and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Tuesday

Vienna by William S. Kirby. A murder mystery/retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons", set in modern-day Europe with a Holmes and Watson who are both women and also in an explicit relationship. This book was sold to me as "lesbian Sherlock Holmes", and to be fair, it succeeds on that front – which is probably all that matters to many of you.

Justine Am is a world-famous supermodel, currently doing a tour of the capitals of Europe for an art project in which various photographers shoot her posing with wooden mannequins from the 1700s. She's also an ex-med student, which I suppose makes her the Watson of this story. Vienna is an autistic savant (there's a little bit of jargon at one point about how autistic savants aren't really a thing, and she actually has some other rare condition, but she's clearly written to be an autistic savant despite that ass-cover), with a photographic memory for everything she's ever read, incredible math skills, and a tendency to be pulled into geometric patterns in a way that can lead to seizures. Which I suppose makes her the Sherlock? Someone has to be, at any rate. Vienna is also an orphan with a mysterious past connected to her extremely rich and powerful "uncle", a British lawyer and nobleman.

The book opens with Justine in Vienna's bed after a mildly dissatisfying one night stand. Matters grow more complicated when Justine's boyfriend is shortly thereafter murdered and Vienna becomes the first suspect. Despite being thrown together under these not-promising circumstances, they discover a real connection and fall in love. Meanwhile, the boyfriend's murder is only the first in a string of deaths which seem to be connected to Justine's photo shoots – someone is using her as an opportunity to get access to the mannequins. Figuring out who, and why, is the only way for Justine and Vienna to stay alive.

The relationship is well-written – I'm always a fan of characters who have sex first and take a while to catch feelings – but the mystery is complex and arcane to the point of silliness. It involves astronomy, anarchists, assassinations of the 1800s, alchemy, ancient Egypt, and is weirdly alliterative, I've just now realized. The solution also depends on believing that the royal families of Europe (including the Hapsburgs) are secretly still in charge of everything and have regular hidden meetings to maintain society. Which would have been outdated in 1904, the publication date of the original Holmes story, much less 2015.

That's not the only odd thing about Kirby's writing. Justine is constantly called out for behaving "like an American" or a "crass colonial" by other characters, while this is actually not a thing that comes up all that often in my experience of living in Europe. She herself makes strange allusions to this supposed deep contrast between American and European culture, such as when she worries that a joke about Romeo and Juliet in front of a British crowd will set off "a riot, but the laughter seemed good-natured rather than derisive. How had she gotten away with mocking the country's greatest hero?" Vienna's British accent also struck me as a bit stiff and unrealistic, but not being British, I'll leave the final call on that to the experts.

The weirdest plot twist of all is when Justine loses her modeling career because it comes out that she's dating another woman. It's not even the added complications of Vienna being visibly autistic or involved in the case about Justine's boyfriend's murder that supposedly drive the nail into the coffin, but simply her gender. 2015 is not that long ago; I find it extremely doubtful that anyone would lose multiple modeling contracts due to a lesbian relationship.

Kirby's writing is highly oblique, with dialogue that often jumps from topic to topic with no transitions and plot developments that never entirely spell themselves out. I usually admire this style of writing, with its do-it-yourself approach to the reader who's left to figure out meanings and connections for herself. But Kirby occasionally goes too far, producing scenes that are just baffling rather than ambiguous.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed Vienna, despite this review sounding like a litany of complaints. It's just that the things that bothered me were all so unusual that I couldn't resist describing them in details, even though they were minor.

Medea and Her Children by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated from Russian by Arch Tait. A novel focusing on Medea, a widowed and childless woman living alone in the Crimea, and her large and messy Greek-descended family, who arrive at her small village every summer for beaches, parties, and gossip. The style is lyrical and frequently shifts in time from the present moment (which seems to be around the 1970s, though I don't think it's ever explicitly stated) to various events in Medea's memory, stretching all the way back to her parents' lives at the dawn of the 20th century and covering every important moment in between. Despite brief references to the many major political upheavals this period covers (WWI, WII, the expulsion of the Crimean Tatars, the death of Stalin), the focus is very much on the family and its petty dramas: dead parents, marriages, divorces, affairs (SO MANY AFFAIRS), illegitimate children, children sent to live with siblings or grandparents or cousins, house renovations, careers desired and discarded, and so on. The best passages are those describing the landscape of Crimea, its mountains and steep paths and the scent of the ocean.

Medea and Her Children falls into a certain style of 'literary fiction' that just doesn't work for me. I never engaged emotionally with any of the characters, although the writing is certainly lovely. There's all sort of major tragedies in the narrative, but I don't feel them much when the style comes off as so distancing and almost deliberately disorienting, choosing not to reveal characters' motivations or histories. Ah, well. At least there are some gorgeous turns of phrase. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading... Tuesday? Sure, why not.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. An absolutely fantastic, gorgeous novel of fantasy and horror and history. In Victorian England, fairy-land (now called Arcadia) is a real place, and Victorian England being Victorian England, missionaries are sent there. Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, is the latest one, and he seems to have vanished – or at least isn't answering her letters. Catherine sets off to Arcadia after him, where she discovers a mystery concerning the previous missionary and his wife, a left-over changeling, and the mind-games of the fairy queen.

The worldbuilding and writing of Under the Pendulum Sun are just incredible. Arcadia is exactly what fairy-land should be: illogical and dreamlike and dangerous and amoral (not immoral!) and full of promise. The plot is less about Catherine going out to solve mysteries and have adventures than on an exploration of what Victorian Protestant theology would make of fairies (do they have souls? did God create them at the same time as humans, or earlier, or later? what is sin, to a fairy?), complete with all the colonialism and imperialism one would expect. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from some supposedly 19th-century text on religion and fairies, and I sometimes found these short pieces more fascinating than the actual main story. Which is not to say the main story was boring! But Ng has come up with such amazing, complex ideas regarding her invented theology that I could not get enough.

Speaking of the main plot, it's heavily influenced by gothic fiction: we have an excellently creepy mansion for the main setting, foggy moors, a potentially malevolent housekeeper, intricate and incomprehensible social rules that bind our heroine's options and suggest dread fates if she should accidently break a single one, and, oh yes, Catherine's sexual fascination with someone who is absolutely not an appropriate suitor.

I am head-over-heels in love with this book, and I cannot wait for Ng to write more.

Rustication by Charles Palliser. A gothic novel set in a true-to-genre crumbling mansion surrounded by boggy marshes in rural England in the 1860s. The novel is supposedly the journal of Richard, a seventeen-year-old who has just been rusticated (slightly kinder slang for being suspended or expelled) from Cambridge for debts, opium abuse, and possibly being involved with a friend's suicide. Rather than returning home, he finds his mother and sister Euphemia have moved to said crumbling mansion, while his father has recently died under a cloud of scandal. His death has dropped the family from middle-class to poor, while the scandal means former friends refuse to associate with them. Their mother deals with this by fixating on Euphemia's chance of securing a good marriage with a nearby Earl's nephew, which depends on their ability to get tickets to an upcoming ball. Richard deals with this by, well, doing opium, refusing to take on any responsibility in their changed circumstances, and writing explicit sexual fantasies about every woman he comes across, from powerless servants to fourteen-year-olds to his own sister. When the women react exactly how you would expect them to react to a young man who veers between annoying and outright sexually harassive, he calls them names, accuses them of unnatural coldness, and switches his obsession to the next woman he comes across.

In the background of this family drama, the local community finds itself besieged by anonymous, crude letters, mostly addressed to women and accusing them of various sexual crimes, interspersed with threats against the same Earl's nephew Euphemia plans on marrying. At the same time, and presumably committed by the same person, livestock begins to turn up dead and mutilated, again with a sexual focus: male animals are castrated, pregnant females have their wombs removed.

Surely, given all of this (and I haven't even mentioned multiple other sexual tragedies occurring in the neighborhood: a secret child, a notable who has sex trafficked a young girl while pretending she's his 'ward', a servant subjected to continual prepubescent rape by her father and brothers, and death by incompetent abortion, among others), you would think that the misogyny and sexual violence of the Victorian era is Palliser's theme. I certainly assumed so! More fool me, because the real twist ending is that Collapse ) I don't think I've ever come across a book that so clearly established a theme, only to reach the end and find that all these instances never added up to anything more.

To be slightly fair (though I'm not sure Palliser deserves it), the writing was excellent at capturing the dark and gloomy mood and building the tension. I raced through the last hundred pages in a single sitting, though of course that was mostly because I was so excited to reach the twist, only to realize on the last page that the twist I was expecting didn't exist.

Ugh. I don't know what was going on here, or why this book has generally positive reviews. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

(no subject)

Hello everyone!

I aten't dead. Just extremely, extremely busy in these odd times. I hope you all are also well! And I hope that soon my life will calm down a bit and I can return to checking DW on the regular.

In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of reading, though alas, not so much with the typing up of my thoughts afterwards. Since I can't leave my house, I've been focusing on finally getting around to reading all the big tomes on my bookshelves, the ones that usually I put off because they're too big to fit into my purse. They, uh... mostly haven't been great. Further proof that I am far too easily seduced by a pretty cover. Anyway, here's two I did manage to write up!

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney. A novel set in New York City in 1870s. Georg Geiermeier is a recently arrived immigrant, and his various adventures manage to hit upon every single remotely memorable thing happening in the city at the time: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, P.T. Barnum's circus, the explosion of the Staten Island Ferry, working on the sewers, laying cobblestones on the streets, German immigrants, Irish immigrants, Black immigrants, female doctors, secret abortionists, new factories, old Brooklyn farms, street life ('Gangs of New York' style), a night in the Tombs, sex work, life in Five Points, the freezing solid of the East River, and on and on. Gaffney's determination to namecheck every element of her research ends up feeling somewhat ridiculous, and by the end I started to laugh whenever she brought in yet another historical event.

All of this pointless scene-setting provides the background for a fairly bland narrative: Georg falls in love with Beatrice, a member of the Whyos gang, which leads to a rivalry with Johnny, the leader of the gang who wants Beatrice for himself. Meanwhile, a sadistic arsonist/serial killer becomes convinced that Georg is to blame for his own incarceration, and is determined to get revenge. None of these characters are particularly interesting, and the plot never manages to do anything surprising. It's not improved by Gaffney's odd stylistic choices – occasionally butting in with an omniscient narrator to inform us of things like "but Georg wouldn't know that for another two years" or "none of them suspected that the problem was already solved". She doesn't do this often enough for it to become a consistent feature of the book, but it appears just often enough to give a further distancing effect to any emotion the reader might have been developing for the characters.

Overall it's cliched, it's frustrating, and it's mostly just boring. Is there anything exactly wrong with Metropolis? No, not really. Are there thousands of better historical novels out there better than this stale melodrama? Very much yes.

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone. Nonfiction about Joanna I, who ruled Naples (her titles as ruler of Jerusalem and Sicily were more hopeful than accurate) in the 1300s, and who has been considered 'notorious' ever since due to rumors that she had her husband violently murdered. And possibly also for her role in inciting the Western Schism (that time when the Catholic church had two simultaneous popes, each of whom of course denounced the other as the antichrist).

Goldstone is here to redeem Joanna's reputation, instead showing her as a dedicated, competent, and successful ruler. And also not guilty of husband-murder since, as Goldstone says, if Joanna had wanted to get rid of her husband she likely would have had him subtly poisoned and not publicly attacked by goons to be beaten and hung. It's a fair goal, but unfortunately I came away from the book feeling like I just don't care if Joanna was good or bad. There's dozens of chapters about intricate Italian politics and backstabbing and alliances (and goddamn this is really a book that could have used a Character List; I had such a hard time trying to remember who was who), but none of it seemed to have many long-term consequences, nor was any of it interesting enough to read about for its own sake. A lot of the most fascinating bits in the book were relegated to the status of tangents, when I could have read much, much more about them: the Salerno medical school, which allowed female students and possibly teachers; repeated, devastating outbreaks of the plague; the free companies, roving bands of unemployed mercenaries who were a constant background threat in 1300s Italy; the family of a African formerly enslaved man who rose to become major political figures in Joanna's court.

I think Goldstone would have been better served by including a chapter or two focusing on Joanna's historical reception in the centuries since her life. She very briefly complains that Joanna didn't get an awesome tomb, unlike most members of her family, but that's not enough. The premise of the book is 'I am reclaiming this notorious historical figure for the side of good', but I think the average American has no name recognition of Joanna at all, pro or con. Goldstone needs to actually show us that Joanna was hated, not just tell it. That likely would also have helped with my ultimate not-caring, since part of my problem was that a great deal of the stuff Goldstone dwells on didn't seem to matter much to the grand scheme of history.

Eh, it's not a bad book. The topic is fine and the writing is fine. It's just that I prefer my interesting-facts/amount-of-text ratio to be much higher. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Weekly

The Merchant’s Partner by Michael Jecks. The second in a series of murder mysteries set in medieval England, starring Sir Baldwin Furnshill, a knight with a deadly secret (he was once a Knight Templar; since that sect has been officially disbanded and accused of worshipping Satan, he could be executed if anyone suspects him of involvement), and his friend Simon Puttock, the bailiff of a local castle.

One winter morning, an old woman named Agnes is found dead in a field, her body mutilated. It quickly turns out that most of the villagers suspected her of being a witch, which means that practically everyone had a potential motive for the murder. One young man, who visited Agnes the day before her death for medical advice, seems to be the most likely suspect, but there's more going on than Baldwin and Simon know, particularly once a second murder occurs.

This book is so bad. SO BAD, you guys. The narration switches between Baldwin and Simon, but since they are both are one-dimensional characters with no personality beyond "clever, honorable, strong detective", I never could remember which one's POV I was in, and often had to flip back and forth between pages just to figure out which of the two I was supposed to be reading. The solution to the mystery becomes obvious to the reader long, long before the characters figure it out, so it's just a matter of dully watching while they plod from clue to clue. The femme fatale who's eventually revealed to be behind it all is a misogynist cliche of a character, so over-the-top evil with her feminine wiles that it's hard not to laugh at every one of her supposedly 'seductive' lines of dialogue.

But I think the thing that bothered me the most is the utter trash that is the historical research. Jecks clearly has read a few books about medieval England (if you need to know the architectural layout, room by room, of a peasant's hovel, he will happily spend several pages describing it for you), but there's no sense that the characters actually live in, or are shaped by, a world different from our modern one. For example: the village the story is set in is so small that it doesn't have its own church or market, but it does have an inn and tavern. Why would there be enough travelers to keep an inn running? Who are these travelers supposed to be, and why on earth would they be coming to this place if there's nothing there? Travel is a major project at this time; no one is just sloping off to various small towns to check them out! Jecks also can't seem to keep straight how constrained or free his female characters are allowed to be; the societal rules women operate under change from scene to scene.

Most strikingly, this is a bizarrely secular Middle Ages. The events of the book seem to take place over two weeks at least and yet not one character ever goes to church or worries about missing it. It's fine to have individual characters who are skeptical, but the calendar and rituals of Catholicism would still structure their public lives; they can't just be unaware of it. Similarly, the book takes place in February, suggesting at least part of it should occur during Lent, but again there's no mention of it or the changes in diet and behavior you'd expect to follow.

In short: do not read.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Nonfiction about the research and experimentations that made space travel possible, delivered with Roach's typical humour, curiosity, and tales of her mild mishaps while investigating. Packing for Mars is very much not the heroism-and-grandeur style of typical space nonfiction; instead she's fascinated by all the weird minutiae of human bodies that make space travel so difficult. There are chapters on how to eat in space (no gravity makes digestion surprisingly difficult), how to use a toilet in space (splashbacks are a major problem), how to bathe in space (NASA in the 1950s: "Or what if we didn't bathe, and just let your clothes literally rot off you?"), how to have sex in space (NASA still today: "NO."), how to be motion-sick in space (turns out that vomiting into a closed helmet is an unpleasant experience), and how to deal with the psychological experience of being stuck in a small space with the same few people for months or years (ideally without theft, sexual harassment, or murder). Roach interviews scientists and actual astronauts from various nationalities, which gives an interesting look at how people from the US, Japan, and the former USSR have taken different approaches to the same problem. She also gets a lot of fantastic, hilarious behind-the-scenes stories that don't match up to the professional image all these agencies so strenuously project.

It's not a particularly deep book, and I felt like I came away with more amusing anecdotes than actually new knowledge, but it's absolutely a fun way to pass a few days.

The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. The first in a trilogy set in fantasy-medieval China, starring O-Shizuka (granddaughter of the faux-Chinese emperor), Shefali (daughter of the leader of the faux-Mongols), and their world-altering love. In this setting, the Great Wall was built to hold back a plague of demons whose blood can infect humans, causing them to become murderous zombies. Years ago, Shizuka and Shefali's mothers teamed up to defeat the demons once and for all, and ever since humans have lived in a time of peace and health. Until hints begin to emerge that the demons are creeping back. Shizuka and Shefali are determined to once again ride to war to defeat them, except that no one believes them and there seems to be a vast conspiracy to hide the truth of the demon's return. Shizuka and Shefali, who spent their childhood together, are forced to separate to their own cultures to win the necessary support against the demons.

There was a lot I was excited about when I first heard about this book: f/f high fantasy with warrior girls fighting demons? Yes, please! And there were indeed things I liked about it, particularly the worldbuilding, which was great, and I enjoyed how the tension between the two main cultures was realistically depicted. Unfortunately the writing was incredibly slow and draggy; it seemed to take ages for each plot point to crawl across the page. Most detrimentally, I just couldn't care about the relationship between the main characters. We're told over again over again how passionately they feel for one another, how they've been destined to be together since birth, how their love is the sort that can save all of humanity, but we're never really shown any of this. The characters spend shockingly little time together on-page; they're separated for something like 99% of the story. And while I love me some good pining, I just never felt the emotions between them.

Disappointed as I was, there's enough good here that I'll probably go ahead and give the sequel a try (even though it seems like Shizuka and Shefali will spend this one separated as well???) because, well... f/f high fantasy with warrior women! It's a genre I am weak before.

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and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading Saturday

The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore. In 1855 rural New Hampshire, Lucy Blunt is a servant in a rich household that revolves around the beautiful, blind, capricious, and laudanum-addicted mistress, Eugenie. Lucy's attraction to Eugenie is quickly reciprocated, a circumstance that elevates Lucy from kitchen maid to formal companion – displacing Eugenie's previous companion, Rebecca – as their relationship becomes sexual. But Lucy has secrets she can't afford for either Eugenie or the jealous Rebecca to find out, even if she could be certain that Eugenie loves her rather than only using her as a temporary distraction. To complicate matters, the entire story is being told in flashbacks as Lucy sits in jail after being found guilty for murder – though who she murdered, and why, and under what circumstances, and even if she is actually guilty, are all questions left unanswered until the climax of the novel.

First things first: The Companion is extremely similar to The Confessions of Frannie Langton. We have a maid in love with her mistress, whose habit of consuming laudanum makes her emotions and actions unpredictable; the maid ends up accused of murder; the story is told in flashbacks, coaxed out by a lawyer or journalist as the maid waits in jail. Both use the plot to comment upon the sexism and classism of the mid-1800s, though The Confessions of Frannie Langton also has a lot to say about racism, while The Companion brings in the issue of abilism.

To contrast them, The Confessions of Frannie Langton makes excellent use of gothic horror tropes to serve new, anti-racist purposes, while The Companion is more straightforwardly historic-fiction in style. On the other hand, I thought that the characterizations were stronger in The Companion, particularly Lucy's fellow servants, such as the motherly but proud Cook. The emotional relationship between Lucy and Eugenie also worked much better for me than the one between Frannie and Marguerite. But both books are gorgeously written and handle their chosen social issues with care and insight.

It's hard to complain about too many thoughtful lesbian historical murder mysteries! It's the genre I've always wanted and never knew existed. Read these both!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes. Nonfiction about one suburban homeowner in Maine and her intense study of her own backyard. Holmes learns about not just the easily visible animals (the squirrels, the ravens, her adorable relationship with a chipmunk that she trains to eat out of her hand) but the unseen: insects, fungi, the roots of plants, the water runoff, the heat bubble created by her house, the soil, even the deep-down geology. Her style is very similar to Mary Roach's – an intelligent, curious, and humorous generalist who interviews experts to learn more, with a non-insignificant part of the book being her own mishaps, misunderstandings, and difficulties in finding the right experts. Holmes does end up advocating for her readers to adopt her approach (growing a freedom lawn – no grass, just native species however messy they might look, no fertilizer or pesticides), but overall it's a book of interesting facts, pleasantly delivered.

A note: Holmes, like most nature experts, dislikes invasive species. However, there's a short section where she goes way farther than most, including a quite graphic description of the death she wishes upon sparrows and starlings. Anyone who can't read about animal death might wish to skip the first few pages of Chapter Eleven.

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and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Five (extremely delayed) Yuletide recs!

1. A Series of Discoveries by genarti.
Sorcerer to the Crown, Rollo/Damerell, 5.7k, Teen.
The young man had listened to this with flatteringly evident interest. "Could it be -- and I beg your pardon, of course, if I am wrong -- but is your business, perhaps, to avoid your Aunt Georgiana?"
Absolutely wonderful backstory for Rollo and Damerell's relationship, with a style that sounds just like canon.

2. good boys do fine always by skazka.
Lord of the Flies, Jack/Ralph, 3.9k, Mature.
"All things considered, we were rather lucky, weren't we? Going off on a grand adventure instead of staying in place and getting bombed to ash. Getting to meet a load of other boys from different schools."
Dark, dark future-fic for Lord of the Flies. The world the boys returned to, the one they grow up in, turns out to be not all that much better than the island. This is gorgeous and horrifying all at once.

3. An Explorer of Delirium by Edonohana.
The Sandman, gen, 567 words, Teen.
“It’s a sundial,” he said. She could tell he liked explaining things. Words hovered over his head, glistening and swelling and then exploding with tiny popping sounds. They said, HE LIKES EXPLAINING THINGS. “It tells the time of day. Look, you can read it by the shadow.”
Pitch-perfect Delirium POV, with just the sort of ending she would go for.

4. Where There's a Whale There's a Way: or, How to Kiss a Harpooneer in Ten Leagues by Icarus_Isambard.
Moby Dick, Ishmael/Queequeg, 5.8k, Teen.
“Harness thine inner strengths, organize thine harried and confused thoughts of love for Queequeg into lines of beauteous verse. Remind him of the searing flames which burned at thy first meeting.” He leaned in, his face drawn and serious. “Then sing them to him, my hearty. Eviscerate the emotions from thy bowels and sing thy fucking heart out.”
Delightfully silly rom-com tropes collide with Melville's writing style. Plus: pop song parodies! This fic made me laugh harder than any other I've read from this year's Yuletide.

5. cacio e pepe by serephemeral.
Some Like it Hot, Jerry/Joe/Sugar/Osgood, 5.4k, Mature.
For all that Osgood is odd and oblivious and infuriating, he’s also romantic, sweetly protective, and a damned good kisser. And he wants her. Wants her on the days she’s Daphne; wants him the days he’s Jerry. Fiancée, fiancé; Osgood wants both, and Daphne’s beginning to realize just how much that means to her. To Jerry. To them.
Okay, yes, everyone has already recced this, but it really is the OT4 fic this movie has always deserved.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Reading I don't even know what day it is, at least here are some reviews

A Death in Harlem by Karla F.C. Holloway. In 1920s Harlem, in the middle of an awards ceremony for Black artists, one of the winners, a beautiful young woman (Black, but light-skinned enough that she could have passed for white, if she'd chosen to) falls out of a window to her death. Did she jump? Was it an accident? Or was she... murdered?!?! Weldon Thomas, the city's first Black policeman, is on the case.

The problem quickly turns out to be not a lack of motive, but too many motives. Almost everyone seems to have a potential reason to kill Olivia: the prominent doctor she was rumored to be having an affair with; the doctor's wife who was seen fighting with Olivia earlier in the day; the wife's best friend (and former lover) who was angry at being spurned when Olivia came on the scene; the white art collector who was present at the awards ceremony but mysteriously disappeared immediately afterwards; Olivia's maid who knew too much; Olivia's former maid who left her for a better job; the wife's maid who is determined to protect her employer; the mayor's son, who was drunk and in Harlem that night; and on and on. Every single character has at least one dangerous secret.

I love stories set during the Harlem Renaissance and I love murder mysteries, so I was very excited for A Death in Harlem. Unfortunately this is Holloway's first time writing fiction, and it really shows. The characters all feel one-dimensional, none of them get an arc or chance to deepen, there's too much switching between different POVs, and much of the dialogue feels stiff and unrealistic. Whenever there's a bad guy, Holloway practically has them twisting their mustaches and cackling evilly as they praise their own villainous deeds. Which... I'm sure plenty of white people in 1920s NYC were horrible racists! But here they come off less as examples of historical accuracy and more like signs around the bad guys' necks so that the audience knows who to boo.

On another note, Olivia's life and death are paralleled with that of a poor, dark-skinned sex worker; they both arrive in NYC on the same day and later die on the same day, but while Olivia is formally mourned and her case investigated, the other woman's death passes unnoticed. This is a nice conceit, but the other woman essentially disappears from the book after the first few chapters, and her plot is never drawn into the main story. I get what Holloway was trying to say with this, but I don't think it worked.

I would read another book by Holloway, because I liked many of her choices and think she has potential, but this one was a bit meh.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

In light of the trashfire that has been the Romance Writers Association over the last few weeks (a brief summary for anyone who hasn't been following this story), I decided that it was an excellent time to catch up with Courtney Milan, who I have loved for a long time but whose most recent books I hadn't yet read.

After the Wedding by Courtney Milan. A historical romance set in 1860s England, the second full-length novel in The Worth Saga (there are also three novellas in the series). Lady Camilla Worth was once the daughter of an earl. But as a young girl her father was convicted of treason and committed suicide, and Camilla went to live with a distant relative. When he got bored of raising a 12 year old, he passed her on to a yet more distant relative, who did the same, and again, and again, each time reducing her status a little more. By age twenty she's working as a common servant for a village rector, who constantly threatens her with hell because she once had premarital sex. She has no way of contacting her remaining family and won't even try, completely convinced that they want nothing to do with her.

Adrian Hunter is the son of an extremely successful Black businessman and a white abolitionist. Now he's a wealthy and competent businessman himself (supervising a porcelain factory, which was a cool historical detail), but he really wants to prove to his brother that their uncle, a white bishop, is worth trusting. The bishop says he'll publicly recognize the Black side of his family if Adrian just does him one favor... go undercover as a valet to spy on the bishop's ecclesiastical rival. In short order Camilla and Adrian are servants in the same household, caught alone in a room together, and forced into a (literal shotgun) marriage. Adrian knows that if they want a successful annulment, they can't sleep together or otherwise appear to be married, which leads to a lot of EXTREMELY IDDY pining as they slowly fall in love and yet can't touch or even talk about it.

So, yes, it is a historical romance with many of my favorite tropes: fake marriage, angst, searching for family, lots of humor, finding inspiration through reading dusty court records (okay, this isn't a trope I've previously encountered but I loved it), and, of course, sooooo much glorious pining. I also adored many of the side characters, particularly Adrian's brother, who was amazing and who I was extremely excited to discover is slated to be the hero of the next book in the series.

On the negative side, After the Wedding had much less to do with the Opium Wars/treason/bigger plot of the Worth Saga than Once upon a Marquess did, which was a disappointment to me because that's definitely the part of the series I'm most interested in. After the Wedding is a bit of a shallower book. On the hand, I devoured the whole thing in only two days and had a great time while reading, so I can't complain too much.

Mrs Martin’s Incomparable Adventures by Courtney Milan. The third novella in The Worth Saga (this comes immediately subsequent to After the Wedding, but they're so disconnected from one another that it doesn't really matter). Mrs Bertrice Martin is a 73 year old widow, immensely rich, with nothing much to bother her except that her Terrible Nephew keeps trying to steal her money and rape her servants. (Which, I mean, is quite the problem.) Also she's lonely and everyone in her life keeps treating her like she's stupid and fragile. Violetta Beauchamps is a 69 year old boarding house manager, the latest victim of Terrible Nephew's habit of running up debts that he doesn't intend to pay. As a result of his actions, she's out of a job and out of a home. She plans to con Bertrice into giving her enough money to retire on, but quickly gets caught up in Beatrice's plans to ruin Terrible Nephew's life. Along the way, they fall in love.

As much as I adore the idea of elderly lesbian seductions, Mrs Martin’s Incomparable Adventures works better as a screwball comedy than as a romance. The various mishaps they subject the Terrible Nephew to (geese, offkey renditions of the hallelujah chorus, paying all the neighborhood's sex workers to avoid him) are unrealistically over-the-top but frequently hilarious. Bertrice's unflappable confidence leads to some fabulous dialogue: "Oh, for God's sake. Forty-nine is extremely young. If forty-nine is not young, that would make me old, and I am not old. I have reached the age of maturity to which all humans must particularly aspire; to dismiss this pinnacle of perfection as old age is to demean all of humankind."

It's also a book in which the phrase "men are horrible" is repeated approximately once per page, so if you're in the mood for that, it's extremely the book you want. And aren't we all in the mood for that sometimes? The author's notes say that Milan wrote this in the shadow of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which... yeah, it definitely feels like a book for that moment. I could have asked for a bit more sexual tension between the main characters, but eh, it works great as a comedy if not as a serious love story. Another light, fast read.

Also there is cheese toast. No one can dislike a book that praises cheese toast.

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and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale


I am running behind on approximately seventeen quadrillion projects, which is why I haven't posted any book reviews for several weeks and probably will continue to not post any until next week, at least.

But! I didn't want to leave my dreamwidth entirely barren, especially immediately after participating in a friending meme (still running here, if you want to bulk up your reading page) and anyway, it's the year-end/new-year time of things, a good moment for summing up and posting lists. And so here is a topic about which I hardly ever post, but which I spend quite a bit of time with in my daily life: podcasts! I'm extremely fond of using podcasts to fill all the boring bits of life, particularly the bits when my hands and/or eyes are otherwise occupied (so that I can't read a book) but my brain is not: commuting, of course, but also washing dishes, folding laundry, showering, cooking, and more. I usually go through two or three episodes of various podcasts a day. And so, of course, I have favorites – podcasts that I desperately wait for new episodes of. And... less favorites, ones I listen to only when I have nothing else ("I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats", why is the host so annoying?) or that I try to listen to and end up abandoning ("History is Gay", why are both hosts so annoying?). But let's stick to the positives for today. Here are my Top Ten Favorite Podcasts of 2019, listed in ascending order:

10. Ben Franklin's World. A young historian (I believe she's a PhD student, at least in the early episodes I've listened to so far) interviews scholars, museum workers, and professors on their research in early American history (generally mid 1600s to early 1800s, with a few episodes that go earlier or later, and with a focus on the area of the British colonies). To be honest, I don't actually like the host's approach very much, but the people she talks to are so interesting that I've kept listening anyway. This is also one of the few podcasts I listen to that doesn't have any element of humor to it at all (I tend to look for a light mood in my podcasts), but it's fascinating, and I always want to take notes while I listen.

9. The Allusionist. The host, a woman with a background in writing and editing, produces this show with a somewhat "This American Life" vibe, but on the topic of weird linguistic detours. She herself describes the show as "about language", but that seems way too broad to be helpful. Some recent episode topics to give you a better idea of whether you'd like to listen yourself: how do you decide what to engrave on your headstone? did the Berlin Wall lead to East and West Germany developing separate dialects? why did medieval Europe believe in a demon whose sole job was making typos? what's the history of the word bisexual? This isn't a laugh out loud type of show, but the host does approach her subject with humor and curiosity, which I appreciate.

8. Sawbones. One of the brothers from MBMBAM and his wife, who is a doctor, discuss the weird, terrible medical practices of the past – bloodletting, black bile, patent medicines, etc – and the weird, terrible medical practices of the present day – drinking bleach, anti-vaxxers, the keto diet, etc – with a sense of humor. I probably would have placed this show higher if I'd made this list last year, because recently they've been focusing more on contemporary issues, which tend to be less funny. And I get it, vaccines are important! But there's only so many episodes I can to listen to on that topic before it gets boring.

7. My Favorite Murder. Yes, I am the last person on earth to start listening to this EXTREMELY FAMOUS podcast in which two women comedians discuss true crime cases, both historical and recent, and I only began listening last month. I'm not entirely sure I'll stick with this podcast longterm, but so far I've found it strangely addictive. It's surprisingly light in mood for such a heavy topic, which makes it a good listen for when I want something I only need half a brain for.

6. Gastropod. Another "This American Life" style podcast. In this one the two hosts, both women journalists, focus on the history and science of food. Some of my favorite episodes include the one on cilantro (what is the science behind the haters?), the one on a maple syrup crime ring, and the one on if eating off a literal silver spoon can make your food taste better.

5. My Brother, My Brother, and Me. Everyone already knows about this podcast, don't they? Just in case you've missed out: three comedian brothers respond to advice questions (both questions emailed directly to them and random ones pulled off of Yahoo! Answers) with a mix of deliberately terrible and genuinely sweet advice. Occasionally interrupted by other projects, such as the oldest brother's news updates on fast food developments, or reading ebay auctions of haunted dolls.

4. The Dollop. Hosted by two comedians, both extremely unknowledgeable about American history. Despite that, one host finds and researches a strange incident therein and presents it to the other, who reacts. Episodes I've listened to recently include topics like the origin of the Ouija board, the Rajneeshee cult, mountain man Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"), and the history of the LAPD. Even when I'm already familiar with the subject matter, their commentary makes me laugh out loud.
A sidenote: history, inevitably, tends to involve racism, sexism, people being just generally terrible to one another, and many related topics. The hosts are both straight white men, and have the blindspots you'd expect. That said, I've been honestly surprised at how willing they are to learn and to correct themselves just in the small percentage of their backlog that I've gone through.

3. Apocalist Book Club. Two women read every post-apocalyptic novel ever written in chronological order, starting with "The Last Man" by Jean-Baptiste De Grainville (1805). Some of the books are terrible, but there's nothing as funny or as weird as the bad fiction of another era. This podcast is a relatively recent discovery for me, but I'm almost out of episodes and very sad that they update only once a month.

2. The Baby-Sitters Club Club. Two thirty-something dudes, comedians, review each book in Ann M. Martin's classic preteen-girl series, The Baby-Sitters Club. I realize that this sounds like a set-up for mockery and condescension, but the hosts instead show a lot of love for the series: arguing about who is the best babysitter, debating the deeper themes of the series, analyzing the writing styles of the different ghostwriters who took over after the first thirty books, tracking the careers of rarely mentioned side-characters, and so on. I absolutely love listening to this podcast, and am very worried about it ending soon, as they've read nearly all the potential Baby-Sitters content. But I never want it to end!

1. Alternate Ending. A podcast about movies with three hosts: Tim, "the expert"; Carrie, "the casual viewer" (aka the person who knows nothing about movies); and Rob, who is sort of the in-between in terms of movie knowledge. Most episodes have a theme, and each host brings their own list of movies to discuss (recent examples: "Top 5 Nicole Kidman movies", "Top 5 movies about divorce", "Top 5 cats"). I've been a fan of Tim's written movie reviews for many years – he's absolutely the person who taught me to notice things like shot composition and set dressing, though I'm still trying to figure out editing – because of his wonderful mix of critical technical analysis and appreciation for underappreciated genres like slasher flicks and Disney animation. Also he writes hilarious reviews of bad movies, such as this one for Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. The podcast is all of this plus great chemistry between three friends. It is my very first listen whenever new episodes download.

What podcasts to do you listen to? Anything you'd recommend for me? These aren't all the ones I listen to, but I'm happy to talk about others as well!

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and such a long journey, the heart expands to claim this world, bring me that horizon, anywhere but here, I need things on a grander scale

Five Things Make a Post

1. Do you remember, long ago in the dawn of the internet, there was a guy who kept writing stories in which Roy Orbison was wrapped in clingfilm? It's a book now. Complete with Guardian review! I do not understand the world.

2. This vid, starring various Disney villainesses, is SO GOOD and hilarious.

3. On the other hand, this vid (Game of Thrones, labelled Jaime/Brienne but I think it's a bit more of a Jamie character-study) is heartbreaking and painful but also SO GOOD.

4. A Zailor in the Making by [personal profile] sholio (Guardians of the Galaxy/Fallen London crossover, G, 2.2k) is adorable and really captures both canons.

5. secrets by venndaai (Benjamin January, T, 2.3k) is incredibly fantastic. Shaw is a werewolf and Ben has healing powers and Olympe's voice is pitch-perfect and I love every word.

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