Thursday, April 12th, 2018
2:42 pm - Not Remotely Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. A space opera set in the relatively near future. Humans have colonized Mars and the asteroid belt, and a few scattered populations make due on the moons of planets further out. There is, however, no faster-than-light travel, no contact with any solar system beyond our own, no sentient AIs, and no aliens. A major theme of the book is the culture clash between those who live on Earth or Mars – the superpowers of this future – and those who live in the Belt, where mining is the preeminent economy and life is the hardscrabble sort where even water and oxygen have to be imported, never mind concepts like justice and equality. Different characters move from one place to the other or switch allegiances, but their origins are as baked in as we would regard ethnicity or nationality. As one character puts it, "A childhood spent in gravity shaped the way he saw things forever."

Corey (who is actually two separate dudes writing under a penname) does a wonderful job of fleshing out the background worldbuilding. I loved references to fungal-culture whiskey, Bhangra as the default elevator muzak, hand gestures exaggerated to be seen through a spacesuit, and largely unintelligible localized slang (“Bomie vacuate like losing air,” the girl said with a chuckle. “Bang-head hops, kennis tu?” / “Ken,” Miller said. /“Now, all new bladeboys. Overhead. I’m out.”). It feels like a more detailed world than a lot of sci-fi does.

Which is good, because the characters are not all that compelling. The two POVs are Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Holden is the second-in-command on an unimportant spaceship that works as a freight hauler, moving ice back and forth between the Belt and Saturn. Things change dramatically when a mysterious someone attacks their ship and kills everyone except for Holden and a few others, and he finds himself centrally involved in the runup to war. He has the most generic action-movie-hero personality I can imagine, with no discernable characteristics except 'idealistic' (and I really only know that because other people keep telling him he is), kinda nervous about being suddenly thrust into command but doing a good job, a womanizer (but see, it's okay because he just keeps genuinely falling in love with so many women!), and earnest. He's fine. He's not even objectionable, just incredibly boring. He comes with a crew of entirely indistinguishable followers that I couldn't keep straight, but that's all right because most of them get killed off so I no longer had to try to remember who was who. He also develops a romance that is 100% unbelievable, but I suppose that's what action-movie-heroes do, so who's even surprised.

Miller is a detective on Ceres, the largest city in the Belt, who's been hired by a rich family to track down their anarchist, slumming daughter. Miller is an incredibly cliche noir protagonist - alcoholic, divorced, not as good as he used to be, cynical, a little bit corrupt but underneath it all he still remembers his good intentions – but at least that means he has more of a personality than Jim, even if it's a personality you've seen a thousand times before. On the other hand, Miller becomes obsessed with this dead/missing girl in a way that is painfully stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Two things kept this from ruining Leviathan Wakes for me. One, Miller is at least somewhat self-aware about it: This was why he had searched for her. Julie had become the part of him that was capable of human feeling. The symbol of what he could have been if he hadn’t been this. There was no reason to think his imagined Julie had anything in common with the real woman. Meeting her would have been a disappointment for them both. And two, there's a twist near the end that allows Julie to finally have her own voice in the text, and not exist solely as Miller's imagined dependance on her.

It takes almost half the book for Miller and Holden to finally cross paths, at which point the missing-girl mystery and the war plot combine and take a twist for a direction I DID NOT SEE COMING. I am ambivalent on whether to spoil this; on the one hand, I read it unprepared and it was incredibly awesome to experience it that way. On the other hand, I suspect this is information that will be a determining factor for many people on whether they want to read it or not. So: halfway through, Leviathan Wakes takes a wild jump and becomes about a zombie outbreak. I would not have previously thought that 'space opera' and 'zombie apocalypse' are two genres that should be combined, but the tension and excitement skyrocket once the book takes this turn, transforming it from average quality to 'I CANNOT STOP READING, MUST FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT'. So, good choice! The sequence with Miller and Holden trapped on a small space station trying to sneak their way past zombie hordes is one of the most thrilling I've read in ages.

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in a series (apparently it was originally supposed to be a trilogy, but there's currently eight books out with at least one more planned, along with a batch of short stories) and has also become a show on the Syfy network that I haven't seen. I feel like I've spent a lot of this review complaining, but honestly I mostly enjoyed the book and am planning to read the sequels. The fact that people seem to like the characters from future books more than these ones certainly doesn't hurt!


Pig/Pork: Archaeology, Zoology and Edibility by Pia Spry-Marques. A nonfiction book about everything remotely related to the farming and eating of pigs. I expected from the subtitle and the author's personal background that archaeology would be the main focus, but it turns out that's really only the first two chapters, which cover the Paleolithic hunting of wild boar and the original domestication of pigs. The other chapters turn to topics as diverse as experiments on feeding farmed pigs leftovers from restaurants, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, a special Spanish ham called ibérico de bellota which can only be fed acorns, genetically modifiying pigs so their manure would contain less phosporus, sunburn in pigs, minature pet pigs, organ donation between humans and pigs, the terrifying tapeworms to be acquired from eating raw pork, why pork is a 'white' meat, how to make sausages, theories on why pork is neither halal nor kosher, the use of an enzyme from pig pancreases in wine production, EU food-safety regulations on traditional pork dishes, Cuba's 'Bay of Pigs', the Pig War between the US and Canada in 1859, and Oliver Cromwell's favorite pig breed. Basically if it has the remotest connection to the title, Spry-Marques has included it. She even includes recipes for each chapter, though some of them are clearly more for amusement than actual consumption – I can't imagine anyone having just finished a chapter on how eating raw pork will give you cysts in your brain is eager to try figatellu, a type of uncooked sausage from France. And it would take a braver foodie than me to taste "Asian-inspired pork uterus with green onion and ginger". In fact, as is probably not surprising for any book which touches on factory farming however briefly, you will probably come away not wanting to eat pork at all for a while.

Spry-Marques's writing is breezy and conversational, which kept me turning the pages even when the structure was a bit scattered. I wish it were more focused, but it's a great book for anyone who enjoys popular science, history, or food writing.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope. A YA fantasy novel with some unusual elements. Rather than being set in vaguely medieval England or a dystopian sci-fi future, we're in a country where the technology seems to be around 1900: cars and electric lights exist, but they're restricted to rich cities, and someone coming from rural poverty might well have never seen either. Magic exists, but comes from one's heritage; you're either born with it or not. In Elsira, where our story is set, it's rare to the point of nonexistence. Our heroine Jasminda, however, does have magic, due to her father having been a refugee from the neighboring country of Lagrimar, where magic is common. Elsira and Lagrimar have been constantly at war for hundreds of years, but are separated by a magical Barrier which allows no one to pass through, except on rare occasions when a temporary breach happens and violence erupts. Elsirans are light-skinned and Lagrimari are dark-skinned, so Jasminda has dealt with fairly severe racism throughout her life.

The story starts when Jasminda runs across Jack, a Elsiran soldier just back from spying in Lagrimar who has super important information that must get back to the capital as soon as possible; unfortunately Jack has just been shot and is closely pursued by a troop of Lagrimari soldiers. Jasminda and Jack team up, fall in love, and try to prevent the coming outbreak of war.

The most revealing thing I can say about Song of Blood & Stone is that it's very, very YA. (As you could probably guess, what with its title that fits exactly into the pattern of the 'YA title' meme currently going around tumblr.) Almost everything that happens is easily predictable from the back cover (Jack's long-withheld backstory is clearly supposed to be a shocking twist, but it's obvious from the moment he appears), the prose is mediocre but fine, good and bad guys are clearly signalled, the real world parallels (racism, treatment of refugees, domestic abuse) are good-hearted but extremely Social Justice 101. On the plus side, the beginning was the worst part and it got better and better as it went along; several developments near the very end were so interesting that I'm tempted to read the sequel, despite my initial boredom.

Overall it's not a bad book, but I'd only recommend it to people who are extremely affectionate of the most repetitive tropes of the YA genre.
I read this as an ARC from a GoodReads giveaway.


What are you currently reading?
A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present by Mark Forsyth. A fun but extremely shallow history of alcohol.

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Wednesday, March 28th, 2018
5:38 pm - Reading Wednesday (goddamnit I ALMOST made it, I started writing this post yesterday)
What did you just finish?
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. The third and final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy. The plot remains on Athoek Station, a relative backwater that now sees itself caught in the midst of a civil war. The inhabitants choose sides, jockey for position, but mostly just try to live their normal lives. The politics of control, of political representation, and of protesting are central to the book, including one heart-stopping moment that calls back to the spoilery heart of Ancillary Justice, replayed now with citizens of the empire instead of half-conquered colonials. I was reminded of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but unfortunately human history is such that there are plenty of other massacres Leckie might have been referencing. Or perhaps she had no specific incident at all in mind; the rules of colonialism and imperialism mean there are only so many ways disagreement can play out.

There is a continued focus on the question of identity and what makes a person a person. Several characters are introduced or receive bigger roles who question the boundaries of personhood: AIs like Breq once was but who want to claim citizenship while still existing as ships; an AI that runs a station and is struggling against her overly controlling programming; an AI from a different culture; a human raised by aliens who has extremely different worldviews, concepts of selfhood, and even bodily functions; a human whose mind was temporarily reprogrammed and is struggling to make a coherent personality out of two entirely different sets of memories. All of them, in one way or another, build relationships, make choices, and eventually claim their rights.

Ancillary Mercy finds a balance between the two previous books. Whereas Ancillary Justice was a grand, galaxy-spanning novel and Ancillary Sword told a small, personal story, this one is in the middle: Breq wins an important battle and changes the lives of those around her, but it is (for now, at least) a very local development, influencing relatively few people.

Which is not to say this book is all serious analysis of colonialism, because there is some extremely delicious tropey goodness here: a character thinks she's been left behind in the midst of battle and has resigned herself to death when her friends arrive at the last minute to rescue her because OF COURSE they would never abandon her! Platonic bedsharing and cuddling! A character who's convinced she's unloveable has multiple others forcibly telling her 'no, you dummy, we love you SO MUCH'! It's excellent stuff, y'all.

I've loved this trilogy so much. It's thoughtful and thrilling and sad and uplifting and full of engaging characters and repressed emotions and complex worldbuilding. My only complaint is that Ann Leckie hasn't already written a hundred more books for me to dive into immediately.


Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd. A nonfiction book on, well, you've got it right there in the subtitle. Though despite its claim, the major focus is the 1600s to late 1900s, which: fair enough. There's many fewer available records before that, and Ackroyd probably assumed most people are already familiar with the history of the 20th and 21st centuries. Since I tend to find recent history boring (I AM SO TIRED OF HOLLYWOOD'S MULTITUDE OF WWII MOVIES) I was personally more than all right with this decision.

It's a short book to cover two thousand years, or even only four hundred. Which unfortunately results in Queer City reading like a trivia book, a long list of short paragraphs about "here's a king who was rumored to have sex with men; here's two women who were buried together; here's an AMAB person who was arrested for wearing dresses", with little analysis or narrative threads connecting one incident to another. Ackroyd also relies heavily on judicial records, which again: fair enough. I'm not sure there's a better way to access the history of the lower classes, particularly if you want the sort of information that will give you exact street addresses to map onto modern London. But it does mean that this history comes off like a endless recitation of rape, pediophilia, and prostitution. The fact that this seems to provide supporting evidence for the worst sort of homophobia isn't really Ackroyd's fault, but it is depressing.

I would have liked more focus on how queerness was conceived of by the people of the various time periods, though I realize that's probably the hardest thing to get at in all of history. Particularly in the records of a trial, you're just not going to get someone asking the accused, 'please explain your philosophy of gender in clear terms'. Alas. I'll have to keep searching for the possibly-impossibly book that does delve into that mystery.

Overall it's not a bad book, but it could have been so much better.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. More in my current sci-fi spree! This one is also coming off a rec from a friend, but I haven't read enough yet to see what I think of it.

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Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
5:17 pm - Reading once again, not actually Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. The sequel to Ancillary Justice, which ended with former-spaceship-AI/current-human-body Breq having started a civil war in the Radchaai Empire (though one mostly conducted through propaganda and cold-war-ish maneuvering than outright battles) and, rather than assassinating the emperor, having been co-opted to fight for her side. In that role, Breq is given the captaincy of a new spaceship and sent to Athoek Station: a system not particularly wealthy, important, or strategically located, but which might be fought over if the war goes on long enough. There Breq discovers that the imperialism and military hierarchy of the Radchaai – shockingly! – goes right down to the roots of even the most random of places, and sets out to correct what injustices of slums, sharecropping, debt cycles, and ethnic tensions she can.

It's a much smaller book than Ancillary Justice. The war is far away throughout this book, and not particularly relevant. Instead of the fate of the entire empire, Breq changes the lives of three or four people, none of them particularly important. There's Breq's new 'baby lieutenant', a 17 year old from a minor family in her first job; an illiterate worker on a tea plantation and her younger sister; the abused girlfriend of a rich, spoiled young woman whose privilege has left her bored and cruel; an underling whose criminal record makes her the first suspect when a new crime is committed. Ancillary Justice was a critique of imperialism on a grand, life-or-death galaxy-wide scale; Ancillary Sword is a critique of the petty, everyday consequences of imperialism, the sort of thing that you might not notice even when you're looking directly at it because it's become part of the expected background of your world.

Which is not to say it's a bad book, or a boring one! Not at all. People are shot, bombs explode, and the climatic scene is a masterpiece of drama and action that ties together several plot threads in ways I hadn't seen coming at all. And that's aside from the interest of just watching these characters interact, the messy underappreciated work of trying to figure out the right thing to do and to actually accomplish something in situations of multiple stakeholders, and Leckie's engaging, straightforward prose. I've seen this described as a 'novel of manners', and while I don't think that's quite right, if you enjoy that genre you'll probably enjoy this book. Leckie is also a master of "cool bits" (elements that aren't particularly important to the plot or themes, but are just enjoyable to read about): Breq's collection of songs, many based on real-world choral shape singing; penis festivals and mourning rituals; a minor character's collection of fancy dinnerware sets.

I absolutely adore this book and this trilogy, and can't possibly say enough good things about it.


Write Smart, Write Happy: How to Become a More Productive, Resilient and Successful Writer by Cheryl St. John. There are a lot of writing books out there, for every possible type of, approach to, and interpretation of writing. St. John is a romance author, and while she doesn't actually mention that within this book, I think it's discernible through the style of her advice. I've noticed that romance authors tend to approach writing as a job, a craft like any other – potentially explained by the fact that it's a genre where it's not uncommon for authors to put out three books a year, unlike literary fiction, in which famous authors who publish once a decade (or less!) are easy to find. It's an approach I personally find very appealing, while books on writing with a more mystical or therapeutic bent put me off. Nothing wrong with either method, but Write Smart, Write Happy is very much not Bird by Bird or Writing Down the Bones; it's a more practical, businesslike, unsentimental take on writing. Basically, Write Smart, Write Happy is for you if you're interested in a writing book that's more about getting the words on the page and meeting deadlines and less about writing from the heart or finding your personal muse of inspiration.

Which is not say it's a perfect book. I was hoping for lots of specific tips, and there was a bit too much pep-talk/self-help esque advice about believing in yourself and not giving up than I personally would have preferred. Nonetheless there was good advice in here, enough for me to take notes and end up with some new things to try. Overall Write Smart, Write Happy is a quick, easy read with some helpful information, particularly on planning, time management, and setting goals.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. I'm very upset that this is the last book in the trilogy and I'm about to have no more to read!

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Wednesday, March 14th, 2018
2:42 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Okay, yes, everyone was right: this book is amazing.

In a fairly typical space-opera future, the Radchaai Empire has for many eons had a merry old time expanding its territory by conquering other planets and forcibly incorporating them into its empire. Radchaai culture is intensely militaristic and hierarchical; soldiers are expected to follow orders, even if those orders are clearly, undeniably wrong, even if those orders are treasonous. I think you can see how this might lead to problems. But it's okay, because they're bringing civilization to the poor savages, see! The survivors get to become Radchaai citizens, and of course everyone wants to be a Rachaai citizen! There's a lot of Roman Empire parallels, is what I'm saying.

Breq was formerly a two-thousand year old AI running a warship used in these annexations of planets; currently, she's stuck in a single human body (I say 'she', but that's not entirely accurate. Radchaai culture doesn't mark gender at all, and Leckie expresses this by using the English word 'she' for every character, regardless of physical appearance or behavior). The experience of living in a single body, subject to a human's physical limitations, doomed to the inevitable of death, is quite the adjustment for Breq. She's also very, very angry at Radchaai imperialism, and has decided to dedicate her life to assassinating the Radchaai emperor. This is absolutely, incontrovertibly a suicide mission, since the emperor exists in thousands of identical cloned bodies, all constantly linked via wireless-internet-esque implants in their brains, living scattered throughout the empire. Even if Breq should make it past security and outwit the emperor long enough to kill one body, or – even more unlikely – two or three, the emperor as a whole will live on undisturbed, and Breq will certainly be caught and executed. This is not really a logical plan, but Breq is SO ANGRY. SO ANGRY, you guys. She of course denies this because she is an AI and repeatedly insists that emotions are unimportant to her, but nonetheless her feelings are Many and Huge.

A major part of the plot of Ancillary Justice is simply finding out what happened to make Breq so angry as to want to throw away her life on this revenge plot. It's not revealed until late in the book, so I don't want to spoil it, but it certainly resonates with certain events in the real-world history of colonialism. Relatedly, a major theme of the book is the question of identity. The line between Rachaai citizens and non-citizens is stark; a non-citizen can be killed, tortured, or abused with impunity, while citizens have a long list of highly respected rights, even though the same individual can move from one category to another in a short span of time. As an AI, Breq is not considered a person; the former humans who served on her ship considered her opinions and feelings no more than you'd consider if your iPhone really wants to play that Spotify playlist for the thousandth time in a row. Seivarden, who becomes Breq's companion, is a former Radchaai military officer who was accidentally frozen and forgotten for a thousand years before being thawed out; she has no living family or even descendants, no current job skills, and despite Radchaai culture priding itself on being ancient and unchanging, can barely understand the language modern people speak. She is everything that the Radchaai claim to revere, yet is lost and floundering, turning to drugs when she's unable to find a place she fits. Even the emperor herself: what does it actually mean to exist simultaneously in thousands of bodies, each with slightly different experiences, slightly different perceptions? What happens to the metaphor of "mixed mind" when there are literally multiple minds involved?

I think the reason it took me so long to read this book is because a lot of reviews and recommendations don't actually mention what it's about. They say that the narrator is an AI, they describe the thing about using 'she' for everyone, but neither of those are the driving engine of Ancillary Justice. To be fair, it is a hard plot to summarize, as books centered around "keep reading to find out what the characters already know!" always are. Still, I'm going to give it a shot. Ancillary Justice is a thriller of conspiracies and immoral orders that must be obeyed; it's a critique of colonialism and other ways of turning people into things; but most of all, it's a mystery about who broke Breq and how.

ALSO IT'S SO GOOD YOU GUYS!


Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by One R. Pagan. I love books about weird biology. Whether it's about fungi that can turn ants into zombies, how lobsters have sex, or the resurgence of bedbugs, I eat that sort of thing up with a spoon. I just adore collecting gross trivia and fascinating tidbits about animals, plants, and all the other forms of life on Earth.

Strange Survivors is an excellent example of this genre I've just invented, this time focusing on how predators predate and how prey escapes. Each chapter is themed around a particular method: producing or detecting electricity, toxins and venoms, speed (less cheetahs and falcons and more the nanoseconds it takes a jellyfish to sting or the bullet-like force delivered by a mantis shrimp as it smashes a shell), and cooperation (such as slime molds banding together to form a larger organism or bees killing much larger hornets by swarming them). Pagan delivers a huge array of excellently weird biology. I don't want to turn this review into a long list of examples, so I'll restrain myself to just one, my favorite new fact: did you know that there is a genus of spiders that spit their webs at their victims, and the webs themselves contain venom!?!? If you, like me, think spitting spiders armed with sticky-venom-nets is a super cool fact, Strange Survivors is the book for you.

I do have some minor critiques. It's a fairly short book (170 pages of text), made shorter by the fact that Pagan chooses to spend the first two chapters on the basics of evolution and DNA. These chapters are well-written, but I think most of the potential audience for a book like this already has a general understanding of those topics and just wants to get to the weird biology facts. Certainly I did! Pagan also has perhaps a bit too much fondness for exclamation points, but overall I enjoyed his enthusiastic and conversational style.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. YES I'M NOW ADDICTED TO THIS SERIES.

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Wednesday, March 7th, 2018
2:55 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Death at the Durbar by Arjun Raj Gaind. A murder mystery set in 1911 Delhi. It's the sequel to A Very Pukka Murder, but you could easily read this without having read that one. Our main character is Sikander Singh, the maharaja of a small state in northwest India. He's a fairly typical hero of the mystery genre: rich, privileged, intelligent, and oh so very bored with life. Thus he turns to solving mysteries. In this case he's been summoned to Delhi for the British Empire's Durbar: an enormous celebration crowned by the arrival of King George V, the only time one of the so-called 'Emperors of India' actually bothered to visit the subcontinent. Sikander – along with every other person of significance in British or native India – has been required to attend. The plot heats up when a young woman is found dead in the King's private quarters, and Sikander is given only two days to get justice for her; the king himself hasn't actually arrived yet, and the powers that be want the matter either closed or hushed up before he does.

The dead woman was a nautch girl (literally 'dancing girl', but the cultural role is much closer to the geisha of Japan than anything else. They traditionally were extremely respected artisans of dance, singing, and poetry, and didn't necessarily do sex work at all, but the arrival of the British tended to blur the lines between the different categories of working women and downgrade all of them), who spent her last day alive entertaining an entire crowd of maharajas – all of whom, of course, are now suspects. The rest of the book falls into a fairly repetitive pattern: Sikander visits a maharaja, interviews him, recaps the history of his (or her, in a few cases) particular state, and eliminates him as a suspect, until he's narrowed down the possibilities to only one. I found this part of the book fairly entertaining, though I probably have a much higher tolerance for long historical infodumps than average. Most of the suspects are real historical figures as well, which was an unexpected twist. I knew a few of them (not personally, of course!) and seeing them turn up in a pulp novel was amusing.

Unfortunately I didn't like the eventual conclusion, particularly that Sikander and the other characters had an inexplicable amount of understanding for the murderer, once revealed. A woman is dead! Don't act all sympathetic to her killer!

The writing itself is fine though not great. The POV, which is mostly tied to Sikander, occasionally drifts, and I caught a few contradictions and editing mistakes here and there. But it reads quickly and easily, and there's certainly worse ways to spend your time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Badass Braids by by Shannon Burns, aka Silvousplaits. A how-to guide for recreating the hairstyles from various franchises. There are 45 different looks in this book, a number that includes multiple characters from Vikings, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, and Black Sails as well as individual characters like Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful, Maeve Millay from Westworld, Morgana from Merlin, and Lucrezia Borgia from The Borgias. There's even a chapter recreating hairstyles from animated sources, such as Katara from Avatar, Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon, and Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn. In other words: if you have ever wanted a character's cool hairstyle, it is probably included in this book.

Each hairstyle comes with written instructions, step-by-step drawings, and photographs, a combination that works very well. If I didn't understand something in the instructions, I could look at the drawing, and if that was unclear, I could study the photos. Also, silvousplait's youtube videos FINALLY taught me how to french braid my own hair, a feat 33 years of life of had not managed.

The styles are mostly intended for hair long enough to braid, unsurprisingly, though Burns does include tips on how to use hair extensions. Her instructions tend toward assuming that one is dealing with straight, fine hair. My own is extremely curly and thick, but I just ignored directions to tease it for volume, for example, and didn't have a problem. Some of the styles would probably not be suitable for kinky or coiled hair (types 4A-C, in curl typology), but others would work fine.

Overall, this is an excellent book if you enjoy stealth cosplay or experimenting with unusual ways of wearing your hair. Highly recommended.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Okay, okay, y'all convinced me to give this a go! And you've been right: I'm loving it.

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Wednesday, February 28th, 2018
3:34 pm - A few weeks' worth of Reading Wednesdays
What did you just finish?
Provenance by Ann Leckie. A book set in the same universe as Leckie's Imperial Radch series (which I haven't read), but independent from them in terms of characters and plot.

In the culture of Hwae, it's common for the families of the powerful and wealthy to adopt large numbers of children – fostering children of the equally important, taking in children from families a step down in influence who are looking to build alliances, and raising children of anonymous parentage left at the public orphanages. But however many children a particular family adopts there will only ever be one acknowledged heir, who is not named until adulthood. As you might imagine, this fosters competition and vicious rivalries among the children raised under such conditions.

Ingray is a child from a public orphanage raised by an important politician, and she's absolutely certain that she's not going to become her mother's heir. But before she flounces forever from her family household, she wants one last revenge on the brother who bested her. He has a hobby of collecting trinkets and tokens connected to famous historical figures (indeed, the whole of Hwae society is a bit obsessed with historical artifacts), and Ingray wants to convince him to buy a forgery so that she can embarrass him, prove herself capable of outsmarting him, and – not incidentally – make off with a huge amount of his money. To this end she needs the help of a forger, and so she pays a bribe to have one smuggled out of prison.

And then everything goes wrong.

The forger is not particularly interested in helping her and anyway insists that e is innocent (multiple characters use non-binary pronouns, by the way: e/em/eir. This seems to be a standard part of Hwae society and isn't remarked on). The captain of the ship they hire to take back to Hwae is being chased by a mysterious alien species. Ingray witnesses a murder. False accusations are thrown around. Artifacts, both real and forged, are stolen, denounced, and given away. War threatens. People are taken hostage. Ingray is caught up in a spiraling series of events until the fate of the entire galaxy rests of her decisions.

This book was SO GOOD y'all! I know everyone has been saying that Leckie's an amazing writer for years, and all I can say is: yes, you were totally right, and I should have read her ages ago. I think my favorite part was the worldbuilding of Hwae. I caught influences of South Asian, Chinese, and African cultures, among others, but they were believably mixed and changed in such a way that it really felt like a world in such a far future that terms like 'South Asian' or 'Chinese' were no longer even recognizable. I used the term non-binary above, but it seems like it would be more accurate to call Hwae a society that has three gender roles: man, woman, and neman. Children are called "they" until they choose one at adulthood. Homosexuality is not an issue; the two most important romantic relationships in Provenance are one between two women, and one between a man and a neman.

I also loved the themes of the book: the tangled mess of parenthood and sibling relationships and finding your place as an adult. Ingray is pretty consistently negative about herself, with a clear self-esteem problem she doesn't acknowledge, and seeing her consistently rise to meet her problems was just wonderfully enjoyable. More than anything else, this book is total and complete FUN. Sure, people are getting murdered and declaring war, but this is a grand adventure in the old-school Space Opera sense... just centering people other than straight white men. Probably also a bit more emphasis on diplomacy and making the effort to see from someone else's perspective than Heinlein ever would have stood for.

Provenance is absolutely everything I have been searching for in my sci-fi reading lately. I want a thousand more books just like it.


Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky. I'm a huge fan of Kurlansky. He's probably the most famous writer of microhistories currently, a genre I adore. Microhistories he's written include "Salt" and "Paper", books on oysters and cod, a history of just the year 1968 or the song “Dancing in the Street". You get the idea.

In this book, he takes on milk. Or, well, not only milk; Kurlansky also covers butter, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and all the other things that can be made out of milk. It's not just cows' milk either! He includes recipes that use the milk of sheeps, goats, horses, donkeys, camels, and yaks. There's even a lot of discussion of human milk – is it better to breastfeed or to use formula? And what is the history of that debate? How does one choose a wet nurse? What about grass fed cows vs cows given fodder? Pasteurized milk vs raw? Is milk a health food? Kurlansky doesn't take a position on any of these debates or try to prove one side right with evidence; he's simply interested in how the same questions have been asked over and over again throughout history, with the pendulum frequently swinging back and forth between the same positions over the centuries.

All of this probably sounds very interesting, and indeed I really wanted to like this book, but unfortunately I didn't. Kurlansky includes many recipes (126 of them, he says on the opening page), which means that many of the chapters devolve into listing one recipe after another with barely any discussion between them. Even if I wanted to try making them (a feat often barely possible, since recipes before the 1600s rarely bother to include amounts, times, or temperature), it doesn't make for interesting reading. I especially don't want multiple recipes for junkets, syllabubs, phirni, kalakand, etc, when I don't even know what those things are. Lists of ingredients are even more uninteresting than usual when you can't picture what the final product is supposed to be. I wish Kurlansky had included fewer recipes and instead spent more time on each one: a description of what the dish would look and taste like, how it functioned in the society of its time and place (is this an everyday meal? something fancy? something for breakfast, or for dinner?), and when and why it came into or out of popularity.

Kurlanksy also seems to assume a certain level of milk-knowledge from his readers that, personally, I simply don't have. I vaguely know cream is fattier than milk, but how one gets cream or what its exact definition is, I have no idea. Same for whey (Miss Muffet ate it?), curds, buttermilk, or how churning milk actually turns it into butter. After reading Milk!, I know not a single thing more about these topics than I did before, despite Kurlansky using these terms frequently. For example, he repeatedly insists that skyr (the Icelandic product that's recently become popular in the US) is not technically a yogurt but a soft fresh cheese. That's cool trivia to know, I guess, but what I'm really curious about is why. What separates yogurt and cheese? Is the line between them strict, or does one fade into the other? Is it based on method of production, taste, ingredients, something else? I could google these answers, of course, but if I'm reading a book for fun, I'd like not to have to turn to a different source just to understand what I'm reading. I wanted to learn about milk, but Milk! is just not interested in providing these sorts of basic facts.

Finally, Kurlanksy includes at least one blatant mistake: Was the first milking animal a goat, as goat enthusiasts always claim? Or was it a gazelle, the wild ancestor of goats? This is possible, but gazelle farming would have been difficult unless they were soon domesticated into goats. I try not to be overly critical when non-archaeologists make mistakes about archaeology, because I feel like it's an intensely difficult subject to make your way into without being a specialist, but c'mon, surely this is obviously nonsense? Even if one is not an archaeologist of early farming or a biologist, isn't it self-evident that gazelles and goats are not the same species, and no magic process is going to turn a gazelle into a goat? They're not even in the same genus! They don't even look alike! (Not that 'looking alike' is a reliable way of telling what is or isn't the same species, but wouldn't that send up warning signals in your subconscious?) Also the fact that it occured on page 13 may have prejudiced me against the rest of the book.

Anyway, a fascinating topic, but unfortunately not a good book. On the other hand, I happened to read the chapter on Basque cheese immediately before heading to Trader Joe's, where I saw a Basque cheese for sale. I have my suspicions about the authenticity of anything mass-produced for the American market, but this is some tasty fucking cheese, so overall my life is improved.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells. A sci-fi novella (only 80 pages long), the first in the "Murderbot" series. Murderbot, as our first-person narrator calls itself, is a 'SecUnit', a Security Unit robot/cyborg/android/whatever composed of both organic and mechanical parts, with an inbuilt connection to various internet and local networks. It's also hacked its own system to become an independent operator. Rather than going wild and murdering any nearby humans, it continues to do its security job, though in a halfassed way so it can return more quickly to watching the galactic equivalent of Netflix:
Confession time: I don't actually know where we are. We have, or are supposed to have, a complete satellite map of the planet in the survey package. That was how the humans decided where to do their assessments. I hadn't looked at the maps yet and I'd barely looked at the survey package. In my defense, we'd been here twenty-two planetary days and I hadn't had to do anything but stand around watching humans make scans or take samples of dirt, rocks, water, and leaves. The sense of urgency just wasn't there. Also, you may have noticed, I don't care.

Murderbot has currently been outsourced to a team of scientists investigating a planet for potential natural resource extraction. It's all normal and boring until they notice some areas are missing from their maps. And then a few more things go wrong. Is it because they bought a cheap survey package? Is it sabotage? And if someone is trying to kill them, who and why? Murderbot starts to realize that maybe it does care after all – at least about these humans and at least a bit.

I absolutely loved this book. Reading it flew by. Murderbot's narration is hilarious, its voice and perspective are genuinely different from a human's in interesting ways, and I adored the resolution of the plot. I can't recommend this highly enough, and I can't wait to read the sequels.


What are you currently reading?
Death at the Durbar by Arjun Raj Gaind. The second in the series of mysteries set in India around 1910. I read the first book a couple of year ago, though uh, looking back at that review apparently I liked it less than I thought I did. I had found memories of it when I picked up this sequel! At any rate, I'm enjoying it so far.

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Wednesday, February 14th, 2018
2:27 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns. Adda and Iridian are two engineers newly out of university and in love; Adda specializes in Artificial Intelligences while Iridian is an army vet who does mechanical engineering. Unfortunately in the capitalist dystopia of the future, they're both saddled with enormous student debt and see their only future as signing draconian job contracts that will force them to live on separate planets. So instead they decide to join the galaxy's foremost pirate crew! :D

However, when they reach Barbary Station – the nickname of the abandoned space station the ungendered pirate Captain Sloane has taken over – they find out that matters are more complicated than they appear. Namely, the station is controlled by a murderous AI security program determined to kill all "invaders" (ie, the pirates), and there's no way for anyone to escape or for help from the outside to arrive. The pirates, in fact, have been stuck there for the last two years (long enough for a few kids to have been born) and have deliberately lured Adda there without warning in the hopes that she knows enough about AIs to provide a solution. If she can do so, she and Iridian might just escape with their lives and be given the chance to join the pirate crew. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the pirates fought on the opposite side of the recent war than Iridian did, and some of them might just hold enough of a grudge to secretly kill one or both of our main characters.

So that's the plot. As for my opinion on it.... Argh, I have such mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand: lesbian space pirates of color! INCREDIBLE! And there are some genuinely fantastic bits of worldbuilding. One of my favorites was the notion that people living on a space station don't use terms like north and south or starboard and port, but rather lockside (ie, towards the airlock, towards the outside) and homeward (the opposite, deeper into the station). I loved that everyone in the pirate crew had to justify how much atmo (a slang term combining oxygen, pressure, heat, gravity, and all the other stuff it takes to keep a human alive in space) they used; anyone who cost more than they brought in was likely to get booted. "The cold and the black" is a common substitute for saying "space", which is deliciously eerie.

On the other hand... there are a lot of problems. The worldbuilding is incredibly complicated and prone to being conveyed in confusing infodumps. As a random example:
"The forty ticks shuttle to and from the hub has never been hit before.” Signs in the docking bay below the base put the pirates twenty-three ticks from the docking bay which served as station north at 100/0. That was the point where the increments that divided the station into one hundred virtual cross-level slices started over at one. The shuttle was closer to forty-six ticks, over a third docking bay, if the symmetric modular layout continued all the way around the station. Ring station points of reference were much easier to follow with a mobile map. A more helpful station AI would’ve been nice too. “The shuttle’s a blind spot,” said Si Po.
WHAT. I cannot turn that into an image in my head despite reading it four times now. Indeed, after finishing the whole book, I still have no idea of the details of the often-referenced past war or any coherent sense of what the station or the pirate's hull base looks like; there are all sorts of plot twists hinging on the difference between a regular AI, a zombie AI, and an awakened AI, whatever the hell those are. This bewilderment is not helped by the fact that the book seems to have needed one more editing pass; occasional dropped words or repeated words make things even more confusing. (And I bought a physical copy, so it's not just an ebook's miscoding!) For example: Her armor’s O2 reservoir had enough empty space for the portable tank’s remaining contents. When she connected the O2 tank to her suit, her HUD reported that the suit reservoir had enough empty space for the portable tank’s remaining contents. To be fair, this example is by far the worst in the book. I didn't notice a whole sentence repeated anywhere else.

Adda and Iridian are an established relationship at the beginning of the book, which should be fine – I'm actually a huge fan of established relationships and wish they were more common in fiction! Their romance is extremely healthy and conflict-free. That's nice and all, but it unfortunately doesn't make for intriguing reading. Nothing changes between them over the course of the whole book because there's nothing to improve on from what's already there. The closest thing to a plot in their relationship is that Iridian wants to propose to Adda, but can't find a good moment to do so. That is not exactly page-turning suspense. You can totally write healthy, established relationships that have exciting plots, but Adda and Iridian have no tension, no worry, no angst, no drama, no longing, no victory between them – nothing to make me care about them as characters or as a couple.

In addition, the explanation behind Adda and Iridian's decision to become space pirates never convinced me. I mean, student loan debt sucks, but we've got plenty of it in the US today and roving bands of pirates have not yet appeared. As Iridian puts it at one point, They’d sacrificed all the money they had, their clean criminal records, their academic connections, hell, maybe even their Near Earth Union citizenship, for this. Not to mention risking their lives. I need to believe they would give all that up, and they're just not given enough of a reason. They also seem weirdly disconnected from the reality of being pirates; they both reiterate at multiple points that they don't believe in murder, and Adda even gets upset at seeing a minor character beaten up. I can enjoy the Disneyfied version of piracy myself, but it's a moral dissonance that's hard to sustain for an entire adult novel that's taking itself seriously. What does piracy even mean to Adda and Iridian if it apparently involves nothing immoral?

So, in conclusion... I have no idea. There are amazing parts to Barbary Station, there are dumb parts, there are ill-thought out parts. Do I recommend it? Eh, who knows. Overall I'm glad I read it rather than skipping it, but it could have been a great deal better than it is.


The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters by Darryl Jones. A nonfiction book about the science and research behind those little feeders many of us hang up in our backyards or apartment fire escapes. From the cover and blurb, I'd expected a light, breezy read, but The Birds at My Table is instead a quite academic review of the various studies that have analyzed how and why humans feed birds, the effect of all this free seed on the birds themselves, and the history of bird-feeding as an organized hobby and (these days) enormous commercial industry. Sometimes academic to the book's detriment, to be honest; I was looking forward to funny anecdotes more than I was to analyses of the calcium/phosphorus ratios in seed mixes or the effect of adding Vitamin E to fat-heavy supplementary foods.

Still, there's lot of interesting factoids to be found here. Did you know that bird-feeding is hugely controversial in Australia, with many wildlife organizations recommending against it? Or that many Australians who feed their backyard birds anyway do so with meat instead of seed? I was also fascinated to learn that one potential cause of the passenger pigeon's extinction may have been trichomoniasis, a disease commonly carried by the non-native pigeon of city streets, and which may have been passed across species by their coming into close contact at feeders.

Overall a good book if you're interested in the topic of feeding birds, but only if you're prepared for a rigorous dive into the current scientific research.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Provenance by Ann Leckie. Continuing my space opera binge! This is set in the same universe as Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy (which I haven't read, though I know everyone on Earth has recommended them to me, I'll get to it eventually), but focuses on different characters and a different place and so can be read separately. I'm LOVING it so far.

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Saturday, January 13th, 2018
3:15 pm - Reading lately
What did you just finish?
The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters. The sixth book in the Amelia Peabody series, murder mysteries set in the late 1800s and starring an incredibly blunt, overly self-confident, ironically melodramatic female Egyptian archaeologist. In this one, Amelia, her husband, and their young son are looking forward to excavating some pyramids south of Egypt, in the lesser-known ancient kingdom of Kush, when they get caught up in a mystery involving a long-lost British couple and their feckless rich nephew, a mysterious hidden kingdom that still practices the ancient Egyptian religion, court politics with two princes competing to be the next king, and a veiled woman who seems to be the secret power behind the throne. It's all a parody-slash-loving tribute to Victorian adventure novels, particularly "King Solomon's Mines" and "She".

Peters gives these old racist tropes a modern update, which works in some parts better than others. I loved the eventual reveal that the 'good' prince of the hidden kingdom speaks in a stilted English because he's deliberately modeling himself after the florid heroes of H. Rider Haggard's novels, of which he is a huge fan. Similarly, when Amelia is told to look out for a secret messenger carrying "the book", it turns out not to be the Bible or the Egyptian Book of the Dead or some such sacred text, but a copy of Wilkie Collin's "The Moonstone". On the other hand, the mystery eventually comes down to the Peabodys' desperate rescue of the one young innocent white girl out of this entire kingdom, which is... uh, less great. To say the least.

I also felt like this book frequently dragged in places. There's a loooooong section in England before they leave for Egypt. Then a loooooong section in Nubia before they find the hidden kingdom. Then a loooooong section exploring the kingdom before the plot finally arrives. I don't think The Last Camel Died at Noon actually has more pages than any other book in the series, but goddamn if it didn't feel like it took three times as long to read. So, not my favorite Amelia Peabody, but I'm still looking forward to the next one!


The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. A light-hearted ensemble space opera, starring the crew of a mid-level spaceship. The main character (as much as there is one; this is an extremely team-focused book) is Rosemary, a nice young woman, just out of college and somewhat sheltered, who arrives at the Wayfarer at the opening of the book to serve as their clerk. However, she's more than she seems: working under a false name and hiding secrets that will be revealed late in the book. Also onboard is Captain Ashby, a human in a long-term relationship with Pei, an alien arms dealer whose culture is HUGELY against interspecies sex; Jenks, an engineer who's fallen in love with the ship's sentient AI and is considering downloading her into a physical body despite this being incredibly illegal; Dr Chef, the kindly doctor and cook who comes from a nearly extinct species and whose sweetness covers a backstory of war and angst; Corbin, in charge of the algae from which the ship gets most of its power, a gumpy, racist, introvert; Kizzy, an antic, cheerful engineer and the only character who doesn't get much an arc, though she's a lot of fun in the background; and Ohan, who has the ability to navigate through hyperspace due to being infected with a virus that's slowly killing him. There's also the pilot Sissix, from a lizard-like species that practices polyamory, casual sex and lots of touching, who's a bit tired of dealing with all the culture clashes this causes on a mostly-human ship. She and Rosemary eventually enter into a relationship, which I mention because you gotta love a book in which a f/f open romance can be dropped in as a subplot. On the other hand, there isn't much of a main plot; this is very much a character-driven book instead of one with a clear, driving endgoal. Instead various characters meet and overcome minor difficulties, and it's all just nice if fairly inconsequential.

The best part of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is absolutely how much *fun* it is. The worldbuilding is full of charming tossed off ideas, the scifi elements of the background are hugely inventive and clever, the characters are generally enjoyable to spend time with, and there's a ton of bits that made me laugh with pure delight. Like this section, which never ends mattering, but is too cute not to share:
The mech tech herself was perched on a work ladder, her head and hands up inside an open ceiling panel. Her hips rocked in time with the drum beats. She belted along to the throbbing music as she worked. “Punch ‘em in the face! Monkeys like it, too!”
“Hey. Kizzy,” Jenks said.
“I ate a har - monica! These socks — match — my hat!”
“Kizzy.”
A tool clattered to the ground. Kizzy’s hands clenched into fists as the music swelled to a stormy crescendo. She danced atop the shuddering ladder, her head still in the ceiling. “Socks! Match — my hat! Socks! Match — my hat! Step on — some — sweet — toast! Socks! Match — my hat!”
“Kizzy!”
Kizzy ducked her head down. She pressed the clicker strapped to her wrist, turning down the volume of the nearby thump box. “Sup?”
Jenks quirked an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea what this song is?”
Kizzy blinked. “Socks Match My Hat,” she said. She went back up into the ceiling, tightening something with her gloved hands.
“Soskh Matsh Mae’ha. It’s banned in the Harmagian Protectorate.”
“We’re not in the Harmagian Protectorate.”
“Do you know what this song’s about?”
“You know I don’t speak Hanto.”
“Banging the Harmagian royal family. In glorious detail.”
“Ha! Oh, I like this song so much more now.”
“It’s credited with setting off the riots on Sosh’ka last year.”
“Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they’ll care about me making up my own words. They can’t oppress me with their ‘correct lyrics.’ Fuck the system.”


My main problem is that, as sweet and nice as all this is, there's just not much there there. I felt like every time a potentially interesting conflict arose, the book went with the easiest possible answer; I was particularly annoyed with the resolution of Rosemary's background in this regard. It was a pleasant read, but not the sort of thing that will stick in my memory.

Still, thank you to everyone who recommend this to me! :D I did have a good time with it.


Venom: The Heroic Search for Australia's Deadliest Snake by Brendan James Murray. A nonfiction book about the taipan, the most venomous snake in the world (well, depending on how one measures such things), and the effort to capture a living snake for study and to enable the production of an antivenom. Murray is far more interested in the story of the people involved in this search than he is in the snake or its biology, which ends up producing a book that reads a lot like an action movie. Which is not a criticism! I loved how much this felt like a suspenseful thriller. There were a few scenes that were so unbelievably wild I had to read them out loud to my partner.

Murray focuses on four people in particular: George Rosendale, a young Aboriginal man (only 19 when he was bitten in 1949) who is the only person ever known to have survived a taipan bite without being treated with antivenom; Bruce Stringer, a ten-year-old who was bitten in 1955 and became the first human to receive the then brand-new antivenom; Kevin Budden, an amateaur herpetologist who in 1950 captured the first living taipan but who died in the process; and John Dwyer, a friend of Budden's who in his memory captures the second living taipan, said snake becoming both the most significant contributor to antivenom production and the first taipan to be exhibited in a zoo. Between these men and others featured more briefly, Venom is packed full of exciting stories of hunting snakes through jungles and sugarcane fields, and medical dramas in which lives are saved or lost as doctors and amateurs struggle to find the best treatments. It's not all page-turning adventures though; I appreciate how much attention Murray gave to the role of colonialism and anti-Aboriginal racism, both in Rosendale's personal life and the larger scope of Australian history.

I do have a few criticisms. Murray jumps back and forth between so many characters (are they still called characters if they're real people? whatever) and between so many time periods that I was often confused and had trouble remembering who was who. Less significantly, I longed for a epilogue or short final chapter that would have covered what we now know about taipan. A great deal of Venom is taken up with scientists arguing over what were unknowns in the 1940s and 50s – is the taipan a separate species from the Eastern Brown Snake? Is it venomous? If so, how much? how big does it get? where can it be found? how far south does its range extend? – that by the time I reached the end of the book, I was desperate for answers! Don't make me do my own research, Murray, especially since I'm too lazy to go past Wikipedia.

Overall, I'd absolutely recommend this to anyone who enjoys creepy biology or exciting history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest in the Vorkosigan series! :D I know a lot of the fandom hated this book when it first came out, which is why I've put off reading it until now, but I'm actually quite enjoying it.

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3:07 pm - Fic: Contrasting Colors (Vantablack Feud, NC-17)
Title: Contrasting Colors
Ratings/Warnings: NC-17
Fandom: The Vantablack Feud between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor. If you haven't heard of this (extremely hilarious) war going on in the art world, this article explains it pretty well.
Notes: My Yuletide fic! :D


Summary: Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor have extremely different views on the idea of sharing Vantablack with the wider artistic community. But this time, Vantablack isn't a color; it's a spell. Their rivalry, however, might just be disguised sexual tension.

4831 words. On AO3.

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Sunday, January 7th, 2018
5:24 pm - Yuletide Recs, Part 2!
Fandoms N-Z! Shorter this time, because apparently I know fewer fandoms in the second half of the alphabet.

From the beast she pulls a lover
Omar Rayyan - Works (aka this painting), gen, 3.9k, Teen.
It would be sad, of course, to see such an illustrious family fall by the wayside, but there were plenty of careers a young girl of her background could have – and there was always marriage.
Really wonderful world-building piece that's just as decadent and dangerous as the original painting.

i carry your heart with me
Persuasion - Jane Austen, Anne Elliot/Frederick Wentworth, 1.9k, G.
Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible for Anne to withstand her father’s ill will, Lady Russell’s continuous advisals, but if not for a matter of science and self-denial. Neither Anne nor Captain Wentworth bore the other’s mark.
Very good soulmates AU that works the fantasy world-building into this canon so well.

Animal Spirits
Psmith - Wodehouse, Mike/Psmith, 13.5k, Explicit.
With a match against the Eton first eleven looming, Psmith is behaving strangely, and Mike wants to get to the bottom of it.
“That’s new,” Fossington said to Psmith, indicating the monocle.
“I didn’t think it was possible for you to get more affected Smith,” Carter sneered.
“It’s Psmith,” said Mike, detecting the dropped ‘P’. “Are you hard of hearing or just stupid?”
“Always the man with the pertinent question, Comrade Jackson,” Psmith said mildly, taking a sip of his tea.

HELL YEAH LOVE THAT SEX POLLEN AND ANGST! :D

The Double Heart
A Study in Emerald - Neil Gaiman, gen, 8.1k, Teen.
My meeting with John Watson was always, I'm convinced, meant to be. I mean that not in any vulgar superstitious way, but the way true fate works - through the workings of our own souls.
A Study in Emerald - if any of you are unfamiliar with it – is a crossover between Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft, in which Queen Victoria and most other world powers are Cthulhu-esque monsters. This fic tells the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, and is just as gritty and horrific as I could desire, with plenty of repressed emotions.

Know Where You Stand
Rivers of London, Sahra Guleed-focused, 6.6k, Teen.
Sahra Guleed is the third-most qualified Falcon officer in the Met. This is not her fault, but – somehow – it’s still her responsibility.
Excellent character study – which nonetheless features a lot of plot, and Sahra struggles with the decision of whether she should learn magic.

love & communication
Rivers of London, Peter/Bev, 2.5k, Teen.
“It’s just that we’ve got a good thing going here. I didn’t want to wreck it by getting ahead of myself.” At Christmas, Beverley and Peter have a conversation that's been a long time coming.
Utterly adorable future fic for my favorite ship in the fandom!

Ripples of Unease
Rivers of London, Sahra Guleed-focused, 1.8k, Teen.
Beverley has a tip-off, and Sahra is the best person to deal with it. Sometimes, duty just has to involve getting wet.
Excellent character study of someone we don't see enough of in canon.

warp of water, weft of stone
Rivers of London, Peter/Nightingale, 10.8k, Teen.
The demi-monde is at peace. Thomas Nightingale, however, is not.
RoL casefic about a bog body! :D I mean, the Nightingale characterization here is perfect, and the writing is particularly lovely, but let's be real, I am all about the bog body.

Assistance to British Nationals Abroad
Rivers of London/British Government Cats RPF, gen, 20.4k, G.
Three cats, three humans, a dog and a tarantula walk through a Gate -
Look at that fandom tag! :D This is the best crossover of all time. A fic in which Larry (the tabby cat who lives in 10 Downing St), who is a wizard, and Palmerston (the tuxedo cat who lives in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office), who is not, must save the dumb humans of London from cosmic monsters trying to break through a dimensional gate. This story was the MOST fun.

Perambulation
Wayfarers Series - Becky Chambers, Ohan-focused, 1.6k, Teen.
Really sweet post-canon character study. I loved seeing Ohan adjust to their new state.

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Sunday, December 31st, 2017
4:24 pm - Yuletide Recs!
Yuletide recs, for fandoms A-M! I have just barely gotten this in before author reveals, and clearly still have half the alphabet to get through. Ah, well.

First off, my own gift!!
Water Lens
Benjamin January, gen, 2.4k, Teen.
“The good widow couldn't dump you in the fast section of the river, apparently,” January said. “It had to be the mud.”
“If she'd only panicked five minutes earlier,” Rose agreed with a sigh. “We were on the bridge then – although given the state of that particular river I wouldn't necessarily put money on it being that much cleaner.”

All my all favorite story tropes are here: bathing together and playing with hair and the OT3 and Rose doing science and there’s even a mystery to solve in here too! It is wonderful and I love it and everyone should give the mystery author more kudos.

And here are my other favorites:

so come home
12 Dancing Princesses fairy tale, gen, 21.5k, G.
A detective is called to a space station to solve the mystery of whether--and how--twelve astronauts are accessing the surface of a forbidden planet.
A very well-written sci-fi murder mystery, with great worldbuilding and characters.

Recruits
American Gods, Mr Wednesday and Mad Sweeney, 4.2k, G.
The Norse god of battle and a mad Irish king walk into a bar. This is not a joke, my son: except in a sense, it is. They are Old Gods, it’s the New World, and the game must be kept going.
Really great backstory on the gods in WWI.

The Locust</i>
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side - James Tiptree Jr., 2.2k, Mature.
Letter of Fr. Francisco Nadal to Fr. Bartolomeo Strozzi, 1588.
The original short story is about the horrifying effects on humanity of alien sexuality; this fic translates it into Imperial Spain and makes the different cultural setting really work. Because everyone needs some terror on Christmas!

And on the seventh...
Aubrey-Maturin Series - Patrick O'Brian, Jack/Stephen, 11k, G.
This decision might be considered the luckiest, as standing near Jack meant that Stephen was not alone in his fall overboard.
Or it might be considered the unluckiest, as standing near Jack meant that Stephen was foremost in the splinters' path, when the ranging shot abruptly found its range.

Desert island fic with H/C, angst, kissing in the ocean, and new species of birds. AKA, everything good in fic.

And for that riches where is my deserving?
Benjamin January mysteries, Ben/Rose/Hannibal, 1.8k, Teen.
If Ben was honest with himself, he suspected that one day Hannibal might simply vanish from their lives. He desperately hoped that this was not the day.
Delicious Hannibal whump plus the OT3! What more could anyone want out of the tiny fandom of my heart?

Family Gathering
Books of the Raksura, Moon-focused, 2.8k, G.
After some of Jade and Moon's first clutch are confirmed to be Royal Aeriat, Pearl wants the fledgelings brought to her bower. Ember thinks Moon should be there too.
Really adorable baby-fic, with some lovely Pearl characterization.

Home
Books of the Raksura, Consolation gen, 4.1k, G.
It turned out that living like people instead of monsters required all sorts of skills and tools. Cleaning required soap, and some inkling of how to apply it. Consolation’s flight, having been raised by monsters, not people, had none of the requisite skills.
This is the post-canon fic about how Consolation learns to be a person that was my greatest wish for Christmas, and it's everything I could have hoped for.

Mordre, She Wroot
Canterbury Tales, Wife of Bath-focused, 8k, G.
At least one pilgrim will not make it to Canterbury.
Yes, you ABSOLUTELY DO need the Wife of Bath solving murders in your life. Just trust me on this.

Underworlds: The Life and Afterlife of Richard Upton Pickman
Cthulhu mythos, gen, 3.7k, G.
Explore the life, works and enduring influence of Richard Upton Pickman, a controversial artist of the early 20th century. This exhibition includes several paintings never before displayed in public, including all of Pickman's graphic, unsettling "horrors" currently remaining in North America. The Boston Globe called Underworlds "stomach-turning food for thought"— but decide for yourself! Young children may find Pickman's paintings frightening; parents are advised to consider carefully before allowing them to proceed.
This program serves as a guide to the exhibit. Audio versions for your mobile phone are available at the Parrington museum website.

Such a well-done pastiche of a museum guide to a series of horrifying paintings.

What Is Begotten
The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus/Esca, 7.5k, Teen.
Esca learns the Latin word by accident, from Stephanos of all people. Soul-mate.
A soulmate AU with an absolutely lovely take on the canon.

Of Devils and Other Fine Things
Fallen London, The Wistful Deviless/Zee-Captain, 1.1k, G.
Wooing a devil can only end in tears.
Really fantastic interpretation of what a relationship with a devil really means.

head above water
Gattaca, Jerome-focused, 1.2k, G.
“Do you know,” Jerome’s mother asks his coach, “how Jerome first started swimming? Did he ever tell you that story?”
Absolutely wonderful backstory for Jerome.

Suspect
Gattaca, Anton Freeman-focused, 1.8k, G.
Five things Anton thought upon seeing Vincent was a suspect for murder (and one thing he said).
Lovely character study on a minor part of the movie, this feel so right.

Attempt #534: The One With The Bees
The Good Place, Chidi/Eleanor, 8k, Explicit.
“Eleanor!” Chidi looks even more upset as he blurts out, “The universe doesn’t want us to have sex, okay?”
Eleanor chokes. “I’m sorry, what?”

In which Eleanor and Chidi repeatedly try – and fail – to have sex. Totally hilarious, and also hot.

Care and Feeding of Your Janet
The Good Place, Janet-focused, 1.2k, Teen.
Please read this guide carefully before activating your Janet.
So, so, so funny.

Operation: Seduce Michael
The Good Place, Michael/Everyone, 2.3k, Teen.
If at first you don't succeed, send a different cockroach.
Really hilarious fic about the plan to seduce Michael, with pitch-perfect character voices and humor just like the show's.

so slip your hand inside of my glove
The Handmaiden, Hideko/Sook-hee, 2.6k, Teen.
Hideko lets Sook-hee teach her how to distinguish sapphire from spinel and obediently bites the gold Sook-hee brings back to her. Hideko and Sook-hee, after.
A post-canon fic that is beautiful and just perfection.

Who's Got Who
The Hateful Eight, Chris Mannix/Marquis Warren, 6.7k, Explicit.
Warren makes inventive use of Mannix's sheriff star. And, for that matter, inventive use of Mannix.
He thinks that will be the end of it.

You know, as much as love Hateful Eight, I never expected to begin shipping Mannix/Warren. What can I say but that this fandom has some damn good writers? And they know their porn; good lord this one is hot.

As Ice in the Desert
Historical RPF, Richard I "The Lionheart" of England/Saladin, 2.3k, Teen.
Saladin visits Richard's sickbed with fruit, and a question in his eyes.
Gorgeously written, really some of the most beautiful descriptions I've read in quite a while. Two people on the opposite sides of the Crusades in a moment of peace.

all the nameless that keeps us rising despite
IT, Stan/Richie/Beverly, 4k, Teen.
When Stan went over to Richie’s house after dinner to tutor him for their math test tomorrow he thought he knew exactly what he was signing up for.
Beautiful depiction of loss and love and a game of spin-the-bottle.

Epilogue
Jane Eyre, Jane-focused, 3.4k, Mature.
Not everything, Jane learns early on, is real.
Deeply creepy alternative interpretation of the canon. I love this possibility.

How Else Would Sailing Ships Ever Have Navigated?
Jeeves, Madeline Bassett/Honoria Glossop, 2.3k, G.
“Do you think,” Madeline said to Honoria as the more impressive parts of nature gradually crept up upon them, “that all daffodils are the daughters of sunlight?”
Absolutely adorable fic for some minor characters with a pitch-perfect tone for the canon.

the worlds that spin beyond our atmosphere
Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter/Caine, 7.8k, Teen.
When Jupiter woke up, there was a small metal sphere on the pillow beside her. She blinked at it, because it certainly had not been there when she had gone to bed the night before. Then Aunt Nino began to stir and grumble as she too woke up and Jupiter snatched up the sphere, lobbing it hastily into her half-packed suitcase on her way to go and make the coffee.
In which Jupiter is propositioned by a space travel agency (but fancier!) and introduces Caine to her family.

Gorgeous worldbuilding and wonderful expansion of the canon. I love the descriptions of other planets in here.

Damsel
King Arthur (2017), Arthur/The Mage, 3k, Teen.
In which there's a girl, a dragon, and a castle, and Arthur resolves not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Totally hilarious and a great fit with the canon.

Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd
Kushiel's Legacy, Phedre/Joscelin, 1.9k, Explicit.
There are few things Phedre has never done. There's one she's never done with Joscelin.
Wonderful hot and sweet fic. Het anal, which is rare to see in fanfiction, but so very well-done here.

Midwinter Queen
The Lion in Winter, Henry/Eleanor, 1.6k, G.
Christmas at Chinon, 1183. Conversation gambits keep the Christmas fires burning.
Cynical and regretful and funny and heavy, this story does a better job of capturing the voice of the canon than almost any I've read.

By Degrees
Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford/Fanny Price, 16.6k, Mature.
Her conscience had been disturbed, and she could no longer dislike Mary Crawford enough to be safe from her, if such a thing had ever been possible at all.
Really excellent slow-burn for one of my favorite Austen ships, and the Fanny characterization is just ideal.

Canada Gold
Mean Girls, Regina George/Janis Ian, 3.9k, Teen.
Regina joined the CIA to catch bad guys. Unfortunately, this time, that meant she had to work with Janis.
Yeah, so it turns out that the thing that's been missing from my life is Mean Girls f/f rival spies future-fic. I am so, so glad that this story exists because it's amazing.

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Thursday, December 21st, 2017
12:40 pm - Reading Thursday
What did you just finish?
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. A nonfiction book attempting to explain the upswing in conservative voters in the midwest and other rural areas. It's a bit out of date; it was published only in 2004 but things change fast in the politics game. Nonetheless, this book is pretty amazingly prescient; a lot of his discussion of conservative Republicans choosing to vote for their values (pro-life and anti-gay marriage in particular) against their own economic self-interest could apply perfectly to the Trump tax bill that passed just yesterday.

Frank focuses on Kansas because it's his home state, but it also makes for a very interesting case study. Although these days it's almost a byword for conservatism (perhaps moreso in 2004, when the Kansas School Board had recently declared all students must be taught 'evolution is a theory, not a fact'), it once had an equally radical liberal history: Bloody Kansas, John Brown, the Populist movement of the 1890s. Frank blames the shift on Democrats more-or-less abandoning their economic principles of supporting unions, New Deal-esque social welfare programs, high taxes for the rich and strict regulations for corporations. With little to distinguish between Democrats and Republicans in economic terms, the Republicans were able to corral the cultural backlash against the social changes of the last few decades into votes – which they promptly used not to actually repeal abortion or make profanity on TV illegal, but to pass taxes and deregulations that made the rich richer.

It's a sound enough argument. My one criticism of the book is that Frank doesn't address race at all. Or rather, he does bring it up once: to say that it's not a factor in Kansas. Which, uh. I've never been to Kansas, and certainly I don't remember race coming up particularly frequently in the pundit discussions of GWB's first election, but I find that hard to believe. Even if it was true at the time, it's certainly no longer true after Obama. Frank, in general, discounts all social issues compared to economic ones – race, feminism, lgbt rights, etc. And it's not that I don't agree that economics are important! But I think he's incorrect to reduce everything that could possibly fit under the category of 'civil rights' to province of "the self-righteous" (YES THAT IS AN ACTUAL QUOTE, WTF). Both sides can matter.

Anyway, like I said, it's a good book overall, even if I think Frank would benefit from considering stuff other than economics. Like, anything. Anything at all.


The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson. A historical nonfiction about, well, look at the title. I've had my copy of this book for a year now, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. Real life has been so full of racist and depressing politics that I couldn't handle facing more of the same in my reading.

However, it turns out that The Blood of Emmett Till is more suspenseful than depressing. I mean, it's still about the violent murder of a 14-year-old child, don't get me wrong. It's not exactly light-hearted. But Tyson doesn't describe in detail what happened to Till after he was taken from his great-uncle's house until the last chapter. Instead most of the book is focused on recreating the wider cultural setting of the lynching, the personalities of the people involved, and the drama of the trial. There are some outright exciting stories in here, particularly one where reporters, lawyers, and activists go racing about rural Mississippi in disguise, hoping to find witnesses to help the prosecution.

I found the historical details to be the most fascinating part of the book. The Brown vs Board of Education decision had been handed down only the previous year, and rage against school desegregation and the possibility of interracial marriage was being actively flamed by various white supremacist groups. Two voting rights activists had been murdered (and a third shot who survived) nearby earlier that same summer; none of the cases were even investigated, much less tried. These events likely influenced Till's killers to attack him, and their belief that they would get away with it. Tyson also shows how Till's death helped the burgeoning civil rights movement. Many of the most famous names come up in the reaction and protests during and after the trial: Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, as well as events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Woolworth Lunch Counter Sit-ins.

It's an excellently written book with a page-turning quality nonfiction doesn't often have. I highly recommend it if you have the least interest in civil rights or America's racist history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Nothing yet! But I want to ask for recs: I’m in the mood for sci-fi, preferably of the space opera sort, with lots of alien species and bouncing around from one cool planet to the next. I want a fun and light book though, definitely nothing that could be described as military sci-fi. The Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy movies are good examples of what I want, but in a book. Basically I want the equivalent of those fics that are like ‘it’s our fave characters, but now they’re iiiiin spaaaaaaace!’.

The closest thing I can think of to what I’m looking for is Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura, which is not space opera, but does have all the awesome worldbuilding with many cool species and tons of fantastic imaginative settings. So, more stuff like that, please!

Things I’ve already read and so you don’t need to rec them to me: the Vorkosigan Saga, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, N.K. Jeminsin’s books, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, the Mars trilogy (all of KSR’s books, really), and The Left Hand of Darkness. Most of these are close to what I want, but way more serious than I’d like right now. I’m in the mood for fun!

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Wednesday, December 13th, 2017
5:21 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold. Another novella about Penric, a sorcerer – which in the rules of this fantasy series means he is possessed by a friendly chaos demon. Penric’s is named Desdemona and has possessed ten women – plus a lioness and a mare – before him, giving it a rather female personality. Penric’s Fox follows fairly closely after Penric and the Shaman (link to my review of it), wherein he met Inglis (the shaman of the title) and Oswyl (a sort of police detective). In this one, Penric is spending a pleasant day fishing with Inglis when Oswyl arrives to ask for their help –
another sorcerer has been murdered and her demon is missing. This sets off the murder mystery that ends up being the main plot: Who murdered her, of course, but also how on earth could anyone sneak up on a women with a demon, and where exactly has that demon has gone off to? And most importantly, who was the real intended victim: the woman or the demon?

When it seems the demon may have jumped into a passing fox, Penric and the others begin to search the forest and its hundreds of local foxes, a task much like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Their task is complicated when they find signs that the still-unknown murderer is also looking for a certain special fox.

I really enjoyed this novella. The Penric series (and the larger series it’s a subthread of, The World of the Five Gods) are all light, fun short stories, absolutely charming ways to spend an afternoon. I loved reading about Inglis and Oswyl again, as I'd liked them previously and was glad to see their friendship with Penric deepening. It’s also intriguing to see that Bujold seems to be setting up future stories to further explore the relationship between the magics of sorcerers and shamans, a topic that I’m very interested in her take on and so I will be looking forward to reading whatever comes next.

My one complaint is that, late in the novella, there's a development that seems to draw on the real-world issue of police brutality. I don’t think Bujold handled it offensively, but it’s a brief digression and that's not a great way to deal with such a sensitive topic. I wish she had either gone into it with real depth or had just not brought it up at all. As it is, it feels half-hearted, which isn’t fair to such a serious matter. But this is literally only a few pages out of two hundred, so I certainly wouldn’t un-recommend the novella for that alone. On the other hand, it did bother me, so I wanted to mention it.

Overall, a fantasy series that takes a digression into murder mystery. Certainly worth reading if you’ve enjoyed other books in the series, but not a good introduction to the world or characters.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Death Trick by Richard Stevenson. A murder mystery set in 1979 Albany, starring Donald Strachey, a private detective and gay man. The writing definitely shares some traits with the sparse, hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but Don has a sense of humor and tendency toward cheerful sarcasm that lightens the cliche and makes him a fun character to spend time with. He's in a fairly committed relationship (though unfortunately we don't get much background on that in this book) but struggles with monogamy; both halves of the couple sleep with other people in the course of the plot.

Which, by the way, is this: Billy Blount, a young gay man, spent the night dancing at a club with the DJ, Steven Kleckner. They were seen leaving together. The next morning Steven is found stabbed to death in his bed and Billy has gone into hiding. Don is hired by Billy’s parents to find where he’s gone and convince him to come back home – the parents have already worked out a plea deal with the judge and DA. However as Don investigates he slowly becomes convinced that Billy isn’t the killer, and his parents don’t have his best interests at heart.

The real fun of this book isn’t so much the mystery itself but the rich world of the gay community in a small city in the pre-AIDS era. No single person (including Don) gets much depth, but the setting as a whole is crowded with recognizable characters quickly sketched out with a few well-chosen details. There are hustlers and cruising in the park, poppers and bath houses, radical anarchist groups and drag queens, gay bars with lightless back rooms raided by the cops, and lots and lots of disco, music and pop culture references (which I mostly didn't recognize, to be honest; I am not familiar enough with the 70s). It’s not all fun, of course; Don also deals with homophobic cops and mental institutions using electroshock therapy to cure teenagers of their ‘poor social adjustment’ (aka gayness).

Death Trick is the first of a 15 books series. The cover is, uh, kind of appalling (unless you enjoy cheesy 90s stock photos, I suppose)(also why is there a dog? There’s no dog in the book!), but I really enjoyed reading it, and will absolutely be checking out more of the series.


What are you currently reading?
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, given that it has a good reputation, but it also came out in 2004 and what’s still relevant in politics changes fast. On the other hand, I just saw some article citing it as still topical in the Trump Era, so I've decided to finally pull the battered copy off my to-read shelf and open it up.

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Thursday, December 7th, 2017
3:54 pm - Reading Thursday
What did you just finish?
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford. A nonfiction book intended for a general audience about human DNA and what it tells us about our history and current existence. It's extremely up to date – I believe Rutherford even manages to cite studies from 2017 a few times – but also goes all the way back to the beginning, covering Darwin and Mendel and similar pioneers. It's nice that Rutherford doesn't spare his own field any criticism; he goes fairly thoroughly into the story of Francis Galton (the inventor of eugenics) and the problems with other scientists who have tried to use DNA to bolster their racist beliefs. He also does not have a lot of patience for 23andMe or similar 'analyze your heritage through DNA!' companies, arguing that they're too imprecise to give real answers.

The book is split in roughly half, with the first part covering human history (the evolution of Homo sapiens; how we mixed with closely related species like the Neanderthals and Denisovans; the movement of groups of people across the world, particularly Europe and Britain; and the evolution of traits like red hair and milk drinking), and the second half covering DNA in the modern world (does race exist genetically?; do genes predispose some people to becoming violent criminals?; how easy – or hard – is it to identify genetic diseases?; and the story of the Human Genome Project).

I found the writing to be dense and hard to get through, though I couldn't say exactly why; Rutherford certainly drops in plenty of jokes and references to the Simpsons or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He's at his best when he's telling a specific story rather than a general point of scientific principle. His descriptions of the attempt to use historical DNA to uncover mysteries like the identities of Richard III (successful!) or Jack the Ripper (hugely failed!) were very well-done, as was the chapter on why race doesn't work as a genetic concept. I think a lot of people are familiar with that general point, but he really digs into why with specific examples and many details and it was a fascinating read. But reading the rest, I often found my attention drifting, and had to yank it back to the page again and again. Unfortunately this problem seems to be worst in the opening chapter, making it hard to get into the book.

Overall, there's plenty of worthwhile information here, but the writing itself didn't work for me.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Death Trick by Richard Stevenson. I wanted something light and simple after A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived turned out to be a bit of a slog, so I picked this up off a rec: a murder mystery starring a gay private eye, set in 1979 in Albany (which means: rural, upstate New York). it is very much meeting my needs so far, though gay books written pre-AIDS always end up feeling a bit alien to me. I had the same reaction to Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City.

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Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
1:55 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Everfair by Nisi Shawl. A steampunk alt-history of the Belgian Congo. (Summary of the real-world history, though trigger warning for about everything ever. When even Wikipedia is almost unreadably horrifying, you know it's a bad time. As a side note, Everfair itself is not nearly as traumatic as it could be. Atrocities are mentioned, but they happen off-screen and without detail.) Or at least that's how the book is generally described, though in fact that summary only covers the first half; Everfair goes on to follow its characters through WWI, the Spanish influenza epidemic, and a local civil war, encompassing about thirty years overall through the eyes of at least a dozen main characters.

My own summary: a group of settlers (both black and white, American and European, socialist atheists and Christian missionaries – all forced together to share resources) buys land in the Congo from the Belgian government and moves there with the specific goal of somehow helping the local people against their oppressors. They are shortly afterwards joined by a group of Chinese, escapees from forced labor under the Belgians. Together, they name their new settlement Everfair. Although they ultimately succeed in this original mission, the community is torn apart by its internal divisions as well as the difficulty of integrating the immigrants with the already-established African kingdom they have dropped into the middle of, not to mention somehow establishing a recognized modern independent country in the early part of the 20th century.

There is a lot to love about this book. If the image of nuclear-powered zeppelins staffed with African tribal warriors dropping bombs on Belgian colonizers does not get your heart pumping, you need more joy in your life. There are multiple queer (lesbian particularly) romances and poly romances. There are characters with good intentions who nonetheless fuck up spectacularly. There are disabled characters, and the awesome bronze gear-powered prosthetics invented to replace their missing limbs. There are assassination attempts and devious characters manipulating propaganda for their own ends. There are magic charms that really work, including a swarm of bees to rekindle a lost love and a school for spies that teaches girls to shapeshift into cats. There is a beautiful, worldly, shrewd queen, who makes alliances and offers advice; a French spy who writes stories about talking animals; a Chinese engineer who designs better and better airships; a greedy young black woman from small-town Florida who's determined to find fame on the stage; a Protestant reverend who finds himself chosen by the Yoruba god of lightning and metal.

It's all pretty great! And yet, and yet... if only there was more room for any of it to breathe. Which is my main complaint: there's so damn much going on here. Everfair is only about 400 pages long, but the content could easily have filled a seven-volume series of doorstoppers. As it is, wars come and go, romances are formed and broken, children are born and reach adulthood, but it all happens so quickly and ephemerally that it's hard to emotionally engage with any of it. Everfair reads more like a series of loosely-connected vignettes than a novel, and as much as I admire its ambition, I don't think Shawl quite pulled off a successful work. The ideas are wonderful, but they're missing the depth of exploration they need.

Still. They are some pretty great ideas.


What are you currently reading?
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford. Nonfiction about ancient DNA. It's getting off to a slow start, but I have high hopes.

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Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
3:51 pm - Reading Wednesday... ON WEDNESDAY!
What did you just finish?
Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott. A retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in 1940s Harlem. There are some immediate differences from the original: it's not an epistolary novel, which I have mixed feelings about; on the one hand, I LOVE epistolary novels, but on the other hand the third-person limited POVs certainly allow Scott to dig deeper into characters' motivations and feelings. In addition, the Marquise de Merteuil (here Mae Malveaux, wealthy heir to a cosmetics fortune, the products all emblazoned with her baby photos) is less of a main character, replaced in her central role by Vicomte de Valmont (Valiant Jackson, equally wealthy club owner and number runner, though stymied in his life-long dream of owning a baseball team; as another character puts it, no one whose money comes from gambling is ever going to be allowed to buy a sports team) and Cécile de Volanges (Cecily, still an innocent young girl, though in this case her inexperience comes from being sent to live on the family farm in North Carolina rather than a convent). The relationship between Val and Madame de Tourvel (Elizabeth Townsend, a deeply religious woman married to an important civil rights lawyer who is currently away working on a case down South) probably takes up the largest page-count of any of this story's many subplots, with Scott working hard to show how two such different people could find a genuine connection, one deep and true enough to change both of their self-images.

The biggest difference, though, is one of tone; Les Liaisons Dangereuses revels in its characters' remorseless evil, and isn't particularly interested in giving them tragic backstories to account for their actions. The Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont are terrible, terrible people, but by God they're fun to watch. Unforgivable Love not only gives them those explanatory childhoods, but by making Elizabeth and Cecily equal narrators, shifts the focus from badass villains to normal people struggling with ethical choices. There's a general tone of redemption, of hopefulness, of the possibility of making good out of this tragedy. Which I can't really argue with as a philosophical standpoint, but it's not what I come to Les Liaisons Dangereuses for. It also contrasts harshly with some of the actions required by the plot; Cecily and Val's first sexual encounter in particular is incredibly uncomfortable to read, given that it's described in no uncertain terms as rape, yet Cecily gets over it immediately and happily returns to sleeping with Val.

I also think the book's page-count of 500-plus was probably unnecessary; certainly there's a lot of twists and turns in this story, not to mention a fairly large cast of characters, but Unforgivable Love felt like it dragged in parts, particularly compared to the slim swift-moving original novel.

But I feel like I'm complaining a lot here, and I didn't actually dislike Unforgivable Love. I love a good modern-AU fanfic (which is essentially what this is), and the analogies Scott has found for the characters' roles are clever and well-suited. Many of the descriptions of settings are absolutely lovely, from Harlem's jazz clubs to a rural farm to the lush grounds of an upstate mansion where much of the book takes place. Cecily's character arc of slowly coming to understand and accept her own sexuality is brilliant and well-written.

I love Les Liaisons Dangereuses and will always be interested in retellings of it. Part of my disappointment with Unforgivable Love might simply be that my expectations were far too high. But even if it's not everything I wanted, it's well worth reading, and I hope it does well.


What are you currently reading?
Still working on Everfair by Nisi Shawl. I've got some critiques, but it's a good book overall.

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Thursday, November 16th, 2017
5:53 pm - Almost-Wednesday Reading
What did you just finish?
How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. A nonfiction book about the true story of Thomas Day, an 18th century lawyer/philosopher/poet/generally useless dude, who was repeatedly disappointed in love and came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t him, but that no woman he’d ever known met his high standards. Since his ideal married life involved living in a rural cottage with no social contacts, bathing, modern conveniences, or other distractions from “virtue”, I'm unsurprised that he had difficulty finding a woman to agree to this. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel “Emilie” (a novel about raising the perfect child by teaching them to fend for themselves in the forest, and not really intended to be taken as a education manual), Day decided that the only way to find his perfect wife would be to create her himself. He therefore acquired two young girls from an orphanage (got to have a backup in case the first turned out less than perfect, see), spirited them over to France where they would be isolated from all help due to not speaking the language, and proceeded to subject them to a years-long experiment in schooling, frugal clothing, submissive behavior, and training in fortitude that extended to spilling hot wax on their bare skin or shooting at them with unloaded guns.

It’s a story that is so crazy it almost doesn’t matter how good of a writer Moore is – the subject matter is so compelling that provides all the tension and interest on its own. She is a very good writer, though, as well as a researcher. I was particularly impressed by her efforts to reconstruct the lives of the two girls before and after they lived with Day, a subject that had all but faded out of the historical record and often been allowed to remain in obscurity. She also does an excellent job of connecting this story to larger historical currents – the role of orphanages in 18th century London, the philosophical debate on how best to raise children, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile from France and journeys across Europe, Enlightenment philosophy, Day’s participation in the anti-slavery movement and the American Revolution (he was a prominent progressive, despite his obvious lack of interest in women’s rights), and Day’s friendships with other important historical figures such as Anna Seward (a poet and important letter-writer) and Erasmus Darwin (a natural philosopher and leader of a group of scientists and industrialists). She also points out that Day’s experiment was likely at least part of the inspiration behind ‘My Fair Lady’, as well as several other similar novels of the 19th century.

The book becomes a bit less interesting after the girls separate from Day, though that’s not Moore’s fault; what could she do when the truth simply becomes less balls-out insane? But even if every chapter isn’t quite as great as the premise makes it sound, the early parts are beyond compelling, and the background details of women’s lives in Georgian England make for a satisfying read.


Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold. Another in Bujold's series of novellas about Penric, a young man possessed by an ancient, female, mischievous demon named Desdemona. Hey, in this fantasy world, that's not so unusual – demon possession is more or less the only way to have magical powers – but most sorcerers, as they're called, are the result of careful choice and training, while Penric acquired Desdemona by accident and treats her with much more respect and affection than is generally recommended.

In this novella, a police detective (well, the fantasy equivalent) requires Penric's help to hunt down a man named Inglis, who not only murdered a young lord but stole his soul as well. How and why he did so is as much an open question as where he's fled to. The real fun of this story isn't so much the mystery but the world-building of the rules of magic; Inglis, it turns out, is a shaman, and his powers share a tantalizing similarity to Penric's own.

This is a charming, enjoyable novella, but one I wouldn't recommend if you haven't read a story with Penric before. It's a bit forgettable, but it's certainly a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Everfair by Nisi Shawl. A fantasy re-imagining of the Belgian colonization of the Congo. That's such a wonderful idea, and I've been meaning to read this for ages.

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Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
6:59 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg. A collection of “retold fairy tales” – or so says the blurb, but I think I’d describe it as a collection of short stories that, while they certainly play with fairy tale motifs and plots, aren’t quite producing new fairy tales, no more than The Bloody Chamber or Into the Woods are fairy tales. Besides, Ortberg takes her inspiration from sources beyond traditional folklore: here we have Shakespeare, the Bible, The Wind in the Willows, and Frog and Toad are friends, among others.

I’m a huge fan of Ortberg, which is the main reason I wanted to read this collection as soon as I knew it existed (though I am also a fan of fairy tale retellings, so that aspect didn’t hurt), but I mainly think of her as a comedian. Though she can be very funny, that sense of humor isn't much evident in this book. These stories are dark, casting a cynical eye over society and human relationships, with a few genuinely scary moments.

My favorite stories were 'The Daughter Cells', a take on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid from the point of view of the mermaid. I mean, I suppose the original was from the point of the view of the mermaid as well, but this is a story where the whole worldview is oriented to creatures that live in the ocean, and to breathe dry air or be unable to regenerate limbs or live behind doors are just odd cultural quirks that must be tolerated in those poor humans. Another favorite was 'The Rabbit', in which the Velveteen Rabbit does not become Real through love of a child, but through stealing the child’s life-force. It’s creepy and sociopathic and I just loved it.

On the other hand, I really wanted to like 'The Thankless Child', a mix of King Lear and Cinderella (and how have I never noticed those parallels before? The three daughters, the youngest one good but oppressed, the missing mother). Parts of it are wonderful, particularly the insistent demands of the godmother for the youngest child to love her and only her – that was absolutely chilling in an understated way. There’s an interesting take on gender roles here as well, with “husband” and “wife” being placements one decides on after marrying, more job titles than gender roles. On the other hand, I’m not exactly sure what happened at the end, in that way of literary fiction that is so concerned with being subtle it crosses the line into incomprehensible. It’s not the only story with a bit of that, but this was the piece that suffered the worst.

I did enjoy this collection overall, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. For a sample of Ortberg's writing in a similar vein, check out this retelling of Donkeyskin by her. If you like that, you’re sure to like this book as well.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan. A fantasy novel being advertised as “Game of Thrones but in Ancient China”, so of course I had to read it. Did it hold up to that? Well, the politics and backstories are necessarily going to be shallower when you don’t have seven books to fill, but I think it’s a fair comparison.

Portal of a Thousand Worlds is set in what felt to me like vaguely early Qing Dynasty era (1600-1700s), but with fantasy elements such as a widespread network of assassins who have a little bit of magic, just enough to change their appearances (okay, maybe there's more than one Game of Thrones connection) and a giant door carved into a mountainside that supposedly opens once every few thousand years. No one's quite what happens when it opens, since generally no witnesses survive. Unfortunately for fantasy-China's stability, when the book begins portents suggest that it's due to open next year.

The plot mostly centers around the current emperor, a young man left severely mentally disabled after an attempted poisoning. His mother, the empress, has kept this a secret and is ruling in his stead, but the time has come for the emperor to sire an heir, and he's incapable of doing so. Horse, a member of that assassin's guild who's too nice to want to kill anyone, is smuggled into the palace to provide a look-alike sperm donor, but when he falls in love with one of his new concubines, he realizes that he's trapped in the court with no way back out. Meanwhile, a rebel army (with a bit of a Taiping Rebellion vibe) has risen in the south, firmly convinced that the real emperor is dead and determined to overthrow the "corrupt" empress.

In a separate plot thread, another member of the assassin's guild is cheerfully murdering his way to wealth and seducing the daughters of rich merchants along the way. Silky (the assassin) and Verdant Harmony (that merchant's daughter) end up married and surprisingly well-suited to one another. Seriously, Verdant might have been my favorite character in the book, and I would love a sequel watching her grow into herself.

In yet a third plot-thread, a young peasant boy named Sunlight is identified as the "Firstborn", the "Urfather", a Dalai Lama-like spiritual figure who is continually reincarnated with the full memory of his previous lives, much worshipped, feared, and respected for his wisdom. He sets out to broker peace between the emperor and the rebel army, but the hard part will be convincing anyone he is who he says he is.

I do have some complaints about the book. Many of the characters didn't feel quite three-dimensional, and Duncan seems to have a weird hatred for eunuchs. Not a single one could appear on the page without repeated descriptions of how they were smelly and devious. (Maybe this is my own bias, since I think I'm oddly predisposed to liking fictional eunuchs, but really, Duncan? Not a single sympathetic one?) The ending and the reveal of what’s up with the portal felt a bit underdeveloped/deus ex machina when they arrived. But despite these problems, I’m so goddamn glad to read an epic fantasy that manages to finish its story in one volume that I’ll forgive almost anything. Not to mention how refreshing it is to read an epic fantasy that's not set in vaguely medieval Europe! For the sake of those factors, I ended up more pleased by Portal of a Thousand Worlds than not.


What are you currently reading?
Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott. A retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in Harlem in the 1940s. What an excellent premise! :D

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Friday, November 3rd, 2017
1:51 pm - Reading for October, Part Two
In which I read a bunch horror novels because it's Halloween.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. A novel in the recent genre of "Lovecraft but with antiracism". In this one, the main character Atticus Turner is a young black man in the 1950s who has just discovered that he is the closest living descendant of a powerful wizard from early America (via Atticus's great-great-great-however many times grandmother, who escaped from slavery the same night the wizard accidentally immolated himself and everyone he was close to in an attempt to gain greater power). The wizard's surviving followers have tracked Atticus down and would like to use him for a ritual he is not intended to survive. They kidnap his father to force Atticus to follow him to their creepy small town in rural New England.

This sets off a series of events in which Atticus, his extended family, and several friends are repeatedly caught up in supernatural events: a coup within the wizard cabal, haunted houses, magic potions that grant tempting powers, visits to distant planets, devilishly evil – literally! – cops, treasure hunts for mysterious artifacts, and so on. Each chapter is relatively disconnected from the others and focuses on a different character, so the book has somewhat of the feel of a series of short stories rather than a regular novel. Since Lovecraft himself was more of a story writer than a novelist, the homage is obvious. Through it all, though, the specter of Jim Crow racism proves more dangerous and pervasive than any creature from another dimension. One of the most haunting sections is a flashback to the childhood of Atticus's father, when he escaped the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly; I just wanted it to go a bit deeper or explore further than it ever actually did. Most of this is down to the short story-esque format; since each one has a new narrator and plot, I never got to know any of the individuals well enough. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly scary book either, though to be fair it's not trying to be. The concept of wizards competing over ancient books of power is really the only detail it takes from Lovecraft. There's no ancient gods or mind-breaking geometry man was not meant to comprehend here, nor races of squid-people.

Lovecraft Country is apparently being produced by HBO as a series, which seems like a great idea. I suspect this is one of those cases where an adaptation (particularly a serial one, like a TV show) could do more with the material than the original did.


Bone White by Ronald Malfi. A horror novel set in contemporary rural Alaska. Paul Gallo has a contentious relationship with his drop-out druggie twin, Danny, but ever since Danny disappeared a year ago while on a trip to "find himself", Paul has been dedicated to figuring out what happened to him. Then a serial killer surrenders in the small town of Dread's Hand, Alaska – the same place Danny was last heard from. Paul, of course, heads to Alaska to start his own investigation, and discovers that something supernatural may be going on. The people of Dread's Hand tell stories of a devil who turns people "bone white" – poisons them from the inside, leaves them soulless and dangerous – and everyone, from the local cops to the hotel owner to the serial killer himself, is clearly helping to cover up whatever happened to Danny.

This was an absolutely fantastic book. Malfi is not only a master at creating creeping tension, conveying the horror of absolute isolation, coming up with straight-up uncanny images, and just generally being scary, but his prose has a beauty that's rare in this genre. A few random examples of lines that struck me:
Daylight broke like an arterial bleed.
He could feel the slight increase in his heartbeat, and despite the cold that he’d carried in with him from the outside, a film of perspiration had come over him. He felt amphibious with it.
Blink and you’d miss it: a town, or, rather, the memory of a town, secreted away at the end of a nameless, unpaved roadway that, in the deepening half light of an Alaskan dusk, looks like it might arc straight off the surface of the planet and out into the far reaches of the cosmos. A town where the scant few roads twist like veins and the little black-roofed houses, distanced from one another as if fearful of some contagion, look as if they’d been excreted into existence, pushed up through the crust of the earth from someplace deep underground. There is snow the color of concrete in the rutted streets, dirty clumps of it packed against the sides of houses or snared in the needled boughs of steel-colored spruce. No one walks the unpaved streets; no one putters around in those squalid little yards, where the soil looks like ash and the saplings all bend at curious, pained, aggrieved angles.
And even farther still, he saw what appeared to be an impromptu landfill—a conglomeration of old washing machines, truck tires, TV antennas, and even an entire discarded swing set lay in a jumbled heap in the overgrown grass, like some beast that had succumbed to the elements and left its skeleton behind.
Sure, it's not poetry, but it's a damn sight better than the workmanlike prose that I expected, and is a major part of why I loved this book.

Another thing I adored was Jill Ryerson, investigator in Major Crimes Fairbank and the book's secondary narrator. Despite Paul and Jill being relatively the same age and both single... they never hook up! They never even waste time experiencing 'sexual tension'! They just get on with their jobs, interacting like two platonic professionals! DO YOU KNOW HOW RARE THIS IS? I was ecstatic when I realized that there wasn't going to be some dumb romantic subplot. Jill even gets this wonderfully un-feminized description when she fall ill at one point: "A whip of Kleenex corkscrewing from one nostril and a steaming mug of Theraflu on the counter, she’d listened to McHale’s voice in disbelief."

There are complaints I could make about Bone White: there's a dumb recurring theme of powerful chakras, and the ending felt a little anticlimactic. But all of that is minor compared to the all-important trio of 1.) a genuinely scary book, with 2.) lovely writing, and 3.) well-written, competent female characters who are not there to be sexual foils for the male heroes.

This is the first book I've read by Malfi, but I was incredibly impressed and will definitely be reading more.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books where just figuring out what the hell is going on takes until the end; they can be fun to read, but they're damn hard to review.

So here's what we know: a significant portion of the southern US (I assumed, though now that I think about it, I believe the country is never actually specified) has been cordoned off by the government for decades and renamed "Area X". Exactly what happened to Area X – something supernatural? alien? environmental? disease-related? radioactive? – is either unknown or deliberately suppressed, but the only humans allowed into the area are small teams of explorers. Our unnamed narrator, known only as "the biologist", is a member of the twelfth expedition, along with three other women: the anthropologist, the surveyor, and their leader, the psychologist. All members of previous expeditions have died, either within Area X itself – whether of suicide or killed by other members of their team – or after returning, due to aggressive cancers. The biologist is meant to study the pristine wilderness created by humans having abandoned the area, but she slowly realizes that the act of observation is changing her as well, turning her into something that may not be quite human. Her past and her reasons for taking such a job are also slowly revealed. It's a short novel (about 130 pages), and though there's plenty of unsettling descriptions, we never do get a firm answer on what's going on with Area X or why any of this is happening.

Annihilation reminded me a lot of House of Leaves. There's that same sense of the normal being made uncanny, though in this case it's swamps, a lighthouse, and dolphins with too-human eyes rather than a four-and-a-half minute hallway. Nor are there any explanations to be had, except in the vague sense of symbolism and the main character's psychology. Unfortunately, unlike House of Leaves the cryptic nature of Annihilation didn't quite work for me. I'm all for open endings, but when the characters, the plot, the setting, and the meaning are all vague as misty streaks on a cloudy night, I'm left with nothing to hang on to.

It had some lovely descriptions of plants, I'll give it that.


Invasive by Chuck Wendig. I asked for recs for scary reads over on twitter, and [profile] call_me_ishmael provided me with a list, of which I chose this one. There's a very simple reason for that: it's a horror novel about ants.

A lot of people are creeped out by spiders. Me, I've never been able to stand ants. The shiny blackness of their surfaces, more like metal or plastic than any organic substance; the unnaturally sharp angles of their joints and segments; the flat reflectiveness of their eyes; the pointed mandibles in the base of their overly aerodynamic heads... it's wrong. Alien, robotic, monstrous – I'm not sure which, but they just don't seem like something from Earth. And so an entire book focusing on a creature that already makes me uncomfortable seemed like the perfect read for October.

In a rural cabin in upstate New York, FBI consultant Hannah Stander is called to what may or may not be a crime scene. An unidentified body is found with its skin having been eaten by ants; the ants themselves were later killed off by a cold snap. Hannah and others at first assume the guy was probably dead before the ants arrived, but as they investigate further they discover the ants are of no known species. Or rather, they're of multiple species: the ants are genetically modified organisms combining the traits of many different kinds of ants to make them uniquely and viciously deadly. They possess a venom potent enough to paralyze a human with anaphylactic shock after a single sting, and they're drawn to harvest human skin for its yeast in much the same way leaf-cutter ants collect greenery to grow fungus. An investigation of their DNA finds markers tying the ants back to the company of an eccentric billionaire of the Richard Branson/Elon Musk type; he, of course, denies all involvement, but Hannah is invited to travel to his privately-owned island where his team of scientists do cutting-edge research. And where they are all horribly isolated when the ants break out.

Hannah is a fantastic character to be the narrator of a horror novel. She suffers from panic attacks and has anxiety about everything – global warming, antibiotic resistant diseases, turbulence, etc – so her constant low-grade tension builds suspense before anything even happens. On the other hand, she was raised by off-the-grid doomsday prepper parents, so when the shit hits the fan she has the training and drive to survive the end of the world. She's complex, likable, and flawed, and I enjoyed spending time with her. Invasive is apparently a sequel to Wendig's Zer0es, but there is relatively little overlap between the two (Hannah, for example, seems to be new for this book), so I had no problem reading it as a stand-alone.

I do have a few complaints: the section of the book between the first death and before the ants are released is pretty slow-going, as Hannah just wanders around interviewing scientists and contemplating who might be lying. But once swarms of ants are covering the island, things kick up to such a high gear that all that boring stage-setting is redeemed. Secondly, the ultimate reveal of who made the ants and why wasn't satisfactory. Still, the horror genre as a whole can almost never stick their landings, so I suppose I can't hold it against Invasive too much.

Overall, this was the perfect horror techno-thriller: exciting, gross, and cheesy in just the right amounts.


The Wishing Tree by Aline Hannigan. I'm pretty certain I bought this because it was written by a fanfic author I enjoy, but of course now I can't remember whose penname it is, so maybe I was mistaken about that. Anyway.

In this novella, Theodora Miller – expert in weird supernatural shit – is called from her home in East Harlem to a small New Hampshire town suffering from a plague of mysterious murders. They seem to be connected to the 'wishing tree', an old oak in the nearby forest that local folklore has caused to be carved with the initials of every resident. Also, it turns out that there's a deadline: Theodora has only a few days to solve the case before the entire town will be destroyed.

The Wishing Tree suffers from a few minor grammar mistakes (though if the author was one of you, let me know and I'm happy to do a beta), but overall I liked the inventiveness of the mystery and its resolution. There's a twist at the end that nicely ties up the plot, the creepiness of the scenario is well-developed, and both Theodora and the local sheriff were interesting, effective characters. Fifty pages doesn't give one much room to build up the world, but I see the author plans to write the further adventures of Theodora and that could make for a very promising series.

It kept me engaged despite reading it on a turbulent flight, and what more can humanity really ask for from our greatest literature?

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Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
4:48 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward. The Villarca family has lived in Rawblood, a great Gothic mansion isolated in the bogs and mists of Dartmoor, for generations untold. The Villarcas are also haunted by… something. Exactly what it is depends on which generation of the Villarcas you ask: the ghost of a murdered woman, a curse, a predisposition to madness with episodes brought on by strong emotions, an autoimmune disease, a tendency to sicken and pine if they move away from the house of Rawblood, a history of murdering those they love.

The story is told in segments from different slices of the family's history, though at every moment the characters think they are the last of the bloodline, not realizing the reader has already met their descendants. In 1910 we have Iris Villarca, a young girl living alone with her father and Tom Gilmore, the stableboy she is closer to than she should be. As she grows older a series of tragedies condemn her to an insane asylum, where she rots in the care of doctors more concerned with the larger devastation of World War I than with her. In 1881, Alonso Villarca is determined to solve his family’s problems through medical science, a goal that drives him to experiments involving vivisection, opium, blood, and a notable lack of ethics. In 1839, Mary Hopewell fades away from consumption in Italy, living on an independence that just barely keeps her above poverty. She doesn’t know, of course, that she will soon meet Don Villarca, who will marry her and buy back her long-lost childhood home of Rawblood. There are other narrators too: Meg (someday to become Iris’s mother but when we meet her enduring a childhood raised by strangers and believing herself to have the powers of a witch), Charles Danforth (Alonso’s companion in medical experiments, who sees the ghost Alonso swears isn’t there), Tom Gilmore’s letters from the trenches, and nameless Villarcas back into the dark depths of history, medieval monks and tattooed pagans. All of these stories interrupt and influence one another, circling around family secrets and unavoidable consequences and the connections across generations. The future and the past become indistinguishable, and by the end of the book time has circled back on itself.

For all the obvious horror tropes – a haunted house! a ghost! a witch! – I wouldn’t really call this a horror novel. It’s not particularly interested in scaring the reader. Instead, more than anything, it’s a tragedy. And a tragedy in quite the classical sense: you’re told right at the beginning how it’s all going to end painfully, and yet the characters keep making the choices you know they have to make, setting the plot on unbending tracks toward the inevitable crash. There’s a bit of a mystery in figuring out what exactly haunts the Villarcas, but the central pull of the book isn’t in solving those clues (though I do have to say that I absolutely love the ultimate reveal), but simply in the loss and sadness of their downfall, and Iris’s in particular. Her loneliness, her trauma, the way she is both abandoned to her fate and the creator of that same fate – ah, it’s great.

I absolutely loved this book. It has a very Victorian feel in some ways – the setting, the ruin of a noble house, the situations of the characters – but the author has set very modern eyes on these old tropes, giving them a new and powerful turn. I really recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. Another in the spate of recent novels and short stories using H.P. Lovecraft's monsters and settings but with the explicit goal of subverting his racism. Can it possibly be as good as The Ballad of Black Tom? Probably not, but I'm enjoying it anyway.

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Sunday, October 8th, 2017
10:56 pm - Yuletide Letter
It's Yuletide time! Hooray!

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

AO3 name: Brigdh
Tumblr: Brigdh

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

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

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

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


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Monday, October 2nd, 2017
9:11 pm - Reading... Monday
What did you just finish?
The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. A nonfiction book not so much about Anne Boleyn herself, but about how perceptions of her have changed from her own time to today, frequently influenced by the perceiver’s own views on women, on religion, and on sexuality. One of the interesting things I learned is that the actual historical record is extremely sparse regarding Anne Boleyn; she existed, of course, but as to her personality, her goals, and her behavior, we know very little for sure. We have Henry’s letters to her during their courtship, for example, but her letters in response have been destroyed. Much of her reported dialogue and actions comes from the letters the Spanish ambassador wrote back to his king. As a politician and as a fierce loyalist of Katherine of Aragon, it’s an open question how accurate anything he said about Anne was. And yet for most of her life, there are almost no other contemporary reports to act as a counterbalance. She’s more or less an empty book, allowing subsequent generations to write whatever they wanted. We don’t even know, for sure, what she looked like – there is one painting that is maybe verifiably of her, but it’s a copy of the original and the identification could be mistaken.

Bordo’s interest is mostly in popular depictions rather than academic ones, and so we get analyses of Showtime’s The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, Victorian novels, and Restoration plays. She shows how Boleyn’s portrayals have veered from scheming temptress (possibly literally the antichrist) to martyr and victim of Henry’s cruel lusts, to feisty proto-feminist, to Mean Girl, to indistinguishable member of Henry’s six-wife harem, and on to a thousand other variations.

It’s a pretty fascinating topic. I did wish the book was a bit more of a deep dive than it quite is, but maybe my expectations were just too high for a work that was, after all, never trying to be a PhD dissertation.


Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron. The blurb for this book promised a "practical and entertaining guide to communicating science" explaining "how to engage your audience and explain why a particular finding matters". I was hoping for tips on how to write and speak when communicating scientific information to people who are not themselves experts in the field. You know, advice for public lectures, wide-appeal books, magazine articles – things like that. Unfortunately it turns out the 'explaining' was quite literal; while I was expecting a writing advice book, this is all about how one should talk to journalists or politicians.

Most of Escape from the Ivory Tower concerns how to give interviews, how to sound good on the radio, and what to do if a journalist misquotes you. I am sure this is helpful to those in the intended audience, but since I don’t see myself being called upon to testify to Congress anytime soon, I found it a bit useless. There was extremely little that was relevant to scientists who want to directly address the public themselves: about two pages on how to set up a blog and five on how to write and submit an op-ed. As for how to write books or give lectures, the main reasons I picked up the book – those topics were not addressed at all. But if you want tips for how to adapt yourself to TV interviews versus print interviews, or how to set up a meeting with a senator, this is the book for you!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Bone White by Ronald Malfi. It's October, so time for horror novels! :D

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Wednesday, September 20th, 2017
8:21 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. A novel about Jack, a man determined to visit 100 countries before his 35th birthday, all so he can join the Traveler’s Century Club.

Ugh, this book. It’s glaringly self-published, which I do not inherently object to – I'm all for self-publishing! But hire an editor, dude. It’s not typos or grammar mistakes that give it away (the book’s actually remarkably free of those)(which I suppose is damning with faint praise, but I am totally here to damn this book), but a constant stream of contradictions and just... well, odd choices. The one that leapt out to me most strikingly was when the narrator, in describing the Traveler’s Club, sticks the URL right in the middle of the text:
One down and two to go. Now all I had to do was to get to Kilrush and then to Fulgary and I could join the Travelers’ Century Club. See www.travelerscenturyclub.org for further details.

This would maybe even have been not so weird if it had come in the introduction, the first time the reader is told about this goal, or in the endnotes. But no, none of the above. This quote instead comes from the end of chapter ten, when the Traveler’s Club has been mentioned multiple times without needing an URL.

It’s minor, I know, but similar minor annoyances pop up constantly throughout the text. Jack only needs to visit three more countries, so he heads to the (fictional) islands of Placentia, Kilrush and Fulgary. The fact that these are separate countries is the entire point of the book. And yet the flights between them are repeatedly described as "domestic". In addition, it’s implied Placentia and Fulgaryy are still considered UK territories. Granted, other people probably aren’t as fascinated by the debate over what “counts” as a country as much as I happen to be (I blame this game, on which I spend way too much of my free time), but when it’s the central premise of your story, it needs at least a little consideration.

I could forgive all of the above if Jack was a character I enjoyed spending time with. Instead he’s a complete and total asshole. He condescends and mistreats service employees, he shallowly judges fellow tourists, he rates all women by their attractiveness and sulks when they don’t want to sleep with him. Every time he interacted with any other living creature I wanted to punch him.
For example, discussing his job as a stockbroker: Getting a job in the City is like getting a girl. The less interest and enthusiasm you show, the better chance you have.
Describing his ex-wife: I was still paying for my ex-wife’s house. She had taken me for a mug, then a Merc, then a million. I did quite well out of the divorce settlement; I kept most of the back garden and some of the roof tiles. I wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t come home to find somebody else’s kippers under the grill. I should have twigged when he helped move her stuff out when she ‘just needed some space’. […] And if I said no to her demands, I would get a call saying my daughter was ill or had been invited to a toddler’s party on the day I was supposed to visit. Her other trick was to pretend I had got the dates or the times wrong. It was easier just to give up. People only change in books or in films, not in real life. I stopped seeing my daughter as regularly when my folks told me she had started to call Graham ‘Daddy’.*
Interacting with a flight attendant: ‘Could I please have one of those bottles of fizzy mineral water?’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir, we are not allowed to give them out.’ She bent down so close to my face I was worried she was going to kiss me.
‘I don’t want to bother you all the time, asking you for water. Can you leave me the bottle; I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.’
‘I am afraid we can’t do that, sir.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘It’s against regulations. I am sorry, sir.’
‘But your in-flight magazine says quite clearly on page twenty-eight, that passengers should make sure they remain hydrated.’
‘I know, sir. I am sorry but they are the regulations.’
‘I am only asking for a bottle of fizzy water. I have spent thousands of pounds flying Business Class with you. I’m thirsty,’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir. It’s the rules.’
‘The rules… what airline has rules to prevent passengers from drinking water? Why advertise what a great service you provide, if you won’t give water to a thirsty passenger? What’s the point of pouring an eggcup-sized measure of water if I can jug down full glasses of wine? You do this because, as you know, the less weight you carry the less fuel you need, which means lower fuel costs and better profit.’ And with this, the hostess began to take away my empties.


I could have given you more egregious examples, but I chose these because they all occur before page 35. (And the text of the book doesn’t start until page 8!) Now you too have a sense of the density of Jack’s dickishness.

Though I've got to mention one more: at the end of the book, it’s revealed that Jack’s dead girlfriend who disappeared forever, possibly murdered, cheated on him shortly before her death. When Jack finds out this information, he explicitly decides not to go to the police with it, because, hey, it helped him get over her. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
I felt better about not being with her but I also wish I hadn’t wasted so much time thinking about her. I still didn’t know how Kay died but I suspect Naz may have had something to do with it. With forearms like Naz, it wouldn’t have been difficult to squeeze the life out of her. But I didn’t actually know what had happened to her. And for the first time, I wasn’t particularly bothered either. Should I go to the police? And tell them what exactly? I decided, rightly or wrongly, to move on.

Ughhhhh, this book, y’all. This book. I got it for free and that was still too much money.

* The daughter never gets a name, appears on screen, or is even mentioned beyond one more passing notice that she exists. I’m definitely convinced Jack is a worthwhile father.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
7:37 pm - Book-blogging: De-Extinction Edition 2.0
Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor. Despite the name, this book actually has very little on de-extinction – about half a chapter near the end, mostly on Revive & Restore's Passenger Pigeon project. Instead O'Connor writes about various conservation projects of extremely endangered (but not yet quite extinct!) species, including the Florida puma, the Kihansi spray toad, the Hawaiian crow, and the Northern White Rhino among others. We're talking severely endangered; the rhino was down to four living individuals at the time of this book's writing, and I believe it’s only three now.

O'Connor discusses the various methods taken to try and preserve these rare species – introducing members of a closely related subspecies to boost genetic diversity, capturing wild individuals to set up captive breeding programs, freezing DNA for future scientific endeavours – as well as how these approaches have succeeded and how they've failed. This leads into the other topic that forms the basis of the book: the philosophy and ethics of conservation. Does it matter if the Florida puma goes extinct if the Texas puma is still doing fine? How do we deal with a captive breeding program that leads a species to develop new traits that won't be useful in the wild? If evolution is constantly ongoing, and a species will change to match its environment, then even improving an environment means humans are influencing a species’s evolutionary path – is that choosing their future for them? If saving nature fundamentally requires meddling with nature, what does it mean to say wilderness is separate from humanity? And how does one define what counts as a 'species' anyway?

These are all pretty fascinating questions (to me, at least), and O'Connor really gave me some new ideas for musing on.. It's very much a book of science, but I also appreciated that for all the nitty-gritty details of cutting-edge research she never lost sight of the poetic, spiritual dimension to humanity's attitude toward nature.

It wasn't what I thought it would be when I checked this out of the library, but I'm very glad I read it.


Once & Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals by Sharon Levy. This is by far the best book I’ve found on woolly mammoths – what they looked like, what they ate, how they behaved, and so. For as much as they appear in pop culture, for as much as other books reference them, there is a surprising dearth of books just about them.

But Once & Future Giants isn’t limited to woolly mammoths. It covers multiple types of Pleistocene megafauna (the technical term for all those big species that went extinct at the end of the Ice Age – saber toothed tigers, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, mastodons, etc). There’s even a quite cool chapter on the megafauna of Australia; I’m certainly fascinated to know that there was once a ten foot tall carnivorous kangaroo and a marsupial lion. Levy also drops cool factoids about how we can still see traces of megafauna today, from the avocado (what else could eat such a giant pit?) to the plight of the California Condor, a huge bird evolved to subsist on megafauna carcasses but now trapped along the coast where it makes do with the remains of similarly-large marine mammals.

Another major focus is the ongoing debate among archaeologists and paleontologists as to why all these megafauna went extinct simultaneously. It basically boils down to two camps: humans hunted them into oblivion (the Overkill Hypothesis), or climate change did them in (the rise in temperatures at the end of the Ice Age causing steppes to transform into forests). Levy goes over the latest evidence for both sides of the debate, but never quite choses one for herself. Which I sympathize with, because there really is convincing and contradictory evidence from both sides, but also because “it was the combined effects” does seem like an obvious solution to the debate.

Late in the book, Levy applies these lessons to modern conservation issues. I was particularly fascinated by her account of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, a local environment from which they had been extinct for nearly a century. Rewilding, as it's called, was controversial with local ranchers, hunters, and even some scientists believing wolves would be dangerous and have a detrimental effect on the park. They've have been intensively studied ever since, to guard against unforeseen consequences, and the research has had some amazing finds. The wolves have not just decreased the elk population size, which anyone could have guessed, but led to growth in the songbird population, to changes in tree species, and even altered the courses of Yellowstone’s rivers. It's an incredible account of how the presence (or absence) of a single species can spiral out and out.

Overall a great book that covers an impressive array of research.

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Saturday, September 9th, 2017
7:32 pm - Some brief NetGalley reviews
Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix by Niki Jabbour. A how-to book for gardeners that encourages people to chose a more diverse range of vegetables. Jabbour opens with a sweet story describing how she herself began to explore beyond 'traditional' veggies: she planted a snake gourd, believing it to be inedible but useful for decorating once dried. Instead her mother-in-law recognized the small, young version of the gourd as a vegetable she hadn't eaten since her childhood in Lebanon, and promptly cooked a long-lost stew.

The book is organized by chapters comparing each exotic to a more standard example. Enjoy growing tomatoes? Why not try a Cape gooseberry! Tired of snap beans? What about growing your own chickpeas or edamame! A fan of cucumbers? What about the cucamelon! Each plant or varietal gets its own section with lots of photos and Jabbour's tips from her own experience growing them.

My one complaint about the book is that Jabbour doesn't list preferred Garden Zones for any of the featured plants. She does give 'days to maturity', which is helpful, but I've got to assume climate also make a difference when choosing what to grow. But other than that it's a fun, useful book for anyone who likes trying new things.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Slow Cook Modern: 200 Recipes for the Way We Eat Today by Liana Krissoff. I love using my slow-cooker and am therefore always looking for new recipes to try out, but most slow-cooker cookbooks repeat the same relatively small set of dishes. There's only so many pot roast or barbeque chicken recipes any one person needs.

But Slow Cooker Modern is here to the rescue! It has a diverse range of new recipes! It even has a whole chapter of vegetarian recipes! I am so happy. I get that slow-cooking lends itself to breaking down tough cuts of meat, but it's great to have a cookbook with vegetarian recipes beyond the standard chili. Here we have: eggplant tian (a ratatouille type dish), hearty sweet potato and chickpea stew with sweet spices, smoky collards and black-eyed peas, three variations of dal (though one has quinoa in it which, come on, at that point it's not dal), and creamy giant limas with sun-dried tomatoes, to name just a few.

And then, of course, there's all the other chapters. A brief selection of some of the recipes I'm most excited to try: chicken saag, whole grain congee with crisp panko chicken, romanian-style chicken and noodles, feta moussaka, Scotch broth (a lamb and barley stew), and braised pork belly sandwiches. There are also recipes for accompaniments to the main dishes, everything from corn muffins to collard slaw.

I like the layout of the book too. Krissoff is writing for people who spend most of the day out of the house at work, so each recipe takes 8 hours in the slow-cooker. She divides each recipe into steps for "morning" and "evening", and is clearly working to make each one as simple as possible while still delivering big flavor. As a lazy, lazy cook, I approve.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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