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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 22nd, 2018
5:34 pm - Reading Thursday
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. The first graphic novel nominated for the Booker Award, Sabrina is a story about fake news, conspiracy theories, internet Men's Rights Activists, and general societal disintegration and ennui. The titular Sabrina only actually appears for the first few pages, vanishing from both the book and the lives of those around her by simply not coming home one night. A few months later the story picks up with her boyfriend Teddy and her sister struggling with her disappearance; Teddy goes as far as to leave town to stay in the spare room of an estranged high-school buddy who is now a computer scientist in the military. Teddy is in a deep depression that leaves him incapable of maintaining a conversation or leaving the house, and which only gets worse when the police confirm that Sabrina was murdered, and that a videotape exists of her last moments – which, of course, ends up widely available on the internet.

Sabrina is an extreme example of what Hemingway called the iceberg style of writing: only a small percentage shows above water (or on the page), while most of the significance is left for the reader to subconsciously intuit, hidden below. Many pages in this book are entirely empty of dialogue or, in fact, any text at all; instead we see the characters silently walk down monotonous hallways, ride a bus, shop for the groceries, brush their teeth, and do all the other meaningless activities of daily life. Even when there is dialogue, it's often equally empty: half-hearted attempts at conversation punctuated by frequent awkward silences or misunderstandings, routine small talk with officemates, the droning of talk radio. This drab muteness is echoed in the art. Beige and olive-green predominate, and all the colors are grayed out. The characters are rendered in a flat, cartoonish style that makes it all but impossible to read emotions from their faces. When Teddy becomes enthralled by an Alex Jones-esque radio show which contends that Sabrina's murder was faked to give the government greater power (complete with on the page comparisons to real-life conspiracy theories regarding the Sandy Hook shooting), it's hard to understand why. Is he angry? Shocked? Convinced? DIsbelieving? I couldn't tell.

Nonetheless, it's a tense, fascinating book. I read the whole thing in a single sitting, unable to put it down without seeing what happened next, despite the characters' disconnection and lack of overt emotion. Sabrina didn't win the Booker prize, but it's still well worth checking out.

Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin. A science-fiction novel set on an isolated planet with three populations. First we meet the "hilfs", a sort of stone-age nomadic people native to the planet, embodied in the character Rolery, a young woman slightly unusual in her own society. Next there are the "farborns", the remnants of a colony settled by a galaxy-spanning society. Unfortunately it's been many, many generations since then with no contact – the colony was left with neither a ship of their own nor a communication device – and they don't know if they've been forgotten or if the empire itself has ceased to exist. We're introduced to the farborns through Agat Alterra, a young man also a bit misunderstood by his own people. Rolery and Agat, as you probably have already guessed, meet and fall in love, a relationship forbidden by both their people, since any such marriage is infallibly infertile and frequently leads to the wife's death by traumatic miscarriage.

Rolery's potential early death is not actually the main conflict of the story, though. The third group of people, the gaals, are normally small bands of raiders. But in an unprecedented move they have banded together into a massive warparty hundreds of thousands strong, and are looking to do away with both the hilfs and the farborns right before the years-long, devastating winter season hits. Not just Rolery and Agat, but all of the hilfs and the farborns will have to band together to survive, which leads to a revelation about how the farborns's preserence on the planet has changed them all.

This isn't one of Le Guin's masterpieces, but it's a lovely little novella. The writing is poetic, the worldbuilding deep and complex, and there are several action scenes that are incredibly vivid and exciting. I'm glad I read it.

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Saturday, November 17th, 2018
10:29 pm
Whew, I am way behind on writing up book reviews. It's been a busy couple of months, you guys.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells. #3 in the Murderbot Diaries, and possibly my favorite one yet. In this novella, Murderbot (as it calls itself; it's actually a Security Unit – a weapon/computer-enabled cloned cyborg – that has hacked its governor module to allow it to make its own choices) is searching for evidence to take down GrayCris, the corporation that tried to kill one of Murderbot's favorite humans. Not that Murderbot has many favorite humans, since it prefers binging on the future-equivalent of Netflix and avoiding all eye contact or feelings. The evidence is hidden on an abandoned space station which, being abandoned, is understandably not visited by regular public transportation. Murderbot is thus forced to infiltrate a team of scientists trying to reclaim the station, who have their own human security team (Murderbot is very, very skeptical of human security) and annoyingly cheerful bot:
Miki said, Okay, I will do that, Consultant Rin. That sounds scary, but I want to make sure no one hurts my friends.
This felt way too easy. I almost suspected a trap. Or … Miki, have you been directed to reply to every query with a yes?
No, Consultant Rin, Miki said, and added, amusement sigil 376 = smile.

Of course the station turns out to be not entirely abandoned, leading to several really fantastic action scenes as Murderbot battles an unknown enemy in dark, silent hallways. Creepy and exciting!

As always, it's funny, it's quietly political (the central concept is, after all, a sentient being owned by a corporation, and it's not just subtext), and then the emotions sneak up and wallop you from behind. I love Murderbot.

Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death by Brenna Hassett. A nonfiction book about archaeology told in a funny, easily accessible style. Built on Bones focuses on two major turning points in prehistory: the Neolithic Revolution (the invention of farming, the shift from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled villages with domesticated plants and animals) and the Urban Revolution (the development of cities), and how these changes affected human lives and health. Hassett is a bioarchaeologist - one whose speciality is analyzing human bones – so much of her data is focused on that, but she pulls in all sorts of threads to recreate the complicated world of the past.

Hassett's vision of prehistoric life is refreshingly balanced. She portrays the pre-Neolithic world as neither brutish and half-starved, from which we were only rescued by progress and technology, nor as an idyllic Eden that stress and pollution has forever destroyed. She's managed to write a book that can serve as an introduction to this historical period and archaeological techniques while also including some of the latest discoveries, which is just incredibly impressive. She also has a great sense of humor; you've got to love a science book that can throw in references to Monty Python, selfie duckface, and the sexual escapades of a typical archaeology dig.

All around, I can't recommend Built on Bones enough. If you have any remote interest in early history, you should absolutely pick up this book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Thursday, November 1st, 2018
3:00 pm - More Horror Reading
Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach. The author of the legendary creepypasta Penpal has come out with his first all-original novel – or, since Penpal has itself now been officially published, his second novel. Penpal isn't one of my all-time favorite creepypastas, personally, but it was creepy enough and well-written enough to make me want to seek out more by Auerbach.

Bad Man is the story of fifteen year old Ben who, while babysitting his three-year-old brother Eric, runs an errand at the local grocery store. Ben turns his back for a few seconds and Eric disappears, never to be seen again. There's no record of him leaving on the store's security cameras, no real suspects, and a police search turns up nothing.

Five years later Ben's parents are still lost in grief and Ben himself has become obsessed with finding Eric, continuing to hand out missing-person flyers, visiting any newcomers in town, and constantly harassing the one detective still assigned to the case. This has given Ben a reputation that renders him more-or-less unemployable, and he ends up taking a job as an overnight stock boy at the very grocery store where Eric disappeared, after the owner doesn't recognize him since Ben hasn't been back since that fateful day. This actually proves to be a mixed blessing for Ben: he becomes good friends with the other employees (and I absolutely ship Ben/Marty. Where is that fanfic?), giving him some of his first real connections outside of his family. He also becomes convinced that the secret of what happened to Eric is hidden within the store, as he seems to discover clues suggesting that Eric's still alive and his captor is deliberately taunting Ben.

I enjoyed the book. It's slow to get started – which was surprising, because if there's one thing creepypasta does well, it's getting readers hooked from the very beginning. As with all internet writing, it's a constant battle to keep your readers from clicking away. But Bad Man's sleepy beginning works to set the rich atmosphere of the hot, humid small town in the Southern US where Ben lives, and his claustrophobic existence. The small hints that Ben's narration is not entirely reliable are also very well-done. I gradually found myself sucked into the story; Auerbach's writing was more than suspenseful enough to keep me turning the pages. And there are some excellently creepy scenes of the empty store at night, and of Ben's disturbing neighbors.

On the other hand, I can't entirely recommend Bad Man, and it's all because of the ending. I think I understand what Auerbach was going for and it's not a bad idea for a twist ending, but it ends up not matching the majority of the preceding book. Major plot threads are dropped without explanation, while the explanations we do get just open up more questions. I still think Auerbach has a lot of potential, but maybe his next book will be a better showcase of it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey. A horror novel that goes more for subtly creepy than gorey and terrifying. Charles and Erin are a married couple from North Carolina with problems: their only child, Lissa, has just died, Charles had an affair, and in the aftermath they've both lost their jobs. Salvation comes in the form of Hollow House, an immense Victorian mansion in the Yorkshire countryside, complete with a huge shadowy forest on the grounds and an estate worth millions of dollars, to which it turns out Erin is the distant heir. Her ancestor, Caedmon Hollow, is how she and Charles met in the first place: he wrote a single fantasy novel (a sort of darker Alice in Wonderland) that they both read as children. Charles, an English professor, decides to revive his career by writing a biography of Hollow using the house's archives. Erin doesn't much care what country she's in, lost in memories of Lissa, overdosing on her prescribed antidepressants, and drinking all day long. As so they both relocate to rural England.

The dense imposing forest that surrounds Hollow House lends an uneasy tone to their lives right from the beginning, but it gets worse once they both begin to glimpse a mysterious horned figure under the trees. There is also a series of young girls who look disconcertingly like Lissa, all missing or dead, all with bad fathers. Fatherhood ends up being a major theme of the novel, fatherhood and the price of parenting a child. I don't want to say too much more, since a great deal of the pleasure of In the Night Wood is just figuring out what's going on, but the book draws heavily on English folklore like Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter, the Wild Hunt, Tamlin, and fairy bargains. The writing is ominous and eerie, and does an excellent job of evoking the fear of being lost in the woods. It's not perfect, but it is a very good Gothic novel for the modern age.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Thursday, October 25th, 2018
6:50 pm - Horror Reading
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah. A feminist dystopia by a Pakistani writer. Many centuries in the future – after a few nuclear wars and breakdown of religions – the greatest crisis in the world is the "Gender Emergency", a mutated HPV virus that swept across the globe and killed off the vast majority of women without harming the men. In Green City the government has responded by elevating the remaining women to a high status. They're pampered and wealthy, it's a capital crime to physically harm them, and they're given anything they want – except autonomy. They have no education beyond topics related to running a household and having healthy pregnancies, are married off to multiple men (and given no choice about which men), and are kept constantly pregnant on fertility drugs.

The main character is Sabine, a young woman who ran away in terror when assigned to her first marriage and ended up in the Panah, a household of independant women who maintain their secret existence by providing non-sexual feminine company for powerful men.

This is an intriguing setup, but unfortunately the execution just doesn't work. The plot ultimately focuses on Sabine's relationship with a young man she meets, which makes the whole thing feel more like a YA novel than anything else: cruel government as an excuse for star-crossed romance. The last part of the book especially falls apart, as characters abruptly betray one another or make odd choices for no reason I can discern, while others make wild leaps of logic that seem to come from nowhere but which I guess we're supposed to take as true.

I wanted more worldbuilding. I do think the whole concept of platonic female companionship becoming incredibly valuable is plausible, particularly if they're skilled in conversation, arts, music, language, etc – just look at historical examples like the hetairai, geishas, or tawaifs. But the women of the Panah don't provide anything like that; they're literally just warm bodies to sleep beside. Sabine in particular is quite outwardly resentful of her clients, which makes it even less believable that they'd risk so much to spend time with her. There's also absolutely no consideration of what such a gender imbalance would do to GLBTQ issues – would there be a lot of situational male homosexuality, for example? how do trans women fit in? – beyond a brief reference to young boys experiencing increased incidents of rape. Really, Shah? That's the one detail you want to give us? Okay then.

Overall, not terrible, but there are better books taking on the same concept.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. A horror satire set in modern-day Nigeria. I'm not sure satire is quite the right word; it's not laugh-out-loud funny, but there is a black cynicism running underneath the plot that gives the story its punch. Think 'American Psycho more than 'Scary Movie'.

Ayoola is pretty, outgoing, flirtatious, popular, and skilled. She's also stabbed three of her boyfriends to death, each time claiming that it was in self-defense and convincing her older sister, Korede, to help her hide the body. Korede is beginning to suspect that there might be something wrong with Ayoola, particularly since she seems not at all bothered by the deaths and has to be reminded not to post sexy selfies to Instagram when she's supposed to be in mourning. Matters come to a head when Ayoola starts dating Tade, a handsome doctor that Korede herself is in love with. Does she warn Tade about her sister? And who will believe her if she does?

Not a particularly scary novel, but one that is deeply enjoyable, about the bond between sisters even in the most, ahem, unusual of circumstances.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Saturday, October 20th, 2018
3:39 pm - Reading Saturday
It's October! A most wonderful month, but more importantly, the month I save up all my horror reading for, so I can indulge in five weeks of ghosts, serial killers, and all other sorts of creepy crawlies. Here is some of what I've been reading so far. (Only some because I am terribly behind on writing up my reviews; I will catch up eventually!)

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage. A horror novel with an absolutely killer cover. Unfortuntately the book itself did not live up to such heights. Baby Teeth falls into the "inexplicably evil children" genre of such classics as The Bad Seed, The Good Son, The Other, The Omen... man, there's a lot of movies about creepy kids, aren't there? But I can't complain – I love them all.

In Baby Teeth we're dealing with Hanna: seven year old only child of wealthy, liberal parents Suzette and Alex. Hanna is mute, despite having nothing physically wrong with her and clearly understanding spoken language. She'll even write out answers to school questions, though she won't use writing for normal conversational communication. Suzette is convinced that Hanna can talk, she just refuses to for reasons of her own. Suzette also becomes increasingly certain that Hanna hates her, wants her gone, and eventually is even attempting to murder her. Unfortunately Hanna never misbehaves in front of Alex, whom she adores, leaving Suzette to wonder the problems are real.

All of this perfectly suits me for some Halloween reading, and despite the problems I'm about to list, I do want to say that the story sucked me in and I had a hard time putting the book down; I think I read the whole thing in two days. I also liked that Suzette has Crohn's Disease. It's not often that you see a character with a disability where the book isn't about the disability, so that was refreshing.

My first problem is that the POV alternates each chapter between Suzette and Hanna. This instantly ruins any suspense the story would otherwise have – is Hanna evil? Does she hate her own mother? Is Suzette imagining everything? – since we know the answers to all these questions from the first page of Hanna's POV. Baby Teeth would be so much scarier if Hanna's chapters had simply been cut out.

The second major problem is that Baby Teeth can't quite decide if it wants to be a horror novel or a serious thriller. 90% of the book sits pretty firmly in the same territory as the movies I listed above, the kind of thing where there's no realism expected and no explanation offered (beyond silly ones like 'he's Satan's offspring!') for why the kid is evil. But then Stage bobbles the end, trying to swerve into a more sober examination of serious mental illness in children, which just doesn't fit at all with the story as told so far. (Also, "psychopath" is the term used by the specialists the parents eventually consult, though as far as I'm aware that's not a real diagnosis one can receive.) I personally am not offended by the horror genre's vilification of mental illness, but it simply doesn't work to mix the extremes of the trope with realism. In real life, those with serious disorders like schizophrenia are far more likely to be the victims of violence, and you can't acknowledge that for a chapter and then immediately swing back to "Now the little girl has a knife!!! Scary!!! :DD" Talk about mood whiplash.

Finally, the ending didn't work for me at all. I'm pretty sure Stage was going for a "the killer wasn't really dead after all!" type jump-scare which ends many a beloved slasher flick, but here it just felt like the story was unfinished. It wasn't a cliffhanger so much as abrupt and unresolved.

I was very much looking forward to reading Baby Teeth, and while overall I can't say it was a bad book, it could easily have been so much better.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. A novel set in Victorian England about a haunted house. The story is told in three layers. First, we have an insane asylum in the late 1860s, where an unnamed woman with no memories is accused of being a murderer. Second, in 1865, Elsie Bainbridge is newly married, newly widowed, and newly pregnant. She is sent to her late husband's country estate for her period of mourning and confinement, and soon finds it to be an unsettling, mysterious place. Finally, in 1635 in the same country estate, Anne Bainbridge is wonderfully happy with her up-and-coming husband and healthy children. The only problem is that her use of herbal medicines has started rumors that she's a witch. The silent companions of the title emerge in several of these layers: a bit like life-size cardboard cutouts, but made of wood and paint and distressingly realistic, they appear to move by themselves throughout the house and exude feelings of hate and terror.

Quite the creepy set-up! Alas, the writing simply didn't work for me. There's nothing specifically wrong with it, but I didn't feel drawn into the book. I never emotionally engaged with any of the characters, and the historical setting didn't feel well-researched. It was all just a bit shallow and unpolished. I'm not sure the three-layer structure worked, either; the insane asylum frame-story in particular never added anything to the whole.

It's not a bad modern take on gothic horror, and I do have to admit that I absolutely loved the eventual resolution of why the house was haunted, but overall the plot needed a writer with a defter hand.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The General Theory of Haunting by Richard Easter. A haunted house novel that reads more than little like an off-brand 'The Haunting of Hill House'. Here too we have a house with inexplicable powers and a set of people with just the right skills necessary to solve the mystery. In this case it's Marryman Hall, a large Regency-era house isolated deep in the English countryside. When a publishing company needs to rent a location for their New Year's Eve 2018 party, Marryman Hall just happens to be conveniently available. Unfortunately a snowstorm closes the roads, and only six employees actually make it to the party. There they find themselves alone with the hall's butler and completely cut off from civilization: no cellular service, no internet, not even a TV. What to do but explore the odd noises coming from the house, which begin to escalate into words, footsteps, and visions? Particularly once they learn Marryman Hall was specially constructed to summon Patience, a previous Lord Marryman's wife, back from the dead. Luckily this publishing company specializes in Christian literature, New Age spiritualism, and physics (no, such a weird combination is given no real explanation), so they basically have every angle on the supernatural covered. Each person also has some dark secret – barely functional alcoholism, grief for a dead child, a secret marital affair, etc – all of which of course come into play as the story progresses.

It's a fine book (I mean, it's not as good as Shirley Jackson, but that would be an unfairly high bar to apply to all new horror novels) if not particularly memorable, but then Easter has to ruin it by trying to provide an logical explanation. Which he does through an, um, extremely unique understanding of quantum mechanics:

Could it be, Bishop, that Angels are quanta?

I have combined magic with science, and I have done it here at Marryman Hall. I have done it to find my beloved Patience because I believe part of her can be found, in the quantum.

DEAD PEOPLE ARE IN THE QUANTUM, YOU GUYS. The word "quanta" is used so often in The General Theory of Haunting that it ceased to have any meaning. Particularly because it's often used as though quantum were a place, which is not remotely how science works. Why do authors feel the need to pretend that their supernatural stories are plausible? Just tell me it's a magic house that summons magic ghosts and I will be very happy! Instead I can't help laughing at this extremely silly and inaccurate evocation of physics.

Anyway. If you have a higher tolerance than I do for Hollywood Science, you might enjoy The General Theory of Haunting. There are a few genuinely scary scenes, and I did like the eventual resolution of the mystery; it left more than a few plot holes gaping open, but it was a take on the haunted house genre that I've never seen before. For my part though, I'm forever going to giggle at "angels are quanta".
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018
2:34 pm - Reading Wednesday
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. A steampunk novel set in a San Francisco or Seattle-like Wild West city, starring a bunch of prostitutes in a fight against an evil pimp who may be sheltering a serial killer. Along the way there's mind-control devices, airships, Russian spies, submarines with tentacles, a mecha battle, rooftop chases at midnight, jail breaks, and even a love story: Karen, our narrator, falls in love with Priya after she appears, rained on and beaten, on their brothel's doorstep late one night.

It's an action-packed, fast-moving book, with an admirably diverse cast: besides the lesbian main relationship, there's a transwoman and several black characters, as well as Chinese, South Asian, and Native American ones. The story is told in a first-person strong Southern twang, which seems to have had a love-it-or-hate-it effect on readers; personally, I loved it. Here are the opening lines:
You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like “memory” only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. “Hôtel” has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.

Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning.

Which ain’t to say we ain’t got a sewing machine. We’ve got two, an old-style one with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel, and one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.

Them two machines sit out in a corner of the parlor as kind of a joke.

I do have a complaint though: as fun as the book is, it feels shallow. I never engaged with the characters or their emotions. Though maybe that's not really a problem – after all, does anyone expect a popcorn movie to have deep characters? Probably not, and 'popcorn movie' is definitely the tone Karen Memory is going for. But I still wish I'd gotten just a bit deeper of a connection to these people and this world because it is just so cool.

Rocannon’s World by Ursula K Le Guin. This is Le Guin's first published novel, though you wouldn't guess that by reading it: there's worldbuilding and backstory mentioned throughout that make it feel very much like the middle of a series. It's also more of a novella than a novel, just about 90 pages long.

Rocannon’s World is the story of a few generations on a low-technology planet encountering a high-technology galaxy-spanning empire, and how they completely don't understand one another. Which leads to a really charming mix of fairy tales and sci-fi, depending on who's telling the story. A woman takes a voyage on a faster-than-lightspeed ship, never having heard of Einstein's Theory of Relativity; she returns home to find that though it felt like one night to her, for her family decades have passed. A man wears a space suit with shielding against high temperatures; witnesses see a legend who can stand in a fire and not be burned. There's a group of strange vampiric winged human-sized insects, which may be demons or perhaps just an unstudied species of animal. There are museums and long-range missiles, drafty Beowulf-esque halls and debts of honor. And there are flying cats that you can ride, and even joust! (Okay, that one's not particularly sci-fi, I just loved it.)

It's a thoughtful, lovely work, and though I think the prologue (which was apparently published first as a separate short story) is more compelling than the main body of the novel, they're both well worth reading.

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Wednesday, September 26th, 2018
12:28 pm - Reading Wednesday! On Wednesday!
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. A YA heist adventure set in fantasy Europe. But a much more interesting fantasy Europe than one usually reads! The book starts off in a city inspired by early modern Amsterdam so instead of the typical kings and knights, we have black-clothed merchants and canals, cabbage and sausage to eat, guns and indentured servitude to avoid. It's a pretty great, and possibly my favorite element of the whole book. Unfortunately the story eventually takes the characters up to fantasy-Scandinavia, which I felt was a bit less specific and complex.

So, that story: Kaz "Dirtyhands" Brekker is a seventeen-year-old lieutenant in the Dregs, a streetgang. He's offered the job of a lifetime by one of the merchant rulers of his city: break a man out of the most well-guarded prison in the world, in return for enough money to swim in. Magic exists in this world, but only little magics: enough to change the color of a textile, heal a wound, erase wrinkles. This imprisoned man – a scientist – has invented a drug that can give a magic-user immense powers: to cause earthquakes, fly, kill hundreds at once, give commands that can't be disobeyed. The Merchant Council is worried about what the existence of this drug would do to world stability, and so they want all samples of it destroyed and the scientist put out of reach before any other country can learn how to produce it.

Kaz accepts, despite some misgivings, and – like any good heist story – spends some time assembling his team. We have:
Inej "The Wraith" Ghafa, Kaz's right-hand woman, the city's greatest assassin and thief. Her parents were acrobats, and she uses her early training in climbing and walking silently to criminal ends. She was kidnapped and sold as a slave to a brothel before being rescued by Kaz, which means he has her undying loyalty.
Nina Zenik, a magic-user who can stop people's hearts – though only if she can see them and has her hands free. She's flirtatious and a bit wild and also the team's grifter.
Matthias Helvar, the inside man. He previously worked in the prison they're trying to infiltrate and has only been convinced to betray his former people through a combination of threats and bribes. He's big, he's angry, he's the silent type.
Jesper Fahey, the sharpshooter. He's deeply over his head in gambling debts and can never sit still, and also provides most of the book's comic relief.
Wylan Van Eck, demolitions expert, the rich kid slumming it on the streets. He's innocent and easily shocked.

And off they go, on their quite well-plotted and nicely complex prison break. There's plenty of action scenes, a sprinkling of romance (Kaz and Inej are desperately in love but too traumatized to do much about it, Nina and Matthias have a slap-slap-kiss dynamic going on, and Jesper and Wylan keep up a cute flirtation), some appreciated diversity (beyond the m/m couple, Jesper is black, Inej is Middle Eastern, Kaz uses a cane, Nina is fat, Jesper is probably meant to be read as having ADHD, and Wylan also has a disability, though it's not revealed until a shocking twist at the end).

I did struggle to take seriously the way the book insists that a bunch of seventeen year olds are the "most dangerous", the "most feared", the "most notorious" bunch of the criminals in the world because, like... come on, guys. Come on. There's not even a few dudes in their twenties with scary reputations? Have all the mob bosses who survived into their 40s by wit and strength abruptly retired to the countryside? There's no elderly godfather running things from his plush central office? But I know that's just part of the territory with YA, so it's not quite fair for me to complain.

Despite that quirk, it's a fun, quick-moving book, and it's a heist starring street rats! How could you not be charmed by that? My main complaint is that it ends in a massive cliffhanger, but at least there's only one sequel, so you're not signing yourself up for an endless series.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. A retelling of sixteen Norse myths, in a simple and clear style that gives the book a bit of a feel of a children's edition, though ultimately I think there's too much sex and violence for that. The myths are organized as separate vignettes, like a series of short stories, rather than a single continuous narrative. The focus is mostly though not entirely on Thor and Loki and the stories in which they star. Most of the myths chosen are well-known (Odin and the mead of poetry, Balder's death), though there's also some that appear less frequently in pop culture, or at least American pop culture (how Freyr married Gerd, how Thor tricked a beer cauldron from the giant Hymir). There's definitely a focus on funny stories (Thor dressed as a bride, Loki giving birth to a horse), or at least that's true throughout most of the book. The last few chapters noticeably darken in tone, until the final one tells of Ragnarok.

I think this would make for a good introduction to Norse mythology, but it's not the book for someone looking for a particularly deep or comprehensive take on the topic. I don't think I would have bought the book myself (I was given mine). That said, these retellings make for very pleasant little stories, especially if you take them as brief bites. A good book to keep by your bedside or on your coffee table, to page through when you need a little bit of reading, rather than working straight from cover to cover.

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Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
12:00 pm
The Odyssey, translation by Emily Wilson. Everyone knows what the Odyssey is, right? I'm not going to bother to review it as a story, just this edition. It got a lot of buzz when it came out last year, as the first complete English-language translation by a woman. I was vaguely interested, and thought I might get around to reading it sometime or other, but wasn't in any particular hurry. And then I happened to read an article that quoted Wilson's opening lines, and I was hooked:
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Wilson's style is simple and unadorned; she doesn't go for rhymes or intricate clauses, but does use iambic pentameter, which gives the whole poem the sense that it's meant to be read aloud. Which, of course, it is. In a lot of translations, it's easy to get caught up in the language itself, its poetry or flowery metaphors; this is very much not the case here. Wilson's version is easy and quick to read, and even drops in occasional bluntly modern terms (I think "canapés" is the one that stood out the most to me). I loved it. She also includes a long introduction (80 pages) dealing with matters like gender, slavery, and gods within the story, or, outside of the text, who composed The Odyssey, when and in what circumstances.

I can't recommend this translation enough, but why should you listen to me? Listen to Wilson's words instead:
This made him want to cry. He held his love,
his faithful wife, and wept. As welcome as
the land to swimmers, when Poseidon wrecks
their ship at sea and breaks it with great waves
and driving winds; a few escape the sea
and reach the shore, their skin all caked with brine.
Grateful to be alive, they crawl to land.
So glad she was to see her own dear husband,
and her white arms would not let go his neck.

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Thursday, September 13th, 2018
11:00 pm - Getting closer to Reading Wednesday
Jade City by Fonda Lee. A fantasy novel set in what is basically modern-day Hong Kong under a different name. In this island country, called Kekon, there exists the world's only source of magically powerfully jade, which grants superhero-like powers (or, more specifically, powers like fighters in a wuxia movie) to those who wear it: strength, speed, deflecting or channeling energy, the ability to read emotions, and vastly long and high jumps. Except that not just anyone can wear jade; most people on Earth are either too sensitive, and thus burn out immediately upon putting it on, or are not sensitive enough, and thus can't access the power. The Kekonese are the only race with the right balance to take advantage of jade's abilities, and even they have to spend years in training. Traditionally, jade wearers form large, semi-legal gangs, taking in protection money from those on the street while also getting involved in advantageous business deals and even bribing politicians.

Jade City focuses on one particular family, the traditional leaders of one of the largest gangs in Kekon. The main characters are the Kaul family, each taking a turn at being the POV. Lin: the oldest child who has just taken full control of the gang in his early thirties, after his grandfather is forced to step down as leader due to dementia; he's a serious and responsible man, a bit too grave, weighed down with the weight of the world. Hilo: the middle kid, in charge of the gang's fighting wing; he's impulsive and a bit dumb and quick to start a fight, but very loyal and genuinely engaged with everyone around him, high or low. Shae: the favorite child, smart and trained to take over the business wing, but who's determined to leave behind jade and her influential family and make her own way in the world, starting by leaving the country to go to university. And last but not least, Anden, adopted and the youngest, still in training to wear jade; he's desperate to prove himself due to the shame his biological family left behind, but isn't quite sure who he wants to be.

The plot starts when another gang is no longer content to maintain the long-lasting balance of many similiarly-sized gangs sharing Kekon, but wants to be the sole dominating power, even to the point of running politics from behind the scenes. It starts an underground war by attacking the Kaul family, who are quickly forced to the brink of survival, engaging in street fights and strange choices to keep from being overwhelmed.

It's a fun, suspenseful book, but it did feel a bit shallow. It took me a long time to feel engaged with any of the characters, and when I finally did, it was with Hilo, who is not at all the sort of character I normally fall for. But I loved his straightforwardness, his blunt emotional honesty, and his acceptance of himself as someone who is not particularly good at thinking or planning or machinations, but just fighting and fucking and friendliness.

Overall, fast-paced but thin (emotionally. Literally it's a 500 page hardcover). Still, I liked it enough that I'll definitely be reading the sequel.

Second Line by Poppy Z. Brite (who actually goes by Billy Martin these days, but I believe Brite is still what he uses professionally). Two novellas in the Rickey and G-Man series, stories set in New Orleans of two gay men in love who are also top chefs. Food porn and romance abounds. Second Line is the last published book in the series, but it's not a plot-heavy series so you honestly could jump in anywhere you want and wouldn't have any difficulties following along.

The two novellas are "The Value of X" and "D*U*C*K". "The Value of X" is by far the longer of the two. It starts with Rickey and G-Man as Lower Ninth Ward kids in the early 90s, both sixteen years old. Both are just starting to realize that they're gay and, moreover, might have a crush on their best friend. The novella deals with their worry about coming out to one another, hiding their relationship from their homophobic families, and dealing with being separated when Rickey gets the chance to attend the Culinary Institute of America. It's a very sweet story of young love, and honestly it had the feel of a nice long fanfic, perhaps an AU in a fandom you don't normally read – in a good way! The people who complain about how published literature doesn't meet their needs should totally read "The Value of X".

"D*U*C*K" is a shorter and slighter story. Now highly regarded chefs and co-owners of a popular restaurant, Rickey and G-Man get a chance to serve a private banquet to one of Rickey's childhood heroes, a former football star. The only catch? Every single course has to include wild duck. Meanwhile they deal with disgruntled ex-employees, the head chef of a rival restaurant, and awkward newspaper interviews.

Both are warm, charming stories, if not particularly memorable. This is a recurring problem I have with the Rickey and G-Man series: I keep accidentally rereading the same ones, because I can't remember what happened in any particular book. It's not much of a problem, though, since returning to them is like going back to a beloved comfort food. I'm very sad that Billy Martin has said that he's done with writing, because I would love more books exactly like this one.

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Thursday, September 6th, 2018
10:04 pm - Someday it will be Reading Wednesday again
What did you just finish?
It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan. A nonfiction book on psychosomatic illnesses, written by a neurologist. I've always been fascinated by the power of the mind over the body – the placebo effect, for example – so I was interested to read a whole book on the topic.

O'Sullivan is an expert on treating and diagnosing seizures, and she began to encounter a large number of patients who did not improve under treatment for epilepsy. Under closer examination (monitoring heart rates and using an EEG to trace brain electrical activity), the seizures themselves turned out to be very different from epileptic seizures. She learned they were dissociative seizures, ones caused by trauma or other psychological problems. O'Sullivan also has treated paralyzed patients whose MRIs reveal distinct differences from those paralyzed by physical causes. Though they also show distinct differences from experimental volunteers asked to pretend to be paralyzed! In fact, O'Sullivan makes that point repeatedly and thoroughly in the book: these people aren't faking or merely worried, but have real, disabling, life-destroying diseases that they can't 'get over'. It's just that their illnesses originate in the mind rather than body. (I don't know what's up with the subtitle; presumably it was a marketing decision made by someone else.)

All of this fine so far. Unfortunately, the book overall wasn't great. O'Sullivan illustrates her general principles through case studies of patients, but because she's a neurologist and not a psychiatrist, her interaction with them generally ends at the point of diagnosis. We never see if these people recover, or how they go about doing so. What is the treatment of dissociative seizures? I read this entire book and still don't know, other than a vague gesture toward 'therapy, I guess?'. Related to this, O'Sullivan spends a large portion of the book talking about the history of what was often called "hysteria", but never gets past Freud. I realize that Plato, Galen, and Charcot are still influential today, but surely there's some modern psychatriatic theories on psychogenic illnesses that might be important to mention?

I also felt that O'Sullivan generalized from her experience with seizures and paralysis – which seem to be fairly objectively testable – to medical problems like fatigue, pain, muscle spasm, and sensory issues which simply can't be measured in any objective way (at least, not yet) and which are much, much harder to distinguish between physical and psychogenic origins. She seemed fairly blase about allowing the diagnosis of psychogenic illness solely on (known) physical causes being ruled out, but that seemed too simplistic to me. Just because it's not A doesn't mean it's necessarily B. There's a lot of other letters out there. Finally, I worried about the possibility of patients being lost in the cracks of the medical system when O'Sullivan sent them off with a recommendation to see a therapist but with no followup or consistent medical team; she does briefly mention this as a possibility, but I didn't feel like she treated it with the seriousness the issue deserves.

All that said, I did appreciate O'Sullivan's advocation for psychogenic illnesses: that they're real, that they they're not uncommon, that they deserve respect from society and not to be treated as dismissal diagnoses by doctors who think they're a synonym for 'bored housewife'. I can agree with all of that, even if I wish the rest of the book was better-written and more thorough.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Finally getting around to reading this very fannishly-popular book!

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Saturday, August 25th, 2018
11:59 pm - Reading Wednesday – not remotely on Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. A shallow, wealth-porn, frothy bauble of a book, but one which is lots of fun. Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young are both new professors at New York University (Nicholas in history, Rachel in economics, which I have to say seems like a weird choice for a character who spends the whole book being shocked by wealth) and have been dating for about two years, when Nicholas invites Rachel to come to Singapore with him for the summer, so he can participate in his best friend's wedding and she can meet his family. Rachel does so, only to discover that Nicholas is not generically middle-class as she'd always assumed, but rich. And not, like, normal rich, you guys: crazy rich.

The rest of the book consists of Rachel gawking at the possessions of Nicholas's family and friends: private jets, personal islands, hotel chains, uncounted maids and drivers and servants, clothes from every top-name designer you can image, antiques and art and mansions and skyscrapers and on and on. Not all is absurdly wealthy bliss, however: various unmarried women try to drive Rachel away so that they can claim Nicholas for themselves, and Nicholas's mother is determined to keep her out of the family. She's shocked enough that Nicholas would marry beneath himself when she assumes Rachel is one of the Taiwanese plastics Chus (such trashy new money!); you can imagine how she feels when she realizes Rachel is actually the daughter of a single-mother real estate agent from Palo Alto, California.

Meanwhile, the wedding brings to town every cousin, aunt, uncle, old childhood friend, ex-partner, and business connection from around the world back to town (seriously, this book has an oppressively long character list), and Nicholas's cousin Astrid, who also fell in love outside of the Singaporean elite, is dealing with the breakdown of her own marriage.

The whole thing is a bit of a forgettable guilty pleasure, the sort where most of the fun comes from watching people who have such a vastly different lifestyle than me or anyone I know, like Gossip Girl or that Downtown Abbey scene where Maggie Smith asks "What is a week-end?" – except for the fact that pretty much every speaking character is Asian. Still, even if it's silly, it's a fun, fast-moving read. I will confess that my favorite part ended up being the footnotes, where Kwan translates the occasional word or phrase in Mandarin, Malaysian, Hokkien, or other languages and explains references to Singaporean places and people. A few of the ones that made me laugh:

Malay slang used to express shock or exasperation like “oh dear” or “oh my God.” Alamak and lah are the two most commonly used slang words in Singapore. (Lah is a suffix that can be used at the end of any phrase for emphasis, but there’s no good explanation for why people use it, lah.)

Among Singapore’s upper crust, only two boys’ schools matter: Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) and Raffles Institution (RI). Both are consistently ranked among the top schools in the world and have enjoyed a long, heated rivalry. RI, established in 1823, is known to attract the brainy crowd, while ACS, established in 1886, is popular with the more fashionable set and somewhat perceived to be a breeding ground for snobs. Much of this has to do with the 1980 article in the Sunday Nation entitled “The Little Horrors of ACS,” which exposed the rampant snobbery among its pampered students. This led to a shamed principal announcing to stunned students (including this author) the very next morning during assembly that, henceforth, students were no longer allowed to be dropped off at the front entrance by their chauffeurs. (They had to walk up the short driveway all by themselves, unless it was raining.) Expensive watches, eyeglasses, fountain pens, briefcases, satchels, pencil boxes, stationery, combs, electronic gadgets, comic books, and any other luxury items would also be banned from school property. (But within a few months, Lincoln Lee started wearing his Fila socks again and no one seemed to notice.)

The exotic Black and White houses of Singapore are a singular architectural style found nowhere else in the world. Combining Anglo-Indian features with the English Arts and Crafts movement, these white-painted bungalows with black trim detailing were ingeniously designed for tropical climes. Originally built to house well-to-do colonial families, they are now extremely coveted and available only to the crazy rich ($40 million for starters, and you might have to wait several decades for a whole family to die).

Overall I'd really only recommend the book to someone in need of a mindless beach read. In particular the ending is left unresolved; I know there's a sequel, but even for a book in the midst of a series I'd expect more loose ends to be tied up than what we got here. That said, I haven't seen the movie yet, and I suspect it's the sort of story where good actors can make all the difference, simply by fleshing out these somewhat-cardboard characters.

Driving to Geronimo’s Grave by Joe Lansdale. A collection of six short stories by an author mostly known for capturing the spirit of rural east Texas, both in historical and modern fiction.

In the title story, a brother and sister run afoul of a bank robber in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. This one had an excellent first-person narrator and a great sense of humor. In the Mad Mountains is a surprisingly straightforward Lovecraft pastiche, with hints of the Titanic's sinking and Amelia Earhart's disappearance mixing with the cosmic horrors. There's no twists or revisionism here; you could almost mistake this one for actual Lovecraft, except that Lansdale is much better at writing well-rounded characters. Though that's a low bar.

Robo Rapid is an old-fashioned, surprisingly cozy YA post-apocalyptic story – more Edgar Rice Burroughs than Hunger Games – with a girl heading out on an adventure across a vast and unknown desert. The Projectionist is darker than the other stories; a noir tale of mobsters and unrequited obsession.

Everything Sparkles in Hell is probably my favorite of the six. It reminded me a bit of Django Unchained, having a similar sort of violent humor tucked into a revisionist Western. A black bounty hunter and his Native American buddy track down four murderers, at least until a man-killing grizzly bear and a massive snowstorm complicate matters.

Wrestling Jesus is the only story of these that I'd before; it was published in the Dangerous Women anthology and I have to say that I really disliked it there. A bullied teen is semi-adopted by an elderly ex-wrestler, who teaches him how to fight in between preparing for his own big match – he and another man have a rivalry going back decades where they compete for the attentions of a beautiful woman. Read as a story explicitly about a 'dangerous woman' it's a disaster, since a) the woman only appears in one scene, where b) she's literally a prize to be fought over by men. Read by itself, it's a fine story about a father-son relationship. Or it would be, if Lansdale hadn't included a long afterword complaining about the bad reviews he got for the anthology. Don't write a story that so blatantly misses the point and then get upset when people say you missed the point, dude! I hate it when authors I like act like dingbats in their nonfictional writings.

But with all that said, this is a very nice collection of stories, with a surprising diversity of tones and settings. I've long been a fan of Lansdale's Hap & Leonard series, but this book would make a good introduction for newcomers.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Jade City by Fonda Lee. This book has been described as "Hong Kong gangster movie, but fantasy". I just started it this morning so I can't say more than that, but really, what more do you need?

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Thursday, August 16th, 2018
11:51 am - Personal news, reading
So, in exciting news: I fractured my ankle last week after I was enticed to try ice skating for the first time since childhood. It's fairly badly broken – my only means of locomotion is straight-up hopping with crutches, since I can't put any weight on my right foot at all and have to keep it raised off the floor – but on the other hand, I don't need surgery for it, so, there are positives.

You would think all of the enforced extra sitting and going-nowhere this has led to means I should be getting a lot more reading and writing done, but actually I've been in a grumpy mood and mostly going for mindless entertainment like youtube videos and phone games. Nonetheless, I have read a few things since the last time I posted! Here they are:

What did you just finish?
Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn. A nonfiction book about the various things that live in human houses, from bacteria and fungi on up. You would assume – certainly I assumed – that we already know what lives in our houses; that surely the creatures we come into contact with every day have been thoroughly studied. Dunn points out that, actually, every scientist has assumed the same thing since shortly after the invention of the microscope, and thus we know less about our daily companions than we do about what's hiding in the leaf litter of rainforest in Costa Rica. As an example, just a few years ago a new species of frog was discovered living in NYC – and if you know anything about biology, you know how rare it is for new vertebrate species to be discovered, much less new species in one of the most densely populated areas in the USA.

Dunn is himself a scientist who has been working to correct this, by studying human homes as a type of important and widespread habitat. He's led or participated in projects looking at topics as varied as microbes adapted to live in hot water heaters, the biofilm of bacteria in shower heads (yup, sorry, every time you shower you're dosing yourself with bacteria, though possibly some of them have a serotonin-boosting effect), camel crickets in basements and the bacteria in their guts, black mold in drywall, cockroach evolution (did you know German cockroaches – the main species who bother humans – no longer have any wild populations, anywhere in the world, but only live in human habitations?), bacteria in babies' noses, and the various fungi and microbes infesting the International Space Station, mostly carried there on astronauts' skin or in their guts.

But if you're feeling the urge to immediately douse yourself in bleach, don't. Dunn repeatedly makes the point that the vast majority of biodiversity around us is harmless, and cleaning it away may be doing us more damage than leaving it alone. Whether it's an uptick in rates of allergies and asthma as children are no longer exposed to potential triggers, or that the lack of predators and competitors gives the few actually dangerous pathogens (such as those cockroaches, not to mention antibiotic-resistant Staph) an advantage, all those gross-sounding but innocuous microbes around us are playing an important role.

It's not a perfect book; I particularly was disappointed that Dunn spends a whole chapter on Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite that spreads through cat feces and triggers risky behavior in rats and mice, making them more likely to be eaten), since I think anyone with an interest in 'weird biology' is probably already very familiar with it. But despite that, I really enjoyed Never Home Alone, and would highly recommend to any other weird biology fans.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey. Book #7 in The Expanse series, and the last of them to be published, so I'm all caught up now – unless I read the various short stories, which I haven't made up my mind about yet.

Persepolis Rising starts off with a thirty year time jump since the last book, but no one has died of old age, which I found a bit of a cheat, given that none of the main characters were particularly young to begin with. Yeah, I know there's an offhand mention of anti-aging drugs, but seriously, I'm pretty sure Alex and Amos have got to be at least in their 70s at this point, and Naomi and Jim in their 60s, and they're all still having dramatic physical adventures? Not that I wanted anyone to die, but it did disrupt my suspension of disbelief a little.

Anyway, the plot: after the events of Babylon's Ashes, things have settled down and humanity has actually had a few peaceful, stable decades. Unfortunately, while most people have just been getting on with their lives, the rogue segment of the Martian army that disappeared in the chaos of the last war has been lying in wait, building up their strength, and working on a plot to conquer all of humanity. Their leader is certain that this empire, unlike every other one in human history, will actually be good for its subjects and endure, because he has a secret weapon: he's made himself immortal through use of that alien protomolecule that started this whole series:
“The ironic thing?” Duarte said. “I’ve always rejected the great-man idea. The belief that human history was formed by singular individuals instead of broad social forces? Romantic, but...” He waved a hand vaguely, like he was stirring fog. “Demographic trends. Economic cycles. Technological progress. All much more powerful predictors than any one person. And yet here I am. I would take you with me if I could, you know. It’s not my choice. It’s history’s.”
“History should reconsider,” Paolo said.
Duarte chuckled. “The difference between zero and one is miraculous. But it’s as miraculous as it ever will be. Make it two. Three. A hundred. It becomes just another oligarchy. A permanent engine of inequality that will breed the wars we’re trying to end.”
Paolo made a small sound that could have been mistaken for agreement.
“The best governments in history have been kings and emperors,” Duarte said. “The worst ones too. A philosopher-king can manage great things in his lifetime. And his grandchildren can squander it.”
Duarte grunted as Paolo pulled the hypodermic port out of his arm. He didn’t need to place a bandage over the wound. The hole closed up before a drop of blood could escape. It didn’t even scab.
“If you want to create a lasting, stable social order,” Duarte said, “only one person can ever be immortal.”

The structure of the book has reverted back to only four POVs, which is a fantastic idea after the excessive mess of POVs in Babylon's Ashes. Here we have, once again, James Holden; Bobbie Draper, tough ex-Martian Marine, a kickass six-foot-tall Samoan woman and previous POV, now a member of Holden's crew and set to take over as captain when he retires; Camina Drummer, newly elected President of the Transport Union, which puts her at the head of the largest military force in our own original solar system, and thus the leader of the fight against the rogue Martians once they reappear; and Santiago Jilie Singh, a young up-and-coming member of the rogue Martian forces, who's given administrative control of Medina Station, the first bit of occupied territory. He's insecure and overreacts to the inevitable protests and sabotages of a conquered people, and the tension between him and the quickly-forming insurgency drives most of the plot of the book.

Persepolis Rising is a more somber book than previous ones in the series. It becomes clear early on that no one can possibly hope to face the rogue Martians head-on militarily and win, so it becomes a matter of choosing when to hide and when to survive, what to sacrifice and what to preserve. There's even a major character death! Which was shocking to me, because I'd long since put these books down as the sort where all the good guys had invulnerable hero armor. It's a great turn for the series, and I'm just disappointed that I have to wait till December for the next one to be published.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. A retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis (minor Trojan queen, taken as a war prize and given to Achilles as a slave, then claimed by Agamemnon), and given a radical, feminist spin by focusing on the silenced woman and servants.

This book should have been amazing. I mean, how do you look at that description and not want to immediately read it? Unfortunately, it's nothing but a disappointment. The prose is just... not good. It's shallow and adolescent, with a frequent reliance on poor word choices that feel like a rushed first draft (Once or twice, Tecmessa really annoyed me with well-meant but irritating advice on how to make the best of things.)(That’s the other thing I remember: the rats. Rats everywhere. You could be walking along the path between two rows of huts and suddenly the ground ahead of you would get up and walk—oh, yes, as bad as that!)(I lost myself in that work—and I found myself too. I was learning so much, from Ritsa, but also from Machaon who, once he realized I was interested and already had a little knowledge and skill, was generous with his time. I really started to think: I can do this.). I suppose none of this sounds particularly bad out of context, but two hundred pages of such middling, do-nothing prose and I was bored out of my mind.

Everyone's characterization is flat and indistinguishable, which is particularly sad because The Iliad gives one such specific types to work with and yet Barker still couldn't make anyone feel memorable. As one example, Odysseus isn't remotely clever. Make him evil, sure, make him uncaring or arrogant or cruel, but what's the point of an Odysseus who isn't clever?

But the thing that most annoyed me was that Barker hasn't made the story new in any way. Sure, Briseis is now the narrator, but she has no plot of her own, no relationships, no cares, no desires, no actions that depart from the original. The climax is still Patroclus's death and Achilles's grief; in fact, the book increasingly departs from Briseis's first-person narration to third-person-limited focused on Achilles (or occasionally Patroclus) until by Part Two she only gets half the chapters. How are you writing a feminist reclamation if you're using the exact same events and giving them the same emotional weight and even the same male perspective?

I think Barker is vaguely aware of this problem herself, because we do get this passage near the end of the book:
Looking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.
But for all this half-paragraph of protest, Barker's the one who chose to write the book this way.

To be fair, I didn't entirely hate it. There are moments that work, like this one, a favorite of mine:
Like everybody else, I’d been shaken by the sudden appearance of Priam in Achilles’s hall. I’d felt blank and at the same time abnormally attentive. I could still hear him pleading with Achilles, begging him to remember his own father—and then the silence, as he bent his head and kissed Achilles’s hands.
I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.

But what good does exist is frequently undercut by later developments. Take this, the opening lines of the book:
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him “the butcher.”
It may not surprise you when I say no one, and certainly not Briseis, ever calls Achilles a butcher in the actual book. We do, however, get plenty of praise for him from Briseis's perspective, from calling him "the most beautiful man alive" to admiring descriptions of his loneliness, his skillfulness, his musical abilities, his healing powers, his tenderness for his men, etc. There's also the fact that Achilles's relationship with his mother is depicted as bizzarely incestous, which uh, I suppose Barker has finally come up with a new twist on the Iliad with that choice. I'm not sure why, though.

In short: UGH. So much potential, and yet so little worthwhile accomplished.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. With all the buzz about the movie coming out this weekend, I wanted to read the book first.

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Wednesday, August 1st, 2018
4:06 pm - Reading Wednesday - on actual Wednesday!
What did you just finish?
The Year of the Snake by M.J. Trow and Maryanne Coleman. A murder mystery set in Ancient Rome. Calidus, a former slave, is convinced that his master Nerva, a Senator, was poisoned when he dies suddenly after attending a dinner party. Calidus's investigation takes him from the dregs of society, where he acquires a sidekick in "witty" pickpocket Piso, to the very top, with Emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina. Matters become more personal when Calidus encounters an old girlfriend, which causes trouble in his marriage.

This book is so bad, you guys. So bad. I don't even know where to start. Perhaps with how literally every female character spends the majority of her page time worrying about her physical attractiveness as compared to any other women nearby? They're constantly envying whoever's hot and pitying whoever's ugly with not a single other thought in their minds. It culminates in this absolutely thrilling exchange at the climax:
‘You absolute bitch, Julia,’ Poppaea sneered.
‘It takes one to know one, whore!’ Julia snapped.

Ah, great literature.

The writing in general is a mess. Characterization is incoherent, with problems arising and disappearing without logic; actions have no reasonable consequences (my particular favorite was when Calidus breaks into a senator's house at night, violently threatens him, tells him who he is, and then... nothing. The senator apparently never reports this or retaliates in any way); the point of view can't decide if it's omniscient or third person limited; and everything is obvious and dumb and unfunny. Another favorite example of mine: The other was Fabius Quintus, and he was a hard man to find. Calidus knew exactly where he was. They couldn't even wait one sentence to directly contradict themselves?

The plot timeline is awkwardly stretched and squashed, presumably because the authors wanted to include real historical events that had to take place on specific dates, but it does violent damage to the mystery. For example, we're told that Calidus is devoting so much time to his investigation that his infant daughter has almost forgotten who he is, and yet eight months after Nerva's death he hasn't interviewed more than two people. Even when he does get around to speaking to others, he's still only asking them basic matters like where they sat and what they spoke about at the fatal dinner party, nearly a year after it happened. Who would remember details like that? And who cares? It's hard to believe Calidus is so devoted to his master's memory, as we're repeatedly told he is, when he see him doing so little and so slowly.

Another thing that bothered me was that the characters constantly make modern allusions, from Robert Frost ("Well, it’s late. And I have miles to go before I sleep.") to Baskin Robins ("The Augusta is not exactly the flavour of the month at the moment.") to government security (‘You misunderstand me, sir,’ Calidus said. ‘I merely wanted a guest list for the meal in question.’ / ‘Classified,’ Gellius snorted. ‘I’m a senator, for Jupiter’s sake; I can’t go around giving out that sort of information.’). Which I suppose could be fun, if the authors were deliberately trying for an anachronistic postmodern feel, but here it just flops. It's particularly striking because they otherwise seem so eager to show off their research credentials! Among the many Latin terms they namedrop without explanation are "subigaculum" and "Falernian"; those respectively are a sort of loincloth and a particularly famous kind of wine, but if you don't come to the book with that knowledge in hand, the authors aren't going to help you.

Anyway, this is an awful book – terrible writing, uninteresting characters, incoherent plot – with no redeeming characteristics, and I hope to save anyone from wasting time on it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Yes, I have finally read this book, years after everyone else. In case you have somehow also not read it: it's the lightly fictionalized story of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to power in London as King Henry VIII's right hand man. Along the way he served a Cardinal, antagonized Thomas More (who was eventually put to death for treason for refusing to acknowledge Henry as the head of the Church of England), and, most famously, helped dethrone Katherine of Aragon to put Anne Boleyn in her place.

There are many, many novels out there about Tudor England, and this is... one of them. I can't say it's the best, because while I enjoyed it well enough, it felt a bit forgettable to me, a bit surprising that it should have gotten so much attention and won so many awards. It is, I suppose, more literary in style than the average historical fiction, but present tense and an initially opaque approach aren't enough to overthrow a genre.

Which is not to say I didn't like it! I did. I particularly liked how, unlike most novels of the Tudor Court, politics and who Henry's currently sleeping with aren't the main drivers of the plot. Cromwell's narrative is dominated by the lives of his children, redecorating his house, going to dinner with co-workers he doesn't like, how to import cloth, memories of his time in Italy, and all the other detritus of everyday life. We, the readers, know that what "really" matters is Katherine vs Anne, Luther vs the Pope, but to Cromwell these matters are just one of many he's dealing with, and he has no suspicion of how they'll come to be marked as Important Historical Events. Which, of course, no one at the time would have. But you see this approach so rarely in historical fiction that I found it a refreshing change. Cromwell doesn't see himself as joining a Protestant Revolution, but just as having reasonable disagreements with fellow believers about what is moral or faithful.

It's a well-written book about an interesting time period, and if you like literary fiction or The Tudors you'll probably like this. But I don't think it's the greatest British novel of the decade.

What are you currently reading?
Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn. A wonderful mix of neat facts and horrifying "jesus christ, what lives in my showerhead??"!

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Sunday, July 22nd, 2018
2:33 pm
Nominations for the new Book Fandom Exchange close tonight, Sunday 22 July at 23:59PM EDT. I haven't decided if I'm going to participate myself yet, but I've been enjoying following its progress and seeing what fandoms are getting nominated. You can check out the tagset so far here.

I just want to point out that, under Benjamin January, someone nominated “Group: John January & Abishag Shaw”, and the idea of Shaw somehow ending up as an emergency babysitter is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I really want to read this fic.

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Monday, July 16th, 2018
3:00 pm
Cold Bayou by Barbara Hambly. The sixteenth book in the Benjamin January series.

I realize it's been a while since I posted about Ben January, so let me take a moment to give an overview of the series. They are some of my favorite books of all time, and I can't recommend them highly enough. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s, they focus on Benjamin January, a free black man trained as a surgeon and classical piano player. Despite the 1830s being pre-Civil War, at the time New Orleans boasted a large population of 'gens de couleur libres ', or free people of color. It was a category of (often but not always) mixed race people, often (but not always) descendants or family members of women who served as mistresses to white men. In Spanish and French colonies, mistresses and children were (often but not always - do y'all get the sense that it's hard to put lines around this kind of thing yet?) freed and given money or employment, whereas in British colonies the color line tended to stay stronger, and mistresses and children were (often but not...) kept in slavery. This resulted in a system where British colonies had two groups of people – black and white – but French and Spanish ones had three – black, white, and "colored" – where the middle group was seen as distinct but containing some qualities of both the others. In New Orleans itself, this became codified in the "placée" system; interracial marriage was illegal, and so women of color in long-term romantic/sexual relationships with white men were described as being "placed" with him.

Anyway, all of this is just background to fun, well-written murder mysteries. Benjamin January was born into slavery, but freed as a young child when his mother became a placee. As a result, he was raised in relative privilege – highly educated (he speaks something like seven languages, including Latin), interested in music theory and scientific advances and Shakespeare, sent to France for schooling in medicine – but has never gotten over the violence and terror of his childhood, particularly his fear of potentially losing anyone he cares about at any time – and indeed, after he was freed he never saw his father (who remained enslaved) again. Ben's in his 40s in the books, when he stands 6'3 with broad shoulders to match and is very dark-skinned; this means everyone who meets him automatically assumes he's a field slave rather than a free man, which doesn't exactly help him get over his fears. Ben is such a fantastic main character; he's smart and cynical but with a deeply good heart (he literally saved puppies as a kid!), he loves meeting people and talking to them, he's snarky and sweet and gentle and also frequently gets to have adventure scenes like punching a giant alligator in the middle of a hurricane. Since the series are mysteries, he's repeatedly called on to investigate unusual deaths. At first this is usually to prove his own innocence – or that of a relative or close friend – who's been accused of murder, but as the books go on he's often asked to help simply because he now has a reputation for it.

The books are remarkable not just for Ben himself, but for his community. My favorites of the other characters are Rose and Hannibal. Rose is a free woman of color, born into that status but who has suffered in her own way, as a woman who more interested in math and microscopes than fashion or flirting. She's determined to open a school for girls of color, despite several setbacks. She's gawky and wears glasses and Ben is head-over-heels in love with her. Hannibal is their best friend, the only white man in New Orleans who isn't insanely racist (though even he makes mistakes sometimes). He works as a musician with Ben, and is clearly from some sort of aristocratic background, but has chosen to change his name and spend his days homeless and addicted to alcohol. He's also dying from TB (well, "dying"; 16 books and counting and he's still around), which means he is the designated woobie of the series, frequently being poisoned or kidnapped so that Ben has someone to rescue.

Ben's family is also fundamental to the series, including his mother (a heartless, awful person, but a stone-cold survivor down to her bones), his sister Olympe (a Voodoo Queen, and voodoo is taken seriously as a religion in these books, not just oooh zombies), and his half-sister Dominique (also a placee, she comes off as flighty and gossip-obsessed, but she's clever and loyal to a fault). Another important character is Abishag Shaw, a white police lieutenant who is sympathetic to Ben's attempts to find real justice and often provides off-the-books assistance.

The series is everything you could ask for in terms of diversity. As is obvious above, most of the characters are black or mixed race, but there are also important Native Americans, Muslims (including Ben's first wife), Latin@s, Jewish people, and gay characters. Hambly also uses the setting to discuss issues of discrimination that fall along the lines of gender, colorism, religion, language, class, disability, nationality, and more. The historical detail of 1830s New Orleans has obviously been incredibly well-researched and is depicted in great detail. But it's also just so much fun! Ben, Rose, and Hannibal in particular are immense nerds who spend a lot of time joking around with one another, there's adventure, there's suspense, there's immense amounts of competence porn, there's hurt/comfort, there's everything you could want. But the series is especially good for Found Family; Ben's efforts to gather and protect a community around himself is the central arc of the series, and breaks my heart every time. I mean, when it's not giving me joy.


Anyway. Back to Cold Bayou.

The sixteenth book in the Benjamin January series, Cold Bayou begins with the engagement of Veryl St-Chinian – sixty-seven, eccentric, and hermit-like – to an eighteen-year-old illiterate Irish former prostitute. The St-Chinian family is, unsurprisingly, extremely upset by this, since everyone assumes Ellie, the bride, is a gold-digger. That would still be Veryl's choice, but due to vagaries of French colonial law, the family holdings are operated more like a shareholder-owned company than individual plantations. As one of the few still-living members of the oldest generation, Veryl holds a one-third vote over any matter relating to the family business, and as his wife – or widow – Ellie will hold an equal vote. Which means she could, theoretically, decide to sell off all the land and waltz away with the money – all the dozens of plantations, townhouses, business operations, and more owned by the St-Chinians – leaving hundreds of family members and their dependents destitute. Which, you know, it' hard to have much sympathy for a slave-owner losing his sugar plantation, but any such abrupt shift in ownership would put the slaves themselves in danger too.

Such is Ellie's ostracism from New Orleans high society that Veryl decides to hold the wedding on Cold Bayou, a small, remote plantation. Benjamin and Hannibal are hired to provide music for the ceremony; Chloe attends as Veryl's beloved niece, which means she brings Henri, which means he brings Dominique; Livia Levesque, Ben's mother, receives an invitation and would never refuse a chance to show off her social connections; Selwyn Singletary (previously appearing in Good Man Friday comes along as a Veryl's fellow old man who's more interested in Plato and calculus than business or family; and Rose is invited as perhaps the only person Veryl actually, simply, likes.

And so they all head off to isolation in Cold Bayou, where there's not enough guest rooms or food and everything immediately goes wrong. The priest doesn't show up on time, suitors of various young women make dramatic arrivals, spoiled young white men challenge one other to duels, Ellie's maid is having an affair with a fieldhand, the overseer is embezzling from the plantation, Ellie's uncle shows up to threaten anyone insulting his niece, and through it all the St-Chinians are doing everything they can to stop the wedding.

Matters escalate when Ellie's maid claims that Ellie holds the papers on a debt long-ago incurred by Simon Fourchet, Ben's former owner. If she's telling the truth, it means that Ben, his mother, his siblings, and all of their children are still legally enslaved. Ben tries to investigate this claim, but he doesn't get far before the maid is killed that night, presumably in a case of mistaken identity for Ellie herself. And as if things weren't bad enough, a storm causes the Mississippi to flood, trapping everyone on the plantation.

I absolutely loved this book. It has a really fun twist on the country-house genre (flooded sugar plantation is about as far as you can get from British country house, but they serve the same purpose!), and it was wonderful to see characters we hadn't gotten to spend time with in the most recent books, particularly Livia. She's so awful, but her scenes are some of my favorites.

I don't want to spoil the mystery, but the resolution is incredibly well-done. It speaks to how we can all be short-sighted, as readers and people; we – and Ben, at least at first - assume we know who's the main character in the story and who's only secondary, but the truth turns out to be very different.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this book as an introduction to the series, there's too many characters fans already know playing important parts. But if you're familiar with Ben January and co. already, you're sure to love this.

I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Sunday, July 15th, 2018
4:59 pm - Still Catching Up on Reviews
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Around 1910, a US congressman proposed to import hippos into the southern states as meat animals (supposedly "lake cow bacon" was delicious). Obviously this never happened, but Gailey has written a novella set in the world where it did. In her 1890s, an enormous stretch of the Mississippi River has been dammed to create a shallow marsh in response to the hippo ranching boom; unfortunately this marsh is now overrun with feral, man-eating, escaped hippos who have turned the area into a lawless danger zone. Winslow Houndstooth, former hippo breeder and current mercenary, is hired by federal agents to clear out the ferals and return the marshlands to government control. He promptly gathers the crew he needs to pull off the job.

River of Teeth follows typical heist-movie structure: the long opening sequence of assembling the team, each with their own speciality; the suspense of putting together a plan and setting the pieces in motion; and finally the actual heist, which of course goes wrong in several unexpected ways, adding new and exciting twists to the plot. It's a structure refined to perfection by the Ocean's movies, and Gailey follows it faithfully. Except that this heist takes place in a Wild West where the cowboys all ride hippos. There are even different breeds of hippos, selected for size or speed or fighting ability, and given the same sort of loving descriptions and characterizations as any fiery stallion or faithful steed in a traditional Western. How can you not love this?

I also appreciated the clear attention to diversity in the cast. There's Winslow himself, a bisexual Korean-British man giving to flirting and sleeping with anyone who catches his eye; Regina "Archie" Archambault, a fat Frenchwoman who's a skilled conman and pickpocket; Hero Shackleby, black non-binary demolitions expert who has to be coaxed out of retirement for one last job; Adelia Reyes, described as "without question, the deadliest, most ruthless contract killer of her day" and also a Latina woman who's eight months pregnant; and finally Cal Hotchkiss, inside man and literally the token white guy – Winslow explains that they need someone with privilege for part of the plan.

Unfortunately, despite all of the amazing rule-of-cool in the above paragraphs, I didn't much like River of Teeth. This is Gailey's first full-length piece of writing (she'd published short stories before) and it shows. The biggest problem is simply that it's a novella packed with a plot that desperately needed to be at least a novel, and the smushing and cramming required to fit it all into such a small space did a great deal of damage. We're told, for example, that Winslow and Hero fall in love, but this takes place pretty much entirely off-page and we're given no explanation for Winslow's sudden transition from one-night-stands to devoted commitment. That kind of character arc really needs room to breathe if it's going to be believable. In addition, there are several betrayals and shocking double-crosses, but they all come so quickly one after another and we know so little about the characters in question that there's no emotional weight to any of them. Finally, there were some mistakes in the worldbuilding, the biggest of which was the fact that the dam that created this new marshland was upriver of the marsh. That's... that's not how dams work. Right? I'm now second-guessing myself because I can't find anyone else complaining about it online, but it bugged me through every single page of this short novella. Literally every page, because it was on a map included before the story started, so I was already confused before I'd read one word.

I'm sad that I didn't like River of Teeth, because I expected to; it's such an incredibly cool concept and bit of history. But the execution just didn't hold up to the idea, alas.

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey. The sixth book in The Expanse series, and the first one to be almost entirely free of alien plot devices (though they do show up for a spectacular ending, well-foreshadowed and still totally surprising). Humanity in this future is divided into three groups: those who live on Earth, those who live on Mars, and 'Belters', those who live in the asteroid belt and beyond. Earth and Mars have been the superpowers dominating the solar system, while the Belters suffer under heavy taxes, tariffs, and fees for importing water, gravity, air, food, etc. At least, that's how it was until the previous book, when a small group of Belter terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view, as the old joke goes) diverted asteroids into colliding with Earth, killing billions and rendering most of the planet uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. They also infiltrated the Martian military (leaving its government to fester in infighting and backbiting and eventually to collapse into a constitutional crisis) as well as barring any entry to or exit from our solar system, thus cutting off potential resources that could be used to aid Earth's or Mars's citizens. That was
Nemesis Games
. Babylon's Ashes is the fallout.

The Belter terrorist group unsurprisingly begins to falter as its component small segments follow divergent goals, a problem heightened when Michio Pa, the main military commander, realizes that unless everyone stops fighting and immediately focuses on rebuilding infrastructure, all of humanity is going to starve to death in a few years. Her solution is to rebrand herself as a pirate queen, capturing necessary resources and delivering them to those most in need, a move that pits her against both her former terrorist allies and the newly forming Earth/Mars/some of the Belt coalition. Meanwhile, Filip, the seventeen year old only son of Marco, the terrorist leader, is slowly coming to realize that his father is maybe not that great of a guy, but is instead an unreliable, short-sighted narcissist who happens to be blessed with immense charisma.

There's a lot of good stuff in this book. Unfortunately, there's also nineteen goddamn POVs, a simply ridiculous number. It's the first time in this series that I struggled to remember who was who, which is never a good sign. Some of the POVs are ones we've seen before (Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Avasarala, Prax, Bobbie, Anna, Clarissa), some were previously minor characters now upgraded to narrators (Namono, Anna's wife; Dawes, governor of Ceres, largest city in the Belt; Fred, political leader of the centrist Belters; and the previously mentioned Pa, Filip, and Marco) and some are entirely new (Salis, Jakulski, Vandercaust, and Roberts, all four minor technicians working on Medina Station, which was cut off after Marco sealed the solar system). Nine of these characters only get one chapter each; that's barely enough time to get a sense of them as a personality, much less for them to have a storyline. Of the remaining ten, the only ones who get enough screentime to manage an actual character arc are Filip and maybe Pa. Though to be fair, Filip's arc is an incredibly well-done portrayal of an angry young man from a sheltered background – he doesn't realize it, but he's been indoctrinated in Marco's beliefs since birth – just beginning to question how he was raised. Outside of those two, though, the plot and themes of Babylon's Ashes fall a little flat with no one for the reader to emotionally latch onto. Significant portions of the book feel more like a detailed nonfiction account of a war – lists of places and dates, battle maneuvers and troop movements – than they do a novel.

Which is really too bad, because Babylon's Ashes does have worthwhile things to say. I particularly liked the recurrent theme about how war makes it very easy to view our enemies as less than human:
We’re not people,” he said. “We’re the stories that people tell each other about us. Belters are crazy terrorists. Earthers are lazy gluttons. Martians are cogs in a great big machine.”
“Men are fighters,” Naomi said, and then, her voice growing bleak. “Women are nurturing and sweet and they stay home with the kids. It’s always been like that. We always react to the stories about people, not who they really are.”
“And look where it got us,” Holden said.

“I always thought that if you gave people all the information, they’d do the right thing, you know? Not always, maybe, but usually. More often than when they chose to do the wrong thing anyway.”
“Everybody’s a little naïve sometimes,” Alex said, feeling as the words passed his lips that maybe he wasn’t quite following Holden’s point. Maybe he should have taken the first of the sobriety pills before he’d left the men’s room.
“I meant fact,” Holden went on as if he hadn’t heard Alex at all. “I thought if you told people facts, they’d draw their conclusions, and because the facts were true, the conclusions mostly would be too. But we don’t run on facts. We run on stories about things. About people. Naomi told me that when the rocks fell, the people on Inaros’ ship cheered. They were happy about it.”
“Yeah, well.” Alex paused, rubbing a knuckle across his upper lip. “Consider they might all be a bag of assholes.”
“They weren’t killing people. In their heads? They were striking a blow for freedom or independence. Or making it right for all the Belter kids that got shitty growth hormones. All the ships that got impounded because they were behind on the registration fees. And it’s just the same back home. Father Cesar’s a good man. He’s gentle and he’s kind and he’s funny, and to him Belters are all Free Navy and radical OPA. If someone killed Pallas, he’d be worried about what the drop in refining capacity would do before he thought about how many preschools there are on the station. Or if the station manager’s son liked writing poetry. Or that blowing the station meant that Annie down in Pallas central accounting wasn’t going to get to throw her big birthday party after all.”
“Annie?” Alex asked.
“I made her up. Whoever. The thing is I wasn’t wrong. About telling people the truth? I was right about that. I was wrong about what they needed to know.”

There's more, about politics and alliances, small-scale loss and planet-wide grief, protest and authority, and if history is made by sweeping changes in economies and technology or the choices of individuals. It's all meaningful and well-done, but... it's just hard to care without a character who cares. I needed fewer POVs. It's funny how such a minor-seeming stylistic choice can overwhelm so many other positives, but I simply didn't enjoy Babylon's Ashes the way I enjoyed the previous books.

Ah, well. At least the next one in the series seems to return to the usual four-ish narrators.

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Saturday, July 14th, 2018
3:51 pm
What did you just finish?
Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey by Melissa Daggett. The "René Grandjean Séance Registers" are 35 volumes owned by the University of New Orleans, thousands of pages of handwritten notes in French, about the experiences and beliefs of a group of free people of color from 1858 to 1877 - in other words, from before the Civil War, through Reconstruction, and into the beginnings of the Jim Crow Era; obviously this is a potentially fascinating primary document, but one which is a bit hard to access for the average student, to say the least. Thankfully Daggett has written a wonderful description and analysis of these notebooks.

Specifically, the registers are transcriptions of seance sessions and what the various ghosts, mystical entities, and spirit guides had to say. You don't need to believe in Spiritualism to take this book seriously; Daggett uses these supernatural messages as a way of getting at what Henry Louis Rey (the leader and medium) and his social circle cared about, worried over, and wanted. The spirits included practically everyone, from dead relatives and spouses to international heroes like John Brown (of Harpers Ferry), Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Pocahontas occasionally gave her opinion, as did Père Chalon, a local priest who showed up after his death to complain that his successor charged too much money to perform marriages. My particular favorite was when deceased political enemies of Rey and his friends would appear to confess the error of their ways and beg forgiveness, as did Pierre Soulé, the former Confederate provost marshal of New Orleans: "I used to be the friend of the oppressed, my heart beat for Liberty, but soon pride and ambition took over, I forgot my sacred aspirations and I loved the lamb of gold. I sacrificed my republicanism on the altar of slavery. Forgive me, forgive me! Brothers!" That had to feel good.

The seance transcriptions are cool enough, but Daggett surrounds them with research on Rey's world, which is just incredible. Rey and his friends served in the army (both for the Confederacy and the Union), ran a school for orphans of color that had such a highly politicized curriculum that historians have nicknamed it the "nursery school for revolution in Louisiana", were associated with Oscar James Dunn (America's first black lieutenant governor, who may have been poisoned at the height of his political power), and helped organize Plessy vs Ferguson (the Supreme Court case which they unfortunately lost when the court decided to endorse "separate but equal", thus providing the legal framework for Jim Crow), among other events. It's quite the life.

Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans isn't a perfect book; the writing gets dry at times, particularly in the second half, and the seance registers eventually trail off without neat resolution, which is frustrating though hardly Daggett's fault. Overall it's an excellent microhistory of a compelling slice of American history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer. A murder mystery set in 1907, New Orleans – specifically Storyville, the neighborhood where prostitution was legal for twenty years and jazz is said to have been born, as the musicians working in the front rooms of brothel experimented with new styles. The fictional characters cross paths with real historical figures, the most-well known of which are probably E. J. Bellocq (a photographer of the Storyville sex workers, including this famous shot) and Buddy Bolden (sometimes called the "father of jazz"; certainly at least a hugely influential figure in the early days, though no recordings of him exist).

Valentin St. Cyr is a former policeman, current bouncer and general factotum in Storyville, and also a light-skinned black man passing for white. When several sex workers are murdered, the deaths linked by a black rose left beside each victim, St Cyr is given the job of stopping the murderer before the negative publicity effects Storyville's profits. Every clue seems to point to Buddy Bolden, but St Cyr can't believe his childhood friend would commit such violence.

The setting and historical research are well done, but I just didn't enjoy this book. St Cyr is too much the stereotypical tough-guy/cynical noir detective to be an interesting or sympathetic character. He even has the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend and precocious street-rat sidekick that are somehow obligatory in every bad mystery novel. The writing around race (a necessarily hugely important feature in any book with this setting) felt a bit uncomfortable to me, though not in a way where I could put my finger on what exactly bothered me about it. The style in general was plodding and shallow, a half-assed imitation of hardboiled. I did like the eventual solution to the mystery, except that 95% of the book has absolutely no hints or even appearances of the character in question.

Chasing the Devil’s Tail is the first in a series, and I'd be uninterested in the sequels, except... I already bought one of them. Whoops. (It was cheap in a second-hand store!) So I suppose I'll be giving Fulmer a second chance.

What are you currently reading?
The Year of the Snake by M.J. Trow and Maryanne Coleman, which is really bad, but it's a NetGalley book so I suppose I'm going to have to push through and finish it.

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