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What did you just finish?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. People have been telling me to check out Meredith Duran's writing for years, but I only just now got around to it. Apologies, everyone I ignored: she is indeed awesome.

This book is a Victorian romance starring Jane – incredibly wealthy heiress and shy wallflower – and Crispin – corrupt politician who will do anything for power, including bribe Jane to spy on her uncle. Jane may be rich, but she has no access to her own money until she marries. Her uncle, her guardian, deliberately makes that impossible by keeping her in the country and not allowing her to meet any eligible men, all so he can continue to embezzle her money. Therefore Crispin's bribe is not cash, but an introduction to a priest willing to forge marriage papers. Shortly afterward Crispin is attacked by thieves and suffers a severe head injury, sending him into a coma he is not expected to survive. Jane seizes the moment and has marriage papers forged in his name – after all, once he dies she will be an independant widow, and that's exactly what she wants.

Unfortunately Crispin recovers, but without his memories. He assumes his marriage to Jane is a love-match, and she doesn't have the courage to tell him otherwise. Particularly once it becomes clear that amnesia!Crispin is kinder, more idealistic, and more honest than the cruel man she knew. Will they fall in love?????

To tell the truth, I'm not usually a fan of the amnesia trope, but this book used it so well that I may have to start seeking out more. I loved the constant testing between Jane and Crispin as each strove to figure out what the other knew/didn't know, and an unexpected twist late in the book just heightened the tension. All the secrets and lies and confusion made for fantastic suspense. The emotional arc of the relationship started with 'well, let's just have sex without making a commitment' and turned into 'oh no I have caught the feelings', which IS my favorite trope. I also liked the vague hints of liberal politics; it's not a major theme of the book, but background mentions of women's colleges and laws to protect prisoners are just the sort of things that are changing the historical romance genre for the better, in my opinion.

Highly recommended, and I absolutely will keep an eye out for more by Duran.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. A microhistory of the Lewis Chessman, a set of ivory carvings from the 1100s which are probably the most famous chess set in the world, appearing in everything from the Harry Potter movies to declarations of Scottish independance. The main mystery behind them is their origin: discovered on a beach in northern Scotland in the 1830s, no one is exactly sure where they came from or who made them. The two main contenders for the title are Norway (the traditional explanation, supported by most scholars) or Iceland (a newer theory, but the one championed in this book).

Brown uses the chessmen to tell a wider story about the Viking Age, walrus hunting, art styles in everything from churches to books, women's roles in the 12th century, the place of artisans in kings' courts, the history and development of chess, power struggles between the Church and royalty, the Icelandic sagas, the size of horses, the equipment of knights, and much more. Despite the extremely broad nature of the book, there's somewhat of a focus on Bishop Pall, a rich and powerful bishop in Iceland in the late 1100s, who may have commissioned an ivory carver named Margaret the Adroit to make the chess sets.

My main criticism is that the book's organization is entirely opaque, jumping from subject to subject and time period to time period frequently and without any reason I could discern. It became particularly difficult to follow during a chapter on the frequent civil wars in Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries, where every other important figure seemed to be named either Harald or Olaf. Keeping them straight – not to mention their tangled networks of alliances, betrayals, family lines, connections in the church, ambassadors to other countries, retainers, and so on – was a task I just gave up on after a few pages.

But despite that, it's a fun book, breezily readable, full of interesting tidbits and factoids of the sort that are fun to read aloud to anyone willing to listen. And now I want a reproduction Lewis chess set of my own! :D

I read this for a project I'm working on (which it ultimately did not help much, alas). If anyone knows of any archaeology microhistories written for a popular audience, I'd love some recs!


Mount TBR update: I'm not sure if I should count Ivory Vikings or not. On the one hand, it is a physical book now off of my shelves! On the other hand, I bought it last week. I think I'll keep my count steady at 9.

What are you currently reading?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. A book about the colonization of America before the Pilgrims, a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm always ready to rant about the primacy of Plymouth Rock in our national origin myth despite it not reflecting history.
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What did you just finish?
Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters. #5 of the Amelia Peabody books, a hilarious murder mystery series starring the stubborn, self-righteous, extremely late-Victorian British Egyptologist/amateur sleuth Amelia, her Byronic hero husband Emerson, and their annoyingly precocious son Ramses. This edition is the first to take place in London, and features the rumor of a mummy's curse in the British Museum, debauched aristocrats, a lady journalist, a lunatic disguised as an Ancient Egyptian priest, Emerson's ex-girlfriend, faked human sacrifices, people literally imprisoned in dungeons with the water levels rising rapidly, a cameo appearance by Dicken's Inspector Cuff, Ramses's scientific experiments in preventing corpses from rotting, and a visit by Amelia's niece and nephew, who turn out to be the only children worse than him. I'm generally not a fan of romance plots involving jealousy, but I have to say I loved how it developed between Amelia and Emerson, and I had to stop reading to cackle multiple times.

I felt like this book was a little scattered and not quite as well done as previous books in the series, but not so much as to make it skippable. I still had a very enjoyable time reading it, even if it was ultimately a bit forgettable. On the other hand, I did love the reporter, Miss Minton, and hope she shows up again in future books.


Mount TBR update: Up to 9 this week!

What are you currently reading?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. A Victorian romance with marriage-of-convenience and amnesia that I am LOVING.
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Busy busy week! But finally I am here to review things.

What did you just finish?
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. The tagline for this novel is 'Jane Eyre retold with Jane as a serial killer', but that's not quite accurate. This Jane does indeed kill multiple people, but it's always for good reason: in self-defense, to protect a child, by accident, etc. It is a more violent novel than the original, but with such a gleeful, revenge-minded attitude that the story never comes off as particularly dark.

Jane Steele hits all the main beats of Jane Eyre – an orphaned child mistreated by her aunt, spoiled cousins, a deadly school with a fragile, angelic friend, a job as a governess, a half-French illegitimate child, a gothic mansion with a mysterious locked room (though in this case it's a basement rather than an attic), dramatic meetings by the side of the road when a horse throws its rider, an angsty relationship with the master of the house, a tragic temporary separation, a mad woman – but mixed up, rearranged, and given new meaning. I particularly loved the section in the boarding school; I always felt like Helen deserved more screentime, and here she certainly gets it. But the book is not just a retelling; it's very much a modern retelling (though it's still set in 1800s England), with the feminism of the original amped up and made more similar to today's, and Mr Rochester's history moved from the Caribbean to the Punjab in order to tell a postcolonialist story about the Anglo-Sikh wars and the bloody price of Empire.

I do have to admit that I loved the beginning more whole-heartedly than the end, which just didn't seem quite as creative or enthralling. But that's a minor complaint for a book that could have been written with me in mind.


A Scot in the Dark by Sarah MacLean. A Regency romance starring Lillian, a forgotten and lonely woman who is technically ward to a Dukedom, but in reality is stuck in an awkward in-between place: not quite a servant and not quite one of society, and so ignored by everyone. Desperate for attention, she falls in love with a painter and agrees to pose nude for a portrait after he promises that no one will ever see the finished product. He, of course, is lying, and promptly unveils the painting in front of all London at an annual exhibition, simultaneously renouncing his promise to marry Lillian and ruining her chances of finding another husband. The ensuing scandal finally draws the attention of the Scottish Duke who is supposedly her guardian, and he arrives in London determined to solve the problem, get her married off, and destroy the painting. But he has his own angsty past with society's rules and being an outcast, and they begin to fall in love with one another.

I wanted to read this book because the author's said in interviews that she was inspired by modern-day phone hacking scandals, and I was fascinated to see how she translated that into the early 1800s. (Also apparently the painter is based on Kanye West, which is hilarious.) On the other hand, I just do not get the whole Scottish idealization thing that's so common in the romance genre. Nothing wrong with it, y'all, but I do not grasp the appeal. At least this book doesn't phonetically spell out the brogue in every line of dialogue. There were a lot of lurid descriptions of sexy kilts, but I'm pretty sure they were tongue-in-cheek.

Overall, it's a decent but not great book. I liked the 'women shouldn't be judged for nude images of themselves' theme, but that's not exactly a new or controversial stance. The plot hit most of the expected cliches, but the writing was very funny and the hero's backstory was unusual and intriguing. Probably not a book that's going to convert any romance-haters, but if you're a fan of the genre already, it's worth reading.


The Backyard Gardener: Simple, Easy and Beautiful Gardening with Vegetables, Herbs, and Flowers by Kelly Orzel. A quite advanced guide to organic gardening. There's a lot of useful information in these pages, but it was beyond my skills and/or needs. On the other hand, if you want to know how to adjust the pH balance of your soil, establish multi-year three-foot compost piles, build your own greenhouse, lay out landscape fabric, or set up four-year crop rotation plans, this is the book for you! Given that I live in an apartment with a few windows and a fire escape to garden on, it was less useful to me. I did enjoy the long chapter on individual plants, giving specific tips on how to grow, harvest, fertilize, and protect each kind (mostly vegetables, with herbs and flowers getting much fewer pages).

It's a well-written, informative book, but not the one I needed.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: Jane Steele puts me at 8.

What are you currently reading?
Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters. #5 in the Amelia Peabody series!
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What did you just finish?
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. A biography focused on Cleopatra, but with plenty of detours into Roman history, Alexander the Great's afterlife, Hellenistic Egypt, King Herod of Judea, the library of Alexandria, and other such fascinating side-stories.

And it's kind of a good thing that the book is filled up with these other topics, because unfortunately there simply is not that much of a historical record about Cleopatra's life. To quote Schiff, "For a woman who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra's story would be entrusted primarily to that city's historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." Schiff struggles against this as much as she can, but inevitably there are many blank years which can only be filled with "presumably" and "she must have" and "other Egyptian rulers did". I hate to say it, because it's not Schiff's fault, but I finished the book feeling like I'd learned nothing new. Cleopatra remains a far more unknowable personality than Julius Caesar or Mark Antony or Octavius or any of the other familiar names from this period.

I mainly picked up this book because I loved, loved, loved Schiff's book on the Salem Witch trials, but alas, this one did not quite live up to my expectations. On the other hand, I did discover the Ptolemaic family tree, which makes the Habsburgs look reasonable. Goddamn, people. A family tree should branch!


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. A novel set in the immigrant Sikh community of London. Nikki is a college dropout, primarily because she couldn't find a major she was passionate about, and is currently wasting her time by tending bar. She answers an ad looking for a creative writer teacher on impulse, figuring that hey, she's a reader! She could probably teach writing!

Instead she discovers that a) the class is supposed to be adult literacy, not memoir-writing, b) the students are primarily widows only semi-fluent in English who mostly just want to hang out and be entertained, and c) after accidentally discovering the existence of sexy romance novels, it turns out what the widows really want to do is tell erotic stories. Stories about themselves, stories about fantasies, fanfic about their favorite soap operas, fairy tales turned into sex epics, married couples, f/f couples, threesomes, kinky – all sorts of erotic stories. Nikki is at first mostly embarrassed to have a class full of people who look like her mom loudly debating the best vegetable to compare a penis to, but eventually comes around to seeing the stories as an important creative expression and her own role as teaching the women to stand up for themselves.

This part of the novel is all huge fun, if not particularly deep, and I had a great time reading it. Unfortunately there's a B-plot involving multiple murders, a vast cover-up conspiracy, a secret affair, disguised handwriting, and general melodrama. This part did not work so well for me. It just didn't seem to fit with the relatively small story of ten women rediscovering their passions – physical or not.

Ah, well. It wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, which remains a sweet, breezy read.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: Cleopatra brings me up to 7. On the other hand, there was a church book sale in my neighborhood last weekend, and I bought 7 books. (But they were only $2!! Of course I had to!) So one might more accurately say I'm at 0.


What are you currently reading?
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. Jane Eyre retold with Jane as a serial killer!
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What did you just finish?
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams. A novel about Josephine Marcus, a Jewish girl from San Francisco who ends up becoming Wyatt Earp's common-law wife and spending most of her life with him. This is a pretty intriguing bit of historical detail to base a novel on; unfortunately it didn't quite work for me. I can't say it's bad exactly. It's just not what I wanted.

The first and most important flaw is that the book is told in first person and Adams gives Josephine a very strong, specific voice. A bold choice! But a risky one, and one that I never adjusted to. I just never felt that it was a real person speaking instead of some shallow stereotype of 'feisty Wild West lady'. Here's an example from the opening pages:
Let’s face it: aging is a bitch for everybody. It’s a dumb joke that’s replayed every day when you awaken from dreams where you’re running around in your prime, chasing after men long dead with an ache in your pants, only to find yourself as you really are: creaky and misshapen, breasts touching belly, and alone in the spare bedroom under the roof of distant relations. But for a beautiful woman like I was—and don’t just take my word for it; even our enemies said I was the most beautiful woman to ever step off a stage in Tombstone—it’s even harder. Sometime in your teens men just start turning toward you, waking up to you (and women begin to prickle, although you hardly take the time to understand why)—the rabbi, his son, the wealthier widowers eyed hungrily by the mothers of the congregation for their daughters. You discover your power in the world and you itch to exercise it, to leave your mother’s shadow and find your rightful glorious place in the new world beyond the shtetl by the sea, San Francisco, where the German Jews lorded over us Prussian immigrants. And all that time when you should have been gaining character—reading books, learning languages, growing wiser, and mastering hardships—you’ve been busy tossing your curls from one shoulder to the next and rushing headlong into a future that you assume will catch you.
I wasn’t dumb. I was just distracted by the sway of my own breasts. Beauty brings trust in the universe, and then, in that cruel joke, over time it rescinds your power. Your brow furrows, your vanity chisels your features, and the frontier wind batters your skin. That demon strand of gray weaves itself into the brown. Your chest grows and grows in a race with your thighs. One day you’re walking alone down a street and no heads turn, no eyes seek you out, and you’re not a pillar of society or a great thinker or the mother of a brood of scholars, but a little woman in shabby shoes long out of fashion, writing letters to the editors and trying to exert some control over a life that’s disappeared.


See what I mean? It's not bad, and I'm sure it's exactly to many people's taste. Just not mine. (Also, it might be unfair, but I have to quote this line, which made me howl with presumably unintentional laughter: His feelings were as real and solid as his biceps.)

Overall, the book is bit more romance novel than historical fiction in its tone and focus, though it's always a blurry line between those genres. There's a surprising amount of page time given over to Josephine's first man, Sheriff Johnny Behan, who ends up coming off as a more of a major character than Wyatt Earp, and definitely more specific and well-rounded. Earp is always a bit of a romanticized cipher.

Last Woman Standing unsurprisingly puts its climax on the gunfight at the OK Corral, though it left me with more questions than answers. Why are these people even fighting? Why has a single fight involving less than ten people come to be the most famous of the whole 'Wild West', a period of time that surely included more interesting events? Why was Tombstone itself such a big deal anyway, given the number of boomtowns in the late 1800s? (Wikipedia proved more revealing on these topics than the novel: never a good sign.)

In the end, I wouldn't call Last Woman Standing a waste of my time, but I wouldn't recommend it either.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: Nothing new this week, leaving me at 4.


What are you currently reading?
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Now this one is a TBR book!
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What did you just finish?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. A fascinating piece of microhistory focused on a single family farm in Eastern Long Island. The Sylvester Manor, as it's now called, was first settled by an English-Dutch family in 1652, and the current house dates to the 1730s. And yet was still being lived in as a normal family home! Griswold, the author, literally stumbled over the house while rowing around Long Island and made friends with the current owners, eventually even convincing them to allow multiple seasons of archaeological excavation in their front yard. The book is based on those excavations, as well as historical research, family legends, and Griswold's own speciality as a landscape historian (she was particularly interested in how the various trees and shrubs came to the plantation). Although there's three centuries of history to cover, the focus is very much on the first generation of the family, with everyone later than 1801 getting short shrift. Which was fine by me, since that's the period I was most interested in. Griswold makes a valiant effort to put the focus on the enslaved Africans and Native Americans of the plantation, but inevitably there's simply many more documents and details available about the white masters. I think she does a good job with what she has to work with, and does produce some fascinating finds, but it's just not much in comparison to the European history. As is, sadly, so often the case.

Sylvester Manor was a northern provisioning plantation, which means that it grew the food, bred the horses, and crafted the barrels necessary for the running of their partnered sugar plantation down on Barbados. The history of Northern slavery has been mostly forgotten (or erased, depending on your perspective), and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating how closely tied together North and South were economically, rather than the antagonist perspective you get from many simplistic histories of the Civil War.

A good book, though I'm still searching for my one ideal history of NYC slavery.

(For a comparison, if you want to read just one book about slavery in the NYC area, I'd highly recommend this one over last week's New York Burning.)


The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker. Despite loving my two cats very much, and enjoying watching YouTube cat videos as much as any person on the internet, I am not actually one to read many books about cats. Everything from cozy cat mysteries to true-life inspirational cats turns me off. In fact, a cat on the cover is more likely to make me turn a book down than to pick it up. (I might make an exception for I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems by Cats.) And yet here I am, reading a book about cats!

The Lion in the Living Room is a pop-science book (very much in the style of Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell) about the history of cats. Her main topic is how they became domesticated – or if they even are domesticated – looking at the archaeology, biology, and history of humans' relationship with cats. She also covers topics from how good cats actually are at controlling rats and mice (spoiler: not very), Victorian cat shows, newly developed breeds, the impact of cats on the environment, the rise of the NTR (Neuter-Trap-Release) approach to controlling street cat populations, the history of the LolCat meme, toxoplasmosis (the parasite in cat's urine that might attract sufferers to cats), Egyptian religion, and interviews internet star Lil Bub. There's a ton of fun and fascinating facts sprinkled throughout the book. I particularly liked it for its straightforward scientific approach to cats, without much fluffiness, which unfortunately seems to be causing many negative reviews (I guess if being told that housecats are massively contributing to the extinction of birds and small mammals hurts your feelings, this may not be the book for you. Though I don't know how any reasonably well-informed adult doesn't already know that).

Highly recommended for a breezy look at the history and science of cats.


The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn. A novel I'd been stumbling across in different bookstores for the last several months, always being intrigued by the cover but never quite enough to buy it. And then I found it for $2 in a second-hand store and finally brought it home.

Well, I'm glad I only paid $2.

In 1999, Jacob Thacker is a doctor with the South Carolina Medical College, currently stuck on administrative duty as he recovers from a Xanax addiction. This past makes it easy for the Dean to blackmail him when a construction team uncovers dozens of human skeletons in the college's basement. Jacob is ordered to cover it up without the press finding out, even if that means reburying the bodies somewhere secret.

In alternating chapters the book jumps back to the 1850s and 60s to tell the story of Nemo Johnston, first enslaved and then free, who is also employed by the South Carolina Medical College. The school's very first Dean used Nemo as 'resurrectionist', a grave robber with the task of procuring dead bodies, mostly of other black men and women, for the school's students to practice on. Nemo is, of course, the source of the skeletons Jacob is being forced to deal with.

Jacob is kind of a terrible human being. He refers to his partner as a "woman in a man's world" because she's a lawyer; describes an ethnically Japanese coworker in this way: "Janice is as American as he is, but he can never help feeling that there is some reserve of samurai in her, some native allegiance passed down in the genes, that views him as the foreigner every time they meet"; and, when he first learns about the existence of Nemo, calls him "the poor, dumb bastard". It was around that last line when I decided that the author was deliberately writing Jacob as a dick, and perhaps that is the case since Jacob's entire plotline revolves around gaining enough courage and empathy to not accede to the cover-up. But since it takes being fired, blackballed, and rescued from his ensuing suicidal despair to consider that, hey, maybe the current African-American community has a right to their ancestors' remains!, I think the author drastically underestimated how incredibly horrible Jacob comes off as.

Even if that wasn't the case, Nemo's story is simply vastly more interesting than Jacob's. Unfortunately he gets much less page time and not really a plot arc so much as a series of random vignettes at different times of his life. At one point he gets elevated to the role of teacher – a black professor of a medical college! in the South! before the Civil War! – but how this came about or his feelings regarding it are never explained. And some of what little page time he gets is taken up by the story of white nurse Sara Thacker, who (spoiler, I suppose, but it's super obvious from page one) turns out to be Jacob's great-great-grandmother. I think Guinn was trying to do something about class or women's rights with this idea, but the plotline honestly is so thin that it feels like a last-minute addition which never got fleshed out enough to be worthwhile. At least Nemo doesn't turn out to be Jacob's great-great-grandfather, because I honestly spent at least fifty pages terrified that a tragic mulatto novel had somehow been published in 2014.

Overall: interesting premise, terrible execution.


Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Resurrectionist) bringing me up to 4! Oh, man, I am not making a dent in my massive mountain.

What are you currently reading?
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams. A Netgalley novel about the wife of Wyatt Earp.
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What did you just finish?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel about, basically, astroturfing – a method of creating enthusiasm for a product by having marketers join social media and pretend to be genuine fans, starting conversations and dropping names to make it look like there's a groundswell of support. Kate, the main character, belongs to a company that goes even further than usual, encouraging the employees to actually become fans and embed themselves long-term in message boards, facebook groups, fan clubs, and even in-person meetings. Kate is currently balancing two projects: one with die-hard railfans, paid for by a German company trying to sell their trains to the DC Metro, and one with hipsters who have an ironic love for an ancient newspaper soap opera comicstrip (clearly largely based on Apartment 3-G), paid for by a celebrity who really wants to star in the possible movie adaptation. The book is breezy and funny and clearly written by someone who genuinely gets fan-culture (there's one reference to a Captain America tumblr that made me howl with laughter), which resolves in the end with a surprisingly philosophical turn into the ethics of Kate's job.

Fruhlinger writes The Comics Curmudgeon, a comedy blog about newspaper comics, which I've been a fan of for literally years. Even so, I was surprised by how well-written and constructed The Enthusiast is; you would absolutely never guess it's a first novel. As a side note, I was also very pleased by the racial diversity of the characters and the nonchalant handling of Kate's sex life. There's just so much to enjoy in this book! Seriously, check it out – I want more people to read it.


Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. EVERYONE READ THIS BOOK IT IS AMAZING.

This is a YA retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, though the events of the play make up only a small section of the book near the end. Instead the focus is on Miranda and Caliban's childhood, and how it was to grow up so isolated from all other humanity, controlled and aided only by a distant, imperious father-figure, taking turns as teacher and student of what little knowledge they manage to glean under such circumstances. And then Prospero's plot comes to fruition, and I don't want to spoil the ending, but oh God my heart. Nothing is changed from the original play, but told from this new perspective everything is changed.

The writing style is very different from Carey's Kushiel books – still a bit florid (though I suppose that's only appropriate for a Shakespeare retelling), but more delicate. The chapters alternate between Miranda and Caliban's POVs, with Caliban's narration slowly growing in vocabulary and complexity throughout the book.

I've always had sympathy for Caliban, maybe more sympathy than really fits the play. He apparently attempted to rape Miranda, he tries to murder Prospero, he's frequently ingratiatingly servile and just kinda dumb – and yet, and yet, and yet. "You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse". Somehow all the centuries of racism and slavery and empire that were still to come are entirely summed up in one phrase from 1610. What modern person wouldn't – can't help but – feel sympathy? Carey's interpretation is clearly influenced by such postcolonial critiques, as well as feminist ones regarding Miranda, who is treated like a passive object in the play, manipulated and traded and unconsulted on her future, but here given a voice and desires. Her and Caliban's experiences under the (patriarchal, white supremacist) control of Prospero – very different but both objectifying and dehumanizing – are a major theme of the book.

But don't let me overstate it! This is still basically a YA romance, and it's very much not a polemic. It's simply an excellent retelling, emphasizing certain elements of the original text, expanding upon the background and inner experience of some characters. I absolutely loved it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore. A nonfiction book about the 1741 slave rebellion in NYC. Or, well, the supposed 1741 slave rebellion in NYC; as Lepore repeatedly points out, there's not good proof that any sort of rebellion actually existed, and the over 200 people charged (91 ended up either exiled or sold, 21 were hanged, and 13 burned at the stake) were probably guilty of nothing more than muttering about their owners and the rich men of the city.

To start at the beginning: in the spring of 1741, about ten fires sprang up in the then small town of New York City. This was not particularly unusual in wooden cities of the 18th century, particularly at that time of year, when most buildings would have been dried out by winter. However, various events (the contemporary War of Jenkins' Ear, which was on the verge of evolving into the War of the Austrian Succession; recent slave rebellions in Antigua and South Carolina; a particularly brutal winter; political discontent in the city, with rival parties vying for control of the governorship) set off a panic. People became convinced that the fires had been arson and there was a conspiracy on to destroy the city. A young Irish woman, an indentured servant, stepped into the center of attention and accused her master (with whom she seems to have had other reasons to be discontented), his family, and several slaves of fomenting rebellion. This set off a firestorm of accusation and counter-accusation, added by the fact that those who confessed and named names were either freed or received reductions in their sentences, while anyone not already in jail was promised a monetary reward for accusations. Both contemporary and modern observers have compared it to the Salem Witch trials, when a similar panic seems to have led people to declare themselves guilty of obviously impossible feats.

This is a pretty interesting topic; unfortunately I don't think Lepore's book is the best treatment it could have. She's hampered by the usual problems of early history (most of the records of the time have been lost or destroyed, leaving her with only one main source to work from), but other people have succeeded where she fails. In particular she tries to make a comparison between the alleged conspiracy and the contemporary emergence of political parties, but I never agreed with – or even quite understood – what her point was with that. She draws in related histories of the time and place, but never on what I most wanted to know; she spends a lot of time with the biography of the main judge and his presumable motivations for taking the trials so far, when I would have much rather have read about the black population or daily life in NYC in the 1740s. But overall it's not a terrible book, and there's certainly an abundance of interesting facts that pop out here and there. It's just that it could have been so much better.

Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Enthusiast) for a total of 3!

What are you currently reading?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. As may be obvious, I've got a project about slavery in early NYC going on. At least this book is proving to be much more readable and informative than Lepore's!
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What did you just finish?
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. A non-fiction but breezily readable book about cave paintings. Many people are aware of the famous Ice Age paintings of animals – the horses and bison of Lascaux, the lions and bears at Chauvet – but less well-known are the abstract, geometric signs which pop up in this art just as often: dots, lines, X's, empty squares, etc. Mostly this is because the geometeric signs have been largely ignored by archaeologists themselves, who have a tradition of assuming that they're meaningless doodles, patches where the artists were testing their paints, or otherwise unimportant. Fortunately those assumptions are beginning to change.

von Petzinger is an archaeologist herself, one whose research has focused on documenting and analyzing the geometric signs, but this book is very much aimed at a non-specialist audience. She does a great job at providing the background to understand why this is such a fascinating topic (short version: it's the beginning of humans' making art, and may well be evidence of the oldest human language and capacity for symbolism as well). She is also great at mixing her theories with more tactile, personal experiences of crawling around in dark caves or visiting obscure museums, keeping the book from spending too much time in the realm of the abstract. She covers various theories for what the art might "mean" (were they painting animals they wanted to hunt? painting their religious experiences? representing a battle between maleness and femaleness?), and though von Petzinger makes her own personal favorite explanation clear, she keeps from ultimately declaring any single one to be THE answer. Which I appreciate. I've seen some reviewers annoyed that the signs remain mysterious, but honestly, any book claiming to definitively solve a centuries-old scientific mystery is probably a book you should be suspicious of.

Overall, a really great introduction to the topic, and one that I think could be interesting to a lot of people, especially if you like worldbuilding in fantasy or sci-fi. I always think that the Upper Paleolithic art is a great example of how utterly alien other humans can be while still being recognizable as ourselves, and it's endlessly fun to speculate on what they were like.


Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade by Joe Lansdale. Hap & Leonard is a mystery/thriller series that I discovered a year or two ago and have been slowly making my way through. The basic premise is that Hap is a liberal white straight ex-hippie, Leonard is a black gay conservative Vietnam vet, and together they fight crime! And also are best friends in rural East Texas, despite the problems that caused in the 60s and 70s and sometimes still today. Lansdale writes with an ironic, self-deprecating tone that makes the series appeal to me much more than a more straightforward 'tough guys beat up bad guys' take on the same idea would.

This book is collection of short stories, though Lansdale himself describes it as a "mosaic novel". In summary: Hap and Leonard spend a night driving around town, shooting the shit and doing nothing much in particular. As their conservation drifts along and they pass by places they used to know, memories spark off flashbacks which lead into short stories, mostly about Hap's childhood, his parents, and particularly his relationship to racism, but also covering the first time Hap and Leonard met and the first time they got into trouble together. (Two of the stories were published previously in another context, but they're integrated so well into the rest that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't already read them: "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and "Not Our Kind".) But despite mostly taking place in the past, I don't think this would make for a good introduction to the series; a lot of the power of the stories depends on already knowing these characters and having an emotional connection to them and their relationship. On the other hand, if you do know them, this is a wonderful expansion of their history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: No new additions this week! My yearly total is still at 2.

What are you currently reading?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel. I've been in desperate need of light, escapist reading material for the last week, and this is fulfilling that desire.
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I was in the courtroom tonight at the Federal Court of Brooklyn. I am not a lawyer or anything, but I took notes, and here’s what it was like.

We happened to see the call on twitter asking for people to arrive at the Cadman Plaza out front of the courthouse by 7:30 pm. We were near enough to make it, so we hopped on a subway and rode a few stops to arrive by 7:20 or so. There were about 100 people already in the plaza, chanting, making signs, and singing. Around 8 they started to let people into the building in small groups of 10 to go through security and make sure they didn’t overflow the courtroom. I didn’t think we’d make it in, but after the first few groups of ten they opened a second door right next to us. I’d estimate 60-70 people actually got into the audience of the courtroom, which was as much as it could hold. We were pretty squished on the bench trying to make more room.

In the courtroom itself, there was one lawyer for the ACLU and two present for the government: a black woman from the Attorney General and a Jewish man from the Department of Immigration (I have no idea what their personal views were on the situation). There was an additional government lawyer on the phone.

The ACLU had filed on behalf of two named people, both of whom had arrived in JFK and been detained, and the larger class of all people affected by the Executive Order. The government pointed out that both of the named people had in fact already been released and so the case was moot, but the ACLU insisted that they had only named two people because the government was refusing to release the names of any others. The ACLU and the judge (Ann M. Donnelly) insisted that they needed to deal with the larger class, even if these two specific people were no longer being detained.

The ACLU asked for an assurance that “future plaintives” wouldn’t be removed from the country. The government said they couldn’t make those assurances without knowing specifics about the “arriving aliens”.

The judge said that she was following Supreme Court precedent, which depended on the “four factor test”, the most important of which in this situation was the potential for irreparable harm to the people being detained. (The others were the likelihood of injury to the petitioner, the public good, and a fourth I didn’t catch.) She asked the government specifically, “What is your argument that there won’t be irreparable injury?”

The government replied that they couldn’t say without named petitioners.

The judge pointed out that all the people being detained have been through an extensive vetting process already, some for years. Again she said, “Explain to me how it is that members of this class will not suffer irreparable injury.”

The government lawyers said that was an “overly broad request”.

The judge said that she saw no likelihood of injury to the opposing party (ie, the government), because all of these people would have been allowed in the country two days ago without problem. She said given that, and the “likelihood of success on the merits of the case” that she granted the stay (that is, no people currently being detained under the executive order could be sent out of the US). She also said, “I think the government hasn’t had a full chance to think about this.” And that was very obviously true, as the government’s lawyers repeatedly weren’t able to answer questions or predict what would happen next.

They began to set a date for the next hearing, and the government lawyers said they would need at least two weeks to prepare. The ACLU lawyer said that two weeks was a long time to keep people in detention without knowing what would happen to them. The government lawyers agreed, but couldn’t say if it was likely they would continue to keep people in detention or not.

The ACLU lawyer asked for a list of everyone currently being detained, since they didn’t even have accurate numbers of how many people it was (though he guessed 100-200 people).

The government lawyers replied that was “more difficult that it sounds”. !!!!

The judge said, “Why don’t you work it out.” You could hear her trying hard to suppress her eye roll. She then said that the whole point of this stay was to maintain the status quo, and that “it was not unduly burdensome to identify the people in the stated class”.

The eventual dates they settled on for the future was: Feb 10 for the government to file papers. The ACLU said they could respond within 48 hours. The government asked for a further seven days to prepare a respond to that, with the next hearing to take place on Feb 21.


(And what we saw when we came out of the courthouse)

TL;DR – the stay was granted! No one is being kicked out of the US right now! It applies nationwide! :D

Unfortunately only temporary and the ultimate fate of this people is yet to be decided. It also only covers people already in the US or who were in transit at the time of the ruling. :(

(This is reposted from tumblr, just fyi, but indeed written by me.)
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What did you just finish?
Bonecracker by Dick Francis. [personal profile] rachelmanija and [personal profile] egelantier have been urging me to read Dick Francis for literally years, but I have been foolish and never listened to their advice. Until now, though I can't claim to have suddenly increased in wisdom. Instead Bonecracker was the only book I had small enough to wedge into my vest pocket when I went to the Women's March Saturday – I couldn't face having no access to a book all day long, but also didn't want to carry a bag on such a long walk. And for such silly reasons I have finally discovered a great author.

In Bonecrack, Neil has taken over managing an elite stable of racehorses from his father, who was severely injured in a car accident and thus is temporarily out of commission. Not much time goes by before Neil is kidnapped by a Mafia-esque killer with an unusual demand: he wants his son to become Neil's head jockey and to be allowed to ride the horse everyone expects to win the Kentucky Derby. Since he doesn't have much choice about the matter, Neil agrees and thus Alessandro – touchy, spoiled, and only seventeen – shows up to brood in Neil's down-to-Earth English stables.

Neil, who is the epitome of calm, rational, and self-possessed, is determined to think of some way out of his predicament without asking anyone for help, but he slowly grows to like Alessandro, at least if the kid can get out from under the control of his father. Neil's own father is pretty much a dick (if not quite an insane megalomaniac), and the two sons have much in common. I really loved the slow growth of their friendship.

This is a thriller, though, so there is also plenty of exciting action, including a fantastic climax. I loved the many supporting characters and detailed world of the stables. I know pretty much zero about horses or racing them, but Francis's descriptions of their elegant appearances and the experience of riding them were lovely to read. A great book all around.


Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Goddamn. How does one even begin to review this book?

Okay. Set in the 25th century, the world has become, in many ways, a utopia. War and murder have been all but erased. One way this has been accomplished is by removing religion entirely from public discourse – people can still believe whatever they want to believe, but all proselytizing is illegal, and even discussing theology in groups of three people or more is strictly controlled. Gender is considered an inappropriate topic to discuss in public; everyone is referred to as "they", and most clothing is gender-neutral. Nation-states have also disappeared, as a consequence of those flying cars sci-fi is always promising us:
Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than [a politician], an inevitable change ever since 2073 when [the first flying car] circled the globe in four-point-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

Instead people belong to one of seven "Hives", each of which has slightly different goals, politics, and lifestyle than the others. An individual chooses which one to belong to upon reaching adulthood. People also no longer live in nuclear families, but instead in a bash', a small group of adults who may be relatives, friends, spouses, or work colleagues, but all of whom have explicitly chosen to form an extended family, raising any children communally. Again, you choose this upon becoming an adult, with your options being continuing in the bash' of your parents, joining another established bash', or getting a group together to form an entirely new bash'. One of my favorite parts of this book is how plausible this all feels, the way it's easy to see how such a future might have evolved from our own modern day. But though this might be the future, history is important too: the 25th century turns out to obsessed with the Enlightenment, seeing it as the origin of their age. They continually reference Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, de Sade, and contemporaries, discussing them and their ideas so frequently that they're referred to with nicknames rather than formal titles. And then there's the tracker system, and the set-sets, and the Mars terraforming, and so many other details that I could go on and on and on about! I love Palmer's endless imagination.

All of this worldbuilding is fascinating and completely delightful, but there is also an actual plot. An important editorial is stolen from a newspaper office shortly before publication and left in the bash' that controls the computer system for those flying cars, planning the course routes to prevent crashes. Solving this bizarre crime – primarily why on earth anyone would bother committing it – forms the central mystery of the book. A second plot involves Bridger, a 13-year-old child with the unexplained ability to create miracles, bringing toys, drawings, and imaginary friends to life. Bridger and his talents are currently unknown to any world powers, and his guardians are determined to keep it that way, at least until Bridger is mature enough to make his own decisions.

Our main character and narrator is Mycroft Canner, a criminal who only escaped the death sentence (the exact details of what crime he committed aren't revealed until over halfway through the book, but trust me, it's worth the wait) by serving a life-long penance indentured to the public good, which means he spends his time picking up trash, clearing away flood debris, and being in curiously close contact with the heads of at least four Hives. Mycroft is fluent in many of the world's languages, and the constant switching between English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Latin, Greek, and probably at least one more that I've forgotten (distinguished in the text by subtle typographic marks) added to sense of the book's complexity and depth. Mycroft also uses gendered pronouns despite how archaic and intimate it sounds to his contemporaries, though it quickly becomes obvious that he's also not using them the way we would. A character becomes "he" or "she" not by their biology, but by their presentation, personality, job, or to parallel them with another character.

What I really want to talk about with this book isn't the plot, the characters, or the worldbuilding (even though those are all excellent), it's the philosophical questions it raises. Is this a utopia after all? Is clearing away gender and religion from the public sphere a good thing? If you can create a better world, what price would you be willing to pay to do so? When and how do the ends justify the means? None of these questions are answered in Too Like the Lightning (unsurprisingly, as it's the first of four books, and I can't wait for the next one to be out in March), but I adore all the discussion it's opened up.


Mount TBR update: both of these! So that brings me up to a grand total of... 2. Well, it's a start.

What are you currently reading?
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. I'm teaching a class (well, probably more accurate to say 'giving a lecture', but the group calls them classes, so whatevs) on cave paintings next week, and in putting together a list of 'further resources' for people, I came across this interesting new book. We'll have to see what I think about it!
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I will eventually get around to posting a recap of all my 2016 reading, but first I wanted to post about my new project for 2017: Mount TBR. The idea is simply to get as many books off your TBR (to-be-read) list as possible, whether that means clearing out your Kindle's harddrive or getting physical books off your shelves.

While I do have plenty of ebooks stored that I've been meaning to get around to someday, my main problem is the physical books I've picked up on sudden impulses at second-hand bookstores or been given as gifts:
photographic evidence )
Yes, those are all unread books. Even the ones in the piles to side. Yes, the shelves are double-stacked. Clearly I've needed to start reducing their numbers for a while now.

I first heard of the Mount TBR challenge from [personal profile] just_ann_now; you can officially sign up on GoodReads or on the challenge starter's blog, and there are levels you can commit to – 12 books is Pike's Peak, 100 books is Mount Everest, etc. However, I think personally I'm going to be lazy and not join any particular group, but simply clear off as much of this bookcase as I can manage in twelve months.

We'll see if that doesn't just tempt me to acquire more.
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What did you just finish?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated (from Italian) by Lucinda Byatt. This is an academic investigation into suicide – not into why an individual might commit suicide (eg, depression, grief, incurable illness), but into the different ways cultures have interpreted and understood suicide, and how those contexts have resulted in different suicide rates between countries, genders, classes, races, and urban areas vs rural ones.

Barbagli's speciality is the history of Europe, in particular the cultural changes from Classic Rome through Medieval Christianity up to the modern day. About half of the book covers this topic, but he also ventures outside of his usual focus with chapters on sati in India (the tradition of a widow killing herself to follow her deceased husband), female suicide in historical China (sometimes also committed to follow a husband or fiance, but also done to get revenge on someone with power over her), and modern-day suicide bombers and suicides done as political protest. Although all of these topics were very interesting, the fact that Barbagli didn't have the same depth of knowledge about them as the first half of the book was unfortunately quite clear. In the sati chapter, in particular, it was inescapably obvious that he cited only European scholars, with no (or perhaps only one) Indian voices. And while an outsider perspective can sometimes be helpful, it should never be the only take on a cultural topic.

But despite those problems, the chapters on Europe were absolutely fascinating. Barbagli sets out to explain the rise in suicides that occurred in much of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, opposing Durkheim and other contemporary scholars who saw the origins in the Industrial Revolution and subsequent breakdown of the strong social ties of family and village. Instead he argues that the rise was a result of the breakdown of Medieval Christianity, which had seen suicide as the gravest sin (even worse than homicide or the murder of a young child!), into seeing it as resulting from a melancholic personality or as an understandable response to suffering, and then into the modern day's medical understanding of it (depression as a mental illness). Despite the depressing nature of the topic, I really can't think of a better word for these chapters than fascinating; just the way Barbagli lays out his evidence, the accumulation of little historical details and their step by step change through time, gives the book the compelling power of a thriller.

I wish all of it could have been as good as those opening chapters, but nonetheless the book's well worth reading for what it does accomplish.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. A fun sci-fi book I found through a recommendation.
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What did you just finish?
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. Book #12 in the Longmire series, a mystery series that I'm a big fan of. Walt Longmire, the main character, is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, one of the most rural places in the modern-day US. To outside appearances Walt is in many ways the stereotypical neo-Western hero: big and tall, physically imposing, and gruff. In reality he frequently quotes Shakespeare and Dante, is extremely self-deprecating, is life-long best friends with Henry Standing Bear (a Northern Cheyenne community leader and activist) and is intimidated by his tiny foul-mouthed ex-Philadelphian deputy, Victoria Moretti. I love him.

In this book, Walt and Henry attend the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (a real-life annual event that draws half a million attendees to a small town in South Dakota) while off-duty, so that Henry can compete in one of the races. Walt gets asked by the local police to help out with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run accident, which of course turns out to be much more. The plot involves motorcycle gangs, gun smuggling, skeet shooting, the increased militarization of police departments in the wake of 9/11, advances in ceramic technology (no, really), and the long-awaited appearance of Henry's ex, Lola.

This was a very well-done book, with humor, tension, and some extremely clever plot twists. I've been a bit disappointed by the last few books in the series (nothing wrong with them; I just didn't feel like they were Johnson's best), but this one brings Longmire back to the top.


Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly. A cursed opal necklace, if worn on the night of the autumn full moon, summons an ancient Chinese demon who will stop at nothing to pursue and kill the wearer. Unfortunately the necklace has just been given to the innocent film ingenue Chrysanda Flamade.

The title and plot are (deliberately, I assume) the stuff of trashy pulp, but the rich, three-dimensional characters and setting turn the book into something else – though it's still lots of fun! Chrysanda (who actually goes by Christine, though her birth name was Chava Blechstein) is not the narrator; rather that role is taken by Norah, Christine's sister-in-law: a British woman, Oxford-educated, formerly upper class and now in the wake of WWI an impoverished widow, continually surprised to find herself in the strange new world of Hollywood, 1923. Christine is flighty, addicted to cocaine, utterly enamoured of anything resembling Chinese fashion without the least understanding of the actual country, and has a spine of steel and a survivor's ruthlessness under all her feathers and makeup. Alec, a cameraman, draws out Norah's quiet wry humor with his own patient understanding. The Chinese mythology is deepened when Shang Ko steps into the picture, an elderly wizard who has burned out all his power but is still determined to help becauses, as he says, "To do nothing against evil is not a neutral act". And then there's Christine's three pekingese dogs, who become main characters themselves.

There's at least two scenes which are straight-up horror, but my overall impression of the book is the sheer wealth of historical detail about the day to day routine of making films in the very early silent era, as well as the lovely slow growth of friendship and trust between the main characters.

It is maybe not my favorite Hambly book ever, but only because that's an extremely high bar to clear. Highly recommended.


A Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott. This is the sequel to Court of Fives, the Little Women/American Ninja Warrior fantasy YA book that I enjoyed so much. Jes is now an official competitor in the gladiator games Fives, but she doesn't have much time to enjoy her new status since political chaos is breaking out. The Commoners of the country are increasingly speaking out against their oppression, a matter which grows more fraught when the price of bread skyrockets and riots break out. Meanwhile the country goes to war with its neighbor, and Jes overhears a plot wherein several high-ranking nobles plan to kill the sickly young prince and name themselves heir to the throne. Despite all of this, Jes deliberately chooses to stay out of politics and instead focuses on protecting and hiding her family. Unfortunately for her, one of her sisters has left the capital city and could be anywhere in the countryside. Jes manages to attach herself to a royal procession so she can search for her sister, but leaving the capital exposes her to new dangers. And that's just the first third of the book. Goddamn there's a lot of plot to recap in this series.

This book does have great moments and wonderful characters. I was particularly struck by Jes's sister Amaya, who's in love with her best friend, a Patron woman forced by circumstances into the position of a lowly concubine. Amaya disguises herself as a servant to stick close to her love. And then there's Bettany, that missing sister, who is fiercely angry and protective of her people, and proves to have made some startling choices that Jes views as betrayal, though a more complicated explanation is hinted at. Lady Menoe, a spiteful deceitful aristocrat who proves to have a secret tragic past is great, as is Jes's mother, slowly taking a role as a leader of the Commoners.

But with all of that said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as Court of Fives. Perhaps it's simply the fact that the middle book of trilogies tend to drag, or perhaps it's that the world-building I loved so much in the first book got less attention here. Court politics is one of my favorite tropes, and yet even that wasn't enough to save the book for me. But even if this one wasn't as good as I'd hoped, I'm still anxiously awaiting the release of the next book later this year. Come on, Buried Heart!


What are you currently reading?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated by Lucinda Byatt. A NetGalley book that I've been putting off reading for approximately eight months, because I requested a copy and then promptly decided that I couldn't handle the content. But now I'm happier! Or possibly burned out emotionally, given the news lately.
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I am desperately catching up on several weeks worth of LJ/DW, so if you've been getting lots of comments from me on old posts, that would be why. I am not yet all caught up, so expect more! Also, in case anyone is abandoning LJ in light of recent updates, I am on DW as "brigdh". Feel free to add me there if you prefer.

And now, a meme:
Let's start 2017 off in a positive way with a Pay It Forward meme. The first 6 people to comment (and more if I can manage it) will receive a surprise from me at some point in 2017 - anything from a book, a ticket, something home-grown or made, a postcard, absolutely any surprise! It will happen when the mood comes over me and I find something that I believe would suit you and make you happy.

If you can, post this in your own journal and pay it forward. Let's do more kind and loving things for each other in 2017, without any reason other than to make each other smile and show that we think of each other.

(Note that this will require you to give me an address. If you're uncomfortable with that, perhaps wait for another meme! :) If you're alright with that, I'll email or PM you after I've gotten 6 comments.)
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What did you just finish?
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. I ended up reading this due to random circumstances; my dad bought it (on an impulse, as far as I can tell) last week and, since I was visiting for the holidays, insisted that I read it too before going back home. I was reluctant at first, since I wasn't sure if I wanted to commit to a 400+ page academic-level text written by a dude whose political stance I didn't know (I can't think of a better way to phrase that... I didn't want to be a hundred pages in before realizing the author supported Christianizing the heathens), but I eventually gave it a chance, and I'm glad I did!

The Earth is Weeping covers the 1850s to 1890s, and pretty much every piece of land in the US west of the Missouri – with a few detours into Canada and Mexico as well. My main worry quickly and thoroughly turned out to be unjustified, as Cozzens's sympathies are clear right from the epigram:
We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian. In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children, and every crime in the catalogue of man's inhumanity to man the Indian was a mere amateur compared to the 'noble white man'. –Lieutenant Britton Davis

Throughout the book, Cozzens's focus is to complicate the simple picture of Indians vs whites. He repeatedly emphasizes the divisions and infighting on both sides: between different tribes, between the peace and war factions of a single tribe, between the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, between Western settlers and Eastern humanitarians, and frequently coming as far down as differences of opinion and action between individuals.

The subtitle of 'Indian wars' is appropriate, as Cozzens concentrates very specifically on battles and similar military actions, each of which is laid out with extreme detail, including maps and the names of individual soldiers, warriors, and noncombatants. On the other hand, even closely related topics like Indian schools, missionaries, individual murders or atrocities, Buffalo Bill, Presidents and Congress and nation-wide depressions, etc, etc, get barely a mention. That isn't really a critique, since a book that covered everything remotely related to this topic would probably actually be a dozen books. But occasionally I missed having that contextual information.

I'm not very familiar with this period of history, so the one critique I do have to make is that I would have liked more of an introduction or list of 'characters'. Given that the book covers multiple decades and a very wide territory, there's an unsurprisingly huge numbers of names, places, and alliances to keep track of. Cozzens seems to have assumed that most readers will come into this book with a level of knowledge that is higher than mine – and honestly, he's probably correct, but it was all new and confusing to me! Still, that's a minor problem, and it's not like I couldn't google where the Absaroka Mountains are, or what the connection between the Oglalas and the Lakotas is when I needed to.

Overall, it's a well-written book, packed full of information, and well worth reading. I recommend it.


What are you currently reading?
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. The new book in the Longmire series! :D


I also have another short story rec for you all this week! Shaina Rubin Keeps Her Head Under Circumstances Nobody Could Have Expected
by Rebecca Fraimow. It is a sequel to the wonderful Further Arguments in Support of Yudah Cohen’s Proposal to Bluma Zilberman, which you may remember when it got recced all around when it first came out. You can read the new story without having read the original, but I would not recommend it because they're both excellent and why would you want to miss out? They're both hilarious, use dialect adroitly, and feature people handling supernatural events with amusing nonchalance. I want an entire novel set in this world.
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I have been very busy for the last week, and haven't gotten as far through the Yuletide archive as I wanted to. But I also wanted to make a recs post before author reveals, so here are the stories I've enjoyed so far!

First, my own gifts: I got 4 – count them, f-o-u-r – stories written for me this year! And all of them for Hadestown. I must have written a very inspiring letter. :D In no particular order:
Tastes so bitter and so sweet. 1.1k, M, Persephone/Eurydice PWP. This is hot and lyric and oh so bittersweet. Just a gorgeously written post-canon tale.
Make It Through the Wintertime. 1.5k, T. A really fantastic portrayal of Persephone as the new queen of Hadestown, still adjusting to her new life, and the creation of the river Lethe. I love the use of additional Greek mythology, adjusted to the Hadestown setting.
Philtering. 1.3k, G. A Demeter-POV look at how Persephone spends her summers, distilling her own alcohol. The food and drink porn in this is great, and I love the use of the Southern dialect.
There's a hell of a good hemisphere next door. 0.2k, G. And a happy fic after all the angst! A hopeful possibility for Persephone and Eurydice to escape Hadestown once and for all.

22 recs beneath the cut )
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What did you just finish?
A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. In Victorian London, a maid is poisoned while working in the house of the man currently in charge of the country's Mint. He was also hosting five guests, all of whom have their own potential motives. Lenox, a well-off bachelor, is asked to investigate by his neighbor and childhood friend, Lady Jane Grey, who formerly employed the maid. Was her death suicide... or murder?

Lenox is pretty obviously a Sherlock Holmes-analogue: he is close friends with a doctor who helps him investigate, he successfully reaches conclusions about people based on details as small as their scent or their shoes, he's investigative rivals with a Scotland Yard Inspector, his brother is an important politician (but only known to insiders), he dashes about through the fogs of Victorian London in hired cabs. And yet Lenox is friendly, open-natured, the sort of man who makes a point of kissing babies – and he's more concerned with his leaking boots and getting his toast on time than with dedicating himself to whole-hearted pursuit of the case. Seriously: the boots are a major plot thread, complete with a climatic scene to round out the story. It's a nice change from all the mystery leads with dead wives and alcoholism and death wishes! Not that I'm not a fan of a good death wish, but sometimes it's a comfort to spend time with a perfectly content and well-adjusted character.


Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. A poor man, abandoned by his wife, living in a slum on the edge of Mumbai, decides that his only available route to power and fortune is to raise his two young sons to become cricket superstars. This he does with laser focus, forcing the children to practice for hours daily, trying out weird medical trends on them, deliberately destroying their school projects so they will think about nothing but cricket, and, of course, pledging them to god:
Each summer, the family went back to their village. Taking the train from Mumbai to Mangalore, they then got on a bus that carried them over the hills and toward the shrine of the God of Cricket, their family deity, Kukke Subramanya; past trees with red leaves, and little streams that skipped a heartbeat when a schoolboy leaped into them, past waterfalls shrouded in waterfalls, until they reached a temple hidden deep inside the Western Ghats, where, leaving the bus and standing in line for hours, moving past burning camphor and sharp temple bells, past a nine-headed painted snake, the protector Vasuki, they finally came to the silver door frames, beyond which, lit by oil lamps, waited the thousand-year-old God of Cricket, Subramanya.
“Remind Him, my sons. We can’t offer Him much money. So remind Him, monkeys.”
“One of us should become the best batsman in the world, and the other the second best.”


It works out – at least at first. As preteens, both boys score a sponsorship that will pay for equipment, personal coaches, a nice house, enrollment in a private school (because it has the best cricket team, of course) and so on, in return for their pledging to pay back a third of their eventual superstar paychecks. Unfortunately as they grow older, one boy gets the talent but the other gets the desire. This ruins the relationship between them and with their father; the cynicism of their sponsor destroys their faith in the future; and relentless pressure from everyone around them leads them to hate cricket. As though this wasn't enough drama, one of the boys fall in love with a cricket rival and struggles with his identity in a country in which homophobia is common and gay relationships are still technically illegal.

You don't need to understand the actual sport of cricket to enjoy the book – I know just enough to understand what a 'century' is or what the 'batsman' does, and I had no problem with it. Besides, Adiga includes a helpful glossary at the back!
Boring: What outsiders, especially Americans, find cricket. Groucho Marx, after watching an hour of a test match in London, is said to have asked: “But when does it begin?”
India: A country said to have two real religions—cinema and cricket.
Trash: Baseball.

Hee.

The plot is absolutely a page-turner, and the characters are sympathetic and compelling, but I did have a lot of trouble with the writing style. Adiga frequently jumps from one character's POV to another's, as well as backward and forwards in time. He sometimes deliberately hides information from the reader in order to reveal it at a more dramatic moment. All of this made it sometimes hard for me to follow what was happening or who was currently narrating. That's what keeps me from giving this book a 100% recommendation, but nonetheless I really enjoyed reading it, and have found myself thinking back on it frequently.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens.
The subtitle says it all!

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. Still reading this! Well, theoretically.
brigdh: (Default)
What did you just finish?
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. A fantastic satire set in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, in which a black man wakes up one morning to find himself quite literally transformed into a white man – except for that titular black ass. The parallels to Kafka and Ovid are deliberate. Furo, as our main character is known, is still jobless, single, and living with his parents at 33, due mostly to Nigeria's overwhelming unemployment rate. That white skin quickly solves all of his problems though, as he is offered one incredible job after another until he finally reaches the heights of a million-dollar government contract; strangers on the street do him spontaneous favors; the high-class mistress of a rich politician takes him on and shows him off to her even more successful friends, etc. Unfortunately Furo is not immune to the temptation to exploit his new privileges, and he is entirely willing to abandon everyone around him to embrace this new life, starting by running away from home without letting his family know what's happened to him.

And yet despite all that, it's not really a novel about race – or at least, no more about race than is required by that summary. The author is primarily interested in identity and how it changes in response to our circumstances. There's a hilarious chapter exploring how Furo's sister presents herself on Twitter (using hashtags to search for her brother, but not above acquiring several thousand new followers in the process), and the secondary narrator, a writer named A. Igoni. Why yes! You may have noticed that this is the same name as the actual author of the book, but as opposed to those irritating literary fiction writers who present semi-autobiographical versions of themselves differentiated only by having a new name, in this case A. Igoni seems to be an entirely fictional creation who shares nothing beyond the name. I gotta say, I like this second method much better. Anyway, the book-version of Igoni meets Furo, realizes what is going on, and becomes determined to get the whole story. In the process Igoni becomes a woman, this second metamorphosis not made clear until quite some time after it's already happened. I've seen a lot of reviews referring to this as a trans narrative, but it struck me as just as mystical and inexplicable as Furo's change, and not much related to real-world gender identities. Not that fiction can't speak to multiple stories, of course.

It's not a perfect book. The plotline about Furo's sister never really has a resolution, and the ending was quite cruel to a character I had a lot of sympathy for. But I liked much more of it than I didn't like – including multiple lovely descriptions of daily life in Lagos – and I'll be keeping an eye out for future books by the author.


Stories of the Raksura, Volume 2: The Dead City & The Dark Earth Below by Martha Wells. Five more short stories, set in the world of the Raksura series. This was reversed from the first collection, starting out with the shortest story and building up to the novella-length one.
The Dead City. Set before The Cloud Roads, just after Moon's first encounter with the Fell, which left him near-suicidal in grief and devastation. Fleeing from the ruined city he'd been living in, he falls in with a group of groundlings and gets involved in their problems, mainly so he can throw himself into a fight without needing to care if he'll live or die. He is surprised and touched when one groundling begins to trust him, and less surprised when another betrays him. Really fascinating worldbuilding in this story, including an entire city of pyramids built underground being invaded by a species of spider-like telepaths.
Mimesis. A very short story about Jade saving one of the warriors from a predator. This was fun, and I was very excited to read a piece with Jade-POV, since that was a first for me.
Trading Lessons. Another short, this one about a trading encounter between two courts of Raksura and a merchant groundling, in which Moon attempts to explain capitalism to his allies. It doesn't really work, but Moon makes a killing.
The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind-Ship Escarpment. A short piece set in the same world as the Raksura stories, but with entirely new characters. Which, I have to admit, disappointed me at first, since I wanted more Moon & co. But once I let myself commit to this story, I really enjoyed the tale of the crew of a small merchant ship hired to deliver a ransom to pirates. As you might guess from the title, things go wrong.
The Dark Earth Below. A novella set between The Siren Depths and The Edge of Worlds. Jade is hugely pregnant with her and Moon's first clutch, which is due any day now, leaving everyone on edge. Meanwhile, several of the Kek (the little stick-people who live at the bottom of the mountain-trees) have gone missing, prompting Stone to investigate. The disappearance turns out to involve a group of merchants, an invisible species, and an attack on the colony. I think the collection of fight scenes in this story was some of the most genuinely horrifying writing I've read from Wells, and the ultimate resolution of the mystery was just so creepy. Thankfully this is balanced by the resolution, which includes a set of very cute babies!

And then I was distraught to be left with no more Raksura stories to read. However, [personal profile] curtana had told me that Martha Wells had set up a Patreon for more, and this news was finally the impetus I needed to set up a Patreon account. If anyone else is interested, there was currently 27 pieces, with two more being added a month (including one just today!), and there is no minimum limit to pledge. In other words, you could get all of them for as low as a dollar! :D Though to be honest, I gave more because I felt I owed it. I haven't read them all yet, but the stories are generally quite short, less than 1000 words, and there's a lot of Stone and Jade – though there's also one longer piece, currently 4 sections long and still going. I especially loved a piece about a conversation between Jade and Balm before their first meeting with Moon; I love their friendship/sisterhood, and getting to see an intimate moment between them was wonderful.


What are you currently reading?
Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. Still working on this technically, though I don't think I've progressed a page since last Wednesday.

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. The Comfortverse! I have finally gotten around to reading this, hooray!


I also want to recommend this wonderful novella: Suradanna and the Sea by Rebecca Fraimow. Two woman accidentally become immortal, and pass one another again and again over the centuries before falling in love. Again the worldbuilding is fantastic, and I particularly loved the way fashions changed, and how small choices grew huge consequences over time. Absolutely recommended.
brigdh: (Default)
What did you just finish?
Stories of the Raksura, Volume 1: The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud by Martha Wells. Four short stories, set in the world of the Raksura series.
The Falling World. Set between The Siren Depths and The Edge of Worlds, this was by far the longest of the stories, really more of a novella than a short story at around 90 pages. Jade, Chime, and a handful of others go on a short visit to a neighboring colony and never arrive. There's no hint of what might have happened to them, so Moon is forced to lead a search team to look for clues. This was a really fantastic story with a lot of Moon/Chime development in particular. Chime is another of my favorite characters – a bookish guy forced by circumstances to take on a more physically aggressive role – and I loved it.
The Tale of Indigo and Cloud. Another long story, this one set several generations before the rest of the series, dropping back in time to flesh out a briefly-mentioned historical detail. Indigo is a young queen, brave but a bit headstrong; Cloud is a consort who belongs to a queen he doesn't want. Indigo steals Cloud from his unfortunate circumstances, and then everything gets more complicated. I especially loved that the story was told from the POV of Cerise, Indigo's mother, a pragmatic ruler who's mostly concerned with avoiding war with Cloud's previous queen. This story was absolutely great, and I always adore it when we get more world-building and cultural background on the Raksura. Plus, bonus cameo by baby Stone! :D
The Forest Boy. A shorter story set before The Cloud Roads, when Moon was a child still trying to find a place where he could fit in. Another really well-done story, but inherently depressing, given the topic. Lonely children are the saddest thing.
Adaptation. A very very short story (only about 15 pages), another Cloud Roads prequel. This was told from Chime's POV, and is about the day when he changed from a mentor to a warrior. I would have loved for this to be much longer, but even at this length it's a very nice slice of life, with an uplifting ending.

Overall a fun, engaging book, and I can't believe I only have one left to read! D:


What are you currently reading?
Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. A nonfiction book off NetGalley about a professor specializing in birdsongs, who decides to bike across all of the United States with his son in tow. It's a pleasant enough read so far, but very slow going because each page of text has two or three audio excerpts of several minutes of birdsong. Since my Nook doesn't have speakers, I am limited to reading this one only when I have my laptop with me (the audio files are reproduced on the author's website) which means no reading on the subway or in bed or while eating lunch. So it may be a while before I finish this.

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. An absolutely fantastic satire about a Nigerian man who wakes up one morning to discover he's turned white. (Yes, the Kafka reference is deliberate.)
brigdh: (Default)
What did you just finish?
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells. WHY THAT CLIFFHANGER, THO? Okay, I lie – it's not quite a cliffhanger, in that many of the plots are tied up by the end, but there are several characters' fates left hanging and I desperately need to know what happens next. Of course the sequel's not due out until July 2017. :(

So, what actually happens in this book before the dramatic ending? Moon and the rest of the court of Indigo Cloud share a vivid nightmare – something more than a dream but less than a vision – of the entire land of the Raksura being overrun by huge numbers of unusually powerful Fell, their evil, cannibalistic nemeses. This potential future seems to be linked to the exploration of a newly discovered ancient city, though what that means for the Raksura is confusing: should they force a halt to the exploration entirely? Or get inside the city before the Fell do and claim whatever's there for themselves? They decide that it's always best to gather as much information as possible, and so Moon, Jade, Stone, Chime, and several other Raksura tag along with the multi-species crew of explorers and scholars without actually making the decision of what to do when they get there. This leads to several intense fights, bonds between unexpected characters (I now ship Stone/Rorra you guys), and a dramatic betrayal.

And, of course, there's always time to pause and have some lovely character interactions. This one made me laugh out loud:
Moon crouched on the branch, his foot claws caught in the rough bark. “If you let me go down there and be the bait, we could get this over with.” [...]
Chime, perched on the branch collar a little further down, said, “Uh, the hunt would be over with, all right. We’d have to spend the rest of the day recovering your body.”
[...] Moon hissed in frustration. He had been hunting for survival since he was a fledgling, while most of these warriors had still been playing in the nurseries. It had taken them three days to follow the signs and traces from the platform where the Arbora hunters had been attacked to here, and now they weren’t even sure where the thing had gone to ground. He told Chime, “I’ve been bait before—”
Chime nodded. “I know, and I find that terrifying.”
“—and I wasn’t talking to you.” He looked up at the smaller branch arching above them.
Jade perched up there, partially concealed from this angle by the drooping fronds of a fern tree that had taken root on the broad branch. She said, “Not every problem can be solved by you trying to get yourself killed.”


Delin is also along for the trip, and I was so excited to see him. Back when he appeared in the first book, I assumed he would be a one-off character, and so each one of his subsequent appearances has been unexpected and delightful. He is a Golden Islander, a human-like species that, unlike most of the non-shapeshifter non-flying species on this world, does not hold the Raksura in absolute terror but instead treats them as equals. Delin himself in an elderly scholar particularly interested in natural and cultural diversity, who considers adventuring with the Raksura a wonderful opportunity to see more of the world he's spent so long studying. His frustrated grandchildren, on the other hand, are constantly running after him to make sure he doesn't get himself killed in the pursuit of knowledge.

This book, like all of the books in the Raksura series, has some fantastic bits of worldbuilding and scene-setting. I was particularly struck by the long sequence where the Raksura and explorers are trapped in a city carved within a mountain: no windows, no doors, just absolute darkness and shifting shadows outside the range of the lights they carry; a complex maze of chambers and hallways and staircases that might lead anywhere; everything silent except for the distant drip of water and what might be the echo of movement. It's excellently creepy and so well-written, capturing every bit of dread and anticipation and paranoia. There's also a few more clues as to what's up with the Fell, why they're so evil, but I'll need to read the next book to see how it all plays out. Why isn't it out yet again?


The Living by Anjali Joseph. A novel consisting of two parallel but unconnected stories: Claire, a single mother living in England and working in a shoe factory, and Arun, a grandfather in India who makes traditional, handcrafted sandals. There's a great deal of attention to the craft and meaning of shoes from both of them, but other than that, no obvious similarities between their stories.

Claire is lonely and emotionally closed off, struck in an antagonistic relationship with both her teenage son and her elderly parents, who threw her out of their home when she became pregnant as a teenager. Over the course of the story she slowly begins to reconnect with life, building bridges with her son and engaging in several romantic relationships (though one of these was incredibly ill-conceived and I found it quite off-putting). She seems to be severely clinically depressed – at multiple points in the book she reacts to a stressful situation by literally lying down on the floor and zoning out for hours – and as sympathetic as I am to that, it unfortunately doesn't make for compelling reading. By its nature, depression seems to be extremely hard to turn into narrative; I always think of Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which suffered from the same problem.

For that reason I preferred Arun's sections of the book, though I can't say they had much more plot – he was simply a more engaging character. Arun is a sixty year old man dealing with mild illnesses, negotiating daily life with his (presumably arranged) wife, regretting his past as an alcoholic with a mistress, meeting up with his grown sons and grandchildren. His pet cat disappears and reappears, he dreams of places he explored as a child, he refuses and then agrees to see a doctor. It's all mild, banal stuff, but the writing is lovely. I liked this passage, when Arun sees a childhood friend for the first time after years apart:
I would have looked at another man his age, crumpled, his remaining hair wispy and mad, and his little face wrinkled, and found him absurd, pathetic, and he was, but nothing had changed. Certain loves slip into us before we are able to weigh things up.

Overall nothing really happens and it will probably slip from my memory very soon, but it's a surprisingly quick, easy read, despite the poetic style of the writing. Even if it has nothing more to offer than this, the writing is excellent.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


What are you currently reading?
Nothing yet! I just finished The Living a few minutes ago.