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

Five (extremely delayed) Yuletide recs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Things Make a Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Wednesday

Let Me Breathe Thunder by William Attaway. An early (1939) novel by a Black writer, focusing on the life of two young white hobos, Step and Ed, who open the story by meeting an orphaned ten-year-old Mexican boy and stealing all the cash he has. They then, with the short-sightedness typical of them throughout the book, realize that they feel too guilty to abandon the kid and so decide to bring him along on their aimless wanderings. Their relationship with the kid, whom they christen "Hi Boy" since they never learn his real name (Hi Boy doesn't speak much English, and neither Step nor Ed knows Spanish), catches the attention of kindly orchard owner Sampson, who invites them all to come work for him. They do so, and Sampson's teenage daughter promptly develops a crush on Step which he takes advantage of.

There's an obvious comparison here to Of Mice and Men: two closely bonded men riding the rails during the Great Depression, a woman's sexual desires setting off the climax, an anti-capitalist dream interrupted by accidental death, a lynch mob, tragedy all around. But the more distance I put between myself and the end of Let Me Breathe Thunder, the more certain I am that Attaway, unlike Steinbeck, felt no pity for his main characters. You don't quite notice it during the experience of reading Let Me Breathe Thunder itself; Step and Ed are written with sensitivity and attention to both the joy of their freedom and the pain of their rootlessness. They struck me as sympathetic, even likeable, particularly Ed, who is the less cynical and more tender of the two, and the book's narrator. Nonetheless they are thoughtless and selfish and by the end their actions have resulted in at least one death, with others possibly implied. I suspect we're not meant to cry for Step and Ed so much as for all the ruined lives they leave behind. I don't think it's an accident that a Black author made his main characters white men, not when they reach the end curiously safe and sound – the only ones who do.

I liked Let Me Breathe Thunder a great deal, and wish it was taught or critiqued in parallel to Of Mice and Men more often, instead of simply being overshadowed by it. It's not a lesser version of the same story but one that casts similar events in a quite different light.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. A novel about a classical musician, a violinist in modern-day London (well, modern-day at the time the novel was published, which is to say the 1990s, as is evident by the number of faxes characters send to one another), and the woman he loved and lost. Ten years ago Michael was a music student in Vienna, deeply in love with fellow musician Julia and studying under a demanding professor; he spectacularly flamed out and abruptly disappeared from both relationships without a word. Now he works with a string quartet – his professor, who envisioned a solo career for him, would be disappointed – and pines for Julia – who refuses to answer his sporadic letters – while sleeping with one of his own students. Until he catches sight of Julia on a London bus, and discovers that she's a) married, and b) going deaf.

I'd been looking forward to reading An Equal Music because I love Seth's other work, but this is absolutely no A Suitable Boy. The writing itself is fine, even wonderful: sparse but evocative, lyrical and descriptive, particularly about cities, landscapes, and music. Unfortunately everything else about the book is completely terrible. The concept of a musician losing the ability to hear is a bit trite, but could also have tremendous potential in the hands of the right author. Unfortunately An Equal Music is very much not Julia's story – it's Michael's, and that of the manpain he feels at her loss. Everything about Michael is awful. It's been quite some time since I hated a main character as much as I hate him; by the end of the book, I was actively rooting for bad things to happen to him and felt annoyed whenever fate gave him a break.

Let me list the things Michael does over the course of An Equal Music:
– actively stalks Julia, ignoring her clear wishes to be left alone, to the extent of popping up unexpectedly at her parents' home and asking his agent to call her agent
– once he meets Julia again, nags her into having an affair with him (I suppose she acquiesces to this, though An Equal Music never really explains why)
– ghosts his current girlfriend once he has Julia's attention
– throws tantrums when she continues to express affection for her husband
– after he finds out that she's going deaf, makes it all about him, continually bringing it up and asking questions despite her stating that she doesn't want to talk about it
– lets out the secret of her deafness despite her explicitly asking him not to, because she's afraid it will either destroy her career or turn her into a novelty gimmick
– makes the final time she's able to perform with others all about him by having a major nervous breakdown in the green room, forcing her to comfort him and to miss the rest of the concert
– physically and emotionally abuses her because he finds an affectionate letter she wrote to her husband
– actively tries to expose their affair to her husband
– after she breaks things off, shows up at her young son's school to force a confrontation
– witnesses the fact that the widespread knowledge of Julia's deafness has indeed turned her music into a publicity stunt; feels no remorse
– creates disasters for his quartet to clean up because he's too obsessed with Julia

All of this could make for a decent novel, I suppose, if it was about a horrible, selfish monster and the disasters he causes. An Equal Music is not that book. We're clearly supposed to find Michael sympathetic and his love and struggles tragic. The only question I came away with was how the insightful and astute Seth I'd read before could possibly have produced this book.

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

Reading Wednesday

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico. (Apparently the author is insistent that this is not YA, but both the writing style and characters felt incredibly YA-ish to me, so... *shrugs* Decide for yourself.) In a small town in rural Yucatan, young Casiopea is used as servant by her rich grandfather and looked down upon by the rest of her family, especially her cousin Martín. Until one day when Casiopea is left alone in the house and out of spite opens a locked chest in her grandfather's room, only to release the ancient Maya death god Hun-Kamé, who was trapped there by his twin brother in a battle for control of Xibalba, the Underworld. Now Hun-Kamé and Casiopea are linked; her morality seeping into him allows him to exist in the world of humans, but it will only last for so long before she runs of out of life and they both die permanently. In the short time they have, Hun-Kamé must travel across Mexico (stopping at Mexico City, Mérida, El Paso, Tijuana, and a luxurious spa resort on the Pacific coast) to regather what his brother stole from him before the two gods can meet again in battle; he brings Casiopea along, allowing her to see the outside world she always dreamed of. Meanwhile, Hun-Kamé's twin chooses Martín as his own mortal champion (gods are fond of parallels, you know), using him to force Casiopea back home.

As I said, the prose struck me as very standard YA, particularly at the beginning of the book. (Which I don't mean as an insult; lots of genres have their standard styles.) It did seem to deepen and become more complex as the story went on, though I'm not sure if that was a choice of Moreno-Garcia's, or just me becoming more used to her writing.

On the other hand, I really loved the worldbuilding. Hun-Kamé and Casiopea meet all sorts of other characters from folklore, and not just from Maya mythology – there's figures from European, modern Mexican, and other Indigenous groups in here as well. Though the Maya connections are obviously the most prominent, and are really, really well-done. The scenes set in Xibalba itself do a wonderful job of conveying its creepy otherworldliness.

I absolutely loved Hun-Kamé's characterization. Moreno-Garcia gives him an agelessness, a stillness, and a detachment which felt so plausible for a god, and a death god (however benevolent) in particular. His slow transformation as morality grows in him was very effective. Speaking of characterizations, I also appreciated that Moreno-Garcia gave even the 'bad guys' a lot of empathy and understanding as to the root of their actions. Finally, the relationship between Hun-Kamé and Casiopea was fantastic. This is possibly the very best god/mortal romance I've ever read, and its resolution just could not have been better.

So, overall: do I recommend it? The beginning is definitely not as good as the latter parts, and it still comes off as fairly YA-ish, but if that's a genre you enjoy, you really should check this one out.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle. Sort of fantasy, sort of literary fiction, all entirely wonderful. This is the story of Apollo Kagwa, a young father in modern NYC. His own father disappeared from Apollo's life so early that he barely remembers him, and consequently he struggles with learning to be a father himself. The first hundred or so pages of The Changeling are a non-fantastic, mundane but enthralling account of Apollo's life: how his parents met and divorced, how he grew into a rare book dealer, how he met and wooed his wife Emma, her pregnancy, her sister's role as at-home midwife, the birth of their son. It's all sweet and surprisingly engaging despite the lack of suspense or, really, plot (Apollo's obsession with posting too many baby photos on Facebook was so adorable that it made me coo out loud, and I DON'T EVEN LIKE BABY-FIC, Y'ALL).

And then everything changes. It starts when Emma is either being stalked or is descending into a particularly hallucinatory bout of postpartum depression; Apollo is fairly firmly convinced that it's the latter, but the narrative leaves either possibility open. This culminates in a horrific scene of violence (look at the title and think about the recommended response to changelings in the original stories, and you'll have some sense of what happens) that leaves Emma missing, Apollo filled with a desire for revenge, and everyone else in their lives confused.

The Changeling is mostly about fatherhood: good fathers, bad fathers, generational differences in fathering styles, how one becomes a father, how one fails at it despite the best of intentions. Even a first-edition of To Kill a Mockingbird that provides a major MacGuffin is signed by Harper Lee herself with “Here's to the Daddy of our dreams". Despite this, The Changeling is not a book about daddy issues, which is a slightly different thing and one that (in my opinion) is way overdone these days, but something rarer and more profound. It also makes the lack of Emma's perspective (who is very clearly having her own complex adventures just offscreen) a deliberate choice about where to focus rather than simply shunting aside the main female character, which it could have descended into but miraculously doesn't.

The Changeling is also about fairytales. Not just changelings, who of course are central (and the paired scenes where first Emma and then Apollo finally learn the truth about changelings are far scarier and more primal than any of the other modern literature about changelings that I've read; though I wouldn't put the book as a whole into the horror genre, those two scenes absolutely qualify), but also witches, Rapunzel, trolls (both the internet kind and the lives-in-a-cave, turns-to-stone-in-the-daylight kind), three magic wishes, and Maurice Sendak. Plus the American Dream, ideas of masculinity, and white supremacy – all their own kinds of fairytale – which twist and turn on the tellers.

There's so much I loved in this book; I can't fit it all into this review. NYC is depicted vividly and precisely, which I am always a total sucker for: pilgrimages to the Strand! dancers on the subway! the sounds of Riker Island! the gray of its winters and the surprising green of its little parks! Zipcars and long waits for the bus! Libraries crowded with screaming children and the barren emptiness of the beaches in winter! Race (Apollo and Emma are black) is omnipresent in the book while rarely being directly referenced, in a subtle portrayal of how it's both unimportant (everyone has parental anxieties!) and yet absolutely central to modern life. Also, somehow this book made me cheer for an app download, which is not a thing I previously thought possible. The Changeling manages such a wonderful mix of grief and humor and shock and optimism. It's the perfect novel.

I loved every single word in this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Don't make the mistake I did of waiting two years to read it! READ IT NOW. It hooked me from the very first page and never let me down.

In summary: READ IT. SO. GOOD.

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

Reading Sunday is a thing if I say it is

A couple of weeks ago (yes, I am a couple of weeks behind in writing up the books I read), I visited a friend in Rochester. What better time, I thought, than to catch up on the Donald Strachey series, the first book of which I read a while ago. Of course, this series is set in Albany, not Rochester, but eh, it was still the closest to a thematic read I had on hand. And then it turned out that the one I had chosen was set during a massive heatwave, which was extremely not my experience of the weather in November, but still. I'd tried.

On the Other Hand, Death by Richard Stevenson. The second book in the Donald Strachey murder mysteries, starring a gay private investigator in early 1980s upstate New York. In this one, Don is hired by a massive real estate company who's looking to build a mall just outside of town. The only thing preventing them from starting construction is a pair of elderly lesbians who refuse to sell their farm. All their other neighbors have signed away their land – but won't actually be getting the cash unless the ladies sell as well. When homophobic vandalism and threatening letters turn up on the ladies' farm, Don is hired by the very same real estate company to look into it. He's fairly certain the company is responsible, but if they want to pay him thousands of dollars to make themselves look better, Don won't say no. Matters are complicated when a houseguest of the ladies is kidnapped, and an enormous ransom is demanded; the only way they can raise the money is by selling the farm. The missing guest is the boyfriend of a young gay activist currently touring the country to try and convince people to sign up for a nationwide gay strike. Would he fake a kidnapping just to raise awareness? Has the real estate company crossed the line into violence? And will they figure out where the missing man is before he's killed?

I liked this book a lot better than the first one in the series, Death Trick, though it does continue the trend of terrible names (at least this one is semi-justified in the dialogue). Timmy, Don's longterm boyfriend, is much more of a presence this time, and their relationship has an actual subplot: Don won't stop sleeping around despite Timmy's desire for monogamy. They both feel more like characters and less like empty figures meant only to drive the plot. Even the secondary characters – the elderly lesbians, the gay activist couple, the jerkwad cops – are fleshed out. The evocation of time and place is very well-done, and I quite liked the solution to the mystery. A very fun, quick-paced read.

Ice Blues by Richard Stevenson. I enjoyed On the Other Hand, Death so much that I went on immediately to this, the third book in the Donald Strachey series. And it was a very good choice, proving just as compulsively readable as its predecessor. The interesting historical (now; it was originally contemporary) detail also continues: Ice Blues was published in 1987, and unlike the previous two books, here AIDS has begun to have its devastating impact on the gay community. A death caused by AIDS, in fact, becomes a major driver of the plot.

Said plot starts with a bang: one winter evening, Don's car is towed to make way for the snow plows. When he arrives at the city lot a few hours later to pick up his car, there's a dead body in the trunk. It turns out that Don once met the dead guy at a party, and – more shockingly – the dead guy has left him $2.5 million dollars in cash, hidden in a few suitcases currently on their way to Albany from L.A. There's also a letter instructing Don to use the money to clean up the corrupt city government.

Which leads to a lot of questions: who killed him? Are the people who did it now trying to kill Don? (Spoiler: yes.) Why did he leave the money to Don? And most importantly, where did the money even come from – the dead guy's former drug associates? His grandfather, who was a central part of said corrupt government? The unknown and possibly imaginary man in L.A. whose will legitimized the money?

Ice Blues continues the welcome trend of fleshing out the side characters in this series, and I particularly loved the role Timmy got to play here. (The best kind of melodrama!) Brutal winter weather is a constant throughout the book, and I felt a lot of empathy with Don's plans to decamp for somewhere tropical. On the other hand, I'd expected there to be more about what the rise of AIDS meant to this community and these characters, but well... Stevenson is going hard for that hard-boiled style, so I can't expect anyone to talk about their feelings. However much I might want them to.

As a side note: I read both of these books as ebooks, and some editor or publisher or whoever has done a terrible job transferring them from the print editions. Weird breaks in the middle of paragraphs, random italics, and typos on nearly every page. If that kind of thing renders a book unreadable for you, you might want to put in the effort of chasing down the original print books.

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition by Buddy Levy. Nonfiction about the Greely expedition (also called the Lady Franklin Bay expedition), yet another of the many terrible Arctic disasters that occured to (or were caused by) various explorers.

In 1881 American Army lieutenant Greely and his 24 followers (mostly scientists or other army men, plus two local Inuit men and one random French doctor) headed up to Lady Franklin Bay (an extremely ominous name that Levy somehow never points out the irony of! Perhaps it was too obvious?) near the very northernmost tip of Greenland, far out of the range of habitable lands. They intended to spend three years there, collecting various scientific data (on weather, astronomical events, the function of magnets so near to the north pole, etc), exploring the mostly unmapped areas to the west and east and, if possible, sending a sledge team to the north pole itself, which would make them the first to reach it, claiming the glory for the Americans instead of the British (who held the record for Farthest North at the time). The plan was for a supply ship to reach them each summer with fresh food, clothing and, if needed, men. As you might guess if you're remotely familiar with the history of polar exploration, the supply ships never arrived, due to a combination of ice blocking the way and political arguments back in Washington DC. In August 1883, Greely decided they had to abandon their station, so the whole crew headed south using a combination of small ships, sledges, and walking. They made it two hundred miles before further travel was halted by winter weather – still alone and with extremely little food left. Out of 25 men, seven survived that winter to be rescued in June 1884, with one more dying soon after.

This is a fascinating enough piece of history on its own, rife with dramatic scenes of man v nature, brutal endurance, wolf attacks, polar bears, the northern lights, bad decision making, theft, murder, madness, and (of course) allegations of cannibalism. Unfortunately Levy is not the person to tell this story. He engages in practically every single tick that I hate in nonfiction writers. He imagines details that he can't possibly know two hundred years later:
He observed them and everything else, squinting through his oval spectacles at the breathtaking expanse, trying to visualize what lay ahead. [...] Massive slabs of glacial ice cleaved off the shore and crashed into sea, spewing freezing brine over the gunwales and frosting his sharp narrow face and pointed black beard. His heart raced with anticipation, but his mind was much burdened.
If you wanted to write a novel, Levy, just write a novel! I don't need your fictionalizations in a history book!

Levy also focuses on mind-numbing minutiae while ignoring the larger context. For example, he spends chapters describing the foot-by-foot route Greely and co took south: on August 26th, a storm drove them east! On September 1st they made it back south! On September 16th they floated back north! On September 29th they finally made it back south! On September 22nd they went east instead! On September 27th they went west! On September 28th they went south again! (THIS IS NOT AN EXAGGERATION, IN FACT I COULD GO ON FOR MUCH LONGER) Was my summary boring to read? Well, imagine spending nearly a hundred pages on it, and you have a good idea of the middle section of Labyrinth of Ice. On the other hand, topics that I eagerly would have read a hundred pages of are skipped entirely: what was the point of all that scientific data they took? What questions were they trying to answer? What did they successfully learn? (Levy comments in the epilogue that their weather measurements are important to scientists today studying global warming, but I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that wasn't the original intention.) Levy mentions briefly that another of the expedition's goals was to search for the missing USS Jeanette – what was the story there? What was the cultural context around polar exploration, scientific expeditions, or stories of survival? How long did their record for Farthest North last? Why did they wait so long before they started eating the local shellfish? Levy mentions some of the men going "mad" as starvation set in – but what does that mean, in actual medical terms? Were they suffering just from calorie deprivation, or was some combination of scurvy and other diseases also affecting them? There are a hundred more subjects that the story of the Greely expedition could shed light on, but Levy ignores them all in favor of a tedious accounting of exactly how many miles were covered each day.

As a side note, I could also have used way more maps. There are a few included at the beginning of the book, but there are so many side trips and back-and-forths that a map for every chapter wouldn't have been out of place. I tried to follow along on Google Maps, but either place names have changed or Google hasn't bothered to finely map the Arctic Circle, because many of the locations Levy mentioned just weren't there.

I'm not objecting to the genre of polar exploration histories; I've read plenty that were exciting, enlightening, hard to put down and even, occasionally, funny. Labyrinth of Ice is definitively not one of them. I can't imagine recommending this book to anyone unless they had to write a report on the Greely expedition, and even then there are probably better resources.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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

Reading Wednesday

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

The last of Halloween Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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