Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
5:24 pm - Reading Wednesday
Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern. A graphic novel about vampires, Regency London, the importance of having pockets in your ballgowns, talking yet extremely incompetent castles, and giant psychic French eagles named Napoleon, all by the creator of My Life as a Background Slytherin. Lucy is a young lady so bored by the restrictions of Regency society that she goes on a murderous rampage during a polite stroll in the countryside. This brings her to the attention of a) the scandalous, glamorous Lady Travesty, who wants Lucy to join her "secret ancient immortal vampire cult", and b) Lord Byron ("you know, from books"), who thinks Lucy slaughtered all those pretentious gentlemen because she knew they were vampires, and who now wants the two of them to join up as non-exclusive paramours/vampire-hunting teammates. Before too long, they're joined by a third ally, Sham, a genderqueer bounty hunter who is way more efficient and dedicated to the vampire-hunting mission than anyone else (especially since Lucy is still half-convinced that joining a secret ancient immortal vampire cult sounds like a lot of fun, and that cackling and swanning about is a better lifestyle than dealing with feelings and trying to form real relationships). Lucy soon falls in love with Sham, who remains oblivious:

Eventually the plot becomes so complicated and full of shocking betrayals (tm) that no one seems to know what side anyone is on, what to do next, or even what their original goal was. Which is fine, because Bloodlust & Bonnets isn't really that interested in having a coherent, suspense-filled plot so much as it wants to make lots of puns, have pointless but fascinating side-characters, mock anything associated with Regency romance or vampires, and portray Byron as a shallow narcissist obsessed with his nemesis, Sir Walter Scott, and prone to sulking in bed whenever things don't go his way (which... fair enough).



I've seen several people compare it to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and I think that's an excellent analogy. If you find that sort of silly, random humor annoying, Bloodlust & Bonnets is not the book for you. On the other hand, I enjoyed it a great deal. My one complaint is that it dragged a bit in the middle, and yet the ending is an obvious set up for a potential sequel that immediately made me want to read more.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc. A very unusual haunted house novel. Julie and James are a young married couple whose relationship (and savings accounts) have recently been strained by James's gambling addiction. They buy a house in a small town, leave their old life in the city, get new jobs, and prepare to entirely start over. Except, of course, that things begin to go wrong. There are hidden rooms and crawlspaces in their new house; their elderly neighbor is always staring at them through the kitchen window; Julie begins to find bruises all over her body; weird drawings and writings appear on the walls of the house; they both hear the sounds of breathing and humming, as well as glimpsing shadowy figures; the trees in the backyard are constantly creeping closer to the house; rumors about their house's history circulate in the small town; unseen children climb trees in a nearby forest, their shrieking almost indistinguishable from birds; the water in the pipes comes out as clogs of mold and algae; and that's just the start.

All of this probably sounds like the standard haunted house tropes, but The Grip of It is entirely original. For one thing, it's never clear how much of the "haunting" is actually happening and how much is the distorted perception of our narrators. At some points it seems clear that one of them is creating all of the mysterious activity to trick the other one; at other points, that explanation is explicitly impossible. Sometimes outsiders witness the strange occurances; at other times outsiders directly contradict Julie and James's understanding. Despite the quite over-the-top horror happening around them, both James and Julie seem unmotivated to abandon the house, and in fact they gradually miss more and more work until they never leave at all, just spending days obsessed with finding an explanation. The narration switches from present-tense first-person Julie to present-tense first-person James with no warning or other stylistic indication that we've changed characters, which gives the very text a disorientating feel that nicely matches the plot.

The writing style is the most distinctive element of The Grip of It; it's extremely literary, with all the ambiguity, claustrophobic navel-gazing, and bleak pessimism that implies. Except that this time I mean that as a compliment. The Grip of It and its prose just really, really work. We're never given an answer to if any of the haunting is actually happening and, if it is, how. You're left with the evocative experience of a paired descent into madness without any signpost of reality to pull yourself back out.

Highly recommend for your Halloween reading, even if it's a bit too late for that this year.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
4:13 pm - The last of Halloween Reading
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. A horror novel set – very specifically, with many pop culture references – in 1988. Abby and Gretchen, high school sophomores, have been best friends for years and years, the sort of best friends that have secret codes and personal rituals and phone calls every night to dissect that day at school, despite Abby being from the poor side of town and Gretchen's parents being extremely wealthy and WASP-y. Until one summer night, when Abby and Gretchen experiment with LSD and Gretchen ends up alone and lost in the nearby woods for hours. Or... maybe not alone, because the next day she begins to act differently. Subtly, at first – not showering, not sleeping, claiming she hears voices. Then she begins to lash out violently, actively destroying her friendship with Abby and sabotaging the other girls in their class. Was she raped that night, and this is all some form of PTSD? Is she being abused by her parents? Or did she encounter a secret group of Satanists and is now possessed by the devil?

As you might guess from a plot that involves both Satanic conspiracies and the dangers of trying drugs, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is extremely enamoured of its 80's setting. (Look at that cover! This was published in 2016, but someone clearly knows their stuff.) However, what the novel's really about, more than anything else, is the friendship between Abby and Gretchen. I was shocked when I realized that the author is a man, because it's such a perceptive, kind, respectful depiction of teen girls and their bonds. It's honestly hard to believe Hendrix was never himself a sixteen year old girl! There is horror (warning for a dead dog) and humor (the exorcist Abby eventually turns to is a bodybuilder who lifts weights for Christ and who, as becomes increasingly obvious, has never actually led an exorcism before), but every element – including a climax that is equally scary, hilarious, and emotional – is a celebration of their friendship. An excellent book for anyone who has the slightest affection for lifelong friendships and their importance.

The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation by Rich Cohen. God, I had so many problems with this book. Let's start with the title. The Last Pirate of New York is the nonfiction account of Albert Hicks, who murdered three men in 1860 in a crime that set off a media frenzy, making him hugely famous. Hicks was hung on Liberty Island (before the statute was installed, of course) with a watching crowd of between ten and twenty thousand people, the last man to be publicly executed in New York. This is enough to base a book on! This is an interesting story in and of itself! This is not remotely the story of either a pirate or a gangster!

Okay, fine. Hicks technically was tried for piracy, but only because – no one having found the bodies of his victims, which presumably were at the bottom of New York Harbor – the state was afraid he'd escape a murder charge. He did commit the murders on board a boat, but a boat that never made it to the open ocean, staying within the harbor for the entirety of this doomed voyage. Not really what I think of when I see a book with "pirate" on the cover. Especially because NYC did have real pirates of the stereotypical sort, most famously but not limited to Captain Kidd! Secondly, if we're going to count killing people in a bay as piracy, Hicks is not the last; Cohen several times mentions other river pirates operating around the same time.

Thirdly, Hicks is even less of a gangster than he is a pirate. Cohen is obviously very enthused about New York's history with gangsters and spends a lot of time discussing them, bragging about his interactions with their still surviving relics. (I mean all of this is in regards to gangsters of The Godfather and Boardwalk Empire sort, not gangsters of Boyz n the Hood or The Wire sort, which I feel is an obvious point of confusion but one which Cohen never deigns to acknowledge.) Hicks worked alone, and had no followers, accomplices, or any sort of larger organization that one might call... you know... a gang. You can't be a gangster by yourself. Cohen does argue that Hicks became a legendary figure in the NYC underworld after his death, his story told and retold for generations. But this theory, which could have been fascinating and a major focus of the book, is relegated to a few pages in an afterword and we're never shown evidence that it actually happened.

Another problem I had with The Last Pirate of New York is that the majority of the pages are spent on the police investigation and subsequent trial, which is fine in and of itself; many a true crime book has chosen that focus. But Cohen gives us a detailed description of Hicks's actions during the murder at the beginning of the book, which means the subsequent 120 pages have no tension or suspense. We know he did it. There's no question of if they're following the right guy, or if maybe the suspect is really innocent, or if he did it but won't be found guilty. All of that is obvious from the very beginning, leaving nowhere new for the book to go. Bizarrely, Cohen details the step-by-step of the murder at the beginning of the book, then does so again near the end, when Hicks confesses. Not only is it the same scene told twice, Cohen uses many of the exact same phrases. And it's not a particularly long book, so wasting pages on this retelling really stands out.

Cohen also spends a lot of time on Hicks's confession, which he sold in book-form to a publisher immediately before his execution. Personally, I was extremely skeptical that anything in this confession actually happened; not only did Hicks supposedly participate in every single important event of mid-1800s America (he visited the California gold rush! He was in the Mexican-American war! He lived in Hawaii, Tahiti, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New Orleans!) but it hits every trope of the standard penny dreadful (he was the only survivor of a shipwreck – twice! He killed hundreds of men but was too good to rape women! He protected mistreated cabin boys! He buried $200,000 in Mexico and the treasure is still out there for you to find! All of these crimes attributed to a famous bandit were actually committed by Hicks!). Cohen doesn't seem to have made an effort to verify any of the stories that happened outside of NYC. And I get it, the historical records for rural Mexico on crimes that were never tried are not going to be a great source of information, but that's not an excuse to spend dozens of pages uncritically recounting this story.

Cohen uses a lot of photographs to illustrate his story, but they were mostly taken much later than the events in question, sometimes up to sixty years later. And again, I understand the choice – there's not a lot of useful photographs from the 1850s; a building won't have changed that much in appearance – but the fact that he never explicitly acknowledges this discrepancy bothered me.

So, is there anything good about The Last Pirate of New York? Cohen's writing isn't terrible... at least, not all of the time. His descriptions of Old New York can be quite well-written: The little party followed State Street across Bowling Green, then walked up Broadway, which had once been an Indian trail. Before the Civil War, you could still see evidence of that, in the hard-packed dirt, in the way it rambled, and in the smells, which were the smells of America old and new, smells of horse manure and leather and human sweat, but also the stench of factories; of putrid meat from the slaughter yards and tanneries, of oil from the gasworks and refineries.
Unfortunately it's also not always accurate, since south Broadway was absolutely not a dirt road in 1860. Alas, such an intriguing title, such an annoyingly deficient book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(2 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, October 31st, 2019
3:31 pm
Happy Halloween, everyone! I made a new Spotify playlist, because my four previous Halloween playlists weren't enough.

Collapse )

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019
4:28 pm - Halloween Reading
The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane. This is a collection of two novels, "To Walk the Night" and "The Edge of Running Water", both originally published in the 1930s and the only horror novels Sloane ever wrote. Which is surprising, because these are very accomplished and confident works. There's a very Lovecraftian tinge to both novels, though less in the sense of "cults and elder gods" and more in the sense of "scientist discovers things man was not meant to know". Also: much less racism and anti-semitism. Unfortunately Sloane does not entirely escape being a writer of his time; his attitude toward women in both stories is fairly appalling, though more so in "The Edge of Running Water".

"To Walk the Night" begins with the narrator arriving at the house of his best friend's father, carrying the ashes of that best friend, who has just killed himself. The father – understandably! – asks the narrator to explain what drove his son to suicide, and they pass a long night staring out into the dark as the narrator tells the story of how he and the friend went back to visit an old college professor, only to discover his freshly murdered corpse. It's a particularly mysterious death, and even the police have no answers as to how it was done or who wanted to kill him. The friend slowly becomes obsessed with a) solving the mystery, b) working on the equations about Einstein's theory of space-time the professor left behind, and c) hooking up way too soon with the professor's hot widow. These three strands eventually come together into a terrible revelation the friend couldn't live with.

In "The Edge of Running Water", our narrator is himself a professor, this time traveling to rural Maine to visit another professor, a former friend of his who dropped out of the college scene five years previously after the sudden but not mysterious death of his wife. It turns out that he's spent this entire time trying to invent a machine for communicating with the dead. While our narrator struggles to find a nice way to tell his friend that he needs therapy and the machine is definitely fake, he deals with the creepy surroundings: a small town of locals who distrust all outsiders; the strange woman who seems to be taking advantage of his friend and who claims to be a medium; weirds sounds emanating from his friend's laboratory; and the disappearance of his friend's housekeeper. There's also the friend's step-daughter, who the narrator fondly reminisces about babysitting as a preteen while currently commenting on her body and kissing her, but let's skip that part, shall we? Indeed! As you probably could guess, the novel concludes with a literal bang when it turns out that the machine isn't so fake after all.

Both stories are heavy on a creeping sense of dread, spending a great deal of time establishing the characters, setting, and coming darkness. They're both extremely slow builds, which is certainly part of their appeal but also my main complaint. Perhaps the ending revelations were more shocking in the 1930s but they're easy to see coming today and taking so very long to get to the climax lessened the impact for me. I think they would have made great episodes of The Twilight Zone, not least because shortening them to a thirty-minute runtime would have cut out the extraneous material. Nonetheless, the writing is effective at pulling you into the world, and I raced through both novels. Sloane is particularly a master at creating evocative scenery; the descriptions of barren mesas in the New Mexican desert in "To Walk the Night" will stay with me for a long time. Recommended for anyone who's into the history of the horror genre, though the scares here are quite mild.

The Dinosaur Tourist by Caitlín R. Kiernan. A collection of 19 short stories, mostly in the horror genre though frequently more mildly creepy than outright horrific. Despite the stories being disconnected, there are images and themes that appear repeatedly: paleontologists (though dinosaurs themselves appear only as fossils or, once, as a cheesy tourist attraction); lesbian couples; protagonists who grew up in the southern United States only to spend their adult lives up north; sitting in a psychiatrist's office describing bad dreams based on weird but not directly traumatic childhood experiences; vivid descriptions of locations in the US's north-east, mostly NYC, Boston, and Providence; the scent of the ocean and/or rivers; explicit Lovecraft references, most often to Mother Hydra, here repeatedly depicted as an evil Venus of Willendorf. As a whole, the stories are a mixed bag; some of them I loved, and some I found far too vague and ambiguous.

My favorites included:
"The Cats of River Street (1925)" – the pet and feral cats of Lovecraft's Innsmouth come together on the spring equinox to fight back a tide of sea monsters. A wonderful portrayal of a diversity of personalities in a specific time and place.
"Far From Any Shore" – three paleontologists dig up the Mother Hydra statue and succumb to mysterious illnesses while revelers celebrate the end of the world. Creepy and understated; very well-done.
"Fake Plastic Trees" – in a world somewhat like Vonnegut's Cat Cradle (though in this case nanobots have turned everything to plastic), a teenage girl makes a horrific discovery. Nice tension and worldbuilding here.
"Elegy for a Suicide" – a woman touches what looks like a fungi, only to find her body rotting and an ancient power consuming her inner self.

Unfortunately too many of the other stories are meandering and unclear, in that way of literary fiction in which nothing actually happens but it's all very weighty and meaningful. Frequently I was bored enough that I had to force myself to keep reading. The other books I've read by Kiernan didn't have this problem, so I was disappointed to encounter it here. But that said, the stories that worked, really really worked.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
3:43 pm - Halloween Reading
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding. A horror/thriller set in England's Peak District. Lauren has just given birth to twin boys and is understandably exhausted and drugged on pain medication. She's also coming to the realization that her husband is a selfish asshole more interested in his beauty sleep than in helping to care for their children; there's never a good time for a relationship to fall apart, but immediately post-birth is especially bad. So when Lauren begins to experience things straight out of a medieval fairy tale – a witchy woman with a basketful of strange eel children, creepy folk songs about mothers abandoning their babies, smells of river mud and fish – perhaps it's understandable that she can find no one who believes her. Matters get worse when the mysterious woman manages to switch their babies, leaving Lauren with a pair of changelings who look exactly like her former children. Golding does an excellent job of describing their eerie and frightening traits enough to scare the reader without ever going over the line of being unbelievable that no other character would notice that something is wrong.

Alternative chapters switch the viewpoint to police detective Joanna Harper, the only person who takes Lauren's account seriously, though even Harper has to fight against disbelief and a boss who's overly concerned about their budget. Harper is also engaged in an awkward flirtation with reporter Amy, which was absolutely a welcome surprise; I always love it when I happen across unexpected lesbians in my reading.

Little Darlings isn't the scariest or most complex book I've ever read, but Golding does a good job of mixing the folklore with the modern setting and keeping up the tension. Much of the book balances on the edge of "is Lauren crazy or is she right?" and the writing handles that well. If I have a complaint, it's that Little Darlings uses psychiatric medicines and psychiatric hospitals as a threat and a punishment, a desolate fate Lauren is banished to when no one believes her about the changelings, rather than a source of help for many people. But that's such a ubiquitous problem in horror that it's hardly worth singling out Little Darlings.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Argentinian Spanish by Megan McDowell. A novella with a strange, nearly incomprehensible, plot and an absolutely compelling style. The entire thing is told as a dialogue between Amanda, who is dying in a cheap hospital bed, and David, the young son of her neighbor. Amanda is trying to tell what seems to be a fairly mundane story (her vacation to the countryside, the slightly odd behavior of her rental house's next door neighbors, her worry that her daughter Nina will have some accident in this new place) while David continually interrupts, trying to hurry her on to the important part and dropping inexplicable yet terrifying details (the two voices are distinguished throughout by italics):
They're like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It's the boy who's talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
No, another kind of worms.
It's dark and I can't see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can't move, but I'm talking.
It's the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Because it's important, it's very important for us all.
I try to nod, but my body doesn't respond.
What else is happening in the yard outside the house? Am I in the yard?
No, you're not, but Carla, your mother, is. I met her a few days ago, when we first got to the vacation house.
What is Carla doing?
She finishes her coffee and leaves the mug in the grass, next to her lounge chair.
What else?

Even now, having finished it, I'm not entirely sure what happened or what it means (the horror is clearly related to the toxic misuse of pesticides, but the details are never clarified, and there also is maybe something supernatural going on), but I'm not sure that matters when the story is this thrillingly told. Fever Dream is incredibly hard to tear yourself away from once you've begun reading; every line of it barrels onwards in a rush that never gives up or relaxes. Highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind some ambiguity in their fiction.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
2:33 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Hunger by Alma Katsu. A horror novel that reimagines the Donner Party by adding monsters to the real difficulties of starvation, cannibalism, and bad weather. An excellent premise!

Unfortunately the execution is not as good. The Hunger has gotten a ton of good press and even been nominated for several awards since it came out last year, and I really can't imagine why. The writing is flat, the characters are a collection of historical fiction cliches (the sexy bad girl, the naive good girl, the honorable man who is unfairly judged by others, the closeted gay man who's obsessed with sin), the themes could have been interesting but Katsu doesn't quite manage to bring them full circle, and it's not even that scary.

The vast, vast majority of the book concerns the party's progress along the trail before getting to its infamous winter camp snowed in up in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Which is fair enough, I suppose: plenty went wrong beforehand to cause the group to end up in the wrong place with such low supplies. But I feel like the winter camp is the heart of the Donner Party's notoriety, and where the most obvious horror waits to be crafted; it's shocking that Katsu chooses to spend such a tiny segment of The Hunger there. And even when the narration does finally reach the winter camp, most of that section is spent following characters outside of the camp itself – a group who tries to hike out to find help, and a group who halted earlier and so is further down the trail. It's such a strange absence that I have to assume Katsu left it out deliberately, but I have no idea why. Maybe she felt it was too obvious? But it left me feeling like The Hunger was all build-up and resolution without a climax in between.

The monsters themselves are most similar to wendigos, although that word never actually appears in The Hunger, probably so that Katsu could give the folklore her own twist. There are elements of werewolves here too, and maybe just a touch of zombies. All of this is nicely done and creepy enough, if it hadn't just been buried in chapters and chapters of boring writing style, characters I didn't care about, and "hidden secrets" that were obvious from page one.

Full Throttle by Joe Hill. A collection of thirteen short horror stories. Well, mostly horror. A few are more literary than horrific. I really enjoyed Full Throttle; I seem to like Hill's writing better in short story form than in full novels, because this is my favorite book of his since 20th Century Ghosts.

Let me cover just a few of my favorite stories:
All I Care About Is You – in a not too futuristic sci-fi setting (with worldbuilding very reminiscent of the 1950s; I recognized a few elements taken almost directly from The Twilight Zone and Ray Bradbury) a newly poor girl whose friends are all still rich celebrates her sixteenth birthday alone, with only a robot for company. There's a twist at the end which I did not see coming at all and which fit well, but which might be too grimdark for some readers. I loved it.
Faun – what if the door to Narnia was discovered not by sweet innocent children but a venal big game hunter?
By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain – a group of small children in the 1930s discover the dead body of a Nessie-esque lake monster. This story had a style different than most of Hill's writing: lovely and nostalgic and almost silver colored.
You Are Released – a random flight from LA to Boston is in the air over North Dakota when World War III suddenly begins and the nuclear weapons start falling. The POV switches between an assortment of passengers – an aging celebrity, a MAGA-hat-wearing news producer, a gay Jewish man, a young South Korean woman, a spelling bee champion little girl – as they slowly realize what's happening. This is another of the stories that's less horror and more just sad and tender.

There's also two stories that depend on a structural gimmick. In both cases I'm not sure the gimmick itself worked, but I liked each story, so meh.
The Devil on the Staircase – set in the steep cliffs of the Amalfi Coast in the late 1800s, this story concerns a laborer who spends his days carting loads up and down staircases until he discovers one particular staircase that leads to hell. The rhythm of the writing here wonderfully mimics the cadence of an authentic folktale, and the text is set to look like a series of staircases:
him of
He had his
cats and he
sang to them
and poured them
saucers of milk and
told them foolish stories
and stroked them in his lap
and when one time I kicked one–
I do not remember why–he kicked me to
the floor and said not to touch his babies.

So I
his rocks
when I should
have been carrying
schoolbooks, but I cannot
pretend I hated him for that.
I had no use for school, hated to
study, hated to read, felt acutely the
stifling heat of the single room schoolhouse,
the only good thing in it my cousin, Lithodora, who
read to the little children, sitting on a stool with her
back erect, chin lifted high, and her white throat showing.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead – a teenage girl live-tweets her family roadtrip and their decision to check out a small town attraction starring zombies. The story is told as a series of actual tweets: timestamps, screennames, and all. It is unsurprisingly annoying to read 15 pages of tweets, but honestly I'm not sure how else the plot could work. This story is like the "found footage" genre done in writing.

One of my least favorite stories was In the Tall Grass (cowritten with Stephen King), in which a brother and pregnant sister get lost in a field of grass and discover that getting back out is more complicated than it seems. It was certainly brutal and gross, but there just wasn't much to the story outside of that. Of course, this is the story which has now been turned into a movie by Netflix; you can watch the trailer here.

But despite that complaint, even the stories that didn't stand out to me were better than average. Overall, a really excellent collection, especially for Halloween!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(comment on this)

Friday, October 11th, 2019
5:32 pm - Haunted Reading Weekly
The Invited by Jennifer McMahon. A horror novel set in modern-day rural Vermont. Helen and Nate, a pair of thirty-something suburban teachers, come into an unexpected windfall of money and decide to quit their jobs and start a small farm, complete with building their own perfect home that's designed from the ground up with their personal tastes and needs in mind. So basically every Millennial's dream.

Unfortunately the spot of countryside they buy for this ideal house comes with a local legend: back in the 1920s, an isolated woman was accused of being a witch and lynched by the townspeople. (Yes, the 1920s are crazy late for witchcraft trials, but the fact that it happened only a few generations out from the present day ends up being necessary for the plot.) Now this witch supposedly haunts the bog where she was hung, appearing as a white deer that lures people to their deaths, getting them lost in the woods or drowning them in bogwater.

Helen and Nate's new neighbor is a young girl named Olive, who's obsessed with the story of the witch and believes that somewhere on their property she left behind hidden treasure. Olive's mother has recently disappeared – presumed to have left her husband for another man – and Olive thinks that if she can find the treasure, her mom will return.

All of this makes for a fine setup for some thrills and chills; I particularly liked the idea of a haunted house story where the house is brand-new – still in the process of being built, even! Unfortunately The Invited ends up flat and fairly boring. I picked it up because I'd previously read McMahon's The Winter People, and though I had some problems with that book, she absolutely succeeded in crafting an atmosphere of suspense and horror. Those writing skills are nowhere to be found in The Invited. In addition to a dragging plot with extremely obvious twists, the characters are so bland and one-dimensional. I had the biggest problem with Helen, who is a historian/history teacher; we're told over and over that she longs to live in the simplicity and wholesomeness of the past. But her image of the past seems so... uninformed; it's history as imagined by someone whose sole source of information is the Hallmark Channel. Everyone I know who has actually studied history is far too aware of the rampant disease, dirty water, prejudices, violence, etc, to take such a shallow view of it.

Overall, there's nothing acutely wrong with The Invited, but it's an extremely meh book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. Nonfiction about ghost stories, but note that distinction: a book about ghost stories, not one of ghost stories. This is very much not in the vein of Haunted Ohio or Ghosts of Central Jersey or Spooky New Orleans or any other of that seemingly endless genre of credulous collections of ghost stories. No, Ghostland isn't really interested in the ghost stories themselves, but in where they come from, why we tell and retell them, and what cultural purposes they serve. Dickey takes a thoughtful, anthropological look at topics like why are we so afraid of abandoned insane asylums (perhaps we're ashamed of how we once treated our ill loved ones? perhaps it's their deliberately imposing architecture?), the KKK's manipulation of ghost stories about the Civil War's then-newly dead to terrorize free blacks, and, of course, our constant obsession with haunted "Indian Burial Grounds" (hmmm, could that possibly be about the spectre of unaddressed genocide? You think just maybe?). There are interviews with ghost hunting teams to see what they get out of the hobby, quotes from Freud on the concept of the uncanny, and an investigation of how tours at the real House of the Seven Gables have changed over the years in response to tourists' desires. In other words, it's a somewhat academic book that's fascinated by the concept of terror, but which is not looking to actually terrify its readers.

My favorite chapter came early on, in Dickey's analysis of the stories around the Winchester House. If you recognize the name, you probably know the myth: the widow of the owner of the company that produced Winchester rifles was haunted by the ghosts of all those killed by the guns, and so she built a crazily-complicated mansion under the belief that they could never reach her as long as she kept building; she held seances in a special room, incorporated the number "13" into much of the design, and deliberately built confusing staircases and labyrinthine hallways to fool the ghosts. According to Dickey, all of this is completely fictional nonsense without the least historical evidence. Sure, the house itself is a bit unusual, but Dickey argues that Mrs Winchester could easily be understood instead as an early female architect with the money to indulge her whims. So why do we focus on the creepy version of the story? That's exactly what Ghostland is all about.

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

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
2:57 pm - Reading Wednesday
How to Write a Book Proposal (5th edition) by Jody Rein, Michael Larsen. A nonfiction step-by-step guide to, well, writing a book proposal. Since there seems to be some confusion over this: a book proposal is a lengthy pitch (not uncommonly 50+ pages) used to sell nonfiction books to agents and/or publishers. Fiction mostly does not use proposals, or, at most, uses extremely short and simplified ones; instead, fiction is primarily sold via a complete manuscript. Nonfiction writers can get away with having written only one or two chapters of the proposed book and still have it picked up on the basis of the idea. As a result, How to Write a Book Proposal has almost no advice for fiction writers, simply because they're not a relevant audience.

How to Write a Book Proposal divides potential nonfiction writers into two groups: those who write what they dub "promotion-driven books" (things like inspirational books, cookbooks, business books, celebrity books; books where a great deal of the sales are going to come from the platform the author already has) and those who write "prose-driven books" (memoirs, historical narrative, literary journalism, science writing; books where the drive is less the author's name and more the power of the story itself). Although both groups need to write a proposal to sell their books, the proposals for each differ slightly, and Rein and Larsen go into plenty of detail on how to adjust an ideal proposal to your book's specific strengths.

How to Write a Book Proposal is organized around the potential proposal itself, with chapters going in-depth to each particular part of a proposal (author bio, comps, detailed table of contents, etc) and how to write it, what to include, how long it should be, and any other information a writer could possibly need. Rein and Larsen even offer advice on what order to work on the proposal – different from the order in which it should ultimately be assembled! – to provide the most efficient use of research, planning, and writing. It's wonderfully up-to-date (particularly compared to another proposal advice book I'm currently reading, in which emailing agents is a new concept), with plenty of links to websites for agent contact information, or further advice, or additional sample proposals. There are dozens of examples of actual proposals included in this book itself, which I loved; sometimes it's just so much easier to see something than to have it explained.

One drawback, for me, was that I felt How to Write a Book Proposal is slightly more geared towards promotion-driven books, whereas I was most interested in advice for prose-driven books. Though I suppose this is fair enough, since promotion-driven books require a more complicated proposal (prose-driven books, being a bit closer to fiction in appeal, lean harder on the sample chapters – which is also a bit like selling fiction).

Overall I would highly recommend this to anyone looking into writing a book proposal.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey. Book Eight in The Expanse series. I complained in my review for the previous book in this series, Persepolis Rising, it was unbelievable that none of the main characters had died despite the extremely long passage of time and many, many dramatic adventures.

Welp. I guess I got my wish, because Tiamat's Wrath is killing off characters left and right, including in literally the very first sentence.

The Laconian Empire, established on the shoulders of Martian military prowess and a bunch of alien technology even they don't quite understand, has a stranglehold over all the many solar systems where humanity has established itself. There's a Resistance, of course – there's always a Resistance – but given Laconian superiority in weaponry, communications, government, trade, education, and pretty much every other field, it's a Resistance that's dwindling and feels increasingly futile. Of our main characters, Holden has been imprisoned in the Laconian capital for years; Naomi is a leader of the Resistance's spies, focused on gathering and disseminating information; Alex and Bobbie are on the only warship the Resistance has that's maybe capable of winning even a minor battle (a ship stolen from the Laconians, of course); and Amos has disappeared while on an undercover mission, not heard from in years.

The Laconians have better things to worry about than this petty Resistance: primarily figuring out what happened to the protomolecule builders and how they can avoid the same fate. Towards which goal they proceed to declare war on physics-defying, unknowable, deadly... things. Great choice, guys. Unsurprisingly, this immediately has devastating consequences for the Laconians (shocking consequences – I literally gasped), though I suspect most of the ramifications won't make themselves clear until the next book.

Outside of the many literal deaths, Tiamat's Wrath is a book hugely concerned with the idea of death; as the eighth book in a nine-book series, a sense of endings and wrapping-up hangs over everything. This theme is best encapsulated in a litany that first appears in Bobbie's memories of her dying father, but which she repeats over and over in her narration: Who am I? Did the things I accomplished matter? Will I leave the universe a better place than I found it? If I don’t come back, what are my regrets? What are my victories? Alex is confronted with the news that his son is marrying, and struggles with the next generation of Resistance fighters. Naomi considers what it means to fight a war that is, realistically, unwinnable. And everyone just wants to go home, whatever that means.

Tiamat's Wrath also brings up the question of, what even is death, anyway? We've already had Winston Duarte, literal immortal, and now there's consideration of expanding his one-man immortality club to include his fourteen-year-old daughter and theoretical heir (do immortals have heirs?), Teresa, or his pet mad scientist, Dr. Cortázar. In addition, there is a character whose body seems perfectly healthy but whose soul seems to have left the building – or perhaps the entire dimension. There's even a few reanimated corpses. But are the things living behind their eyes their former human occupants, or some sort of new protomolecule development? And how would you tell the difference, in what may be the highest stakes Turing Test ever administered? With all of this, the line between life and death is not as clear as it used to be.

This time around our POVs are Naomi, Alex, Bobbie, Teresa (spoiler alert: it turns out that growing up in the poisoned infighting of halls of power plus being around unethical experiments involving exposing humans to mysterious alien goo does bad things to your psyche), and Elvi Okoye (renowned scientist specializing in alien biologies; she's been unwillingly incorporated into the Laconian military as the only way to continue her research. She previously appeared in Cibola Burn, but I enjoyed her character MUCH more here). Yes, that does mean that for the first time ever, Holden doesn't have a POV! Okay, he sort of does – he gets the prologue, epilogue, and one chapter set exactly in the middle of the book. But still! Such a change from previous books, and a direction I didn't expect The Expanse to go in.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Tiamat's Wrath quite as much as some of the highest points of this series, but it's a very good book, and I cannot wait to read the conclusion. I don't where this story is going to end up, but I bet it's awesome.

Also, one more quote, since I loved this quip: This was the problem with thousand-year Reichs. They came and they went like fireflies.

What I Plan to Read Next
Happy October 2nd, everyone! AKA: the second of my thirty-one days of Halloween celebrations. I have quite a nice stack of horror novels to work through this month, but I could always use more. What I've already read is too long to list (you could start here, but that only covers the most recent three years or so), but if you don't mind that caveat, I'll happily take recommendations!

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019
3:30 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. An old-school fantasy novel with a complete story contained in a single book. On the one hand, sometimes it's just so very refreshing not to have to commit to a trilogy or, god forbid, a nine-book series. On the other hand, this does mean that The Priory of the Orange Tree is a massive doorstopper of a book; I was obliged to read it as an ebook, since my wrists couldn't hold up the hardcover for more than a few minutes.

The Priory of the Orange Tree is old-school in more ways than one. Here we have a story of thousand-year-old mysterious prophecies, dark gods that threaten to rise again, dragons, dragon riders, dragon fighters, pirates, literal underground conspiracies, magic, magic scorned as witchcraft, lonely young and beautiful queens, court politics, legendary swords, knights, jewels imbued with powerful spells, family secrets that have been kept for generations, and a supernatural plague. It's the sort of book where you can easily check off the influences, from Tolkien to Arthurian legend to Earthsea. It's a throwback to the many, many epic fantasies that I devoured as a teenager – which is not a criticism! It was great to revisit this style. In short: The Priory of the Orange Tree is a book that has a map on the opening pages. That's enough to let you know if you want to read it or not.

One major difference between The Priory of the Orange Tree and the many epic fantasy books it resembles, however, is that The Priory of the Orange Tree has queer characters. Many of them! The main romance is f/f and another PoV character is an elderly gay man mourning his lost love (who is dead, but due to falling afoul of an ancient evil, not anything homophobic).

It seems almost redundant to give a plot summary, since it's basically just "mash up Lord of the Rings and The Mist of Avalon", but here I go: in this world's England-equivalent, Sabran is the young, unmarried queen reluctantly contemplating a political marriage. All through her family's history, every queen has given birth to only one daughter, each of whom looks exactly like her mother; it's believed that as long as their bloodline endures, their mere presence keep an evil world-destroying dragon contained below the surface of the earth. One of Sabran's ladies-in-waiting is Ead, from a country far to the south. Unbeknownst to anyone at court, Ead secretly belongs to the Priory of the Orange Tree, a hidden, women-only order dedicated to keeping the dragons in check through magic, fighting skills, and their connection to the woman who long ago sealed the dragons away. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in the Japan-equivalent, Tane is in training to become a dragon rider – but these are Eastern-style, water-based dragons, good and kind and dedicated to fighting the fire-breathing evil Western-style dragons. Also in Japan-equivalent lives Niclays Roos, a Western alchemist who was banished by Sabran for promising her an elixir of immortality and failing to deliver. All of their lives are disturbed when evidence begins to build that the past thousand years of safety from the evil Western dragons are ending. Will East and West manage to team up in time to fight the dragons together? Will they find the secret macguffins that give them the power to kill the evil dragons permanently? And, most importantly, will Sabran and Ead successfully make the transition from enemies to lovers?

There's so many plots with so many twists and turns that I felt the emotional beats didn't have the time to breathe they needed, which often left what were supposed to be deep moments of insight or loss or victory feeling somewhat shallow. If not melodramatic or even cheesy. Other than that, I did actually enjoy The Priory of the Orange Tree a great deal. It's a quick read despite its length, the sort of book that keeps you turning the pages. The worldbuilding is a lot of fun, and I particularly liked the way Shannon used the distinction between Western and Eastern style dragons.

But in the end, if old-school epic fantasy starring a lesbian romance is the book for you, you probably knew that without any of the rest of this review.

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by Lucy Cooke. Nonfiction about weird animal facts, which is possibly my very favorite kind of nonfiction, especially on days when I don't want to think too deeply. Cooke organizes this book around animal myths that many of us believe (or used to believe, once upon a time) and then presents the truth – which not infrequently is odder than the myths.

Of course, some of the myths are pretty outrageous in and of themselves. I did not know that medieval Europeans thought beavers, when hunted, would tear off their testicles and throw them away as a distraction. I also did not know that early modern Europeans thought beavers had elaborate governments, complete with laws, police, and a class structure. I know their dams are impressive, but... wow, early modern Europeans. Wow.

Though I love history almost as much as I love weird animal facts, most of the myths Cooke refutes are modern and more likely to be familiar to the average reader. Certainly I'd heard that pandas are really bad at sex and reproduction, and that moose get drunk on rotting fruit. I'm familiar with the stereotypes that sloths are lazy and that vultures are gross. I've seen the Disney documentaries and picture books starring penguins' sweet monogamous romances. I remember being told that storks bring babies (okay, probably no one reading The Truth About Animals thinks that last one is literally true, but it was interesting to find out where the myth came from!). These modern myths were possibly even more fascinating than the bizarre historical ones, because several times Cooke managed to overturn an assumption that I myself had been convinced was true.

If you, like me, are a connoisseur of books about weird animal facts, you will see a few well-known stories reused here: that Freud dissected hundreds of eels looking for their missing testicles; Pablo Escobar's escaped Colombian hippos; the chimpanzee raised in a suburban American household; female hyenas' massive clitorises. However, The Truth About Animals had a much greater new-to-me/old-news ratio than I expect from a book in this genre. I also really loved Cooke's style, which was breezy and hilarious while still being informative and well-researched. Her writing reminded me of Mary Roach's, mixing silliness with in-depth considerations of context and background.

Definitely recommended to anyone who has spent too much time watching animal videos on Youtube.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(2 comments | comment on this)

Friday, August 30th, 2019
4:22 pm - Does it count as Reading Wednesday if I wrote one of the reviews on Wednesday?
The Sixth Victim by Tessa Harris. The first in a forthcoming murder mystery series set in London during the 1880s. That time and place is famous for one particular murder mystery – Jack the Ripper – but Harris takes an interesting approach by having the Ripper murders be merely the background to her own story. Constance Piper is a young woman in the extremely impoverished Whitechapel district who makes her living through a combination of selling flowers and pickpocketing. Her teacher and friend, Emily Tindall, a well-educated upper class missionary, has taught her to dream of a better life for herself, but Emily has gone missing and no one except Constance seems to care. Meanwhile, the headless body of an unidentified woman is discovered on the construction site that will eventually become Scotland Yard. The police claim it has no connection to Jack the Ripper, but are they right? And can Constance figure out who the woman was?

The story switches between two narrators. Constance, the first POV, is mostly just trying to live a normal life, and does not particularly want to solve mysteries. Her neighbours' and family's ghoulish interest in following updates of the Ripper case scares her, and though she wants to figure out what happened to Emily, she doesn't have trouble believing such a well-off woman might have left town without bothering to tell her poor student. The other POV is Emily herself, who – not a spoiler, since this is revealed in the very first pages – is now a ghost. Emily wants to make contact with Constance and direct her towards a problem Emily tried to solve while she was alive herself, which eventually connects to that nameless torso. Emily's narration frequently speaks directly to the reader, throwing in hints such as "now I will reveal this" or "you'll have to wait for me to tell you that".

I thought this was an awesome idea for a murder series: taking on the tropes of Victorian Spiritualism by giving the detective her very own spirit guide! Unfortunately Harris's writing falls flat on multiple fronts.

One of the problems – as I suppose should have been self-evident – is that having a nearly omniscient ghost as a main character means that far too much is revealed to the reader far too soon. One lengthy subplot in The Sixth Victim is whether the headless torso is evidence that a doctor killed his missing wife. But we know, from literally the very first scene the doctor is in, that he couldn't have murdered his wife, since invisible Emily is witness to scenes that don't fit with that scenario. Why then does The Sixth Victim spend something like a third of its running time on the red herring of the doctor? There's just scene after scene after scene of ~oooh, maybe he did it~ when we know all along that he didn't! It's simultaneously boring and frustrating.

When Harris does reveal the actual answers to her mysteries, they're... dumb. Sorry. I'm trying to think of a more evocative, more specific word to describe the ending of this book, but it's just dumb. Collapse )

I had other problems with The Sixth Victim as well (Emily's character in particular is inconsistent: she's described both as having a degree from Oxford and as being so poor that her salary as a part-time teacher at a charity school is the only thing keeping her off the streets; she never has the sort of culture clash I would expect from a Victorian woman raised in wealth introduced to a London slum), but it really is the dumb ending that's going to stop me from reading any other books by Harris, no matter how intriguing their premise.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. A modern-day take on Don Quixote (Quichotte is the spelling of the eponymous hero's name in the French operatic version of the story). This time around, Quichotte is an elderly Indian man now living in the United States, making his living as a traveling salesman for his cousin's (who owns a massive drug company) new opioid painkillers. As Quichotte drives from small town to small town, staying alone in rundown motels, he becomes obsessed with TV – all types of TV, from reality shows to the news to infomercials to reruns of black-and-white movies to sitcoms – and in particular with Salma R, former Bollywood star turned US TV star turned talk show host, who has an Oprah-like level of popularity and significance. Quichotte sets out to win her heart by a journey both literal (a road trip from Nowhere, Out West to NYC) and metaphysical (going through the mystical "Seven Valleys of Love", which involves giving up belief and knowledge and desire and all material belongings, before finally uniting with the beloved). Along the way he accidentally summons into existence a teen boy named Sancho, who may be Quichotte and Salma's son from the future or may merely be a figment of Quichotte's imagination.

Quichotte's is not the only story going on in this novel, however. Salma gets her own chapters, revealing her troubled childhood and addiction to the very drugs Quichotte sold, as well as her reaction to the mysterious stalker letters Quichotte keeps sending her. Sancho struggles to figure out who he is and how he can become a "real boy", complete with assistance from a talking cricket and the blue fairy. Quichotte's cousin, the owner of the multimillion drug company, deals with the American-Indian community while seeking to avoid arrest for bribing doctors to overprescribe his drugs. And outside of all of this, we have Brother, who is the author of the novel Quichotte, yes, the very one you're reading. Brother's "real" life has prominent parallels to Quichotte's: they both grew up in the same neighborhood of Bombay and have mixed feelings about their move from India to the US; they both have long-estranged sisters; they both have troubled relationships with their sons.

There is a lot of stuff going on in this novel, in case you haven't guessed. And I haven't even mentioned the Elon Musk surrogate (here named Evel Cent and obsessed with travel between dimensions rather than spaceflight), the thread about increasing American racism, the secret military cabal of computer hackers, the brief but odd flight of fantasy about Trump voters turning into woolly mammoths, cheesy spy thrillers, and, oh yeah, the literal end of the universe. With so much stuff, inevitably some of it doesn't work (I was particularly annoyed by a rant about 'cancel culture' late in the book), but a surprising amount of it does, and hangs together in unexpected ways.

Overall, it's a rolicking, bouncing satire that lingers less and seems to have less to say than many of Rushdie's books. There's not much of a message below all the dazzling twists and turns ("the opioid crisis is bad", I guess, is the main takeaway? Not a particularly deep conclusion, that). Which is fine! Not every novel has to Explain the Condition of the World Today. But it's oddly the closest I've ever seen Rushdie come to writing a Beach Read – though still with all the allusions and stylistic flourishes that are typical Rushdie.

My main complaint is that, despite the basic premise of "Don Quixote but with American TV", Quichotte does not actually seem to be all that influenced by TV. Sure, we're told frequently enough that he watches too much TV, but nothing about his speaking style (described as old fashioned, mannerly, and charming), his behavior (gentle, slow, determined), his approach to life (philosophical, forgetful), or really anything else about him resembles modern TV in the slightest. In fact, the main influences on Quichotte are medieval Persian poetry (the source of the Seven Valleys of Love, which together form the main structure of the novel) and two old-school sci-fi short stories: one the well-known The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (with its famous final line, "Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out") and the other the much more obscure Pictures Don't Lie by Katherine MacLean. All three of these are repeatedly referenced by characters throughout the book, but don't have any connection to Quichotte's supposed diet of nonstop TV. I definitely got the vibe that Rushdie had the idea of updating Quixote from chivalric romances to their modern mental-junk-food equivalent, but doesn't actually watch enough trash TV himself to describe or reference or include it in any detailed way. Which does make me wonder why he decided to write a book about it, but oh well.

Quichotte is a lot of unexpected fun, but I wouldn't count on it becoming Rushdie's defining work.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(comment on this)

12:30 pm
I got a gift fic! And it's lovely and wonderful and perfect!

That is my home of love by Nary. Benjamin January, Teen, 1.2k. Hannibal's thoughts on the Ben/Rose/Hannibal relationship.

Go read it! NOW! :D

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

(comment on this)

Friday, August 23rd, 2019
7:46 pm - Definitely not Reading Wednesday, but at least it's Reading Some Day This Week
A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. A collection of short stories themed around the ideals of Howard Zinn's legendary A People’s History of the United States – history told from the viewpoint of the disadvantaged – except that this time it's, you know, the future and also fictional. Honestly I picked this up mostly because LaValle was one of the editors and after his The Ballad of Black Tom I will forever read anything LaValle is involved in. Unfortunately it turns out that he didn't write any of the stories here. Oh, well. His introduction was good?

The stories themselves varied in quality, as anthologies tend to do. Though in this case the stories I disliked outnumbered the ones I did; there's nothing exactly bad in this collection, but there are quite a few stories indistinguishable from the sort of extremely earnest tumblr posts in which the good people are Very Good and Very Oppressed and the villains are Very Bigoted and Very Mean and after some struggles Our Heroes are recognized as Beacons of Pure shining Innocent Goodness and probably the crowd applauds. And, I mean... bigots and oppression are bad! I'm happy to see villains get their comeuppance! It's just that I'd like it even better if everything could be a little less one-dimensional and boring.

Thankfully not every story was quite so checkbox-woke. Let me tell you about the ones I did enjoy:

The Wall by Lizz Huerta. Brujas are real and are being born in increasing numbers, as humanity's instinctive attempt to heal itself after catastrophic climate change and chemical pollution. They are mostly present in Mexico, which leads to Americans smuggling themselves south (which, yes, very clever, but if it was a plot point in a Roland Emmerich movie 15 years ago, it's not exactly the cutting edge of political satire). The US government obviously does not approve, so it doses its entire military with obedience-drugs in the drinking water to force them to commit war crimes. In this setting, Ivette (a bruja) has a secret relationship with her cousin Surem (the leader of a violent drug cartel which has also taken over running large portions of the local government), and between bouts of sex they fight about the ethics of rehabilitating mind-controlled US soldiers. This is all fascinating and some incredible world-building! Unfortunately it desperately needed to be at least an entire book, or maybe even a series of books, and not crammed into six pages. Hopefully someday Huerta will write the longer version.

Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity [excerpted] by Malka Older is a fascinating experiment in style, supposedly an academic article on "futurist histories" (apparently histories of potential but not yet realized futures?), focusing on a twitter community's experiment with grassroots democracy. I have absolutely spent enough time online to laugh in recognition at the group's troubles, although the odd mix of tenses required by the very idea of futurist history occasionally made getting through individual sentences a slog.

It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right by Sam J. Miller. Caul is a gay man in an America where being gay is incredibly illegal. Caul also has an intense crush on his coworker, which he represses via anonymous street sex. Unfortunately, in one of these encounters Caul catches a metaphysical STD in which sex transports him to a terrifying alternative dimension, but one where he might be able to control a great deal of power. Homophobic dystopias aren't a new concept (and show up repeatedly in A People's Future of the United States), but Miller's writing was vivid and specific enough to make this my favorite of the several examples here.

Riverbed by Omar El Akkad. The US government imprisons all of its Muslim (and Sikh, due to confusion) citizens in camps – in what is a quite clear allusion to the Japanese internment camps – supposedly to protect them from racist attacks. Decades later, Khadija Singh returns to the camp where she was imprisoned as a child (which has since been turned into a peace memorial; Akkad's portrayal of this is wonderfully cynical) to claim the belongings of her brother who died in an escape attempt. Her grief and rage, and the incompetent bureaucracy she has to face, are all incredibly well-written.

Calendar Girls by Justine Ireland. All forms of birth-control have been made illegal, so Alyssa (a teenager, since you can't try minors as an adult) sells packets of The Pill on a street corner in Manhattan. That is, she does until a leading pro-life senator blackmails her into helping his daughter get an abortion, because hypocrisy reigns eternal. Calendar Girls promptly transforms itself into a very clever heist story, and I loved Ireland's sense of humor in the narration.

The Blindfold by Tobias S Bucknell. It's well-known that race and gender influences jurors – a black man is more likely to receive a longer sentence for a crime than a white man, all other factors being equal. How to fix this? Force jurors to wear headsets that randomize the defendant's appearance, of course! The unnamed narrator is a hacker who, for the right amount of money, will make sure that in your case, you get that sweet, sweet jackpot of "white male" appearance. Unfortunately, his latest bout of hacking attracts the attention of the Russian government, which promptly begins trying to assassinate him. Bucknell's writing is funny and quick-paced and has a great twist of an ending.

Good News Bad News by Charles Yu. This isn't even really a short story so much as a series of excerpts from sci-fi themed articles from The Onion, but it made me laugh harder than anything else in A People's Future of the United States, so who cares. Excerpts:
An earlier edition of this story quoted Jeff Bezos as CEO of AmazonGoogleFace. Technically, the quote should be attributed to “Jeff Bezos Version 3, LLC, an incorporeal person organized under the laws of Delaware” as the legal heir and cognitive descendant of the human known as Jeff Bezos.
These latest changes to the tax code, expected to disproportionately benefit the largest and wealthiest corporations, were passed by the R-Bot in a 1–1 vote against the D-Bot in the Robo-Congress-O-Matic 5000, with the tie being broken by the tie-breaking algorithm, all of this taking place, as usual, inside a four-foot-by-three-foot black box inside of the U.S. protectorate satellite in geosynchronous orbit above Washington, D.C.
“We’ve long been silent in the face of unspeakable acts. Deforestation. Clear-cutting. Toxins in the soil,” said Eondo’or, an eighty-foot, six-hundred-year-old redwood and senior representative to the U.N. for Kingdom Plantae. “Not to mention getting peed on by drunk people.

Now Wait for This Week by Alice Sola Kim. Bonnie, a self-centered rich white girl with a habit of victim-blaming who lives in present-day NYC, gets trapped in a time-loop, doomed to repeat the same week over and over again, ad infinitum. Bonnie reacts to this in various hilarious and/or tragic ways: attempting to go viral by predicting the future (at least seven days of it), starting a dark magic cult, learning new languages and traveling, denouncing all her friends, becoming much closer to all her friends, aging a terrifyingly unknown amount. Now Wait for This Week, however, is actually narrated by Bonnie's roommate, who has no idea that she and everyone else on Earth are trapped in the same week, and just occasionally thinks to herself, "huh, Bonnie seems different today". It's all a metaphor for the #MeToo movement ("the actor many of us loved would be revealed as a leering terrible date who expected sex as his due and took no for an answer only temporarily before starting up the sex stuff yet again until he took no for an answer only temporarily and so on until the woman gave up."), but is also just a fantastic conceit written fantastically well. It was BY FAR my favorite story in the book, so good job ending on a winner, A People's Future of the United States!

Anthologies of Resistance-themed speculative fiction have been something of a wave this year (just on my own bookshelf, there's also New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color and How Long 'til Black Future Month?). Which is great! But given that we have available such a diversity of options, I would recommend pushing A People's Future of the United States to the bottom of your reading list. It's just too uneven with too frequent annoying stories. Plus, hey, you can read Now Wait for This Week online! So why bother with the rest?
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century by William Rosen. Nonfiction about the several years of heavy rains and brutal winters beginning in 1315 that led to crop failures and famine across northern Europe. Although nearly six million people died, the Great Famine has been largely forgotten – mainly due to the Black Death hitting a few decades later and claiming all the attention for itself.

Rosen focuses his story on England and Scotland and particularly the borderland between them, which had to deal not only with the continent-wide bad weather and food shortages, but also the local problem of armies repeatedly crossing the territory, burning fields and looting storehouses as they went. This is the time of Edward II (of Marlowe's Edward II) and Robert the Bruce (of Mel Gibson's Braveheart), of Scotland's attempts to claim independence and England's attempts to... not... have that. Since most of my previous knowledge of Edward II was from Marlowe and other sources primarily concerned with Edward's homosexuality, I was intrigued by The Third Horseman's vastly different approach. Rosen argues that Edward lost his throne not because he was gay (and indeed, kings of England both before and after managed to be gay without getting killed for it), but because he had the bad luck and/or incompetence to be a king who kept losing battles and whose country was hit by a famine he failed to alleviate. Poor Edward. It's hard to live up to a dad with a nickname like "Hammer of the Scots".

The Third Horseman involved way more discussion of medieval battle tactics and way less discussion of anywhere in Europe off the island of Great Britain than I was expecting, but nonetheless I loved it. Rosen has a great conversational tone of writing, dropping all sorts of interesting facts into his narrative, and the period and topic are just fascinating. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys popular history.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019
12:33 am - Reading Wednesday
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (translation by Philip Roughton). A ghost story set in modern-day Iceland. I Remember You is split between two narratives. In the first, three friends from the city travel to a remote, abandoned village (which apparently is a real place! It looks gorgeous, but after this book, I'm not sure I want to visit) in the middle of winter, where they've bought a house that they plan on renovating and turning into a guesthouse for the hikers who come to the area in summer. The friends consist of a husband/wife couple and a newly widowed woman, whose dead husband was the other man's best friend, plus her small dog. Unfortunately there is no electricity in the village, no phone service, not a single other person staying there in winter, and the only way in or out is by boat – they've arranged to stay for a week, after which the ship's captain will return to pick them up. In addition, none of the three really knows anything about home repairs (the guesthouse plan is a desperate reaction to the financial troubles plaguing all of them all in the aftermath of Iceland's financial collapse) and the isolation and work bring out their interpersonal problems. The situation does not improve when they begin to hear footsteps in their new house and mysterious items appear in empty rooms, which seem to be linked to occasional glimpses of a small boy in the distance.

In the other narrative, Freyr is a psychiatrist in the nearest town. Being the only psychiatrist in this small town, he occasionally helps the police with their cases; lately these have included vandalism at the elementary school and an elderly woman's suicide. But as the investigations go on, these two seemingly disconnected events turn out to tie together, along with a strangely identical vandalism at the school sixty years earlier and the disappearance of Freyer's young son three years ago, whose body was never found. Freyr also begins to witness things that shouldn't be possible, from hearing his son's voice to finding inexplicable scars carved into the bodies of several accident victims. At the climax of the book, Freyr's story and that of the three friends finally come together.

I have such mixed feelings about this book! On the one hand, the writing, on a sentence-to-sentence level, is rough and desperately in need of another round of editing, which made it hard for me to sink into the story. There's also an annoyingly stereotypical and harsh depiction of a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, though thankfully it's only relevant for a few pages. On the other hand, the creepiness absolutely worked for me, and I had trouble reading I Remember You alone at night and raced through the entire thing in two days.

As a random example of what I mean about the writing:
"I'll work like the devil himself is driving me if you put those crosses back where you found them. I can't imagine having them in the house tonight," said Líf. It was a reasonable enough proposition, but no matter how much Katrín tried to pluck up her courage to go and return the crosses, she couldn't shrug off the profound sense of unease that prevented her from actually doing so.
"Agreed," she said at last.
Líf seemed to cheer up at Katrín's assent. "Good. I wouldn't sleep a wink with those things in the house."

Repetitions, awkward phrasings, explanations that seem to either drag out forever or skip ahead confusingly, unnatural dialogue – the writing never quite works as well as it could. It feels very much like a first draft. I have no idea if that's the fault of the author or the translator (or maybe it just sounded better in Icelandic), but there was something on nearly every page that I wished I could rewrite.

And yet. Like I said, I Remember You just works: the tension, the horror, and the mystery are all too powerful to be defeated by the writing. I haven't been this effectively scared by a book in years. Definitely recommended for horror fans... though I still wish I could do that rewrite first.

The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel. Nonfiction that also splits its narrative, this time between the murder of George Bodle in 1833 England and the scientific test for detecting the presence of small amounts of arsenic that resulted.

George Bodle was an elderly and wealthy man who owned quite a lot of farmland and was a leading figure in his small town. One morning, he and four other members of his household fell violently ill after sharing a pot of coffee. The other four survived; George died. George's son and grandson promptly accused one another of poisoning him, presumably to get hold of the money and property they were due to inherit. The subsequent court case was a national sensation, followed closely in the newspapers.

Arsenic poisoning, however, looks a lot like food poisoning, cholera, and other common diseases of the time: stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea. There was no positive way to diagnose poisoning as opposed to disease, and no reliable scientific test to prove that arsenic was in a sample of food or drink. It was Bodle's death that inspired James Marsh, who testified as coroner during the trial, to invent a test that would be used in court cases for nearly 150 years.

The Inheritor's Powder isn't particularly faithful to either of these stories. Hempel has a habit of throwing in digressions on related and interesting trivia – other poisoning trials of the period; the use of arsenic to produce green dyes; medical education and prison conditions in early Victorian England; a proposed law banning women from buying arsenic, based on the assumption that they were more likely to be positioners. Which is not a complaint, because some of my favorite parts of the book came in these tangents. I was particularly fascinated by a section on the very first attempts to classify poisons – after all, how does one decide what counts as a poison? Is ground glass a poison? What about acid? Insect stings? Bites from a rabid dog? Are what we would now recognize as shellfish allergies caused by a mysterious poisonous substance that only affects some people? "Poison" seems like such a self-evident category, but it clearly wasn't at all for the first toxicologists!

Hempel's writing is shallower and more melodramatic than I expect from this genre, even ending one chapter with a set of ellipses: "It is also fatal in tiny doses, and in Britain in 1833 it was cheap and ridiculously easy to get hold of, a situation that resulted in no end of mischief..." I can almost hear the dun-dun-duuuun! sound-effect. Although I have to admit that, whatever its drawbacks, the style did make for a terrifically quick read.

Overall The Inheritor's Powder isn't the best Victorian era true-crime nonfiction I've ever read, but it's an entertaining and breezy, a bit like the very morbid beach read you never knew you needed.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019
8:34 pm - Reading Wednesday
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. The third book in The Machineries of Empire trilogy, a brilliant anti-imperialist space opera. Like the previous two books, Revenant Gun is very much concerned with questions of identity. Here we have two Jedaos: one is the Jedao we've met before, sharing the body of Cheris and roaming around the galaxy while attempting to destroy the Hexarchate. The second Jedao is a new and younger version, rebooted with memories that only go up to about seventeen years old (though he exists in a fortyish body, for an extra level of cognitive dissonance), when he was still a student. This baby Jedao, who is the main POV character of Revenant Gun (as much as there is a singular main character; it's an ensemble-heavy book), knows nothing about Nirai Kujen, the man who rebooted him and who claims they were once lovers; knows nothing about the current political situation, which is several centuries forward from the life he does remember; and knows nothing about the older, supposedly traitorous and mass-murdering, version of himself. Who should he trust? Given his deliberately limited information, how can he make any safe choice? And even if he figures out what he wants to do, what will he be allowed to do?

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Hexarchate attempt to make themselves immortal, others attempt to assassinate them, the robots in the background of the previous two books begin their own rebellion, space ships come to life, and rebel territories work on establishing functional governments.

Revenant Gun didn't work for me quite as well as Ninefox Gambit did, alas. A lot of that comes down to the role of Kujen, who is revealed to be the main villain (I thought about warning for spoilers, but eh, it's pretty obvious from Kujen's first appearance that he's not a good guy). On the one hand, he is an excellent villain, and spending more time with him really fleshed him out in wonderfully haunting ways – learning his backstory in particular was just... gah. Good but also terrible. On the other hand, I felt like a lot of the problems with the Hexarchate ended up coming down to Kujen's influence, and turning structural oppression into the doings of one mean man feels so simplistic after all of the wonderfully complex worldbuilding early on. But on the third hand, bringing in the robots and spaceships opens up the series in a direction that I absolutely did not see coming, and which is just fantastic. Mainly, this is such a rich series that I feel like I need to reread it before I can even decide what I think of it. At least rereading books like these is far from a punishment!

And I didn't even mention the humor! For all of the grand battles and bleak ethics, there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in Revenant Gun. The robot POV is particularly adorable. I'll absolutely be following Lee's future work.

Amazing Loom Knits by Nicole F Cox. I recently got into loom knitting – which is more or less the same thing as regular old knitting, at least in terms of the finished products, but uses a solid frame to make the process of looping and tying and twisting the yarn simpler. It's fun! And since I'm very much the type of person who is always fiddling with things, it gives me something to do with my hands when I'm watching TV. However, I hit a wall fairly early on. There is a lot of 101-level, Intro-to-Loom-Knitting content out there, whether you're looking for books or websites or YouTube videos. There is much less 201-level or above content, which means that once you've made a basic scarf or hat, what you find is just... more basic scarves and hats.

But then I came across Amazing Loom Knits! A book that is very much not meant for the beginning loom knitter, and I love it for that. (By the way, if you are looking for beginner material, Round Loom Knitting in 10 Easy Lessons by the same author is one of the best books on the topic I've found.) Cox uses the patterns in this book to teach all sorts of advanced techniques: eyelet lace, Japanese lace, cables, brioche knitting, Gansey stitch, Fair Isle, etc. I immediately jumped in with the "Gansey Beanie"... which I have since abandoned, after unravelling it for the third time after making yet another mistake. But that only proves my point about Amazing Loom Knits being exactly the book I wanted: it's actually challenging! It gives me techniques that I can look forward to eventually mastering, instead of everything being so mindlessly simple that I quickly get bored. It's a book that you can spend a lot of time with, as you learn and progress to the more advanced patterns.

(By the way, I instead made what Cox calls an "Autumn Welted Toque", which has a cute and easier-to-master design of alternating raised and recessed stitches.)

Amazing Loom Knits includes thirty patterns, from the standard hats, scarves, gloves, and earwarmers, to slightly more unusual bags, socks, legwarmers, and shawls, and even a unique vest-cowl-combo-thingy. (I'm not entirely sure it's a vest-cowl-combo-thingy that I personally would want to wear, but I still applaud Cox for thinking outside the box). However, if there is an organizational structure to the book, I missed it. It's certainly not organized by type of product (putting all the hats together, for example), and it's not organized by difficulty level (Cox does label every pattern from "Beginner" to "Confident Beginner" to "Intermediate" to "Advanced", but the order they come in seems to be random). Which made choosing a pattern to work on very complicated, with much jumping back and forth from one page to another as I attempted to work out which ones I was currently capable of.

Despite that minor complaint, if you're looking for a book for advanced loom knitting, this is absolutely the one to pick up.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019
5:06 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold. A new novella in the Vorkosigan series; in internal chronology it comes after A Civil Campaign (where Miles gets married) but before Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. The narrator this time around is Ekaterin, Miles's wife, a relative newcomer to his planet, but wonderfully cool and competent. She's working with scientists on a long-term (very long-term) project to clear up the Vashnoi district, which was hit with nuclear weapons eighty years ago and has been uninhabitable ever since. Ekaterin's role is designing a bio-engineered species of bug that eats radioactive materials – yes, they are descendants of A Civil Campaign's butter bugs! Who probably are my favorite characters in that book, come to think of it.

These new radbugs are not quite as memorable as that, but when they're put in a test plot within Vashnoi to measure their effectiveness, they start disappearing. It turns out that Vashnoi might not be as uninhabited as everyone thought....

The Flowers of Vashnoi is very much one of the lighter and shorter Vorkosigan novellas. It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon without being particularly memorable. I was a bit annoyed, in fact, that Ekaterin's actions have an easily predictable negative consequence that she is nonetheless shocked and unprepared for when it arrives. Bujold is an author who normally is very, very good at having her characters be thoughtful and aware of the potential unintended effects of their choices, so having a character blunder around destructively and never really regret her own short-sightedness was more annoying in the Vorkosigan series than it would have been somewhere else.

But, ah, well. It's too light of a story to even bother being annoyed by. It was fine. Not great, sure, but fine.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The True Queen by Zen Cho. The long-awaited sequel (by me, at least!) to Sorcerer to the Crown. On the magical island of Janda Baik, in Malaysia, two teenage sisters wash up on the beach with absolutely no memory of their past lives. Sakti is hugely magically talented, a complete prodigy, while Muna has not a single solitary drop of magical ability. After causing hijinks on Janda Baik, the decision is made to send the girls to sorceress school in London. Unfortunately Sakti disappears on the journey, presumably captured by some sort of Fairy, and Muna is left to a) navigate English society, b) pass herself off as a magician, and c) convince one of the powerful people around her to rescue Sakti before it's too late.

The sad truth is that I simply didn't love The True Queen the way I loved Sorcerer to the Crown. The True Queen is still worth reading, but it's not lightning in a bottle the way Sorcerer to the Crown was. Some of my main problems with The True Queen is that it's very slow to get started; the first few chapters repeatedly jump around in time in a way that adds nothing to the plot but feels like a car engine turning over... and turning over... and turning over... before finally catching. At the other end of the book, the big climatic twist turns out to be a secret that was abundantly obvious from page one. Which - fine. Not every book has to be a mystery; plenty of plots have revolved around a thing that's been long obvious to the reader. But this reveal is clearly intended to have so much emotional weight, and so much time is spent convincing various characters of its truth, that it drags and drags. Finally, the writing style felt a bit simpler to me this time around, a bit more YA-like. Nothing wrong with YA, but Sorcerer to the Crown didn't feel like part of that genre to me, and The True Queen does (I don't think it was actually marketed that way, but I see that more than a few people on GoodReads have tagged it as YA, so clearly it's not just me).

On the other hand, there's an adorable f/f relationship. I will forgive a lot for fantasy Regency witchy f/f romance.

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

(comment on this)

Saturday, July 6th, 2019
3:17 pm - Five Things Make a Post
1. An amazing poem: Cat Moving Kittens by Austin Smith. That last line!

2. Very poetic, very haunting short story: Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen.

3. Another amazing poem: Punic War IV by Sonya Taaffe.

4. A sem-serious article on broken legs in Anglo-Saxon England.

5. My favorite movie review blog just did a look back at 1997's Starship Troopers, and I really want to rewatch it now. Especially if anywhere was showing it on the big screen; it's absolutely a movie that requires popcorn and possibly also alcoholic milkshakes.

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

(comment on this)

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019
5:16 pm - Reading Wednesday: On Wednesday!
Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee. The sequel to Ninefox Gambit and the second in a trilogy of anti imperial, military, space-opera, science-fiction. Raven Stratagem picks up nearly immediately after the end of Ninefox Gambit but maintains the suspense by switching POVs from Cheris and Jedao (the two consciousnesses forced to share one body in the previous book), who now appear to be functioning as a single coherent unit and who are determined to destroy the Hexarchate, the oppressive, violent empire all the characters live under. Cheris/Jedao begins their reign of terror and/or justified revolution (which it is depends on who you ask) by commandeering an entire military fleet.

Which brings us to the new POVs of this book: General Khiruev, the (former) leader of said fleet, who is forced by training and drugs to obey anyone ranked above her, even when she loathes them wholeheartedly, as she does Jedao; Kel Brezan, an underling in the same fleet who is one of the extremely rare military people capable of disobeying a direct order, but if he does choose to contradict Jedao, he'll be outing himself as untrustworthy and almost certainly will be discharged for that very ability (Brezan is also a transman, but it's so unimportant in this world that it only comes up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference); and, way on the other side of the galaxy, Shuos Mikodez, leader of the assassination/intelligence/propaganda arm of the Hexarchate. Mikodez knew Jedao before his current incarnation in Cheris's body, has his own reasons for possibly wanting to overthrow the Hexarchate, and provides a broader perspective on all the action and plotting.

One of the most exciting and suspenseful elements of Raven Stratagem is simply who is the central person? Did Jedao destroy Cheris's consciousness and take over her body? Is it Cheris, pretending to be Jedao for reasons of her own? Did the two of them melt into one personality? And, whoever it is, what is their real goal? Cheris/Jedao claim to be out to destroy the Hexarchate, but how and why? And what do they plan to replace it with? To put it simply: can they be trusted? This question is what Khiruev, Brezan, and Mikodez all spend an entire book trying to figure out.

Raven Stratagem is very much a novel about war and the atrocities committed therein; it's about despotic government and how it warps everyone within it as part of the price of individual survival; it's about what you choose to do when the world is terrible but fixing it might kill more people than leaving the structural oppression in place. And it's SO GOOD.

I do have to admit that I was slightly less emotionally engaged by Raven Stratagem than I was by Ninefox Gambit. I think it's because, while the new POVs are all great characters, I originally latched on hard to Cheris and especially to the mystery behind Jedao's motivations, and they are both kept somewhat at a distance in Raven Stratagem. It's the only way the mystery of "who is this?" could work, of course – an internal POV would have given away the solution on page 1 – but nonetheless I missed them both.

Despite that, Raven Stratagem is a wonderful book and part of a wonderful trilogy and you all should read it immediately! If you haven't already.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. A novel set in modern India by the author of The God of Small Things. I have been waiting for Roy to return to writing fiction for nearly twenty years... though I don't like to complain when she's been spending her time on vitally important journalism that seeks to point out injustices and protect minorities. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is exactly the novel you might expect from a writer with that background.

Our main character – or so, at least, it appears at first – is Anjum, a hijra (more or less a transwoman, although there are some cultural differences that make it not quite the same identity as in the West) in Shahjahanabad, the old, mostly-Muslim neighborhood of Delhi. The first half of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the small story of Anjum's life – her singing lessons as a child, her eventual joining of a group of other hijras, her recognition as a famous activist icon only to be undermined in later decades by younger and yet more progressive hijras, her adoption of an abandoned child, her near-death experience in the 2002 Gujarat riots, her emotional breakdown afterward that leads to her losing her adopted daughter to another mother, and her eventual decision to start living in a graveyard, unable to deal with life or the world. As the years and decades pass, though, Anjum slowly recovers, and starts to claim the land within the mostly-disused graveyard, eventually erecting a guesthouse that collects other outcasts: a blind imam, retired hijras, a Dalit (the group that was formerly called "untouchables") man who's pretending to be a Muslim (slightly less socially rejected) and has renamed himself Saddam Hussein, a newborn baby found on the sidewalk, and, eventually, Tilo, whose story forms the second half of the novel.

Tilo's story is far more structurally experimental than Anjum's. It frequently skips around in time and place, switches narrators, diverts at one point into a long, nearly nonfictional satire of children's fiction, and takes a hundred pages or so just to explain what happened to Tilo. It's hard to even call it her story, since the second half of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is even less about her than the three men who were her college friends and who are all obsessively in love with her: Musa, who grows up to become a Kashmiri freedom fighter; Biplab Dasgupta, who becomes a government agent also in Kashmir, organizing the torture, murders, and propaganda Musa fights against; and Naga, who starts out as a human rights activist, transitions into being a leftist journalist, and is slowly corrupted by Dasgupta into being a government mouthpiece. Tilo herself is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, left traumatized by what she's witnessed and seemingly passive to the will of whoever she's around. But even more than any of them, it's a novel about Kashmir and all of its people: toddlers shot at funerals, movie theaters remade into "interrogation" centers, the intellectually disabled mistaken for militant commanders and beaten to death, 4am awakenings, martyr graveyards, poisoned gifts.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is about a group of outcasts who find family and, well, utmost happiness by abandoning the real world and making their own. But because of that theme it is, ultimately, also a story about the world that cast them out in the first place. In other words, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a novel that is all about modern Indian politics, and it assumes that the reader is already familiar with the issues. I mentioned above the 2002 Gujarat riots and Kashmiri freedom movement, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness also covers Anna Hazare's 2001 anti-corruption protests, Adivasis and the Naxalite insurgency, cow vigilante killings, the Bhopal chemical disaster, Narendra Modi's rise to power, and Hindutva. If you don't know what any of those are, Roy's not going to explain it to you. As an example of what I mean by that, Modi (India's current prime minister) is never actually referred to by name. It's obviously him, but Roy always calls him Gujarat ka Lalla, or Gujarat's Beloved. If you can't recognize him by description alone, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not particularly interested in speaking to you. Which I don't mean as a criticism; plenty of writers have a specific audience and aren't interested in doing 101 for outsiders. But I think it does explain a lot of the negative reactions that I've seen to this book. It's pretty incomprehensible if you don't follow Indian politics. (And if you do, I have to admit that it's a little bit "Greatest Hits of Indian Leftists", as though Roy had to cram every single issue that she's ever been concerned with into one novel.)

I wish it leaned a little heavier on the characters and their personal emotions and a little lighter on the political lessons, but I enjoyed The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It doesn't remotely compare to The God of Small Things in lyricism or tragic power, but that's okay. Not every book has to be world-changing. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness might be smaller and more likely to be forgotten, but it's a good story for here and now.

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

(comment on this)

Thursday, June 27th, 2019
8:08 pm - Reading very nearly Wednesday
The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England by Ann Wroe. Nonfiction about the man who may, or may not, have been one of the "princes in the tower". During the Wars of the Roses in 1483, two orphaned princes of England were put into the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard III. They were never seen again. As everyone from Shakespeare on down has assumed, they most likely were murdered by their uncle to better emphasize his own claim to the throne. However, in 1490 a young man appeared who claimed to be the younger of the two princes: Richard, who was 9 when last seen and would have been about 18 at this point. This maybe-Richard claimed that he had been spared, since after all he wasn't the heir to the throne and the man assigned to actually do the deed of killing the children had been his godfather. Since then, Richard had been living in hiding, but now as an adult he was ready to claim his throne (which in the meantime had passed from Richard III to Henry VI, or in other words from the Yorks to the Lancasters). Maybe-Richard was eventually captured and executed by Henry VI but first, under duress, gave a confession claiming that he was really Perkin Warbeck, a poor boatman's son from Flanders.

Maybe-Perkin has never been taken seriously by historians as a real descendant of royalty, but The Perfect Prince argues that he deserves a second look. Perkin/Richard's claim was supported by multiple people who had seen Prince Richard before his disappearance – including, most importantly, his aunt Margaret of Burgundy. There are also several holes in the Perkin story: the young man could speak fluent English, which would have been unusual for someone raised in Flanders; there are multiple, contradictory confessions of his childhood, none of which seem to reflect reality; his supposed family in Flanders continued to live peaceful, unimportant, undisturbed lives, which seems odd if they really had a son leading armies in England. Or even afterwards – shouldn't Henry VI have wanted their presence, or just their testimony, to help prove that the person he had captured wasn't Prince Richard?

Wroe isn't entirely convinced that this young man was Richard; she just wants to keep her options open. She even suggests several additional possibilities: that he was an illegitimate brother to the real Richard, thereby indeed being descended from English royalty even if he never had to escape from the Tower; that he was a child raised by Margaret from a young age with the explicit purpose of turning him into a pretender, giving a random nobody the education and bearing to convince others that he was a prince. But Wroe's main interest is not the "truth" of who this person was (which honestly is probably long lost to the mist of time; it's extremely unlikely anyone will ever be able to prove if he was or wasn't Richard), but all the other questions his story opens up: what did it mean to be a prince in the 1400s? How did one demonstrate or recognize princeliness? How does anyone know the truth of who they are? Do certain claims seem believable only because they benefit us in other ways, while some claims seem unbelievable only because they would cost us?

These are all fascinating topics, but unfortunately Wroe's writing doesn't show them to their best advantage. I found it particularly difficult to keep track of who was who – there seemed to about seventeen important Richards, and equal numbers of Edwards and Henrys – which is a problem that plagues all writing about medieval England, but Wroe's style certainly doesn't help matters. She additionally has an annoying habit of referring to "the king", which is entirely useless when there are four people claiming to be the King of England alone, not to mention the kings of Scotland, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, all of whom also play major parts. It's a slog of a book, long and dense, despite the very exciting subject.

In addition to the confusing and overlong writing, there’s a bizarrely racist interlude early in chapter one. It’s brief and barely connected to the main point of the book (both versions of the story, Perkin or Prince Richard, claimed to have worked as a page in Portugal in his early teenage years, where he may have met some Africans), but the fact that it occurred so early on really colored my opinion of Wroe for the subsequent 500 pages. Here's some excerpts:
“Their darkness came in different gradations, from the almost-white Berbers and Moroccans to the near-black Canarians, jumping and hooting and cave-dwelling, and the jet-black Guineans."
"Yet his [Bemoy, King of the Jalofs in Senegal, who was visiting the Portuguese court] skin was blue-black; the hair on his head was short and crinkled, like dry black moss; and his hands when he held them out had pale pink undersides, as if that part only had been touched by God. […] Bemoy himself, with his broad black face and his carefully copied courtesy, perhaps barely understanding what he had done [converted to Christianity]."
"The holy baptismal water had flowed over [Bemoy], though it did not run down, as on Christians, but caught in his tight curls like dew. […] But he remained berry-black, ink-black, raven-wing black, with no outward sign that salvation might have been effected in him. In his own country, among his own people, it was always likely that some other Bemoy would appear: imperious, confident, violent, even devilish, his blackness finally overpowering all the grace that had been poured out on him."
To give Wroe the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she meant to portray the mindset of the average white 15th century European, but goddamn that is a lot of othering language.

In short: an amazing topic stymied by an inadequate author.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Absolutely fascinating, anti-imperialist science fiction, the first in a trilogy. The Hexarchate (the dark empire of this particular series) is capable of incredible military achievements, unbeatable and nearly magical. However, this is only possible through strict regulation of its civilian population and particularly their calendar, kept in tune with regular human sacrifices (just heretics, after all; surely worth the technological advances). The worldbuilding is complicated and makes the first few chapters slow-going, but it's ultimately well worth it.

Iin this world we have Kel Cheris, an extremely successful military captain who has fallen afoul of the powers-that-be through her use of unconventional, unapproved tactics. She is given the opportunity to lead a vital battle for the Hexarchate, but it comes with a catch: they want to download the soul of the long-dead Shuos Jedao into her head. Jedao was an infamous traitor who killed millions of the Hexarchate’s own people, but also was an unmatched military genius who never lost a battle.

This setup leads to an absolutely compelling plot. Kel obviously can’t trust anything Jedao tells her, but she’s also forced to rely on him for advice. As time goes on, the questions multiply: with two souls in one body, where is the line between Kel and Jedao? Why did Jedao rebel in the first place? What is the Hexarchate’s motive in sending Kel into battle, or in keeping Jedao’s consciousness semi-alive? Plus the gender confusion of having a man and woman share a body (this is a world where queer is the default; same-sex relationships and trans characters pass by without remark).

I am not generally a fan of military sci-fi (battles bore me), and Ninefox Gambit is very much a book driven more by its plot than its characters, another usual negative for me. Despite those drawbacks, I LOVED it. Jedao is an amazingly gripping character, and the high-stakes game of trust and betrayal between him and Kel were more compelling than one million gunfire exchanges combined. The slow drip of clues to Jedao's motivation and real goals had me 100% hooked. I just could not put the book down. I also adored the well-done gradual reveal of the Hexarchate as a place of atrocities and war crimes; there was often little explicit violence on the page, but the hints were enough to give a chilling twist to this world. (Ninefox Gambit is an excellent addition to the new wave of anti-imperialist sci-fi, along with Ann Leckie and Arkady Martine. I should start keeping a list.) Highly, highly recommended.

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

(comment on this)

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.

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

(1 comment | comment on this)

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.

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

(1 comment | comment on this)

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.

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

(1 comment | comment on this)

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.

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

(comment on this)

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.

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

(comment on this)

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.

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

(comment on this)

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.

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

(comment on this)

turning a shade of an angel

recent entries
go back 25

born in a bramble ditch

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

when the doors of heaven closed

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

> previous 25 entries
top of page