lydia fairly quickly discovers Ysidro's captor, who turns out to be millionaire industrialist Spenser Cochran. Cochran's plan for a pet vampire is to have him kill strikers and miners and all those other annoying poor who demand their so-called rights. Unfortunately the who is less complicated than the how; Conchran has injected Ysidro with some sort of painful poison, part scientific and part alchemical to suit a vampiric nature, which requires daily antidotes to keep him alive. Ysidro's escape, therefore, is not a matter of unlocking a door, but of figuring out the composition of both drugs and stealing or creating a new supply.

Which is James's job. Stuck back in Europe, due to a combination of not having time to reach the SS City of Gold before its departure and his obligations to Britain's wartime government, he nevertheless manages to communicate with Lydia via telegram. With the help of various French and English vampires (who hate the idea of such a poison existing), he sets out to find who made the drugs and ultimately get a copy of the research notes into Lydia's hands.

Matters get even more complicated when several third-class passengers on the ship turn up dead and drained of blood. Is Ysidro somehow killing them with no memory of it, due to the poison? Is there a second vampire on board? Will an innocent third-class passenger be blamed for the murders, since "a vampire did it!" isn't a valid alibi? Lydia investigates, with the sort-of help of Cochran (who believes two pet vampires would be even better than one pet vampire), third-class passenger and anarchist Georg Heller (who absolutely believes vampires don't exist and the whole thing is probably a conspiracy to keep the poor man down), and first-class passenger and elderly Russian Princess Natalia Nikolaievna Gromyko (who believes in vampires and that they are best contacted through the Astral Plane).

Whew, there's a lot going on in this book. But it all works! The Titanic (1997)-esque feel of a grand passenger liner as a microcosm of society, the contrast between the glittering upper levels and packed steerage beneath, is excellent. Ysidro's constant pain and woe are straight-up stoic woobie fuel, for those of you who love their favorite characters most when they're suffering. (I am totally one of those people.) I also really adored the resolution to the third-class murders. There's a twist at the end that I'm not so sure about, but I'm willing to wait and see where Hambly goes from here. On the other hand, the ending does potentially suggest that the next book might be set in NYC, which I would LOVE.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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5:03 pm - Reading Wednesday
A Judgement of Dragons by Phyllis Gotlieb.Science-fiction from the 1970s, consisting of four novellas connected by their main characters, Prandra and Khreng. Prandra and Khreng are a married couple and members of an alien species that looks exactly like bright red leopards, except that they're intelligent, capable of speaking (although they always do so in the present tense, which annoyed me for the first dozen pages and then I came to really like), and telepathic. They've recently been contacted by the Galactic Federation (similar to Le Guin's League of All Worlds or Star Trek's United Federation of Planets), who has agreed to help out with the lack of food on their home planet in exchange for some of their strongest telepaths – including Prandra herself – coming to work for GalFed.

The novellas follow one after the other chronologically and are strongly linked.
In 'Son of the Morning' Prandra and Khreng are on their way to visit Earth for the first time when they're accidentally caught in a time vortex that sends them back to a small Jewish village in early 1800s Poland. They must figure out how to get back to their present without anyone realizing they're there, while also outmaneuvering another alien who's interested in instigating a pogrom for its own amusement.
'The King's Dogs' follows them to a GalFed school where Prandra can be trained in telepathy. Someone is murdering other students and teachers, framing Prandra and Khreng in the process. They have to find the real murderer before blame settles on them.
In 'Nebuchadnezzar', Prandra and Khreng are on their way back home, but they stop at another planet to help out a friend they made at school. They get caught up in violence between two rival gangs of drug smugglers.
Finally, in 'A Judgment of Dragons', Prandra and Khreng return to their home world, where they deal with helping the rest of their people try to adjust to the massive cultural change that is becoming part of a galaxy-wide economy, reintegrate with their now-adult children, deal with the prejudice of one of the GalFed employees, and, oh yeah, face down an omnipotent alternate-dimensional alien power that wants to possess them all.

It's a very 70s series in some of its elements and concerns; why was telepathy such a big deal for a few decades and now hardly ever appears in modern sci-fi? Not to mention the whole cat thing. It seems like modern aliens are usually not "cats, but smart", but go in more experimental directions. When there are aliens at all, that is; they seem rarer in today's sci-fi. Comparing A Judgement of Dragons to C. J. Cherryh's The Pride of Chanur, which also features spacing-faring cat-aliens, Gotlieb's version feels a lot more like real cats, more distinct from the human characters. For all the silliness of some of the premises (and check out that extrememly metal cover) there's excellent ideas and characters here. Gotlieb's writing oftens skirts around the main issues, alluding to them rather than stating them straightforwardly, which gives the stories a delicacy and power that's impressive. I thought the first story, 'Son of the Morning', was the best, simply because it's such an unusual setting for alien battles and invisibility cloaks, and yet it works so well and lends such an authentic human sensibility to fantasy.

There are apparently two sequels that I'd love to read, but we'll see; I only managed A Judgement of Dragons itself due to a very lucky find in a second-hand store.

The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing House Plants: The art and science to grow your own house plants by Kay Maguire and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. A helpful book with advice for growing houseplants. It's not a particularly deep dive into the subject, but does follow its own interesting take by focusing on sorting plants into their natural habitats: for instance, if you want ferns, try to recreate a dim, humid forest floor, while succulents do well with baking heat and bright sunshine.

The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing House Plants opens with general advice on how to care for any houseplant, covering the expected topics of light, soil (including several recipes for differing compost mixes), water, repotting, propagation, and so on. The majority of the book covers 77 individual houseplant species. Each one gets a small paragraph describing its natural habitat, then information on how and where to grow it indoors. Interspersed with this are several "projects", recommendations on how to group and display multiple plants. The book covers both common houseplants (peace lily, spider plant, philodendron) and more unusual ones (black aeonium, pineapple, moonstone). The biggest selling point of The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing House Plants is that every single plant is illustrated, usually with both photographs and Kew Gardens's famous botanical illustrations. It would make a great coffee table book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
4:56 pm - Reading very nearly Wednesday
The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America by Jack Kelly. Nonfiction about the boycott of Pullman sleeping railroad cars in 1894, led by Eugene V. Debs and suppressed by President Cleveland, his attorney general Richard Olney, and General Nelson Miles. The strike – which started with workers in the factories who built Pullman's cars, spread to all employees of all railroads carrying the cars, and nearly became a nationwide general strike (ie, involving members of all unions, regardless of their line of work, from grocers to butchers to brewers) – at its height involved 250,000 people and ended with over fifty deaths, mostly caused by railword agents or federal soldiers. Although the strike ultimately failed, it can be seen as a tipping point between the railroad barons of the Gilded Age and the attempts at social reform of the Progressive Era.

Many famous figures make appearances in The Edge of Anarchy, from Jane Addams to Andrew Carnegie, as well as events of the day, including Chicago's Columbian Exposition (of The Devil in the White City fame), Lizzie Borden's trial, the economic depression of 1893, mine strikes in 1894, and the assassination of French president Carnot. But ultimately the focus is on the opposing figures of Debs and George Pullman himself, union leader versus businessman, the one who lost this battle but ended up as a major political force against the one who won this time but found himself losing subsequent legal cases, alienated from even other business tycoons, and dying soon afterwards.

I do have to say that The Edge of Anarchy isn't quite as good as Kelly's previous book, Heaven's Ditch (which remains the best nonfiction I've read in some time), though that's mostly because Kelly has chosen to work with a less batshit wild story this time. I also wish Kelly had paid more attention to how race influenced the Pullman Strike. African Americans, though not allowed to work in Pullman's factories, were important employees of the sleeping cars once they were on the railroads, yet were not allowed to join the American Railway Union. Kelly does acknowledge these facts, but I felt they should have been central to the story rather than isolated to one or two chapters.

Nonetheless, The Edge of Anarchy does make for perfect reading at our particular moment in time, when we seem to be in a new Gilded Age of unregulated business practices and presidential candidates can once again actually call themselves socialists. It's always nice to be reminded that socialism in fact has a long and influential history within the US.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. The first fantasy novel by Leckie (whose sci-fi books I am an enormous fan of), and a standalone, which I deeply appreciate in these days of ubiquitous trilogies and unending series.

The kingdom of Iraden is ruled not by a king but by the Raven's Lease – an individual sworn to the Raven god. During the lifetime of the single mortal raven that the god is bound to, the Raven's Lease can wish for almost anything and receive it, rules the kingdom with power only barely limited by his advisors, and is honored by all inhabitants. But of course there's a cost: once that mortal raven dies, the Lease must immediately kill himself. This is where the god's power all comes from, because there's nothing more potent than human sacrifice, especially one given willingly.

However, stories are about when things go wrong. And indeed when the novel opens the latest raven has, in the course of time, died and the latest Raven's Lease has not. Exactly what he has done is unknown – he's simply disappeared from the capital, though the god makes it clear that a debt is still due. The Lease's heir was away at the time, and returns several days later to find his uncle has replaced him as Lease. The uncle argues that there wasn't time to wait for the heir to return; the heir suspects that something is rotten in the state of Iraden. But neither is the main character. That's Eolo - aide to the heir, new to the capital city, and son of an ignorant farmer. Eolo's introduction to the tangled court politics and intimate relationships among the elite is the reader's introduction as well. Eolo is a transman, but this is barely mentioned (two brief conversations are the only places where it even comes up) and is not relevant to the plot at all. Which is great! It's wonderful to see trans characters just doing their thing, leading stories that don't have to be centered on transness.

The most distinctive thing about The Raven Tower is that it's told in second person, narrating the events after the fact to Eolo himself:
“And you turned fully to stare at your hand against the wall, and then down at your feet, feeling that constant, faint, grinding vibration traveling through the yellowish stones. Could you hear me, Eolo? Can you hear me now? I’m talking to you.”
The speaker is a god – though which god and why is one of the central mysteries of the novel. We are also told of the god's origins and backstory, moving through the evolution of fish and the shifting of continents, even out into the sight of earth itself from a comet orbiting in space. The god's long history and Eolo's few short days in the capital come together with a bang by the climax.

The Raven Tower is definitely a page-turner. Despite its length, I raced through it in a few days. For a novel about gods, it's also fascinatingly amoral. Questions of right or wrong simply never come up; instead it's all a matter of debts and promises and broken vows. If you pray to a god, they might grant your wish in return for the power your prayers have given them. If you want something in particular, get a god to promise you it in exchange for a specific offering of equal effectiveness. Consequences may be a very long time in coming, but sooner or later they must arrive, as sure as the laws of physics.

It's hard for me to read a fantasy novel about gods and the power of belief and not compare it to Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. Unfortunately I don't think The Raven Tower lives up to that standard. The Raven Tower is a great story, don't get me wrong. I recommend it. But I don't see myself coming back to it over and over again, and I don't think it has much to say about the human condition. Unlike even Leckie's other work! The Imperial Radch trilogy absolutely wrestled with questions of imperialism and individualism. The Raven Tower wrestles with how the rules for these particular imaginary deities function, and follows through with sharply circular conclusion. It's fun! But ultimately it's a bit forgettable. A good book, a well-written and engaging book, but one that's probably not destined to become a classic.

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Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019
3:36 pm - Reading (I started writing these on) Wednesday
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. An absolutely fantastic sci-fi novel, the first in an intended trilogy. The Teixcalaanli Empire is vast, powerful, and – like most empires – interested in getting vaster and more powerful. Lsel Station is tiny, poor, and – for now – independant. This is obviously a precarious state of things, and when Teixcalaan sends word that they need a new Lsel ambassador, it's unfortunately up to Mahit – young, only half-trained, and utterly unprepared – to maintain her station's independence. The task that becomes even more difficult once she discovers that the previous Lsel ambassador was murdered, and the questions of by whom and why involves everyone all the way up to the Teixcalaanli emperor himself, his heirs, and Mahit's supposed allies back on Lsel.

Teixcalaan is based on the Aztec Empire, and is a genius extrapolation of that culture out into a future galaxy-wide existence. Though I've seen this mentioned in surprisingly few reviews; are the Aztecs so little known to the average reader that the obvious allusions are flying over people's heads? Connections include the ball game, blood sacrifice, names like "Five Orchid" and "Nine Maize" (though part of Martine's excellent extrapolation into sci-fi means we also have "Six Helicopter" and "Twenty-Nine Infograph"), the mix of poetry and war and flowers, the description of the written language as glyphs and the sounds of words like xauitl and amalitzli (compare real Nahuatl words, chocolātl and tomatl; I don't remotely speak Nahuatl, but that -tl word ending is so distinctive and recognizable), the reckoning of dates, plus, you know, the whole conquering everyone around them thing.

But the emotional center of A Memory Called Empire is obviously not the number of Mesoamerican references that Martine can fit into the book. It's Mahit, who is not herself Teixcalaanli but who has spent her life studying the language, the literature, and the history; who desperately wants to succeed at being Teixcalaanli and not an uncivilized barbarian but who also doesn't want to lose her hold on her own culture; who must find her way between the Teixcalaanli sophistication she dreams of and the Teixcalaanli power that wants to take everything she has. It's about how concepts that are easy to express in one language can be difficult or invisible in a second language. A Memory Called Empire is about hegemony – the way it seduces, the promises it makes to those willing to join, and how even the most dedicated outsiders never quite become an unmarked part. Don't get me wrong, A Memory Called Empire is about a lot of fun, page-turning adventure too: riots and court politics and alien invasions and conspiracies within police forces and a f/f romance and a gloriously fucked-up polyamorous bisexual threesome and weird mind-control technology and spaceships and poisonings and gun battles and more. I loved it so much.

A Memory Called Empire is just SO GOOD. It's by far my favorite book I've read this year, and I absolutely cannot wait until the sequel arrives. It's part of the recent wave of colonial and imperial-critical sci-fi that includes Ann Leckie or Yoon Ha Lee, so if you're a fan of those authors, you should immediately check out Arkady Martine as well.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson. A sci-fi novel set in the near-future, also the first in a forthcoming trilogy. Not too long ago, an alien landed in a rural backwater of Nigeria. The alien - ship? organism? no one knows – immediately enclosed itself inside a dome that proved resistant to all attempts to study it. Nonetheless, consequences were immediate and obvious. Psychics – real, provably psychic people – became common, and about once a year the dome opens and anyone nearby is healed of all wounds or diseases or – sometimes, presumably accidentally – death itself. A town named Rosewater sprang up around the dome, to take advantage of the tourists, scientists, and military operators drawn by these events.

Kaaro, our main character, is a local with the psychic power to find anything or anyone. He works in a bank (the existence of psychics means hackers who can read account numbers from your thoughts, of course, and so banks employ their own team to create a mental firewall) and occasionally unwillingly moonlights for a secret government agency. Rosewater jumps back and forth in time between two plots. The chronologically earlier one reveals Kaaro's original discovery of his powers and much of the backstory behind the dome and the new abilities it seemingly enables. Eleven years later, the second plotline concerns the fact that all known psychics seems to be dying off one by one: murder? a new disease? a government plot? Kaaro investigates, while balancing a new romantic relationship and rumors of a secret town of anarchists.

The worldbuilding in Rosewater is simply outstanding. I loved the mixed blessings of the dome, the explanation behind how the psychic powers work, and the gritty new-money feel of the city of Rosewater itself. On the other hand, the plot is excessively complicated and ties itself into knots by the end of the book, falling apart is a mess of multiple tangles and twists. Another problem I had is that Kaaro is a sexist – which, fair enough, he's also a thief, a coward, an opportunist, and an all-around jerk. But it bothered me that all of the female characters come off as extremely male-gazey cardboard cliches; none of them have enough life to break through Kaaro's shallow perception of them.

Ultimately I'm glad I read Rosewater but I don't think I enjoyed it enough to bother with the sequels.

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Sunday, March 31st, 2019
11:56 pm - Much delayed reviews
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. A really fantastic YA fantasy/horror/alternate history. Here the Battle of Gettysburg went a little differently than you might remember - namely, that it was called off in a panic after the dead rose and attacked and consumed their former companions. The entire Civil War, in fact, ended in a rushed compromise, with an agreement to end slavery but to place former slaves, along with Native Americans, on the front lines of protecting civilization from the 'shamblers', as they're called. A decade or two later, the United States is mostly returning to stability, and Jane McKeene, the daughter of a white plantation mistress and some nameless field hand, is finishing up her final year of military training at "Miss Preston’s School of Combat" in Baltimore. As a black woman, Jane is required to fight the shamblers, but as one with important connections, she intends to become an Attendant for a rich white family – a role that's half body guard, half duenna, and some unstated but significant percentage status symbol. It's not a great life, but it's a hell of a lot better than being sent onto the front lines with no guidance and broken weapons.

Jane, her school friend/rival Katherine (light-skinned enough to pass for white, pretty, fashionable, and in Jane's opinion way too shallow), and Jane's ex-boyfriend/black market connection Red Jack (cunning, out for himself, but loyal to a few) end up uncovering a vast conspiracy and are sent away as punishment. The divide in the novel between Baltimore (an East Coast city that's somewhat successful at pretending it can go back to how life was before the zombies came) and Summerland, Kansas (utopian dream city trying to create a new order of society) allow Ireland to do a lot of very effective worldbuilding from multiple perspectives.

Dread Nation is told in Jane's extremely engaging first-person dialect – "Rose Hill mostly grew tobacco, which Momma and a couple of the bigger field hands would ride into town to trade for cloth and other essentials. Early on, back before I can remember, Momma had tried growing tomatoes and other vegetables; when it became obvious that her small bundle of tobacco was worth more than all the food combined, she switched. Momma is savvy like that. The dead may have risen and we might have been living in the end times of Revelation, but folks still wanted their tobacco." – and every chapter starts with an excerpt from a letter written between Jane and her mother, which allows for an extremely emotional development near the end of the book.

It's got a page-turner of a plot, excellent writing, creepy zombies and even creepier structural oppression, very few annoying YA ticks (the plot does not center around a love triangle, thankfully!), great historical worldbuilding, and is just generally good all around. There is a sequel planned, but Dread Nation ends in a place that could easily be read as a stand-alone. Overall, y'all got to read this book. I loved it.

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino. A novel set in 1830s New York City starring Mary Ballard, lady's maid to elegant young heiress Charlotte Walden. The Parting Glass is the sort of novel that really wants to beat the reader over the head with its theme, which in this case is: everyone has secrets. Mary's secret is that she's in love with Charlotte. Also that's she really Maire O’Farren, and her English accent and previous experience as a lady's maid are all lies. Charlotte's secret is that she's sleeping with the stable boy, Johnny Prior. Johnny's secret is that he's really Mary's brother, and Charlotte has no idea. And on and on outwards: the secrets of Charlotte's best friend, of the sympathetic Irish pub owner, of the black prostitute Mary starts a no-strings-attached relationship with as a substitute for Charlotte. (By the way, Liddie – said prostitute and illegitimate daughter of actor Edmund Kean – is the best character in The Parting Glass and I wish the novel was all about her.) Each chapter starts with an excerpt from The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, an actual guidebook of the period, which gave the fictional segments a powerful context in the extreme submissiveness and abnegation expected of servants.

"Lesbian romance in 1830s NYC" is basically everything I want out of life, which is why I feel a bit churlish saying the writing quality and plot didn't quite live up to my usual expectations. There's so many intriguing conflicts here – rich vs poor, male vs female, Irish vs nativist – and though Guadagnino clearly put them intentionally into her worldbuilding, they could have been explored with more complexity. I also super, super hated the epilogue, which seemed to erase all of Mary's character development; honestly, if you skip the last ten pages it'll be a significantly better book. But then again... lesbian romance in 1830s NYC. I'll forgive a lot for that. The Parting Glass is even set in the mansions of Washington Square, which I have a particular fascination for. These days they mostly contain academic offices for NYU, but I spent too many years walking past them daily not to love novels that recreate their former inner lives.

On the one hand, I wanted more, but on the other hand, lesbian romance in 1830s NYC. I think that's all you need to know to decide if this is a book for you.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Sunday, March 10th, 2019
9:48 pm - Five Things Make a Post
1. "Hair Ice" is a thing! And is very lovely.

2. From [personal profile] osprey_archer: the new Pixar short, Kitbull. A tiny feral kitten befriends a fighting pitbull. It is adorable and emotional and completely perfect.

3. An excellent article on the appeal of Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

4. Conspiracy theory-style memes, but for reality. I am so here for this.

5. Carrie Ann Lucas, a disability rights activist, dies after her insurance company denied her medicine. I would really like it if this year could stop sounding like an unsubtle satire.

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Thursday, March 7th, 2019
12:07 pm - Reading (almost) Wednesday
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl. An anthology of short stories, which, like any anthology, has its highs and lows. Some of my favorite stories:

Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell. In a New York City that has become a backwater tourist-trap for aliens, a taxi driver accidentally ends up with a dead alien in his cab and has to deal with the intergalactic consequences. There's a sharp sense of humor here (like aliens asking to go somewhere that has "real human food", not that commercialized stuff) that really worked for me.
The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations by Minsoo Kang was a wonderfully lovely take on the role of minor players in grand historical events, how history gets told, and what happens in the gaps historians can never recover.
Come Home to Atropos by Steven Barnes was my absolute favorite story out of the whole book. It's very short, only two or three pages, and consists of the script for a commercial advertising a very unique Caribbean vacation. This is some dark, dark satire, but it had me laughing out loud.
The Fine Print by Chinelo Onwualu combines djinn ("be careful what you wish for...") and the current capitalist, commercial world in extremely clever ways, though I felt like the ending got off a little too easy.
The Freedom of the Shifting Sea by Jaymee Goh was about a gory, inhuman mermaid, and of course I loved it; I am always here for mermaids as predators of the sea.
Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire by E. Lily Yu consists of three separate retellings of "The Emperor's New Clothes". I think Yu could easily have made her point with just the first retelling, but goddamn, some of the lines in that last sequence have really stuck with me. Such powerful language and imagery.
The Robots of Eden by Anil Menon is a chilling look at a future where emotions are repressed for the sake of stability. The glimpses of anger, sadness, and jealousy trying to break through the protagonist's veneer are just so devastating.

There wasn't any story that I actively disliked, though I suppose Deer Dancer by Kathleen Alcalá came the closest. I didn't hate it, it just didn't work for me; I didn't quite understand anything that was happening, or what it meant, or why. Which I suppose is why it's sometimes hard to commit to reading authors out of your wheelhouse, but in the case of New Suns overall, I'm very glad I did.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon. A horror novel set in small town Vermont. The story follows three intertwined narrators: in 1908, Sara lives in a farmhouse outside of town with her husband and daughter. From the very beginning we know that the husband is eventually accused of murdering them both, and now their ghosts are said to haunt the farmhouse. In the modern day, teenager Ruthie lives in the same farmhouse with her mother and younger sister. Her mother has always been fanatical about staying "off the grid" and when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find her mother has disappeared, she has no idea where to even begin looking for her. The third narrator, also in the modern day, is Katherine, whose husband has just died while on a visit to the same small town as Sarah and Ruthie. Katherine, unaware that he had any connection to the town or why he was there on the day he died, decides to move there herself and begin dealing with her grief while researching the history of the place. All three of these threads ultimately join together.

It's a book about ghosts and the otherwise undead, about grief and how much you would risk to bring back a loved one – there's more than a few similarities to Stephen King's Pet Sematary, which for me is a plus rather than a minus –  and McMahon is very, very skilled at bring the heebie-jeebies. She keeps up the tension, brings the scary, has several unlooked-for twists, and overall has written a book that's very hard to put down.

On the other hand (and again much like Pet Sematary), the supernatural in the story originates with a Native American woman who is eventually revealed to be vicious, revengeful, and generally evil. As soon as this character showed up I was watching The Winter People warily, really hoping McMahon wouldn't go for the same tired old racist "Indian Burial Ground" trope, but unfortunately she totally did. Which really puts me off recommending this book, as much as I enjoyed the experience of reading the 95% of it that didn't feature menacing old Native American women. I think I'll try another book by McMahon and hope that it manages to avoid racist cliches, but this one loses its promise under the sore spots.

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Friday, March 1st, 2019
5:42 pm - Five Things Make a Post
1. A wonderful post by [personal profile] breathedout on tumblr and fandom's current fascination with 'tenderness' and 'softness'. The comments are absolutely worth reading too.

2. From [personal profile] sovay: my new very favorite Valentine's Day comic, starring Frankenstein.

3. Signal-boosting this GoFundMe, where a Masters student in social work wants to provide compensation for the sex workers she's researching.

4. I find this map of murders in medieval London to be unexpectedly fascinating. Hover over it for tiny summaries of each murder! My favorites so far: "A fishmonger stabbed to death by his mistress" and "Vicious attack for dropping eel skins outside a shop".

5. where our boundaries were thinnest by suitablyskippy. A long, deeply compelling fic about Constance and Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. All the warnings you would expect from that canon.

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Wednesday, February 27th, 2019
8:52 pm - Reading Wednesday (Two Wednesdays in a row!)
Jezebel: The Untold Story Of The Bible's Harlot Queen by Lesley Hazleton. A nonfiction account of, well, look at the title. Hazelton draws in a number of sources to flesh out Jezebel’s story: the original Hebrew of the Book of Kings, archaeological excavations, writings from Phoenician, Assyrian, and Babylonian contemporaries, visits to the real-life places mentioned in the text, and so on. She does an excellent job of turning Jezebel into a sympathetic figure and fleshing out her world, making it a real, complex place to live. If you have any interest in the history of the Middle East around 800BCE, this is definitely a book for you.

There is one stylistic tick that I didn’t like: Hazelton frequently takes a novelistic turn, imaging Jezebel’s emotions or actions or the scent of the night breeze in her hair. To be fair, she always clearly marks these sections as separate from her research, so there’s no chance of a reader confusing the nonfiction and fictional. I just found them pointless and boring; if I wanted to read a novel about Jezebel, I’m sure I could have done so; instead I picked up a history book and would have liked it to stay historical. I also felt that Hazelton leaned a little too heavily on the “this story is a perfect parallel for our modern life!” theme, but eh, that was likely a necessity to get the book published.

Overall, it’s not the best nonfiction I’ve ever read, but it was interesting with an easy flow. A good book to pass the time while learning a few memorable facts.

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag. (There's no translator listed, strangely, but this was originally written in Swedish.) A murder mystery set in 1790s Stockholm. Cardell, a watchman in name only since he’s more interested in getting drunk and escaping his memories of being a soldier, is called in when street kids find a human body dumped in a nearby lake. The body is a torso only: limbless, toothless, eyeless, and, of course, nameless, and yet very recent. Cardell teams up with Winge, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, devoted to rationality and tiny details, who’s also busy dying of consumption. Together they a) figure out how to identify the body, and b) trace the killer.

A perfectly fine premise. And yet THIS BOOK IS SO TERRIBLE. So terrible that I don’t even know where to begin listing all of my problems with it!

Okay. Let’s start here: The Wolf and the Watchman is divided into four parts fairly equal in length. Parts One and Four are the story of Cardell and Winge as they investigate the mystery of the torso. Parts Two and Three are the stories of, respectively, Kristofer Blix and Anna Stina, who have only the most tangential of connections to the main plot. So minor are their contributions, in fact, that they could have served the exact same role in the mystery without even being given names, much less 100 pages each of backstory. And their sections aren’t uninteresting; if I had read them as independent novellas I probably would have enjoyed them, particularly Anna’s. But when you’re in the middle of a book and it suddenly jumps to a different character with no apparent relation to what you were previously reading (both of them do eventually connect to the murder plot, but only near the end of their sections), you can’t help but be distracted by wondering when you’re going to return to the main point of the book.

The Wolf and the Watchman also absolutely revels in the grossest, dirtiest, harshest, most sickening parts of history. Which you probably could guess from any book that opens with a limbless torso, but it’s true of every element of plot and setting and description. And that limbless torso – I’m trying not to go into any great detail, because if I did this post would need an abundance of trigger warnings. But let me say: I read a lot of murder mysteries, and this one is definitely a step beyond the usual, verging on torture porn. Not to mention the literal torture, the multiple rapes, and the child abuse, to name only a few other elements. I don’t require a rosy portrayal of the past, but The Wolf and the Watchman is so self-evidently gleeful at rubbing its readers' faces in shit, mucus, and rotting corpses that it’s hard not to take a step back and roll your eyes. It reminds me a bit of Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue – though oddly I liked that book; I suppose Donoghue simply could pull off the grimness better than Natt och Dag does – but they share a similar desire to be The Most Depressing and The Most Gross.

Yet another problem was an absolutely appalling, out of nowhere, simply horrific scene of blatant anti-semitism. The Jewish character is a loan collector (such a surprise, I'm sure) who seems to be reenacting The Merchant of Venice, taking his pound of flesh:
“I am no simple bean counter who drives my business by way of interest rates, Kristofer Blix. I trade in other commodities. When the young man’s debt became considerable, I realized that I owned him and that I could do whatever I wanted with him [...]. Once I formed glass into the shapes that pleased me. Today I shape your lives in the same way.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, he is then described as having LITERAL HORNS:
When shadows fell across his face, I thought I could glimpse fangs between his lips and a forehead bulging with two small horns, each finger ending in a claw. I rubbed my eyes to coax back reality.

Granted, this character only appears on about three pages out of an entire novel, so it would be easy enough to skip over it, but what is it even doing here? What is happening in Sweden that this appears so nonchalantly in a novel published in 2019 – well, 2017 in the original Swedish? Apparently it was even voted best debut novel that year by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers which... I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

In an equally appalling but entirely separate plot development, a young woman ends up pregnant after being raped. Being unmarried, she's worried her life will be destroyed if her pregnancy is discovered, plus, you know, she violently hates the rapist. The man she goes to for abortion drugs instead gives her a placebo, telling her the truth only once it's too late for her to safely have an abortion. He then uses her dilemma to force her into accepting his proposal of marriage. This plot would fit in just fine with all the grimdarkness above, except that we're apparently supposed to see it as a good thing. The man's actions are repeatedly described as his redemption, and the woman, instead of being furious, is grateful and happy, decides she really does want the baby after all, and even finds her trauma over the rape and the rest of her past healed by her continued pregnancy. WHAT. THE. FUCK.

And in a minor detail apparently just thrown in for fun, Winge sets free a man who murdered his wife. There's no particularly redeeming features about this guy – he and his wife fought repeatedly, one night he got drunk and hit her harder than usual – but he's less bad than the central murderer of the plot, which I guess I agree with? I don't think that justifies Winge's decision to set him completely free to live his life as though he never murdered anyone, though.

Just an awful book all around. I cannot believe the good press and huge marketing push it's getting.

I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Monday, February 25th, 2019
3:09 pm - Yet more links
Because I have so, so many tabs open.

1. Daughter of Necessity by Marie Brennan. Fascinating take on The Odyssey from Penelope's perspective. What does she weave, exactly?

2. on rats and men by potted_music. Gorgeous fic for The Terror, Gibson/Hickey. Warnings for everything you would expect from that pairing.

3. Who's got their hand in the oopsy jar? by Edonohana. Hot, hilarious, and perfect fic for A SImple Favor, with a simply genius ending. Emily/Stephanie, NC-17.

4. Fanvid for My Cat From Hell. The song choice alone killed me.

5. Great article on The Birth of the Cool Guy:
Cool Guy doesn’t knit, but he definitely owns a pink pussy hat (ordered from a female artist on Etsy, as he’ll conspicuously let you know). When he’s not tweeting about toxic masculinity, he’s hanging out in the replies on feminist threads, apologizing on behalf of all men everywhere for being such trash. Cool Guy writes a several-thousand-word New York Times op-ed flagellating himself for having ogled the butts of his teenage classmates once upon a time, in a quest to ignite a public movement of male confession with himself at its center (suggested hashtag: #IAmSexist)—or just fantasizes about a world where women have all the power and men simply cease to exist.

This is so terribly recognizable. And I feel describes not just dudes trying to do a show of woke-ness, but some white people with anti-racism as well, along with other similar categories. Sigh.

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Saturday, February 23rd, 2019
3:20 pm - A collection of links
Because perhaps you'll enjoy them, and also so I can finally close some damn tags.

1. Trustworthy Junior Agent by burglebezzlement. Hilarious fic for "The Spy Who Dumped Me" that really captures the tone of the movie.

2. Ninfox by Rhea. A fanvid for the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee (which I am partway through and loving, btw). I don't think this is the sort of vid that would convert a nonfan to the books, but if you have read them, it's remarkable how much this vid manages to captures.

3. it’s all been done by Lilith. Excellent fanart for Good Omens.

4. Thunderdome by glorious_spoon. Really, really fantastic Leverage fic set in the Mad Max universe. Just wow.

5. A long-ago fandom friend of mine is trying to raise money for a service dog. If you have any spare cash to donate, check it out here.

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Friday, February 22nd, 2019
4:03 pm - Out of copyright books recs?
I've always had a great deal of trouble falling asleep (which, interestingly, I just ran across a reference that that it might be a common trait in Seasonal Affective Disorder, though I haven't had time to look into the research). The current workaround I'm using to try and trick my body into going to sleep in a reasonable amount of time is to listen to audiobooks – specifically ones from LibriVox. LibriVox is a fantastic resource, if you've never heard of it before: free audiobooks of out of copyright works read by volunteers. They have an impressively enormous catalogue of books, but the trick is finding ones worth listening to, since I'm not actually interested in "According to Promise, or The Lord’s Method of Dealing with His Chosen People" or "Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 10" even for the purpose of driving myself into unconsciousness.

I've already listened to all of Jane Austen, several of Anthony Trollope, Ivanhoe, P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves (only two are out of copyright, unfortunately), Jane Eyre and Villette, Lady Audley's Secret (which is a FANTASTIC sensation novel, if you've never heard of it, and one I highly recommend), Dickens's Bleak House, and probably at least a few others I can't remember right now.

And now I need more. What books would you all recommend? It's a good bet that anything written pre-1920 probably exists on LibriVox, so feel free to rec anything you've enjoyed reading, not just a specific recording. Since it is for the purposes of sleeping, I've found that anything too grim (Heart of Darkness) or too complicated (Joyce's Ulysses) doesn't work well, but a mildly amusing and engaging tone is ideal.

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Wednesday, February 20th, 2019
4:10 pm - Reading Wednesday! On Wednesday!
Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren. A breezy but knowledgeable nonfiction tour through the world's twenty most popular languages, as measured by their number of speakers, including both those who know the language as a first and as a second language. Dorren starts with a chapter on the smallest of the top languages (Vietnamese, at 85 million speakers), and progresses up the numbers through Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and finally, at 1.5 billion speakers, English.

Each language gets a chapter devoted to it, which opens which a brief introduction of the language and then does a deep dive into one particular issue, which might be linguistic, historical, or political. For example, the Japanese chapter discusses gender and language (not in the sense of la chat/le chatte, but how men and women use different vocabulary and grammar styles); Persian covers the past of the language, how it's spread over time, the empires it has ruled, and how various immigrant groups have shaped the modern language; Bengali looks at different types of writing systems; Swahili examines how multilingualism works in countries with many spoken languages; Punjabi takes on tones, how they evolve and how they function; and Tamil tells the story of official language repression and the civil war that resulted.

It's not the sort of book that will make you an expert on any topic, but if you enjoy learning interesting facts, it's a fun, easy read.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog by Elizabeth Peters. The seventh Amelia Peabody book, a comedic murder mystery series starring a female Victorian archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are now happily married, happily parenting their son and recently adopted daughter, and generally living a content and successful life. But sometimes you miss the passion of the early days, you know? Amelia confesses a wish that Emerson would look at her like he used to, which is promptly granted by a far too literal fate when Emerson is hit over the head and suffers amnesia. He doesn't remember Amelia or anything that's happened since their first meeting, and refuses to accept that she is his wife. Amelia has to slowly win him back, protect him from the latest villain, participate in their current Egyptian excavation, and hide the existence of their son from him (Ramses being far too much for anyone to take in all at once). Oh, and deal with their friend Cyrus Vandergelt (a rich American dilettante who has provided funding for their expedition), who is a little too excited by the fact that Amelia's basically a widow now, if you know what I mean. Amelia does not know, as she remains oblivious to his increasingly obvious attempts to comfort her in her grief.

The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog is an absolutely fantastic addition to this series. The humor is abundant and genuinely laugh out loud, the mystery is puzzling enough to keep me from guessing the solution (and there's a twist at the end that I completely did not see coming), there's several fantastic adventure setpieces (including a truly horrifying one with a rabid dog); it's basically everything you could want out of an Amelia Peabody book. Which was very reassuring to me, since I hadn't much liked the previous book (The Last Camel Died At Noon), and I was afraid the series had entered a decline. The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog proves that is definitely not the case, and I'm looking forward to more Amelia.

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Tuesday, February 19th, 2019
3:20 pm - More Book Reviews
The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena. Nonfiction about Magdalena's life as a botanist at Kew Gardens, London. Magdalena is particularly devoted to preventing the extinction of plants – which sadly tend to get less media attention than endangered animals – specializing in figuring out how to get them to flower, how to turn the flowers into seeds, how to convince the seeds to grow, and, to complete the cycle, how to keep the seedlings alive long enough for them to flower. It's a far more complicated, mysterious, and nerve-wracking process than it seems! Another speciality of Magdalena's are waterlilies, so the books includes stories about many species, from the gigantic Victoria amazonica to the world's tiniest, Nymphaea thermarum, which is super adorable and I want one for myself. If only it wasn't, you know, critically endangered.

So definitely an interesting topic. However, it didn't have my favorite execution. I personally prefer science nonfiction to lean heavily towards interesting botany facts and touch lightly or not at all on the scientists' personal life and experiences. The Plant Messiah had a lot about Magdalena's childhood, family, and personality, which... sorry, but I'm not reading this book to learn about him. The writing style itself is also fairly simplistic, which I suspect means The Plant Messiah will disappear from our cultural memory quite quickly. Still, if you enjoy reading about plants, it's well worth checking out!

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is the songwriter and lead man of The Mountain Goats, one of my very favorite bands, and I've been eager to see what he does with prose. Universal Harvester is his second novel, but the first I've read, and it's... basically what I'd expect from guy behind The Mountain Goats, honestly.

Universal Harvester is divided into four parts, each of which has a vastly different tone and style than the others, and three of which focus on entirely different characters. Part One is the story of Jeremy, a young man working at a video rental store in rural Iowa in the late 1990s. Customers start complaining of weird images on the tapes they return, and he finds startling footage of what appears to be bound and tortured captives in an empty barn, spliced into the most random of Hollywood features. After prodding from a casual acquaintance who's more interested in the mystery than Jeremy is himself, they set out to investigate the source of the films. Part Two shifts the setting, characters, and tone entirely, to become the story of an isolated housewife in a financially struggling family in early 1970s small town Nebraska. She misses her parents, she can't connect emotionally with her daughter, and she slowly becomes drawn into a cult. It's literary fiction, a story in the tone of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood. Part Three returns, briefly, to Jeremy and the mystery of the strange footage, but where earlier it had the feel of a horror novel or thriller, now it's slow and sad and vague, with no answers or tension, just the acknowledgement of unsolved mysteries. Part Four is the briefest, and is set in the modern day. The same farmhouse that Jeremy traced as the origin of the strange footage is purchased by a perfectly ordinary family: two retired parents, two college-aged children. They discover a huge cache of video tapes on the property and watch the same inexplicable images as Jeremy had, but their reaction is confusion and boredom rather than terror.

I hugely preferred the first section, when the book was trying for horror, but that's my own prejudice against literary fiction than any fault in Darnielle's writing. He is a very good writer at what he's most interested in (which unfortunately for me is not gore and shocking twists); he's particularly excellent at evoking a setting, in this case the specific time and place of the rural and small town West in the latter parts of the twentieth century. The descriptions are beautiful and vivid: long drives on empty highways, the look of corn fields against a setting sun, awkward talks with coworkers, the half-buried awareness of no good career options, just a life stretching out emptily and unhappily. Darnielle's other main theme is grief, particularly the experience of losing a mother. Take a look at that title, after all: Universal Harvester, the actual brand name of a tractor as well as an easily recognizable metaphor for death. And those two things are what the book's actually about, not murder mysteries or haunted videos.

In the end, Universal Harvester wasn't what I wanted it to be, but it did a very good job at conveying what Darnielle wanted it to be, and I suppose I can't critique it for that.

And with these two reviews, I've caught up on blogging everything I read in 2018! ...only in late February, yes, I see the problem here. I unsurprisingly already have quite the backlog of 2019 book reviews to write, but hopefully will have some more free time moving forward and will get those up before another two months pass. Particularly since I've now entirely abandoned tumblr, and so hope to do most of my fandom socializing here on DW. I also have a twitter, which I mainly use for real life™ things. But if anyone is interested in my twitter handle, just let me know – I only don't want to post it publically due to my vague attempts at keeping my RL and fandom identities separate.

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Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
9:26 pm - Only a few more book reviews until I'm caught up
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill. A hilarious, sarcastic, but nonfictional account of the worst parts of being a woman in the 1800s. Well, not the worst parts; Oneill is refreshingly upfront about focusing on white, young, and relatively wealthy women. ("Refreshingly" because too many history books focus on exactly that category of people without acknowledging that they're doing so.) Oneill's subject is, in other words, the sort of woman who stars in romantic period movies. Unmentionable is meant to be an antidote to light, shallow fantasies of the past by introducing all the parts of history that usually don't get brought up in romances: the smells, the pooping, the crotchless underwear, the lack of sex ed, the inability to go anywhere by yourself. A few of the chapter titles, to give you a sense of the tone of the book and its topics:
Menstruation: You're Doing It Wrong
Getting Dressed: How to Properly Hide Your Shame
Birth Control and Other Afronts to God
Conclusion: I Miss Pants

Most of the actual information probably isn't new to anyone familiar with history, but it's told in an incredibly engaging voice, which made me laugh out loud frequently. I also enjoyed the use of contemporary pictures with new captions on most pages. It's written in direct address to you, the reader, from an older, more informed woman here to assist and guide you through this time-travel experience. Oddly, Unmentionable seems to be getting a lot of negative reviews for this element, despite it being central to the gleefully snarky tone that I adored. I can't really understand that, since the cover is a photo of a butt; I feel it's signaling pretty strongly exactly what sort of book it is, and it's not one with a scholarly style.

Not an essential book in any sense, but one I had a great time reading.

Murder in July by Barbara Hambly. The 15th book in the Benjamin January series of historical murder mysteries. In July 1839, New Orleans, the body of an Englishman is found in the canal. The British Consulate asks Ben to investigate, revealing that the dead man is linked to a theft of money and secret papers. Ben, wisely, wants nothing to do with international spies and the trouble therein, but soon after he refuses his sister Olympe convinces him to get involved after all, since an innocent black woman has been accused of the murder and is certain to hang for it if no better suspect is uncovered. As Ben begins to follow the clues, he suspects that he once knew the dead man under another name: back in July 1830 in Paris. There, during the July Revolution, Ben came across another dead body, one which didn't belong on the barricades with the students and workers. It was the boyfriend of Daniel Ben-Gideon, a good friend of Ben's. When Daniel's wife Anne (who is entirely uninterested sexually in her husband, their marriage being purely political, and who in fact quite liked the boyfriend) is imprisoned for the murder, Ben must again find the real killer to save her from the guillotine. The narrative moves back and forth between the two mysteries, that of 1839 and 1830, until they reach their climaxes simultaneously, revealing that the murders are linked in more ways than one, and are tied not just to Ben's past, but to Hannibal's – who was himself in Paris in July 1830 – as well.

It's a book about the unforeseen consequences of past actions, about the past as a foreign country (sometimes literally), and how regret and hope can mix together into a single emotion. You can't step twice into the same river, Ben repeats to himself many times, and that is the fundamental thread of this story. It's a fantastic depiction of loss and memory and gray, rainy mornings, a mood that lingers even when the mystery is solved, and Hambly's writing is as lovely and evocative as always.

It's a Benjamin January book, so obviously I loved it. It's got all the usual Ben January elements: rich historical detail, attention to underrepresented groups (Murder in July, in addition to the usual suspects, has a great deal about homophobia and anti-semitism), and vivid secondary characters. Among those newly introduced, Anne is just incredible, and I'd love to read so much more about her.

However, the frequent switching between the two time periods made it difficult for me to follow the separate plots. On the other hand, I did love the way their themes paralleled by the end, and I'm not sure how anyone could have told this story except by running through them concurrently, but that didn't make keeping straight the many, many minor characters and red herrings less of a slog.

But, you know, it's still a Benjamin January book, and that means I could never recommend it highly enough.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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12:24 am - I haven't finished writing book reviews for the year, and now it's a new year! D:
Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly. A mystery set in Imperial Rome. Marcus, the youngest son of an arrogant patrician, has renounced his family's money and power in order to become a philosopher. He's in love with his neighbor and childhood playmate Tullia, but unfortunately her father is a politician, and one more interested in arranging a marriage for her that will bring in money and alliances than one with a penniless scholar. Just before Tullia's marriage to a Syrian merchant, she is abducted by a vicious and notorious cult – the Christians! Marcus sets out to find her, along with the help of Arrius, a centurion of the Praetorian Guard; Sixtus Julianus, former governor of Antioch and currently writing an encyclopedia on eastern cults (and somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes cliche, though his character deepens in unexpected ways as the book goes on); and Churaldin, a Celtic slave.

Though Search the Seven Hills (alternatively titled The Quirinal Hill Affair in some editions) was one of the first books published by Hambly, originally appearing in 1983, it bears a striking resemblance to her later writing. There's a focus on underrepresented groups - slaves, women, members of minority religions – the skillful use of modern language styles to represent historical dialects, and the recreation of a vivid and well-researched past world (though I did catch one mistake - the common misconception that rich Romans had "vomitoriums" for puking during feasts.) Hambly is also particularly good at using dramatic irony to highlight the differences between historical norms and modern assumptions; I never got tired of laughing at various Romans being terrified by the mere mention of Christians or passing on weird rumors about them. And, as always, her writing is skillful, characters three-dimensional and sympathetic, and plot nicely twisty and surprising.

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline. A nonfiction book about the Late Bronze Age, written by one of the foremost scholars of the period but intended for a general, if well-informed, audience. The Late Bronze Age was a time of global interconnections from southern Europe through the Near East to northern Africa: Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Cypriots, Mitannians, Mycenaeans, and Minoans shared trade connections, political marriages, diplomatic conventions, art styles and prestige goods. And then, one by one, these far-reaching empires collapsed (though the single year named in the title is a bit of hyperbole; the process actually took at least a century, and maybe as much as three hundred years) leading to a long dark age. The cause is not entirely clear, and quite likely wasn't any singular event. It was a time of climate change, earthquakes, war, invaders from the outside, and increasing numbers of refugees. Clive also suggests that the very interconnectedness of the period may have been its downfall; when one city went, it took its trading partners with it, who then spread the chaos to their political allies, and on and one in a widening circle.

It's a fascinating time period, but I'm not sure Clive's writing is well-suited to the public he seems to be aiming for. 1177 B.C. would benefit from having a single clear narrative thread through the many places and centuries it covers; instead Clive jumps around from one intriguing moment to another, and it's not always obvious how they all hang together. On the other hand, there are a lot of wonderfully intriguing moments in this book, from a possible historical source for the Trojan War of the Iliad and Odyssey, an analysis of the Book of Exodus's account of Jewish slavery and the ten plagues, an analysis of the Uluburun shipwreck, and, my personal favorite, the time a widowed Egyptian queen sent a letter to multiple foreign kings asking one of them to please marry her as soon as possible.

Ultimately a great story, but one which could have been much better told.

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Sunday, December 30th, 2018
8:41 pm - A few more book reviews
Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds by Darren Oldridge. A nonfiction account of various "weird" facts about medieval Europe: that scholars wasted time arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; that lawyers and judges put animals on trial for murder or for destroying crops; a general belief in vampires, werewolves, and witches; the use of trial by ordeal; and, of course, burning heretics at the stake. Oldridge isn't just interested in listing bizarre incidents though – particularly since most of them are fairly well-known – but in examining the overall worldview that made such activities appear normal, even rational. He points out that it's easy to blame 'ignorant peasants' but in fact it was often highly educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan people who led the charge on such cultural beliefs. So why did they do it? That's what Oldridge sets out to explain.

The writing is humorous, well-researched, and easy to read. Definitely recommended for anyone who enjoys weird history with a thoughtful twist.

Mirage by Somaiya Daud. A sci-fi YA novel, the first in a trilogy. Amani is a teen girl in a poor family from a small farming village, a member of an oppressed people, their world recently conquered by spacefaring outsiders. She's in the middle of her coming-of-age ceremony when she's abducted by the empire's guards. This act at first seems inexplicable, but only until Amani meets Princess Maram, heir to the ruler of the world; the two girls look exactly alike, and Amani is intended to be Maram's body-double in the case of assassination attempts. Amani succeeds in learning to walk, talk, and behave like Maram, but matters are complicated when she meets Maram's fiance, and she and he find themselves falling genuinely in love, unlike his politically motivated betrothal with Maram. A subplot sees Amani agreeing to spy for the very rebels who would like to get rid of Maram, forcing Amani to choose between her family's people and the angry, isolated princess she's beginning to care for.

I was excited for this book. I love reading about court intrigues and behind-the-scenes politicking, and Daud bases her worldbuilding on Moroccan and Islamic mythology, architecture, language, and history, which is a nice change from the usual European-inspired setting. Unfortunately the reality didn't live up to my expectations. There's not really any court intrigues at all, since Amani is too isolated and powerless to influence decisions, and the potentially-fascinating process of her transformation from village girl to princess is mostly skipped over. Instead the majority of the plot is focused on her relationship with Maram's fiance and, sorry, but he's just not that interesting, and their love story is the sort of thing you can find in a thousand other YA novels.

Mirage isn't a bad book, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about it. I'm not invested enough to want to read the sequels.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Sawbones Book: The Hilarious, Horrifying Road to Modern Medicine by Justin and Sydnee McElroy. Sydnee is a family-practice doctor; Justin, her husband, is the oldest of the three McElroy brothers, hosts of numerous and varied comedy podcasts. Together they tell some of the weirdest and grossest stories of medical histories, such as trepanation, resurrection men, the many doctors who deliberately gave themselves various diseases in order to study their transmission, when radium was considered good medicine, and, oh yeah, that time people ate mummies.

It's light, quick, funny history, well-illustrated and with an engaging dialogue between Justin and Sydnee's voices. If you enjoy their podcast, you're surely enjoy the book; if you've never heard of the podcast, the book stands alone as great, if shallow, read.

Unfortunately the first edition of the book is riddled with typos – at least one per page, I'd estimate – as well as several blank pages weirdly glued together at the end. Clearly there was some sort of editing miscommunication or disgruntlement. I've heard more recent printings have dealt with these problems, but alas, I didn't know to check for which edition it was before I bought mine.

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Saturday, December 22nd, 2018
9:30 pm - Slowly catching up on my backlog of book reviews
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin. One of LeGuin's better-known stories – at least I think it is; it certainly had the feeling of a story you've seen referenced many times before. Humanity has discovered an unspoiled forest world and (shocking twist here) immediately begun to commercially exploit it. The native inhabitants are a species of small primates with green fur that the humans use as cheap animal labor. Slowly some of the humans begin to realize the Athsheans are as sentient as themselves, but any attempt at equality or compassion comes too late, after the formerly peaceful Athsheans have begun to band together in armed revolt. Nor are all the humans as equally interested in giving up their privilege.

You've read this story a hundred times before, seen it in every movie from Avatar to Disney's Pocahontas to Dances with Wolves. LeGuin's version gains its force from its shortness – sometimes one says more with less – its unflinching portrayal of violence, and its focus on the Athsheans. Too often in these stories the central point is how the whites humans are enlightened by contact with the aliens; here, LeGuin spends more time depicting how Athshean culture struggles to adapt to the arrival of humans, and how that adaptation will have long-lasting, fundamental consequences to them and their descendants. The writing is very much of its time (The Word for World is Forest was first published in 1972) and the main villain, Captain Davidson, is every cliche of a deranged Vietnam soldier. And yet, as familiar as the main subject matter is, as old as it seems at times, this is a novella well worth reading. Its sharp insights are as new as ever.

Hamilton's Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole. An anthology of three romance novellas, all tied together by the conceit that each has a character who was part of the battalion led by Alexander Hamilton during the storming of Yorktown at the end of the American Revolution. Three of my favorite authors of historical romance in one book! Each story also focuses on bringing out the diversity of American history, which I seem to recall industry buzz back before the book came out that this gave them difficulty in finding a publisher, forcing it to be self-published, but I can't google any confirmation of that, so perhaps it's just misremembered gossip. (Hamilton's Battalion is self-published, but Milan at least has expressed an economic preference for doing so; the publisher therefore doesn't really confirm anything one way or the other.)

"Promised Land" by Rose Lerner stars Rachel Jacobs, a woman disguised as a man in order to join the American army and turn herself into Corporal Ezra Jacobs. She's done an excellent job throughout most of the war, driven by her belief that Jewish soldiers can earn a place for Jewish citizens in the new country of the United States, when she recognizes a man walking through her regiment's camp one day. Problem one: she knows him, which means he might recognize her and give away her secret. Problem Two: he was always a Loyalist, so he's certainly a British spy. Problem Three: he used to be Rachel's husband, and is just now finding out that she's not really dead, but faked her death in order to join the army.

Lerner does an excellent job in illustrating the problems between Rachel and Nathan that caused their marriage to fall apart, and an equally excellent job of making me believe they could fall in love a second time and actually make it work this go-round. I also liked the struggle between Rachel and Nathan's ways of being Jewish - how important is keeping kosher? celebrating holidays? following the rules? "Promised Land" is an amazing story, and I can't recommend it highly enough. (It's also the only one of the three novellas in which Hamilton himself features at all, and even here he has quite a minor part to play.)

"The Pursuit of..." by Courtney Milan is the story of Corporal John Hunter, former enslaved man currently fighting for the Americans, and Henry Latham, British officer and son of aristocrats, who impulsively fakes his own death during the siege of Yorktown in order to follow John as he walks several hundred miles back to Rhode Island to check on his family.

It's essentially a road-trip novella, and I do love a good road-trip. Milan is also very, very good at writing banter, and the conversations between sober, practical John and flighty, loquacious Henry are consistently hilarious. Especially the running joke about bad cheese. Milan convincingly shows how two men from such very different backgrounds could come to trust one another. My only complaint is that I think the novella would have benefited from being longer; the ending felt a bit rushed, if only because Milan does such a good job at illustrating the potential problems in this relationship that the characters seemed to overcome them too easily. But I point this out not at all to dissuade anyone from reading it; I absolutely adored it.

(I have no reason to believe Milan is familiar with the Benjamin January novels, but if you wanted to read "The Pursuit of..." as a 50-years-earlier AU of Ben/Hannibal, well... you could do that. Easily.)

"That Could Be Enough" by Alyssa Cole is set later than the previous two novellas, in 1820 Harlem as Eliza Hamilton tries to gather papers and witness accounts to preserve the memory of her now-deceased husband, Alexander. Mercy, a young black woman and former orphan, is her secretary in that task. Mercy has fallen in love before, and had her heart badly broken when the woman scorned her in order to marry a man. She has therefore sworn to let no emotion enter her life, nor to write the poetry she once loved. This determination melts shortly after her first meeting with Andromeda Stiel (granddaughter of one of Hamilton's soldiers), a black dressmaker who dreams of opening her own boarding house. Prim Mercy and exuberant Andromeda have some difficulties and misunderstandings to overcome before they can find happiness, but it all works out in the end.

Hamilton's Battalion consists of three excellent novellas, which would serve well as an introduction to these authors or for devoted fans like me. I can't recommend it enough.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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9:27 pm - More Book Reviews
The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter. A mystery novel set in 1837 India, starring William Avery (young army officer, annoyingly full of British arrogance and sneers at 'native culture' - though he learns better by the end of the book) and Jeremiah Blake (British ex-spy who's 'gone native' and has to be blackmailed into doing any further work for the East India Company) team up to find the famous writer Xavier Mountstuart, who's gone missing somewhere in the countryside. The search leads them to the Thuggee Cult - a network of Kali worshipers who rob travelers before sacrificing them to their dark goddess. It may not surprise you to learn that Avery and Blake quickly uncover proof that the truth is more complicated. Along the way, this mismatched couple learns to trust one another.

The historical research is very well done, and I quite liked Carter's take on the issue of Thugs. There was a wide variety of characters, all of them engaging and charming (though my very favorite was the cameo appearance of Fanny Parkes, real travel writer), and the mystery had several wonderful action set-pieces, evil villains, and a very satisfactory conclusion.

And yet. The Strangler Vine is a fine book, but simply not a great one. In the wide genres of historical mystery (in which I have read many, many masterpieces) and South Asian fiction (in which I have also read many, many masterpieces), The Strangler Vine just doesn't stand out from the crowd. I don't not recommend it! And yet, for myself, I don't think I'll be bothering to read the sequels.

The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco. A novel set in 1887 in Port Townsend, Washington, starring Alma Rosales: ex-Pinkerton detective, current opium smuggler. Alma is newly arrived in Port Townsend, and is there on a mission. Part One: figure out who is the head of the opium game in town. Part Two: take his place. As you might imagine, this turns out to be far more complicated than she originally planned, and the plot turns on blackmail, murder, torture, bribes, backstabbing, moles, broken promises, fake interrogations, mistaken identities, and more. It's as twisty and surprising as the very best heist movies, and I can honestly say that I did not see the end coming at all.

Alma is the best bad thing of all: brutal and ruthless, clever and tough, and moving forward so fast that we barely see the regrets in her past. She's bisexual (and we see her relationships with both men and women), Latina, and possibly genderqueer; she spends most of the book passing as Jack Camp, boxer and dockworker. But on the other hand, the narrative sticks firmly with the 'she' pronoun, and Alma shifts between races and classes as easily as between genders. We see her be a Scottish virgin and a Southern belle Madam at other points in the book. It's unclear if she is genderqueer, or if she simply loves the disguises:

Alma can be many things. She has learned to value this mutability: how she can shift her compact body into many shapes, powder herself pale or let the sun darken her complexion. She loves to see her costumes through other people’s eyes. Delphine watching her as Camp, cutting a deal over fenced diamonds in San Francisco. Wheeler watching her as a governess, timid and wilting. Hannah watching her as a rancher’s daughter, flirting in rapid Spanish with the Yuma vaqueros. Alma loves performance. What began as a thrilling trick in a Chicago saloon has become a passion. And now she’s back onstage before her favorite audience—though it’s hard work to win Delphine’s applause.

But the most distinctive thing about The Best Bad Things is its style. For all the Western action, heist twists, and gun battles, it's very much a literary novel. It might concern itself with tropes, but it takes them very, very seriously. I was reminded of Steve McQueen's Widows: another plot that outwardly seems like not much more than old cliches, but which is told with the highest craft and a dazzlingly brilliant investigation of these characters and their world. Unfortunately – in both Widows and The Best Bad Things – the sharp-eyed intelligence of the telling reduces some of the pleasure. Heist stories should be (or at least usually are) fun, and I can't quite call The Best Bad Things fun. It's too violent and cynical for that, and it's hard to have good time when the writing never looks away from the characters' struggle for survival.

Is that a criticism? Probably not. The Best Bad Things wasn't what I expected from its blurb, but it's hard to complain that a book is too well-written.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Monday, December 3rd, 2018
2:30 pm - More Book Reviews
Night Film by Marisha Pessl. A horror novel set in modern-day Manhattan, with semi-retired/semi-fired journalist, Scott McGrath, as our narrator. Several years ago McGrath set out to investigate notoriously reclusive horror-film director Stanislaus Cordova (a mix of Stanley Kubrick and Thomas Pynchon), whom he abruptly accused of being a child serial killer. Unsurprisingly, when McGrath could not actually prove such a wild claim – his source having disappeared, or perhaps never having existed at all – his career tanked. Now Cordova's 23-year-old daughter has apparently committed suicide, but McGrath is certain that something more complicated may be going on, and he sets out to investigate.

I particularly enjoyed the structure of the novel. McGrath's straightforward first-person narration is occasionally interrupted with articles from magazines, medical reports, screencaps of the messageboard for obsessive Cordova fans, and other metatextual items, which provided an intriguingly different perspective. For a story obsessed about the difference between reality and fiction, and the overlap between them, it's a great technique.

Unfortunately, the depiction of New York City made me laugh. Within just the first few chapters, we have blocks of abandoned buildings in Harlem, a "known crack-den" in Chinatown, and McGrath considering that any woman entering Central Park after dark is "naive – or reckless". None of these are remotely plausible in today's gentrified and excessively safe Manhattan. It seemed to improve as the book went on, though perhaps that's just because most of the later scenes took place outside of NYC, and so didn't strike me as so ridiculously inaccurate.

McGrath himself is quite the self-centered misogynistic asshole. To be fair, I'm fairly certain Pessl wrote him this way on purpose, since there are several scenes where he assumes he knows exactly what another character will do, only to be immediately proven wrong. And to be honest, "misogynist asshole" is the exact characterization I would expect from an investigative journalist proud of his war stories from Africa and undercover work in cocaine smuggling. This, too, improved as the book went on, though I couldn't quite tell if that was because McGrath was supposed to be evolving as a person or because there was too much suspense, action, and supernatural stuff going on to deal with minor points of characterization.

Despite these problems, I enjoyed the book. It's certainly enthralling, and kept me turning the pages. But the ending didn't quite work for me. On the one hand, I can't imagine any other ending that would fit the themes of Night Film so well. Yet on the other hand it's so unresolved and leaves so many questions unanswered that I came away dissatisfied.

So, in the end, do I recommend Night Film? It's hard to say. I didn't hate it, certainly, and the parts that were good were very good, but the rest of it just wasn't enough to push it over the line. I suppose I recommend it if you're particularly into questioning the meaning of truth.

The Tale of the Missing Man by Manzoor Ahtesham. Translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark. A novel set in Bhopal, India, mostly in the 1980s, but with significant flashbacks to the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Zamir Ahmad Khan is an excessively average guy: middle-aged, middle class, married to a wife he seems to have no particular feelings for, father of two young children whom he spends little time with, and not as close to his friends as he used to be. He had a job selling antique furniture, but lost it due to his strategy of simply not showing up for months on end. Zamir believes he has a mysterious disease that has caused all of these problems, but multiple doctors haven't been able to diagnose anything, and indeed he seems to have no symptoms beyond vague feelings of alienation and guilt. Zamir is the missing man of the title, but he's not missing in any literal sense; instead, he's missing from his own life, missing any idea of who he is or what he's meant to be doing.

There's no real plot to the novel. Zamir watches his life slowly disintegrate while reminiscing about people or places he once knew in short, disintegrated vignettes that make up the majority of the page count. This is all extremely slow and extremely unengaging; I really had to struggle even to finish the book. My main problem wasn't just boredom, though. Zamir is a complete asshole of a protagonist. Despite all his moping and claims of ill use, he continually commits petty crimes against others: deliberately running up debts at small shops with no intention to pay, spreading negative rumors about people, starting fights, committing adultery. And for all his whining and avowed guilt, he never changes or does anything to correct these problems. He's a realistic enough person, I suppose, but I absolutely do not want to spend two hundred pages with him. The afterword describes this as "subversive and sardonic", but if that was the intention, it absolutely did not come through in the writing. Though I don't know if that's the fault of the original author or the translators.

Overall a draggy book with an irritating protagonist. There are a million novels about middle class India that are so, so much better than this.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Saturday, November 24th, 2018
10:25 pm - Someday I will catch up with my backlog of book reviews
City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin. A science-fiction novella set in a world that is post- post- post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse happened so many generations ago that the people in the present moment barely remember what the apocalypse consisted of or who caused it.

One day, a man is found in the forest with absolutely no memory – not even enough to speak or dress himself, a total and complete absence of identity or personality. Oh, and his eyes are slightly odd, just enough to suggest that he's not human, or at least not human in the usual way. The people who found him take him in and teach him, and he spends several happy years living with them. But eventually he decides that he needs to find out who he is, where he came from, and what his original goal was. The people he's with live in a deliberately low-technology, small-scale sort of way, believing that this will protect them from aliens who seek out and destroy any sign of increasing human knowledge or political structure, and therefore have no maps or histories to guide him in his search. He sets out to walk to the west, across what is recognizable to the reader as a far-future North America, encountering many other peoples, some of whom help him and some of whom attack him. Honestly, this travelogue was my favorite part of the novella, the many and varied societies that Le Guin populates this world with, including the absolutely fascinating Prince of Kansas. Eventually the man reaches the titular City of Illusions, where his past turns out to tie into the question of that long-ago apocalypse, those possible aliens, and the mystery behind the world. But knowing who to trust may be the biggest illusion of all.

City of Illusions is not my favorite Le Guin. The early parts of the novella are intriguing, but everything after the main character reaches the city is just weird, and weird in an extremely 1960's sort of way. Which, fair enough, since that's when it was published, but it's always a bit unfortunate when your sci-fi is so obviously dated. The gender roles for this future are also very musty, which is especially disappointing coming from Le Guin, even if this was one of her first books. It's not entirely awful; the mystery of the man's backstory is gripping, and I liked the various plot twists. It's just an idea that could have been so much better.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty. The first in a trilogy of fantasy YA, though it honestly didn't feel very YA to me; there is a bit of the cliched and ever-present love triangle, but it was played just differently enough that I'd initially assumed The City of Brass was simply adult fantasy.

In the 1790s, during Napoleon's occupation of Cairo, Nahri is an orphan, street rat, and con artist, making her living by telling false fortunes and performing faith healing – except that she does seem to have some inexplicable ability to diagnose and cure the sick. During an exorcism, she accidentally summons a djinn named Dara who abruptly destroys Nahri's cynical conviction that magic isn't real. Dara also determines that she's the very last scion of an important and respected djinn family long thought to have died out. Obviously the only solution is to bring her to Daevabad, the City of Brass and capital of the magical world – and to do so quickly, since unknown enemies seem determined to kill Nahri before she can be officially recognized.

Meanwhile, in Daevabad itself, Alizayd is the younger son of the king, destined to become his brother's military right-hand. As such, Alizayd was raised in soldiers' barracks, and has an austere, rigorous faith that blends badly with the decadence and compromise of his father's palace. Daevabad and the world of the djinn isn't one-sided; it's a dense city, multicultural, multireligious, and in particular there are many part-human individuals and a huge diversity of opinions on their place in this magical world. There are court politics, ancient grudges, still-lingering resentments over a past war, arranged marriages, and Dara's own hidden but increasingly-important backstory. Nahri and Alizayd are both thrown into this morass with too little knowledge, forced to make choices that they can't predict the consequences of, even if they're coming to it from very different perspectives.

The worldbuilding is fantastic, a rich mix of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Islamic folklore, all with a modern twist. Nahri and Alizayd are both narrators, and they're wonderful characters, complex and emotionally compelling and recognizable. It's not, perhaps, the world's deepest book, but it's fun and enthralling and the plot had me racing through the pages. I loved it, and can't wait for the sequel.

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