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 did 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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Thursday, June 21st, 2018
4:20 pm - Reading Thursday
What did you just finish?
Bayou Underground: Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Music by Dave Thompson. This is a nonfiction book about what's sometimes called 'swamp rock' – music evocative of and inspired by the bayous and backcountry of rural Louisiana and nearby states. Thompson doesn't like the term swamp rock, which, fair enough; it's hard to describe any sort of singular genre that includes musicians as diverse as Elvis Presley, forgotten 20s blues singers, Sinead O'Conner, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, and Judas Priest. (And because there's nothing like reading about music to make you desperate to actually listen to it, I put together a Spotify playlist of the songs Thompson mentions, so feel free to get a taste of what 'swamp rock' includes - or at least what Bayou Underground does.)

Bayou Underground is organized around a theoretical mixtape: eighteen tracks, each one lending themselves to a chapter less about that particular song and more about various strands of history, folklore, and/or geography that might be relevant. For example, "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" by Roger Palmer is the title of a chapter about Storyville, New Orlean's famous neighborhood where prostitution was once legal and jazz was invented, despite Palmer's denial that he didn't mean the eponymous 'Sally' to be a prostitute. “Chateau Lafite ’59 Boogie” by Foghat heads a chapter about the pirate Jean Lafitte, despite there being no connection other than a coincidental similarity of names. Other chapters stick closer to their songs; “Promised Land” by Elvis Presley is indeed about Presley's youth and emergence as a singer, while “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals covers the long history of the folksong and its many, many covers.

Thompson is a music journalist, but Bayou Underground is more about evoking a place and a mood than analyzing any specific band, trend, or sound. He tells the story of random people he encountered, legends of ghosts and swamp monsters, and describes the view out of his car window more than anything else. He covers the Axman, a still-unsolved serial killer case from the 1920s; hunting alligators; whether or not Robert Johnson really sold his soul at the crossroads; the steamboats of the Mississippi; recipes for gumbo, crawfish pie, and beer-fried alligator; where Creedence Clearwater Revival got their name; Hurricane Katrina; the comic book Swamp-Thing; and the HBO show True Blood. It's quite the melting pot of a book, in other words, with all sorts of tidbits thrown in to amuse.

There are occasionally mistakes when Thompson dives into history, as in this passage: Jean continued business as usual, but received notice that his activities were now internationally renowned: he received a hand-delivered message from the English king, King George I, offering Lafitte and his men British citizenship and land if they would only assist in the naval fight against the United States. Since George I died in 1727, I really doubt he was offering anyone anything in 1814. Thompson also credits John Montaigne (aka Doctor John) with blending Catholicism and West African traditions to create modern-day New Orleans-style voodoo, which I've always heard credited to Marie Laveau, but, eh, in Thompson's defense, there are basically zero substantial historical records that deal with either person or with early voodoo at all, so who knows what the truth is.

I can't say the mistakes put me off the book. Bayou Underground is clearly not meant to be taken as an accurate lesson; instead it's a thing to read when it's hot and humid and all you want to do is lay down with a cold drink and some good music. And it's very, very good at evoking that exact feeling.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer That Built the British Empire by Pete Brown. Today – at least in the US – one of the most popular beer styles in the craft brewing scene is IPA, or India Pale Ale. The story goes that this style (high in alcohol and hops, which gives it a bitter flavor) was invented during the early days of British colonialism in India, since it was the only sort of beer that could actually make the journey. In the early 1800s, it could easily take six months to get from England to India, on a constantly bobbing ship, that crossed the equator twice and in between cruised south of Africa where it gets quite cold – an endurance trial of motion, time, and temperature that few brews could endure. And so IPA was invented and beloved. Brown sets out to discover if this often-told legend is actually true, and if so what caused IPA's fortunes to fall. Because it nearly disappeared during the 20th century, and still today is fairly unknown in its former homes of the UK and India.

Hops and Glory is half travelogue and half historical nonfiction. Brown – with the surprising assistance of the Coors multinational company – brews a keg of IPA to an authentic 1800s recipe, and then sets out to give it the same "ripening" process all IPAs once received. This involves sailing from Spain to Brazil on an actual wooden three-masted ship, getting from Brazil to India on a container ship, and going by train from Mumbai to Kolkata, lugging the unopened keg all the way. Unsurprisingly, there are an immense number of mishaps involving lost visas, the lack of internet connection, delayed flights, annoying co-passengers, people falling off boats, accidental smuggling of alcohol across international borders, along the way. Brown makes for a hapless but good-humored guide through it all, given to self-deprecating humor rather than mocking others.

Brown intersperses the story of his modern-day journey with chapters detailing his research into the history of IPA, which gets into topics as various as the Industrial Revolution, individual British brewers, the East India Company, madeira wine, Victorian sensibilities, arak, water quality, the temperance movement, the opium wars, and Peter the Great.

Overall it's a funny, informative story, told in a friendly style that reminds me of Bill Bryson or Tony Horwitz. Definitely recommend if you have any interest in the topic(s).

What are you currently reading?
Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey by Melissa Daggett. Ghosts, the Civil War, and angry priests! This is already proving to be very exciting for academic nonfiction from a university press.

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Saturday, June 9th, 2018
2:05 pm - Reading Saturday
What did you just finish?
Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey. Book 6 of The Expanse series.

"I made my name with the story on the Behemoth. Aliens and wormhole gates and a protomolecule ghost that only talked to the most famous person in the solar system. I don't think my follow-up to that can be "Humans Still Shitty to Each Other". Lacks panache."

That's Monica Stuart, a journalist looking for her next story, but it makes a fairly good summary of Nemesis Games as well – though I'd disagree about it lacking panache. After five books of zombie viruses and a vast galaxy of empty planets for the taking and physics-defying abandoned security systems, Nemesis Games features pretty much no alien content at all. Instead we have humanity reacting to these events, mostly in negative ways that feature them being, well, shitty to each other.

The biggest reaction comes from the Belters, millions of humans born and raised in no-gravity or low-gravity. Those conditions have led to extremely low bone-mass (among other physical adaptations), which means all those new planets out there for the taking? The Belters won't be going to them, at least not without months or years of expensive medical therapy that's out of reach for most of them. They can see the future coming, and it's going to abandon them to poverty and irrelevance. They lash out with terrorist attacks on a scale grander than any before, as though enough violence will force humanity back to where it was before the first encounter with the alien protomolecule. That might be an impossible goal, but a hell of a lot of people are going to die anyway.

Meanwhile, the spaceship Rocinante is in need of repairs, which means our four main characters are out of action for a few months. They take this opportunity to split up and visit family and old friends – Amos to Earth, Alex to Mars, Naomi to the Belt, and Jim stays with the ship at the repair station. Having separate plotlines means that each one gets their own POV, and you guys, I was so excited! I've been waiting to hear Naomi or Alex's voice since Book One, and this does not disappoint. Amos's narration was particularly well-written; he's a straight-up sociopath (though one who tries to do good nonetheless) and struggles to recognize emotions either in himself or in others, often defaulting to describing social situations as a set of maneuvers toward a desired outcome. It lends his POV a curiously flat tone, but one that is really interesting to read.

The four crew members are still separated when the terrorist attacks begin, and most of the emotion in the book comes from them trying to desperately make their way back to one another. Each one thinks of the others as family, as home – this is such an absolute fantastic series for those Chosen Family feels – especially Jim, and who would have thought the boring action hero of Book One could become such an adorable softie? He spends a significant portion of this book being sad that no one will do the space-equivalent of texting him back, and I love him so much.
Holden could sit at a tiny table skimming the latest news on his hand terminal, reading messages, and finally check out all the books he’d downloaded over the last six years. The bar served the same food as the restaurant out front, and while it was not something anyone from Earth would have mistaken for Italian, it was edible. The cocktails were mediocre and cheap.
It might almost have been tolerable if Naomi hadn’t seemingly fallen out of the universe. Alex sent regular updates about where he was and what he was up to. Amos had his terminal automatically send a message letting Holden know his flight had landed on Luna, and then New York. From Naomi, nothing. She still existed, or at least her hand terminal did. The messages he sent arrived somewhere. He never got a failed connection from the network. But the successfully received message was his only reply.
After a couple weeks of his new bad Italian food and cheap cocktails routine, his terminal finally rang with an incoming voice request. He knew it couldn’t be from Naomi. The light lag made a live connection unworkable for any two people not living on the same station. But he still pulled the terminal out of his pocket so fast that he fumbled it across the room.

Each character gets to star in a very different genre within this one book: Jim himself is in a political thriller, trying to find the mole hidden in the security forces; Amos is making his way through a post-apocalyptic landscape; Naomi is in a prison-break movie; and Alex gets at least two extremely cool car chases (well, spaceship chases) between being a detective following the paper trail. All of them are great, but I think my favorite is Naomi's, which is an incredible depiction of the harm and suffocation of emotional abuse (gaslighting in particular) and the depression and learned helplessness that can result, especially when everyone around you sees nothing wrong. We get a lot more about her long-awaited backstory, as well as Amos's, and there are reappearances of a lot of my favorite secondary characters: Martian marine Bobbie, failed murderer Clarissa Mao, foul-mouthed politician Chrisjen Avasarala. (Though I'm still holding out hope Prax will show up again someday; I miss him.)

All through The Expanse series I've admired Corey's focus on petty human squabbling and politicking in the face of grand, universe-changing discoveries. Nemesis Games is that thread turned up to eleven. It's not a cynical series, though; for every narrow-minded failure there's an equally small but important triumph of friendship or justice or well-meaning. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett, in a way. Not at all in Corey's style of writing or type of humor, but they both have a view of humanity which is simultaneously realistic and fond and exasperated. And if there's a bigger compliment than that, I don't know what it is.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells. Book 2 of the Murderbot Diaries. A security robot/cyborg armed with all sorts of guns and other methods of killing has hacked its governor module, allowing it to do whatever it wants, and nicknames itself Murderbot. But it turns out that what Murderbot really wants to do is spend hours watching dumb sci-fi TV shows, avoid eye contact or any social encounters with humans, and not have to deal with its own emotions. Unfortunately that last one is hard to avoid.

In this book, Murderbot is heading to a mining planet where it knows something bad went down in its past, involving lots of human deaths. But Murderbot can't remember exactly what happened, since its memory was wiped, and so it's off to investigate. Getting to the planet means hitching a ride on a spaceship run by a massively complicated AI (which Murderbot promptly nicknames ART: Asshole Research Transport) and then getting a job as a human bodyguard to a group of scientists heading down to the planet's surface. Things, unsurprisingly, go wrong, and Murderbot finds itself with another pack of dumb humans in need of protection.

I enjoyed Artificial Condition a lot, but it's not quite as good as the first book in the series, All Systems Red. Part of that is very simply that it's a middle book of the series, and it shows; progress in the larger plot is made, but not much, and there's a feeling of spinning our wheels while we wait for big events to happen. That said, it's still an extremely enjoyable novella (only about 120 pages), which builds out the world from what we learned in All Systems Red. Now we have sexbots and ship navigators, more about how different governments interact and function (or don't), and some hints as to what's going on with the company that created Murderbot. Plus there's Murderbot's wonderful narration, which honestly is worth the price of admission all on its own. A section from where it introduces ART to trashy entertainment:
I watched seven more episodes of Sanctuary Moon with it hanging around my feed. Then it pinged me, like I somehow might not know it had been in my feed all this time, and sent me a request to go back to the new adventure show I had started to watch when it had interrupted me.
(It was called Worldhoppers, and was about freelance explorers who extended the wormhole and ring networks into uninhabited star systems. It looked very unrealistic and inaccurate, which was exactly what I liked.) [...]
“It’s not realistic,” I told it. “It’s not supposed to be realistic. It’s a story, not a documentary. If you complain about that, I’ll stop watching.”
I will refrain from complaint, it said. (Imagine that in the most sarcastic tone you can, and you’ll have some idea of how it sounded.)
So we watched Worldhoppers. It didn’t complain about the lack of realism. After three episodes, it got agitated whenever a minor character was killed. When a major character died in the twentieth episode I had to pause seven minutes while it sat there in the feed doing the bot equivalent of staring at a wall, pretending that it had to run diagnostics. Then four episodes later the character came back to life and it was so relieved we had to watch that episode three times before it would go on.
At the climax of one of the main story lines, the plot suggested the ship might be catastrophically damaged and members of the crew killed or injured, and the transport was afraid to watch it. (That’s obviously not how it phrased it, but yeah, it was afraid to watch it.) I was feeling a lot more charitable toward it by that point so was willing to let it ease into the episode by watching one to two minutes at a time.
After it was over, it just sat there, not even pretending to do diagnostics. It sat there for a full ten minutes, which is a lot of processing time for a bot that sophisticated. Then it said, Again, please.
So I started the first episode again.

C'mon, tell me you wouldn't read a million pages of that, plot or no plot.

What are you currently reading?
Bayou Underground: Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Music by Dave Thompson. I've just started this so I can't say much about it yet, but it sure does have an intriguing title!

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Saturday, June 2nd, 2018
3:16 pm - Reading not remotely wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart. A novel set in 1842, Massachusetts. Polly is a 15 year old girl living with an extremely abusive father (by the way, this book should come with a trigger warning for rape, incest, CSA, and domestic violence), her despairing mother, and her young brother Ben, who's been mentally "simple" ever since their father attacked him as an infant. Matters come to a head one night, and Polly convinces her mother and brother to flee with her; unfortunately in the process she accidentally sets their house on fire and doesn't know if her father survives. Stunned, extremely impoverished, and with nowhere else to go, they end up in a nearby Shaker community.

There Polly begins to bloom for the first time in her life: not having to be constantly afraid, given enough food, and having the company of other girls her age. She quickly forms a deep friendship with Sister Charity, who's been raised by the Shakers since birth. But not everything is great, the main problem being that Shakers believe in the separation of men and women and the death of "flesh families"; this means that Polly can't speak to Ben, not even to check on if he's happy and being well cared for.

It's also the "Era of Manifestations", a period when many Shakers experienced holy visions, spoke in tongues, and created religious art. Many of these revelations came to teenage girls, and shortly after arriving Polly begins to see angels. The Visionist takes an ambiguous approach towards these visions, which I think was a great narrative choice. Polly's definitely experiencing something, but what is it? An actual vision from the Shakers' founder? A PTSD hallucination? An overactive imagination? Sister Charity is convinced Polly's a living angel, while Sister Agnes (the leader of the community) is equally convinced that Polly's faking it for attention.

In another plot thread, we're introduced to Simon Pryor, an inspector in charge of determining if the fire on the farm was arson or not. He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Polly and the others and protecting them. This section was by far the weakest of the book. There is so goddamn much space devoted to who now legally owns the land – wills and auctions and debts and which sale predates which – and it just never seems to matter. Given all the bad memories that must be associated with that place, I'm not sure Polly even wants to go back to the farm, and though I guess she could use the money from its sale, she doesn't seem in urgent need of it. She certainly never thinks about the farm or worries over what's happened to it. There's also a weird subplot regarding the legal status of Ben's birth that never goes anywhere, despite creating a huge air of mystery around the topic.

It's a well-written book, and the material about Shaker life and religion is fascinating, but the book is marred by its insistent focus on the ownership of the farmland instead of just letting Polly get on with her life. And I don't want to spoil anything, but I absolutely hated the ending, which came out of nowhere and didn't match the character arcs that built up to it at all. Overall there's better historical fiction out there, but this might be worth the read if you're particularly interested in the topic.

Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins by Peter S. Ungar. Non-fiction that tells the story of human evolution from the point of view of our teeth. This is less silly than it may sound; teeth, being harder than bones, preserve extremely well in the fossil record and we often have more teeth from an extinct species than any other part of them. In addition, the shape and wear of teeth can tell us a lot about the diet of a species – just imagine how different the teeth of a lion look from those of a cow. Ungar gives the reader the basics of the topic, explaining the history and methods of studying teeth. He's got plenty of examples of modern primates and their teeth, from gorillas to lemurs to little monkeys. But of all this is in the service of learning more about where we came from, and what drove our evolution – climate change? predators? stone tools? Most of the book covers early human evolution, giving a close look at the teeth of species like Paranthropus bosei, Homo habilis, and the Australopithecines (better known as the genus that includes "Lucy"). However, two chapters at the end cover the invention of farming and the post-Industrial diet (with its abundance of sugar and soft, processed foods) on modern humans' jaws and teeth.

It's an interesting topic, but unfortunately Ungar's writing style is extremely dry and academic. I could hardly get through a page without finding my attention had wandered and I needed to reread the last paragraph. I'm all for introducing the details of human evolution and how we learned them to a general audience, but books like that need authors who can capture an audience and hold it. Ungar isn't up to the task.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Nemsis Games by James S.A. Corey. The next in The Expanse series!

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Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018
1:46 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh. A space opera more concerned with ethics and friendships than battles and politics. The Pride of Chanur is a merchant ship crewed by the Hani, a lion-like species in which the females are in charge of trade and diplomacy while the males stay back home and fight one another for control of powerful households. Captain Pyanfar is on a typical trip, docked at a trading station, when a strange, naked alien that looks like nothing she's ever seen (though readers will quickly recognize it as a human) runs onto her ship. Another species, the Kif, soon demand its return, but Pyanfar refuses, as much because she dislikes the Kif and is happy to annoy them than for any deep reason. That choice lands her and her crew in escalating danger, as the Kif are determined to get the alien back and will declare war to do it and other species are drawn into the conflict.

A great deal of the book is about the difficulty of translation; even with long-contacted species like the Kif, the Hani are forced to communicate in short, broken sentences and deal with deep cultural differences. With the humans, they're starting from the ground up, and matters like gestures, clothing, and food are as prone to misunderstandings as language itself. How do you even tell the difference between an sentient alien and an animal, if you have nothing in common? I loved this sociological part of the book.

Unfortunately, I didn't like much of the rest of The Pride of Chanur. I didn't connect emotionally with any of the characters, I found the descriptions of space travel deeply confusing, and I have no idea at all how Hani society is supposed to function. For example, it seems like the male fights over households are supposed to be one-on-one, but then we're given a description of a whole crew invading and pillaging an enemy house. Is that illegal? Are there laws regulating these fights? What does a new male leader mean to the daughters and sisters of the former ruler – are they cast out too, or do they just have to obey a new boss? All of this is pretty important to the climax, but I just couldn't figure it out.

The Pride of Chanur has its positives, but I don't think I'll be reading the sequels unless someone talks me into it.

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey. The fourth book in The Expanse series, and so inevitably this review will contain spoilers for previous books.

After the events of Abaddon's Gate , humanity suddenly has access to thousands of solar systems, most with inhabitable, Earth-like planets. And yet in a very believable, petty example of human nature, we're fighting a war over just one. The Cibola in the title is metaphorical; it's one of the mythical 'cities of gold' the Spanish conquistadors searched and killed for in their early days in the New World. The idea of being beyond the law, of pillaging fortunes from a new land, is a major theme in this book, and Cortez and his methods get name-dropped at least twice.

A group of refugees, homeless after Ganymede was torn apart by war, riots, and alien monsters, settle on a planet they name Ilus. At the same time, the UN grants the Royal Charter Energy corporation the exploration and exploitation rights to the same planet, which they've named New Terra. This immediately sets up several consequential questions that no one has the answer to: since the refugees beat RCE to Ilus/New Terra by a year, do they have rights of priority? Does the UN even have the authority to give out contracts over these new planets? Where do Mars and the Outer Planet Alliance stand? Who owns the lithium ore the refugees have already mined and transported into space? And since the rest of humanity is months or even years away from Ilus/New Terra, can anyone stop RCE and the refugees from killing each other before politicians settle the matter?

James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are sent in to act as mediators, since a) Holden is, by this point, a popular celebrity, and b) as an Earth native and former OPA operative, he can be seen as neutral. Unfortunately matters quickly grow beyond his ability to control them, particularly when the defense system set up by long-dead aliens wakes up and adds a third front to the killing-everyone campaign.

As always in The Expanse series, we have a set of new POVs. Unfortunately this time I didn't like any of them as much as usual. Holden repeats again, and our others are Basia Merton, Elvi Okoye, and Dimitri Havelock.

Basia was formerly a minor character in Caliban's War, the father of one of the other kidnapped children. His son died, and in reaction to that Basia has become fiercely, perhaps stupidly, protective of his surviving family. They are some of the refugees, and Basia's grief leads him to make several dangerous choices when confronted by the RCE. He's a sympathetic character, but I just didn't find him as captivating as Avasarala, Bobbie, or Pastor Anna.

Havelock was also a minor character before; he was Detective Miller's partner in Leviathan Wakes. Now he's second-in-command of security for the RCE. It's just too bad that his boss is Murtry, a straight-up sociopath who doesn't care how many people he has to kill to give RCE an advantage. Havelock explicitly says that he's overly influenced by the people around him, and so goes along with Murtry's plan for far too long. As a character arc, this did not work for me at all. There is some suspense in waiting to see if Havelock will grow a spine and do the right thing, but it's not nearly as intriguing than if he was genuinely convinced of Murtry's ideas and had to change his mind, or was in some sort of physical danger that prevented him from helping the heroes.

Finally, we have Elvi, an exo-zoologist working as part of RCE's science exploration team. More than anyone else, she understands Ilus/New Terra and how very different it is from Earth, despite superficial similarities. She makes several important discoveries that save lives, but she's dangerously naive regarding politics and human relationships. She also falls desperately in love with Holden and begins to act like a besotted teenager; this is believable as a reaction to the stress and life-threatening circumstances she finds herself in – and the narration does make it clear that's what's happening – but it was still somewhat annoying to read. It was hard to take her seriously as a respected professor when she was blushing and stammering over her crush.

Overall, I didn't like this book as much as the previous ones in the series. It just wasn't as exciting and the characters weren't as likeable. On the other hand, I did really enjoy the found-family vibes between Holden and his crew: Naomi, Amos, and Alex. (Which reminds me: I forgot to mention the AMAZING scene in Caliban's War where Holden literally proposes marriage to the whole crew. He's half-joking, suggesting it more as a way for them to easily become co-owners of their spaceship than to actually enter into a poly romance, but I still loved it.) We have Amos nearly murdering people when Naomi is taken hostage, Naomi issuing vicious threats when Alex's safety is endangered, and Holden going to new extremes to protect Amos. It's just a whole circle of love and family-of-choice and it is my very favorite trope. I'm totally giving this book an extra star just for that.

In general, Cibola Burn is a step down in quality from previous books, but I'll still be reading the sequel.

How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged by Veronica Peerless. A really excellent how-to guide for houseplants, possibly the best book on the topic I've ever seen. It's split into two halves, with "The Basics" offering general tips and "The Houseplants" giving specific guidance on 119 common species. How Not to Kill Your Houseplant is aimed towards newbies, but it also included tricks that were new to me, such as how to save an overwatered plant by wrapping its soil in newspaper. I particularly liked the troubleshooting offered in "The Houseplants"; it explains, for instance, that yellow leaves on one plant might mean it needs more water, while yellow leaves on another species might indicate that it's getting too much sunlight. It's easy to look up your specific plants and get tips on how to best care for them.

How Not to Kill Your Houseplant is available as both an ebook and a physical book, but I'd highly recommend the physical book. It's beautifully laid out, with a collage-like style that mixes photographs and abstract cutouts.

A great book for anyone who raises houseplants, 'horticulturally challenged' or not!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

One Way by S.J. Morden. A sci-fi thriller set in the near future: 2048, to be exact. Mars has been visited, and it's time for humanity to build a permanent base there for the ease of future astronauts. But how to do it? Robots are expensive and prone to breaking down, whereas human labor is even more expensive and when they break down there's likely to be lawsuits from family members. Xenosystems Operations, the company who has contracted with NASA to build the base, hits on the perfect solution: convict labor. After all, it's not like they can escape; they'll be on fucking Mars, and there's not a lot of spare oxygen or rocket ships for them to steal. XO runs a private prison in California (named Panopticon; subtle, Morden), so all they have to do is select a team of seven people with life-sentences who are willing to serve the rest of their time on Mars, give them a few months of training, and send them on a one-way journey – even once the base is built, they'll be a need for maintenance and janitorial services, since astronauts have more important things to do than unclog drains or charge batteries. In exchange, the prisoners get work they can be proud of and a bit more freedom in their daily lives.

Frank is our narrator and main character. Sentenced to life for murdering his son's drug dealer, Frank is a former construction worker, an obviously useful background. He and his team of six other prisoners, each with their own specialities (transportation, plumbing, electricity, computers, hydroponics, and a doctor), plus an XO employee to be their guard/boss, quickly find out that XO has cut every possible corner to save money. They have no redundant supplies in case of wear or mishap; broken or missing necessary parts; barely enough food to get them through; problems with producing their own oxygen, water, and power; and not enough training for emergencies. Unsurprisingly, this quickly starts to take its toll, and people die in easily preventable accidents. Except by the third death, Frank suspects that they're not just accidents – someone on the team is deliberately murdering the others. He has no one he trusts, help from Earth is months away, and in the harsh environment of Mars the smallest mistake can kill, so Frank is left to figure out the murderer by himself before he's the next victim.

Morden is an excellent writer of tension; there's several wonderfully dramatic scenes involving characters in spacesuits running out of time on their oxygen supplies that were heart-pounding and thrilling. Unfortunately he's not a great author of mysteries. The murderer is SUPER obvious, so much so that it makes Frank look dumb for taking so long to figure it out. At the point where Frank discovers a bunch of empty oxycontin packets around the murderer's bed and still doesn't think it might be him, I had to groan out loud. (Of course, being a drug addict doesn't make one a murderer, except that this is totally the kind of book where it does.) I also had problems with Morden's science writing; I think he expects his average reader to know more about space than I, at least, do. There was a lot of techno-jargon I didn't know, and I never could manage to picture what the base Frank and the others built was supposed to look like.

On the other hand, I am highly predisposed to like a book that's this critical of the use of convict labor for corporate profit, and the excerpts scattered throughout of XO's private communications really make it clear how far down the path of evil a bit of greed and pure capitalism can get you. Hooray for a nice dose of contemporary politics in my escapist reading!

I do want to note – because I didn't know before reading it – One Way is not a stand-alone. A sequel is due out soon. Nonetheless, One Way ends at a good point, with almost all of the plot threads wrapped up. You won't feel like you've gotten only half of the story if you read this book alone.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
I haven't decided! I just finished One Way and haven't picked out my next book from my very long to-read list.

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Sunday, May 6th, 2018
8:12 pm - A Lot of Reading
I was unexpectedly busy for most of April, so this is several weeks' worth of reading – though weeks where I didn't have much time for reading for fun, alas. Enjoy an overabundance of reviews?

What did you just finish?
A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present by Mark Forsyth. A shallow but funny history of humanity's relationship with booze. Brief chapters cover pretty much every historical era you'd expect: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Greeks, the Romans, the Bible, Ancient China, Vikings, the Medieval Middle East, Medieval England, the Aztecs, colonial Australia, the Wild West, Russia, American Prohibition, and London's Gin Craze of the 1700s. That's quite the list for a book of less than three hundred pages, and indeed Forsyth is clearly focused on being amusing and easy to read more than he is on deep historical investigations – which isn't really a critique, as long as "silly and quick" is what you're looking for. (I am a bit skeptical of some of his claims, but he has footnotes to back him up; I suspect it's a case of Forsyth taking the most extreme possible side in genuine historical debates.)

It's a nice collection of "hey, did-you-know" trivia, but I doubt anyone will come away with more insight on the history of alcohol than they started with.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey. The sequel to Leviathan Wakes, which I had mixed feelings about. Well, goddamn! Corey has levelled up their writing beyond my highest expectations, particularly in regards to characterization. This time around we have four PoVs. There's Holden again, who remains somewhat action-hero-y but has become far more sympathetic (possibly because he actually has idiosyncratic attributes now; I'm particularly fond of his deep attachment to a fancy coffee-maker). We're introduced to Bobbie Draper, a highly-trained marine from the Martian military and the only surviving witness of the opening salvo of the Martian-Earth war, which might actually have been an accident caused by an alien attack; she prefers battle to politics, and struggles with the question of who she should be loyal to when no one believes her or cares about the whole alien thing. Next is Chrisjen Avasarala, a tiny gray-haired grandmother with a meaningless-sounding title ("assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration") who is actually the power behind the throne of the UN, now Earth's ruling body; she smiles and snacks on pistachios in public and curses like a sailor in private, fiercely determined to ride over any opposition she encounters. And finally there's Prax – Praxidike Meng – a botanist and single father of a four-year-old daughter, more comfortable with plants or scientific reports than being social or having emotions, and completely over-his-head incompetent with the politics and violence he soon finds himself thrown into.

The plot sets off when that four-year-old disappears in the conflict of war. A great many people have disappeared or died, and more than that are starving, displaced, rioting, or soon to be all of the above, so Prax is unable to get the authorities to care about one lost little girl. That is until he accidentally encounters Holden et al, and finds the team he needs to solve what increasingly becomes a deep, wide-spread mystery. Meanwhile, Avasarala and Bobbie are trying to convince the militaries of Earth and Mars to back down and focus on the real problem: possible aliens from who-knows-where, capable of doing who-knows-what. Unsurprisingly, these plots eventually intersect for a dramatic climax.

I really appreciate how Corey doesn't focus on the action to the detriment of meaning. Yes, there's lots of space battles and killer aliens, but there's thoughtful insight on war and human nature too:
“So you’re in an entrenched position with a huge threat coming down onto you, right?” Avasarala said, sitting down on the edge of Soren’s desk. “Say you’re on a moon and some third party has thrown a comet at you. Massive threat, you understand?”
Bobbie looked at her, confused for a moment, and then, with a shrug, played along.
“All right,” the marine said.
“So why do you choose that moment to pick a fight with your neighbors? Are you just frightened and lashing out? Are you thinking that the other bastards are responsible for the rock? Are you just that stupid?”
“We’re talking about Venus and the fighting in the Jovian system,” Bobbie said.
“It’s a pretty fucking thin metaphor, yes,” Avasarala said. “So why are you doing it?”
Bobbie leaned back in her chair, plastic creaking under her. The big woman’s eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth once, closed it, frowned, and began again.
“I’m consolidating power,” Bobbie said. “If I use my resources stopping the comet, then as soon as that threat’s gone, I lose. The other guy catches me with my pants down. Bang. If I kick his ass first, then when it’s over, I win.”
“But if you cooperate—”
“Then you have to trust the other guy,” Bobbie said, shaking her head.
“There’s a million tons of ice coming that’s going to kill you both. Why the hell wouldn’t you trust the other guy?”
“Depends. Is he an Earther?” Bobbie said. “We’ve got two major military forces in the system, plus whatever the Belters can gin up. That’s three sides with a lot of history. When whatever’s going to happen on Venus actually happens, someone wants to already have all the cards.”
“And if both sides—Earth and Mars—are making that same calculation, we’re going to spend all our energy getting ready for the war after next.”
“Yep,” Bobbie said. “And yes, that’s how we all lose together.”

Caliban's War is a incredible page-turner of a book, with wonderfully engaging characters, detailed worldbuilding, and enough substance to give the action weight. Plus, how can you not like a book where the bad guy turns out to be the military-industrial complex?

Also there is a hell of a cliffhanger ending to this book. I'm really glad I didn't have to wait a year for the sequel to be published.

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey. The sequel to Caliban's War, part 3 of The Expanse series. The plot is becoming hard to talk about without spoiling the previous books, so if you don't want to know what happened, stop reading here.

The inexplicable alien presence (is it a virus? An AI? something else?) first encountered in the first book of the series has constructed a giant ring far out on the edges of the solar system. Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA, a loose conglomerate of the various colonies on other planets, moons, and asteroids) have each sent ships to study it, but the only thing anyone can tell is that it seems to be a gate to somewhere else. Until, of course, plot events send several ships accidentally through it and into a truly alien, nicely creepy other-place, where even the laws of physics are mutable and prone to abruptly changing. Meanwhile, Holden is visited by Miller, who died in the first book and whose appearance/personality/knowledge the alien presence seems to have co-opted as a face for itself. Unfortunately trying to communicate across the barriers of species and millions of lightyears is just as difficult as it sounds, and what Miller manages to say comes across as garbled nonsense, often intelligible only after whatever he was warning about has already happened. The climax of the book goes small-scale, with two sides battling for control of a single spaceship, crawling through tunnels and fighting hand-to-hand. It's a striking change from the previous books that ended in giant confrontations with hundreds of ships while being just as exciting.

Once again we have a new set of PoVs (except for Holden, who continues on), and though I desperately missed Avasarala, Bobbie, and Prax, I have to admit these new guys were pretty fun too. First off is Clarissa Mao, the sister of Julie Mao (now dead from the alien zombie virus) and daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao (now imprisoned for life for war crimes, due to turning the alien virus into a bioweapon and trying to sell it to the highest bidder). Her once-powerful and crazy-wealthy family is disgraced and scattered, and Clarissa blames James Holden personally. She's determined to get revenge – not just to kill him, but to ruin him and his reputation, and make all the galaxy doubt his previous actions –  and she doesn't care how many other people have to die to make that happen. To get to Holden, she disguises herself as a nobody, an electrochemical technician on a minor spaceship, and finds herself spending every day dealing with people and problems that were once far beneath her notice.

There's also Bull – Carlos Baca – head of security for the main spaceship of the OPA navy. Although Bull is far more experienced and sensible than either the captain or XO, he finds himself relegated to third in command because he grew up on Earth rather than in the Asteroid Belt, and Earthers are visibly distinct from Belters; it's a bit like getting demoted because you're the 'wrong' race, and it would look politically bad for you to be in charge. After an accident halfway through the book, Bull becomes paraplegic. I thought the handling of his disability was mostly well-done, and seeing a big, physically-imposing guy deal with being unable to use strength to enforce his will was an interesting twist.

Finally we have my favorite character of this book: Annushka Volovodov, or Pastor Anna. She's a tiny, non-drinking, politically-unconnected, small-town Methodist preacher, determinedly pacifistic and married to a woman. She ends up heading to the Ring when Earth decides to send a team of artists, poets, philosophers, and religious leaders along with the scientists and military, mainly to show off that it can afford to do so, though theoretically to interpret the meaning of an alien presence. I can't imagine a character less likely to end up as the star of a space-opera thriller than a lesbian pastor who just wants everybody to stop fighting, you guys, seriously, why don't we talk about forgiveness and maybe organize a Sunday service with grape juice and a sermon about coming together?, and yet it works incredibly, unexpectedly well. I love Anna so much, and continue to be deeply impressed at the diversity of personalities Corey has written after a first book that was fairly disappointing in that regard. They even seem to be particularly good at writing women who are very different from one another but are all well-rounded, believable, and fascinating, and I would never have seen that coming.

The world-building continues to be really well-done. I particularly enjoyed the many scenes set on the Behemoth, an enormous spaceship originally built to be a colony ship for Mormons but retrofitted due to necessity into a warship. The murals of Jesus and angels providing a backdrop for war counsels and weapons storage are maybe a too-obvious irony, but one that never failed to make me laugh.

I didn't love Abaddon's Gate quite as much Caliban's War, mostly because the characters here were very good but just not as spectacularly wonderful as before. But that's a relatively minor criticism, and overall I admire Corey's focus on petty, recognizable human squabbling even in the face of worldchanging developments. I'm looking forward to the next book already.

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg. What is this? Well, a damn hard book to review, to start. On one level we have what is presented as the 'recently discovered autobiography' of Jack Sheppard, real-life petty thief and escapee from jail in early 1700s London. Sheppard lived fast and died young, then proceeded to become an enormously famous figure in English folklore, probably most recognizable today as the inspiration for "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" in The Threepenny Opera. But Confessions of the Fox is in fact a novel, and though it otherwise mostly stays close to the facts and dates (as we know them) of Jack's life, here Jack is a transman, his girlfriend Bess is the daughter of a South Asian man who was press-ganged by the East India Company before escaping into an independant communal society hidden away in the fens of East Anglia, and his best friend Aurie is a black gay man. Just to be clear, I am all for this presentation of a multiracial queer history.

A second level of story is presented through footnotes, much like House of Leaves (though infinitely less confusing than that book, since we only have two levels of story here rather than the four or five in House of Leaves). This narrator is Dr R. Voth, a professor of English literature who is editing Jack's "autobiography" for publication and who is a transman himself. Voth alternates between telling mundane stories of his life – his ex, his job troubles, his attempts to ask out a neighbor – and citing genuine academic sources to provide context for Jack's story. Voth is fictional but his sources are not, which makes for an unsettling mixture of truth and imagination; I think I would have assumed the academic footnotes were also fictional if I hadn't happened to recognize several early ones. I've read Gretchen Gerzina's Black London: Life Before Emancipation and Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, among others, and seeing them mentioned by a fictional character was like water to the face, confusing my assumption of what was real and what wasn't.

As the story goes on, "P-Quad Publishers and Pharmaceuticals" in association with "" attempts to take control of Jack's autobiography and Voth's work on it, leading both levels of Confessions of the Fox to become critiques of the commodification of the body and its experiences, capitalism in general, the history of the discovery and modern patenting of synthetic testosterone, and how historical biographies enter (or, more often, don't enter) the archive.

Which leaves us in an odd place. If you didn't instantly recognize what I meant by The Archive in that previous line, if you're one of the vast majority of humans on Earth who haven't read Appadurai's "Commodities and the Politics of Value", then I'm not sure this book is interested in talking to you. Certainly if Rosenberg ever bothered to explain any of these concepts in an introductory way I missed it. On the other hand, if you, like me, are an overeducated liberal who can nod pretentiously at sentences like "A commodity is an entity without qualities", then I'm not sure Confessions of the Fox has anything new to say to you. It restates various queer, postcolonial, and Marxist theories without adding anything to them or combining them in interesting ways. Like, sure, we all agree with Foucault that prisons form the model for surveillance and discipline by the wider society, but so what? Do something with that idea, expand upon it, challenge it, or else there's no reason to read Rosenberg's book if you've already read Foucault's. So then who is Confessions of the Fox for? I have genuinely no idea.

The love story between Jack and Bess or the adventure of Jack's exploits should have been enough to carry their half of the story. I love me a good historical thriller of criminals and the whores they adore. But we didn't really get that here; we see Jack and Bess's first meeting and first night spent together, but then we jump ahead to them as an already established relationship without seeing how they grow together and build trust and affection. Similarly, we never see Jack learn to pick pockets or burglar houses; he's just an innocent apprentice and then suddenly a famously skilled thief. He meets Aurie once and then we're told they're brothers-in-arms without ever seeing their friendship. Etc. In addition to all this, it's hard to love characters who are more living examples of theories than they are three-dimensional people, particularly when they keep bursting into dialogue like this example:
Bess stood, speaking to the entire room. “Plague’s an excuse they’re using to police us further!” She looked out. Most continued to quaff and quarrel amongst themselves. “All of you! They’re panicking the people delib’rately. It’s a securitizational furor they’re raising to put more centinels on the streets. Can’t you see that?”
It's not even that I disagree with the concept of "security theater", but it's not good fiction to have your characters straight-up define it, and then POINTING OUT IN A FOOTNOTE THAT THE 1720-ISH DATE WOULD MAKE HER THE FIRST TO DO SO IS EVEN WORSE, OH MY GOD, DON'T PRAISE YOUR OWN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS FOR THE MODERN LANGUAGE YOU GAVE THEM.

Ahhh, I don't know. I agree with all of Confessions of the Fox's politics, I want to support histories (fictional or not) with more accurate, multiracial, and queer portrayals of the past, and I've certainly read far, far worse books, but in the end I just didn't much enjoy this. The worst I can say is that it's unengaging; I found my attention constantly drifting whenever I tried to read, and even put it down for a few weeks before finally coming back to finish it. But no matter what its good intentions, that doesn't make for a book I'd recommend. In the end Confessions of the Fox has a fantastic concept, but unfortunately doesn't pull off the execution.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh. [personal profile] sholio is going to be hosting a tumblr book club, if anyone else wants to read along!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready Rock Moe Rex
Said the Gramaphone
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when the doors of heaven closed

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