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I am back from the beach! :D I am full of sun and boardwalk food and there is sand in literally everything I own, including my hair, but I am very happy. We got lucky and had wonderful weather – it didn't rain once, and then a storm broke literally as we were on the train back to New York. Which, honestly, was nice; nothing eases the heartbreak of leaving the beach like being able to see the dark clouds rolling in.

A photo from Racheline, which makes me look far more like a mermaid than I actually am )

And now I will try to catch up on everything.

But first! While I was away, the gift fics for Seeing Color were revealed. It ended being a rather small exchange, with only sixty-something people participating, but it was a lot of fun. And hey, it's only the first year! Maybe we'll see more next year.

Here are my favorites of the fic I've read:
The Day After That. Underground, 1.5k, Teen.
This one was written for me, and so of course it is MY FAVORITE. A Rosalee character-study set after the end of Season One, which somehow manages to include both Rosalee/Noah and Rosalee/Cato and makes them both so beautiful and true. I really loved this lovely little piece, and highly encourage you all to check it out.

And speaking of Underground, it's now available on Hulu! So if I've ever made it sound appealing, it is now much easier to watch.

If We Go, We Go Together. Leverage, 2.1k, Teen. A wonderful OT3 werewolf AU, complete with H/C, cuddling in a hospital bed, and Eliot expressing tender feelings through threats.

The Earth Will Reach The Sky. Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho, 1.6k, G. An absolutely excellent portrayal of the marriage between Prunella and Zacharias after the end of the book, with Zacharias being sweet and lost in his thoughts and Prunella being an unstoppable force, and also there are flower crowns. I adored this fic; the writing style is just gorgeous.

You're My Type. Psych, 4.8k, M. Shawn attempts to seduce Gus, but does a fairly terrible job of it. I'm not very familiar with Psych's canon – I've seen a few episodes but no more than that – but I still enjoyed this funny story of bad Halloween puns, pining, and stolen plants.

Dirty Jobs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 3.2k, G. An excellent character study of Finn, pre-movie, with lots of world-building and interesting new details and, of course, foreshadowing of the changes to come. Very well-written and engaging, with just a little bit of the chill of a brainwashed soldier working for space Nazis.

I would offer to let people guess which story I wrote, but I'm afraid it's far too obvious. Are there any others you particularly enjoyed, though? I haven't had time to go through the whole collection.
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What did you just finish?
Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The First Unsolved Murder of the Victorian Age by Paul Thomas Murphy. In 1871, on a secluded road just outside of London, a young woman named Jane Clouson was violently murdered. Suspicion immediately turned to Edmund Pook, the young man of the house where Jane had been working as a maid, who was arrested and brought to trial but ultimately acquitted. Some of the most damning evidence (including that Jane had told multiple people that she was pregnant by Edmund, that he had promised to marry her despite the class difference, and that she was supposed to meet him the night of her murder) was ruled inadmissible "hearsay" in court, since no one had actually seen Jane and Edmund together – they only had what Jane had told them. The case became a media frenzy, with sympathy for or against Edmund dividing along class lines; the title of the book even comes from a penny dreadful written at the time.

I like to read historical true-crime not so much for the detailed accounts of the crime itself, but for the way a good author can use a single event to illustrate larger issues of social context and historical change. Murphy does a good job of that, particularly in discussing the place of "maids of all work" like Jane. They were often the only servants in a middle class household and thus were forced to interact and depend on their employers in a very different way than servants who were part of the large workforce of noble households. The account of the legal process of accusation and trial were also fascinating. At the time, England did not have an official public prosecutor's office. This forced the police into the role of both investigator and prosecutor, roles that necessarily came into conflict; you can't be both an impartial seeker out of all knowledge and engaged in proving the guilt of one specific individual. This difficulty is a large part of why Edmund eventually went free, since the police were accused of misconduct both for focusing on him and letting other potential leads go and for not prosecuting him as zealously as Jane's supporters wished. The ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don't situation!

I would have liked a bit more social context, particularly regarding what happened after the trial, but overall the book is well-written and interesting. I recommend it if you already like the genre, but it's probably not the one to convert non-believers.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Love in Exile by Ayse Kulin. Translated from Turkish by Kenneth Dakan. A (very slightly) fictionalized account of a family living in Istanbul in the 1920s and 30s – that is, immediately after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the early establishing years of the Turkish Republic. The focus is very much not on politics, but on the internal life of a family: marriages, pregnancies, achievements in school, parties, clothes, food, living arrangements, and so on.

It's hard to summarize this novel, because there's not much of a plot; it's a series of disconnected incidents, very much like if you tried to write down all the various stories and legends of your own family verbatim – which indeed seems to be more or less the case. So many scenes appear and disappear without any connection to what happens before or after: "oh, here's the story about the time our aunt had a bad time at a party", "here's the story of our cousin's graduation", "here's the day we discovered sister's diary behind a dresser and read it secretly". There's no particular beginning or end, and no momentum from one to the other. The closest thing to an overarching thread is the relationship between Sabahat, the youngest daughter of a rich, formerly aristocratic Muslim family, and Aram, a Christian Armenian (the Armenian genocide, despite being fairly central to Aram's backstory, is handled with the briefest of mentions, but not denied). However, they frequently drop from focus and the book ends without resolving their story – it's apparently continued in another book by Kulin – so it's hard to credit that as the central plot.

My other complaint – also probably related to this being about the author's real family – is the sheer number of characters thrown at the reader. The first five pages literally introduce sixteen named characters (I counted!), which is a hell of a hurdle to get over before one can sink into the book. And then ninety pages later Kulin does it again, switching focus to an entirely different family with its own family tree that needs to be memorized. That said, the writing is quite nice on a sentence level, and it's certainly an easy, enjoyable read. The setting and time-period is fascinating, even if I would have liked slightly more about politics and other outside events.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I've had this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it for literally years, and now I have finally gotten around to it. Mainly propelled by my theory that the best thing to read about during the overwhelming heat of August is people suffering in the cold.

Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh. Also theoretically part of my 'cold weather' reading, but I guessed wrong – it might be fantasy set in Russia, but it's spring, not winter.
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FYI: I am leaving for vacation for the next week – beach, whooo! Though New Jersey beach, so not that exciting. I will have internet access, but I probably won’t be keeping up with everything as much as usual. If there’s something you post that you really want me to see, feel free to email or leave a comment with a link! Also, apologies if I owe you email; I am so far behind on email and am probably going to be even moreso while I’m away.
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What did you just finish?
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. A comedy novel set in Victorian London (...sort of. It's not remotely historically accurate, though to be fair, it's really not trying to be) about a shallow feckless poet who marries for money, loses his muse when he realizes that having to spend your life with someone you can't stand sucks, accidentally sells his wife to the Devil (yes, the literal Devil), is overcome by the realization that he actually is in love with her, and sets out to rescue her with a zany cast of supporting characters that includes his super-competent butler, an Arctic explorer, the inventor of a flying machine, and an overly curious 16-year-old girl. Also the whole book is being edited by the poet's disgruntled cousin-in-law, who frequently butts in via footnotes to critique the poet's style or disagree with his assertions.

That's a lot of stuff for one novel! Unfortunately it ends up being merely a bit silly rather than laugh out loud funny. The blurb made comparisons to Wodehouse and Monty Python, and while I can see their influence, this book isn't quite up to either's standard. But that said, it was a fun read and kept me turning the pages; it's certainly not at all a bad debut.

There was one thing that annoyed me. I hate to single out Leo for this, because it does show up everywhere, but this was such a blatant example of it that I couldn't skim past it:
Lancaster and I give voice to our displeasure. Lizzie stamps her foot again. There is as much threat in the stamp of that little foot as in the negligent handling of two loaded weapons.*
* This is unquestionably the case. I have become very dear friends with Miss Savage, and I do not think she would be offended to hear me say that her anger, on the rare occasions it is displayed, is more frightening than anything I have yet witnessed.—HL.

No, it is not unquestionably the case. A sixteen-year-old throwing a tantrum is not as threatening as a loaded weapon, and it is unbelievably patronizing to pretend otherwise. (This isn't the only time Lizzie is described this way. It appears over and over again throughout the book, by everyone who meets her – though again, she is a normal, unarmed, not particularly aggressive teenage girl.) It is not a compliment to women to pretend to be afraid of them; actually, I find it just the opposite – an insult bordering on outright misogyny. If you want to write female characters who are scary, do so. Don't act like a stomped foot or raised voice is the equal of actual violence, or would be enough to make reasonable adults cower. It's an over-the-top exaggeration that suggests you don't take women's real anger seriously, and it irritates me enormously every time I see it.

Anyway. The rest of the book really is fine! I just couldn't let that go. Overall it's a pleasant way to waste an afternoon, if a bit forgettable once you've finished.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David. An academic book on dangerous clothes, focusing on the late 1700s to the early 1900s in western Europe and America. Most of the stories here are fairly well-known – arsenic green, mad hatters, flammable clothing, body lice, Isadora Duncan's scarf, the health issues of workers in textile factories – but David tells them with a great depth of detailed research and an engaging prose style that makes the book worth reading even if you're familiar with the topic. Fashion Victims was written in conjunction with a museum exhibit, which for the reader means there are lots and lots of pictures. And not just photos of the items of clothing themselves (which are not always the most interesting thing, to be honest), but of historical advertisements, postcards, political cartoons, and more. These vary from hilarious to strangely disorientating – the past is a different country indeed, as radium hospital blankets, asbestos yarn, and lucky lice make clear. Though despite that, David does an excellent job of pointing out that it's easy to laugh at the past, and fashion today is not nearly so safe and blameless as we might like to believe.

If the topic sounds interesting at all, this is definitely a fascinating read. Highly recommended!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The First Unsolved Murder of the Victorian Age by Paul Thomas Murphy. That is too much subtitle, dude. But at least it conveys everything you could possibly need to know.
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What did you just finish?
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman. A nonfiction book about the history of American cooking. Lohman organizes the book around eight popular flavors, arranged chronologically as to their appearance in mainstream American food: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha. Each has a chapter dedicated to it, which Lohman fills with stories of the people involved in the invention or popularizing of a flavor, such as Edmond Albius, a young slave on Madagascar who discovered how to artificially pollinate vanilla, allowing it to be farmed; Ranji Smile, a celebrity chef in the late 1800s/early 1900s who promoted Indian food; William Gebhardt, a German immigrant to Texas who was the first to sell commercial chili powder; and others. Some of the stories here are probably ones you've heard before if you read a lot of food writing (the Chili Queens of San Antonio, "Chinese restaurant syndrome" being not a real thing), but others were completely new, at least to me: I knew very little about soy sauce, and had absolutely no idea that sriracha was invented in California (did other people know that? I totally thought it was made by a Thai company!).

I was surprised at first by her inclusion of MSG, which feels to me to be much less common in the US than in other countries; when I was in India, for example, I saw a lot of kitchens with a bottle of MSG like a shaker of salt, and I have never seen that in an American kitchen. But Lohman's historical research showed that once happened in the US too, which was cool to learn. My favorite part might have been the final chapter, "The Ninth Flavor", where Lohman attempted to guess the next big trend in American food. Her suggestions all seemed reasonable to me, and predicting the future is always a fun game.

Lohman also includes recipes, some by current chefs and some adapted from historical cookbooks. I haven't had a chance to test any of them, but I was particularly attracted by Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies (based on a recipe from Martha Washington), Country Captain Chicken (an American "curry" popular in the 1800s), and Garlic Soup (a French recipe that became popular with the "Lost Generation" expats). The writing was unobtrusive and included lots of personal anecdotes in between the research and recipes. Overall a fun book with lots of interesting information.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler. Travel nonfiction about the Amur River, which – to be completely honest – I had never heard of before this book. Apparently it is the ninth longest river in the world (well, depending on how you measure it), starts in a mountain range in Mongolia, forms the border between Russia and China, and finally flows into the Pacific. It's also known as the Heilongjiang, which translates directly into "Black Dragon River" – thus the title. Ziegler is the type of travel writer that I prefer: very little memoir-like accounts of his personal experiences or background, and lots and lots of interesting research on the area, in his case mostly history with a bit on the environment (descriptions of local plants and animals, accounts of the destruction wrought by humans, you get the jist).

Much like my experience of the river itself, I knew practically nothing about the history Ziegler covers. He starts with Genghis Khan, who was (probably) born in the same mountain range as the Amur, and that wasn't too new. But then Ziegler goes on to cover the Russian exploration and colonization of Siberia in the 1600s, primarily for the fur trade, led by the Cossacks; the movement of Tibetan-derived Buddhism into the local people; the recapture of the Amur by the Qing Dynasty, leading to the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the first major treaty between China and a European power; the Decembrist revolution and their exile; the reconquering of the Amur by Russia as China was being carved up by various imperialist powers in the 1800s; and the 1969 battle over Damasky Island, as Russia and China vied for control of a small island in the river and the rest of the world freaked out about two nuclear powers fighting. A lot of this history was depressing, involving the usual sort of torture, murder of unarmed innocents, rape, and more that you can always expect from stories of colonization and war. But the history of the Russian Far East was a topic that I had absolutely no awareness of previously, and so I found it fascinating. I can't comment on Ziegler's accuracy or political slant since, again: new to me. I have to leave that to better-informed reviews, though I can say it all seemed well-researched and reasonable.

The book was a bit slow at the beginning, but once I was engaged, I plowed through the rest of it quite quickly. It was very readable, with unobtrusive prose. It's an unusual topic, at least in English, but I'm glad that I know slightly more about it now.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. A comedy about a Victorian poet who accidentally sells his wife to the Devil, then sets out to rescue her. I'm not very far into it yet, but it's amusing so far!
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What did you just finish?
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly. A nonfiction book about the building of the Erie Canal and the boomtowns (a word actually invented for this time and place!) that sprang up as it came into operation.

Kelly has three main strands running through his narrative, as seen in his subtitle. First, gold, which I suppose mostly symbolizes the planning, construction, and eventually use of the Erie Canal, which was both hugely costly and hugely profitable. This was by far the least interesting of the three strands, but does provide the necessary background for the rest of the book.

Murder: William Morgan was a man living in Rochester – one of those boomtowns – in the 1820s. He decided to write a book on Freemasons which would reveal some of their secret rituals. Freemasons, unsurprisingly, were not down with this, and shortly before publication a group kidnapped Morgan, who was never seen again. Freemasons at the time were hugely influential, counting as members everyone from George Washington to the current president Andrew Jackson to, most relevantly, local sheriffs and magistrates, who refused to even investigate the case until ordered to do so by the governor. This didn't go over well, leading to a public outcry and eventually an entire political party, the Anti-Masonic Party, America's first third party and the inventor of holding conventions to nominate candidates and announce the party's platform. Very appropriate reading for this week!

And finally God, the third strand and the reason I wanted to read this book. The 1810s to 1830s, the time period Heaven's Ditch is most focused on, are the moment of the Second Great Awakening. This was a time of massive religious revivals, and upstate New York was one of the centers for the extravagant conversions and new religions. In fact the area became known as the "burned over district" for the frequency and intensity with which religious frenzies swept across the local people. Heaven's Ditch focuses on several of the most prominent figures in this movement, including: Charles Finney, celebrated and notorious (depending on who you asked) for his camp revival meetings and promotion of an evangelical style of Protestantism that is still hugely influential in American religion and politics. William Miller, who claimed to have proof that the world would end in 1843; when it (obviously) did not, his followers eventually evolved into today's Seventh-Day Adventists. And, most famous of all and given the most page time, Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of Mormonism/The Church of Latter Day Saints.

Kelly is very respectful of the beliefs he describes, in my opinion – though I may be a bit biased because personally I would have been much more sarcastic in recounting visions of angels or biblical number conspiracies. The book is written in an engaging, almost fictionalized style, similar to Erik Larson or Tom Reiss. My one complaint is that the narration jumps around in time a great deal, specifically going back and forth to the building of the canal (1817-25) and the culture after it opened (mostly late 1820s, 1830s, and some of the 1840s). That occasionally made it hard to remember when events were happening in relation to one another. I do think that it probably would have been impossible to organize the whole book with a straightforward chronology, but section headings with prominently displayed dates would have made the various narrative strands a lot easier to follow.

I am resisting the urge to just go off listing various cool facts and stories that I picked up from reading this, since you'd be better off just reading the book and not my summary of every single thing in it. And it is absolutely worth reading! If you like weird historical escapades, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. YOU GUYS THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. READ IT, READ IT NOW.

H.P. Lovecraft invented Cthulhu and other creepy monsters, hugely influenced the horror genre, and, oh yeah, was totally a racist. Even by the standards of the 1920s (generally a low point for racism in America) he was considered over the top. And one of his most xenophobic stories is "The Horror at Red Hook", a charming tale in which "illegal immigrants" (an oddly modern phrase, to my ears, for something published in 1927!) kidnap white, "blue-eyed" babies for a ritual which almost succeeds in destroying the world. Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn not that far from where I'm currently sitting) is described as "a maze of hybrid squalor", where "the population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and Negro elements impinging upon one another" and "the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky". "Visible offences are as varied as the local dialects", and you may overhear "a swarthy squinting hag teaching a small child some whispered patois" or witness those immigrants with "their squat figures and characteristic squinting physiognomies, grotesquely combined with flashy American clothing". You get the idea. The general impression is of a horror story in which the real monster is the multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual nature of New York City, an evil greater and more insidious than any dark magic or cosmic powers.

The Ballad of Black Tom is part retelling and part twisted mirror of "The Horror at Red Hook". Instead of that mass of undifferentiated and unknowable foreigners (a ridiculously explicit vision of The Other), we have Charles Tommy Tester as our narrator, a young black man who works as a low-level hustler to care for his widowed father. His job has brought him into contact with the mystical element of 1920s New York City, which he treats with a charming nonchalance; sure, he might have been hired to transport a book of unspeakable dread, but it's just another day's work. At least until his world is torn apart by an evil far more banal than Cthulhu, but no less awful.

In Lovecraft's stories, our world is a fragile veneer of civilization over a bottomless pit of indifference and gods who don't care for humanity; in The Ballad of Black Tom the very civilization that Lovecraft prized is, in fact, the worse of the two evils. If Red Hook was a place of horror in the original because its foreign, "hybrid" nature challenged Malone, the white policeman who was the center of that story, Ballad's New York is equally horrifying for the racism that constantly threaten Tommy. It's a place where police brutality, poverty, his own inability to travel freely, and causal assumptions of white superiority conspire to drive him into the arms (or tentacles) of Cthulhu, the only possible source of agency left for a black man. As he says at the moment of making his choice:
A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive. Tester looked back to Malone and Mr. Howard. Beyond them he saw the police forces at the barricades as they muscled the crowd of Negroes back; he saw the decaying facade of his tenement with new eyes; he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?
"Indifference would be such a relief," Tommy said.

But there's not only the very smart critique of Lovecraft's racism to enjoy here. This is a genuinely scary book, particularly in the eruption of violence at the climax, with some shocking plot twists. Tommy is an incredibly engaging character, and I would have happily read an entire series of books about him (The Ballad of Black Tom is, alas, more of a novella, only 150 pages long). The writing is lovely and enthralling. I do think it works best if you read "The Horror at Red Hook" first, or at least are familiar with Lovecraft's style and usual tropes, but whatever it takes, I want you all to read this book. IT'S JUST SO GOOD.

What are you currently reading?
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman. Another NetGalley book, this one about the history of American food.
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My goodness, for such a tiny fandom, there's been a lot going on the last few weeks! Let me see if I can link everything, because I don't want anyone to miss out.

Vita Dum Superest by withinadream. 9k, gen, mature.
YES IT IS THE ZOMBIE AU THAT I HAVE BEEN WANTING EVER SINCE I FIRST READ THE BOOKS. :D But it's not just a zombie AU, or rather, it's not simply about violence and being eaten. It's actually a very effective look at the changes to New Orleans society in the wake of such an event:
January wished he could feel some sense of accomplishment. [...] How could he live in a world where the dead walked the streets and young women were forced to kill their own brothers?

The same way you lived in a world where men sold their half-brothers. And in any case, there was no way to leave. Even if he could, he wasn’t sure he would want to. Of course he would have preferred to return to the city as he’d left it, but given the choice between dying a slow death of grief in Paris and risking his life to spend the rest of his days with family and friends in New Orleans, he was beginning to think that this was the better option by far. Those you loved could be taken from you at any time—at least New Orleans was honest about its dangers. And when he thought about his sisters, and his newfound friends, and even his mother, corpse-ridden streets seemed a pleasant alternative compared to a too-empty bedroom across the Atlantic. He could learn to live here, where life and love flourished among the dead.

This is somewhat structured as an AU of A Free Man of Color, the first book in the series, but characters from throughout the series make appearances, each having adapted in one way or another to the reality of zombies. And in addition to all that, it's also a casefic! I'm always tremendously impressed by people who can write actual mystery cases into their fic; it is not at all one of my skills. Anyway, it's a fantastic fic, I've been eagerly awaiting my chance to read it for months, and everyone should check it out.

Eromenos by ophelia_interrupted. 13k, Hannibal/OMC, explicit. Backstory about Hannibal's first relationship as a teenager. This canon is so detailed and full of interesting people that I could never get tired of imagining backstory for all of them. It's especially nice to read it for Hannibal, since we know so little of his early years. Plus it's a second longfic! :D How wonderful to have two such meaty pieces to get into. A very sweet story with an angsty ending.

Who Sins Drunk (gen, 5k, teen) and its sequel A Midsummer Night's Passion (Ben/Rose/Hannibal, 3k, explicit). In an attempt to get sober (this is set roughly around the time of Dead Water), Hannibal asks Ben to cane him. And then there is a lot of hurt/comfort sex. I am not at all surprised that this particular kink has shown up in this particular fandom; I am only surprised that it took this long. And this is a wonderful take on it! I have to recommend it even if you're not particularly into canings.

On a totally different note, but still relevant to Benjamin January, over on tumblr I've been making book aesthetic posts for the series. It's a thing that I'd seen other people doing – basically you take a set of photographs of objects, landscape, people, etc and use them represent a piece of book, or sometimes a poem or play or other piece of non-visual media. Most of the creative work I do is written, but occasionally I find a lot of pleasure in stretching my visual muscles. Though the hardest part of making them, to me, is restraining the urge to write long explanations for why I chose each particular image.

Here are links to the ones I've done so far:
A Free Man of Color
Fever Season
Graveyard Dust
Sold Down the River
Die Upon a Kiss

Anything I've missed?
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What did you just finish?
Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, the second in The Change series. If you haven't heard of this series before, it's post-apocalyptic YA. Several generations after civilization collapsed, humanity has recovered enough to rebuild towns and some sort of economy, but separate towns tend to go to war with one another. Genetic mutations turn up frequently but unpredictably, giving some people superpowers and killing or injuring others. The world is incredibly diverse, with main characters of multiple races, sexualities, disabilities, and neurodiversity.

So on to Hostage! The people of Las Anclas are still dealing with the repercussions of the big final battle of Stranger (book #1), particularly PTSD and grief. Jennie, Ross, and Paco have been hit especially hard, causing damage their relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. This all takes a turn for the worse when, on a trip outside the town walls, Ross is kidnapped by Voske's soldiers. Having learned about Ross's Change power and wanting its benefits for himself, Voske is determined to Stockholm Syndrome, manipulate, or outright force Ross into working for him. A team of Las Anclas people attempt to come to Ross's rescue, but when that seems impossible, they resort to kidnapping Kerry, Voske's daughter and the Crown Princess of the Gold Point Empire.

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS THIS WAS SO GOOD. I loved the setup of dueling hostages, and it provided a really interesting opportunity for the characters to deal with genuine moral questions: how to treat prisoners, how to gain power, how to deal with political differences, the responsibility of choices made during combat, the ethics of execution, freedom vs constraint, and so on. There's a lot of very tense, very well-done action scenes, and the suspense ramps up excellently over the novel as a whole.

I loved this even more than the first book, which was already pretty great. But this one was even more of a page-turner, and I read it straight through, always wanting to find out what happened next. I did miss Felicite, who appears in the story but isn't a POV character this time, but on the other hand, Kerry's a wonderful introduction, and I loved her slow growth from arrogant and coddled heir to someone with responsibility and honor, as she struggles to figure out what she wants out of life.

Anyway, everyone should read this, it's fantastic. (Also an early scene kinda made me want Ross/Indra fic? And no one's writing weird pairings unless it becomes a big fandom, so get started on that, everybody.)

Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity by Sil Lai Abrams. I should probably start off this review by saying that I'm not a huge fan of memoirs in general, and I picked up this book more because I wanted a discussion on race, and not so much for the story of someone's traumatizing childhood. Well, too bad for me, because this book is pretty much entirely the second and not the first.

Sil Lai Abrams is the daughter of a Chinese woman and a white American man, or so she believed. She discovers as a teenager that her mother actually had an affair shortly before her parents' wedding and Abrams is therefore the daughter of an unknown black man. Things are complicated further by the fact that her mother abandons the family when Abrams is only four, leaving Abrams to be raised by her (not biological) father and eventually his new wife, who is also white. There are certainly interesting things to say about mixed race families and the difficulties of white parents raising children who will experience racism, or the differences in life experience between between being mixed Chinese and white versus mixed Chinese and black. Unfortunately Abrams says none of them.

She spends significant portions of the book being furious with her father for lying to her about being her "real" dad, though honestly I can't imagine a lot of parents choosing to explain about their absentee spouse's affair to their eight-year-old child, especially back in the 1970s. Which doesn't mean it's the right choice, necessarily! Just that I have sympathy for why someone might do so, while Abrams seems to sincerely believe her father was entirely motivated by maliciousness or laziness.

And speaking of ascribing weird motives to others, there was a scene between thirteen-year-old Abrams and her step-mother that I found so indescribably bizarre that I have to share it with you all. Abrams is grounded to her room when her step-mother allows some neighborhood kids to play in their backyard pool:
The sense of betrayal was overwhelming. I felt like I was in the movie Carrie, in the scene where the pig’s blood was dumped over her head. Only I wasn’t the prom queen, but a thirteen-year-old girl stuck in her room, without any agency. And my tormentors weren’t the “cool” kids but my best friends, who were invading my territory and worse, my safe haven. Showing me through their laughing and splashing that they didn’t give a damn about our friendship or my feelings.
My indignation erupted with an emotional frenzy that bordered on pathological. Trapped in my room, I was unable to defend myself from this blatant encroachment on my personal space by my frenemies.
So I did the only thing I could at the time, which was to stew and plot my revenge. After a half hour or so, I saw Mom open the kitchen door that led to the patio. Leaning partially out the doorway, she called out, “Are you girls okay?”
“Yes, Mrs. Baber,” they happily replied in unison.
“Okay, just checking on you! Have fun!” she said.
As Mom began to close the door our eyes met, and that’s when I saw it. Emanating from her blue gray orbs like radio waves, I saw a smile crinkling the corners of her eyes that spread to her mouth as it slowly curved into the slightest grin.
In that instant, I realized that Mom had intentionally let my friends swim in our pool knowing that we were in an argument. She wasn’t naïve; she knew exactly what she was doing. Mom had let my friends play in our pool while I was on restriction to punish me for my insolence. To further drive home the fact that she was the boss, not me.
As the awareness of her power play slowly began to sink in, a new, larger thought began to drown out the gleeful sounds of my “friends” splashing in my pool. Mom could also be motivated by malice, or at the very least, the need to win. When our eyes connected I saw her smugness and triumph.
Realizing that Mom was capable of willfully inflicting emotional harm on me irreversibly changed our relationship. And the fact that she would use my friends to do it was unforgivable. On that hot summer day in 1983, Mom became my enemy. Someone to be destroyed, lest I be destroyed.

I mean, it's certainly realistic that a thirteen year old would find this an act of irredeemable betrayal! I just find an adult retelling it without any greater perspective to be unsympathetic. A great deal of the book was like this to me. Which makes me feel guilty, because I don't want to be some gatekeeper of whether or not anyone's childhood was traumatic "enough". If it hurt you, then it hurt you, regardless of what the effect might have been on someone else. And yet so many of the incidents that Abrams recounts are so minor, so unremarkable, that I couldn't help rolling my eyes. And she herself is prone, from her own account, to intense personal relationships that burn out as quickly as they start, which leads to her dumping people for tiny slights. She seems to have no awareness of this aspect to her behavior, which makes me take the rest of her account with a grain of salt.

Also the book randomly became a celebrity tell-all for several chapters. I definitely picked up a A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity because I wanted to know what it was like to go on a date with Eddie Murphy.

Abram's writing is shallow and self-pitying, with no insight beyond "and everyone was mean to me and it sucked". Here's a sample of it at its most faux-deep and glurge-y:
The unanswered prayers of a child never go away. They recede into hidden compartments in the child’s heart. Calcifying, layer by layer, with each failed intervention from a kinder, forgiving life force. Slowly the innocence begins to drain out of the child’s soul. Smiling eyes become distrustful. Warmth is replaced with coolness. Faith is transformed into fear as the optimistic child becomes a wary skeptic.
It's like a Chicken Soup for the Soul story extended to three hundred pages!

I don't know. I made a dozen bookmarks while I was reading this, because there were so many places she contradicted herself, made unbelievable claims, or treated others badly with no regard for her own actions. But I don't think I need to add them all, if only because this review would be enormous. It's a self-centered, willfully oblivious book, with nothing of interest to say.

(There are also a tremendous amount of typos in this book. I read an ARC, of course, but NetGalley's copies have almost always previously been indistinguishable from publication quality. I really hope this went through another editing pass before it was printed.)
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly. I happened to have come across two references to there being an abundance of weird cults in upstate New York in the early 1800s, from two different pieces of historical fiction I was reading. So when I saw a nonfiction book on the topic, of course I had to grab it!


Jul. 15th, 2016 04:24 pm
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Last weekend, I went to see the off-Broadway production of "Hadestown", a 1920s-esque folk opera retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. That's a lot of elements for one show, but yes, really. And it works. It's based on a 2010 album by Anaïs Mitchell, which you can listen to here, but which is fairly different from the show as it exists now.

It is the best thing I have seen/heard/read in ages, and I want everyone I know to see it immediately so that I can talk about it with more people. Which I realize is a problem, because a) most of you don't live in NYC, and b) it's only running until the end of the month. So! Let me tell you about it.

The Orpheus/Eurydice plot plays out fairly close to how it does in the myth: we see them meet, fall in love through Orpheus's music, Eurydice descends to the Underworld, Orpheus chases after her, they convince Hades and Persephone to let them leave – with, of course, the caveat that they only escape if Orpheus doesn't look back – and then the tragic ending. The biggest change is in how important the Hades/Persephone relationship and myth is to this play; they become at least co-leads, if not the central figures.

The setting does a lot of work, though it's more in feel and symbolism than plot points. Orpheus is the great musician, still – but he's also a penniless romantic that is not particularly concerned with figuring out how to support himself and his new wife, which is a problem in the Depression-esque "Hard Times" of this story. His eventual look back that loses Eurydice – I don't want to spoil too much, but whew, the show has no sympathy for him. It's absolutely savage. In the first act, he's strongly paralleled to Persephone. She seems to be the same sort of feckless dreamer as Orpheus, and Amber Gray, her actress, plays Persephone as a drunken flapper girl who treats summer like an unending party with her as the star. Here's a photo.

Hades, on the other hand, is the god of work and railroads and industry and factories; "Who makes work for idle hands?" he sings at one point, and yes, he is also much more of a Devil figure here than in the original Greek myth. His underworld is a place where dead souls endlessly build a wall – there's no particular need for a wall, you see, it's work simply for the sake of work.

We build the wall to keep out of the enemy, Hades tells his followers, in a catechism-like song, and then asks, "What do we have that they should want?"

The response is:
"We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free."

(YES I KNOW. But this song was written in 2010 and is not actually about the Trump campaign, despite any and all horrifying similarities.) Here's a link to the show's version of this song, which everyone should absolutely listen to.

In this version of the story, Eurydice does not so much die as sell her soul to escape hunger and cold – that's her belting out the final verse of Why We Build the Wall, zealous in her temporary seduction by the underworld's affluence. She and Persephone are both quite explicitly creatures kept in gilded cages, trading freedom for luxury. And they are both, in different ways, furious about the world that took away their choices. They both feel lied to by the men they're in a relationship with (this show really has no sympathy for men in general, it's amazing). The difference between them is that Eurydice still has hope for Orpheus, while Persephone hates Hades in the way that only comes from love that's died.

However, Persephone is after all a goddess and vastly more powerful, and when Eurydice and Orpheus's story has ended, hers still goes on, repeating its summer/winter cycle forever. It's ambiguous as to how complicit she is in the humans' fates; there's more than a tinge of A Midsummer Night's Dream here, the supernatural creatures playing out their own cold war through the proxy of hapless mortals. Persephone loudly announces her hatred for the underworld and Hades throughout the show, but her constant use and pushing of alcohol called to my mind the tempting forgetfulness of Styx. In one song she sings to a nameless soul, half-promising and half-mocking:

"Come here, brother, let me guess
It's the little things you miss
Spring flowers, autumn leaves
Ask me, brother, and you shall receive.
Or maybe these just ain't enough
Maybe you're looking for some stronger stuff
I got a sight for the sorest eye
When's the last time you saw the sky?"

After all, what stops you from escaping more than a little false relief?

The casting is diverse – both Eurydice and Persephone are mixed race black women, in another parallel – and all of the acting was amazing. Nabiyah Be (Eurydice) does so much with tiny facial expressions that felt like they shouldn't carry out to the whole theater, but she was absolutely magnetizing. And I haven't even had a chance to mention Hermes (Chris Sullivan)! He, along with the three Fates, works as narrator and storyteller and Greek (ha) chorus, and is also fantastic. The show is done as theater in the round, and all of the actors frequently wander up and through the audience, but Hermes in particular is a literally felt presence. He stomps on the boards, shaking all of the seats, to underline both the beat of the music and the thump-thump of a railroad.

Everyone was great! I desperately want more people to see this, mainly for selfish reasons including but not limited to: they will write interesting meta for me to read, they will produce a cast album, they will make this the next big theater fandom. I know it's a bit pointless for me to recommend this, since again most of you probably won't be able to see it, but I can't help but do so. It's just so good! If you have an chance, absolutely check it out.
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15 minutes on "a stand-up comedy routine". I think this works better if you imagine it being spoken out loud. I mean, as much as it works at all.

Read more... )
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What did you just finish?
Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform by Malcolm K. Sparrow. A nonfiction book that examines various problems with current policing theory, implementation, and practice. I was quite interested to get a more in-depth look at this topic (particularly as it regards community policing), and while this was a good book for learning some of the history and ideas behind current policing, ultimately it was mostly aimed at police managers, not lay people. For example, the chapter on how to manage interactions between public police and private security was interesting enough, in a theoretical sort of way, but I doubt I'll find much use for the suggested ways to practice such engagements. Which isn't really a critique of the book – it seems very successful at what it's doing! I'm just not the intended audience.

I do have to gripe about the chapter in which Sparrow attacks social sciences as a general concept though. He argues that policing probably isn't a great environment in which to conduct randomized, controlled experiments – sure, that seems logical enough to me. But Sparrow has a bizarre idea of what constitutes the difference between natural and social sciences. He seems to believe that social science consists solely of statistics and highly standardized experimentation, while natural science is... well, basically everything else.
For example:
My purpose [is] to press the point that social-scientific experiments and evaluation constitute a relatively small and very particular subset of the relevant inquiry tool kit.
We should at least consider which natural science inquiry methods might turn out to be relevant or important for policing. A great many of them, I would suggest. Most of what we know about social problems and most of the knowledge already accumulated by police stems from the mindset and methods of natural science inquiry: observation, inspection, investigation, and diagnosis, leading to the development of ideas about the scope, nature, and dynamics of various dysfunctions and breakdowns in the social order.

He then goes on to cite Newton, Galileo, and the entire medical field as examples of people who have learned a lot without worrying too much about experiments. To which I say, WTF.
Perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of modern medical knowledge has accumulated without the use of this elite tool kit. [...] It would be strange, indeed, if Galileo and Newton, who have taught us so much about the way the universe works, were deemed not to have engaged in “high science” simply because their methods did not rely on randomized experiments or program evaluation techniques.
(He's using here the terms "elite" and "high" science to describe social science, which he apparently seems to think is better regarded than natural science? That, uh, seems to be the exact opposite conclusion of nearly everyone else, as explained by this XKCD strip.)

And then it gets even crazier:
There is no prima facie reason why the ratio of natural science methods to social science methods applicable to policing should differ markedly from this ratio in other areas. One can obtain a rough sense of where that ratio lies, in general, by comparing the rate at which new articles are abstracted into various academic citation indices. For the United States, the rate at which articles are being added to the general science citation indices runs at roughly five times the rate at which articles are being added to equivalent social science citation indexes. Across a range of industrialized nations, this ratio varies between 5:1 and 10:1. In other words, social science may account for no more than 10 to 20 percent of new science. Given that the elite tool box and preferred methods of EBP [Evidence Based Policing; the application of his reviled "social science" methods to policing] represent a relatively small subset of the overall social science tool kit—certainly less than half—then it might be reasonable to guess that EBP should represent no more than 5 to 10 percent of the investments the police profession could usefully make in scientific inquiry.

Anyway, if you happen to read this, you might just want to skip Chapter Four. The rest of the book is fine.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

I also spent a great deal of time this week reading The Comfortable Courtesan, which is not really a book (though it is available in ebook form here!), but rather a daily-updated blog that purports to be the memoirs/diary/personal account of Madame C– C–, an exteremly select upper-class courtesean in Regency London. Though actually she's no longer a 'working woman' since she recently married a Marquess who was dying of malaria but wanted a widow he could trust to manage his estate and send regular sums of money to his revolutionary connections in Naples. He knew he could trust Madame C–, you see, because she had spent years appearing to be the mistress of the Marquess's good friend, Lord G- R-, when in actuality she was helping Lord G- R- to disguise the fact that he's gay and in a long-term relationship with his secretary, a Scottish philosopher named Sandy.

Yes. The whole thing is like this, self-consciously melodramatic and hilarious and absolutely captivating. Madame C– is a character in the grand tradition of Flora Poste and The Grand Sophy: utterly competent to arrange the chaos and manage the escapades that are constantly going on around her. It is quite frequently laugh-out-loud funny (the mating habits of wombats! bad poets falling into lakes when attacked by swans! overly enthusiastic Italian assassins with inappropriate crushes!), and when it's not being funny, it is adorable and charming (Madame C–'s relationship with baby Flora is possibly the cutest thing I have ever read). There are occasional sad episode (there's been a few deaths, and some fairly serious misadventures), but the overall feel is warm and comforting. It's written in period style, with an abundance of allusions to contemporary events or quotes or people. There's clearly a huge amount of historical knowledge behind the writing – certainly it feels vastly more authentic than the average Regency romance –  though it's so easy and fun to read that you almost wouldn't notice.

But the benefit over Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen is that The Comfortable Courtesan is wonderfully diverse. There are a large number of GLBT characters, including both m/m and f/f relationships, an asexual character, and a transwoman character. The central relationship is a poly threesome, that has had to deal with how to set boundaries and negotiate jealousy. There's a Jewish character, and many black characters – nearly all of Madame C–'s servants are black, and they and their families are important figures in the story. I mean, I realize that it does not sound particularly appealing to go "the servants are all people of color! :D", but they have their own fully detailed characterizations and plots: romances, career aspirations, tragedies, villainous kidnapping attempts, embarrassingly fervent but temporary bouts of extreme religion, and more.

It's just wonderful and I can't recommend it highly enough. Check it out here, though you probably want to start from the beginning rather than the most recent update.

What are you currently reading?
Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith! It's so good, y'all.
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Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo. A novel set in Harlem and Paris in the 1920s. Ben is a young black man, a poet and a waiter, who lives with his wife Angeline in New York City, though they're both originally from the small-town south. He struggles with what he calls this thing – eventually revealed to be his attraction to other men – a problem which kicks into overdrive when Ben meets the handsome trumpeter Baby Back Johnston. From there on out it's a matter of Ben figuring out who he is and who he loves, and the ensuing tangled mass of complicated relationships – not just with Baby Back and Angeline, but also Glo, a singer and Ben's close friend; Clifford, a rich, sophisticated black man with his own attraction to Baby Back; and Sebastian, a white painter.

The prose attempts to mimic the rhythms of poetry (many of Ben's poems are included in the text itself) and jazz, which sometimes works well, and... well, sometimes doesn't. For example:
The students smiled through their entire argument, then closed their topic with a chummy clinking of coffee cups. The Fitzgerald-endorsing student stood out. His tie askew. Longish hair falling in front of his eyes. A dash of scruff on his ruddy face.
Something in Ben’s pants smiled.
He went downstairs to use the lavatory, the basement dark and medieval-dungeon cool. The Fitzgerald boy was at the sink when Ben came out of the stall. They studied each other through the mirror’s reflection.
“Bonjour,” Fitzgerald said.
Silence. Studying.
“I need to wash my hands,” Ben said.
“What were you doing in that stall to make them dirty?”
He stepped aside. Ben moved to the sink. As water poured over his hands, he felt a nice slap on his backside. Sharp and quick, the sound like a whip. Ben looked in the mirror, saw Fitzgerald at the stall cocking his head in its direction, renegade hair flailing. He went in, left the door ajar.
Ben finished at the sink and moved to exit. He looked back at the stall, felt the smile in his pants again. He hesitated, then hesitated some more, then walked toward the stall with purpose, then reversed course and left.


But even if the prose isn't always the greatest, I really did enjoy this book. It deals with racism and homophobia in very smart ways and in a setting that I loved, the characterizations are well-done and complex, and the ending is happy if a bit bittersweet. All around, it's a book that I'm very glad exists, and I wish there were more like it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. A modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, part of a new line where various famous authors take on different Shakespeare plays.

Tyler recasts Katherina as Kate, the daughter of an absent-minded, socially clueless research scientist. His highly valuable assistant Pyotr is in danger of being kicked out of the country when his visa shortly expires; cue the suggestion of a green card marriage between him and Kate. Great idea! I thought. What a wonderful contemporary twist on forcing someone into a marriage.

Sadly, this is the only good idea the book had. I realize that The Taming of the Shrew was always going to be a hard sell, since pretty much no one these days can find much to agree with in the second half of the play, but Jesus did this book fail hard.

My main problem is with Kate. The original Katherina is stubborn, fierce, overly-opinionated, and refuses to bow to social pressure. Kate is... sort of snarky, sometimes? She's a college dropout who's content to keep house for her father and younger sister and work in a dead-end job. She has no idea of what she wants to do with her life and folds easily to the stronger personalities around her. She's intimidated by the elderly women she works with. She's intimidated by cute boys. She's intimidated by her well-meaning father. She has an incredibly low opinion of herself and seems unable to have desires or needs of her own. So yeah, basically the only thing she has in common with the original is her name.

She's also oddly old-fashioned. Based on the way she talks and thinks, I kept thinking the book must be set in the 1950s or earlier, but no: there are cell-phones, there's a mention of 9/11 being in the past. It's got to be at least relatively contemporary, but then there are passages like this:
Once, a couple of months ago, Kate had tried wearing a skirt to school herself. Not that it was swishy or anything; actually it was a denim skirt with rivets and a front zip, but she had thought it might make her seem … softer. The older teachers had turned all knowing and glinty. “Somebody’s making a big effort today!” Mrs. Bower had said, and Kate had said, “What: this? It was the only thing not in the wash, is all.” But Adam hadn’t seemed to register its existence. Anyhow, it had proved impractical—hard to climb a jungle gym in—and she couldn’t shake the image of the reflection she had glimpsed in the faculty restroom’s full-length mirror. “Mutton dressed as lamb” was the phrase that had come to mind, although she knew she wasn’t really mutton; not yet. The next day, she had gone back to Levi’s.
KATE IS SUPPOSEDLY 29. I am 32, and am only vaguely aware of the existence of the saying "mutton dressed as lamb"; it's definitely not something I would ever spontaneously think – not about someone else, and certainly not about myself. ALSO OVER A JEAN SKIRT? I have been acquainted with fundamentalist Christians of the sort that don't believe in dancing or public schools, and they wore jean skirts! (Mainly because I'm pretty sure they believed it was inappropriate for women to wear pants, but still. My point remains.)

Or here she is articulating why she goes ahead with the marriage to Pyotr:
Twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father. ‘Yes, Father; no, Father; don’t forget to take your medicine, Father.’
This is the concern of the heroine of a Regency novel, not a twenty-something in 2016.

On another topic, here is her opinions on Pyotr's accent:
When he was talking shop with her father he had sounded halfway intelligent—thoughtful, even—but on subjects less scientific his language turned stunted again. She couldn’t find any logic to his use or non-use of article adjectives, for instance, and how hard could article adjectives be?
WHOA DUDE. I mean, I suppose one way of updating Kate's "shrewishness" would have been by turning her into a total dick, but unfortunately I'm pretty sure Tyler expects us to be in agreement with Kate here, since it's later treated as a stunning revelation that Pyotr has trouble expressing his thoughts in English rather than just having an accent for funsies.

The plot also doesn't much resemble The Taming of the Shrew. There's no "taming" (which, okay, fair – I probably didn't want to read that anyway), no Latin tutor disguises, no Christopher Sly, no wagers over who has the best wife; instead it follows the standard romantic comedy outlines of opposites attracting and slowly falling in love. However, the one plot point Tyler does make a point of including is Katherina's (in)famous final speech; here Kate delivers a lecture on how it's really hard to be a man because they have to hide their emotions. Which... I do agree with! But it's still a bizarre ending note, considering that it comes out of nowhere and is no way thematically relevant to the rest of the book, and doesn't even work as part of the scene it's in. It's supposed to be a riposte to Kate's younger sister – here called Bunny – who's upset because Pyotr punched her boyfriend. I'm not really clear on how "[Men] a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it" is a response to assault charges.

(By the way, I am also annoyed at how Bunny is treated in this book, constantly belittled and mocked by the narrative because she's not as smart as Kate and her father and is interested in boys. It's not a feminist retelling if you can't conceal your disdain for the "other girls".)

Anyway, it's not really an entirely terrible book. The prose is fine and it's a quick, light read. I think it would make pleasant beach book if you wanted some fluffy romcom. But it has nothing to do with The Taming of the Shrew, and trying to compare the two makes Vinegar Girl suffer.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
I actually just now finished Vinegar Girl and haven't started anything else, but most probably Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith!
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For this week's prompt, we wrote down various emotions on slips of paper, then drew them out of a hat. I got "happy" and "envious".

I'm pretty sure this story ends with someone getting murdered )
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Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. The land of Shaftal has been invaded by a foreign people, who have killed Shaftal's king, scattered its leaders, taxed its farmers, and subdued most of the country. Zanja, a young woman when the invasion first occurred, has been working as a spy and trader to protect her small tribe of border people. When that fails, she joins the remnants of Shaftal's army, who have been harrying the invaders and engaging in guerilla warfare for the last fifteen years. This brings her into contact with Karis, an extremely strong Earth witch, and Emil, a fireblood like herself (the magic system is not very well-explained, but firebloods seem to have the ability to vaguely see the future, while Earth witches can heal, make things grow, and work metal).

All of this is pretty much standard High Fantasy – Good vs Evil, a hero emerging from humble origins, the lost heir to the throne, underdogs valiantly struggling against vast odds – but it turns out that's not at all the story Marks is interested in telling. Though it takes a significant percentage of the book to get there, Marks eventually overturns the trope conventions. It becomes about making peace rather than winning a war, about acceptance rather than vengeance, about healing and melding instead of holding strong. All of which is great!

Unfortunately, the tone overall is much more intellectual than emotional, which made it hard for me to engage with the characters; the book sometimes feels more like a philosophical exercise than a story. The beginning also has an exteremly high bar to getting into the story. I realize that info-dumping is bad writing, but leaving the reader with no explanation of what's happening doesn't work much better!

On another note, there are multiple important gay and lesbian relationships, and gender seems to not be an important discriminating factor in any of the cultures here: we have women soldiers, generals, scholars, smiths, and every other role.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and though I had some problems with it, it's a great idea and I'm really looking forward to reading the other books.

What are you currently reading?
Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo. A novel about a gay black man – or rather, a man struggling not to be gay – in Harlem Renaissance NYC. I'm not very far into this yet, but I am LOVING IT.
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Another one of these writing prompts from my weekly writing group. In brief: one person picks a prompt, then we all have only 15 minutes to write something – anything.

This week's prompt was from >a NYT article about the 36 questions that, supposedly, can make any two people fall in love – by forcing them to feel intimate and close. Specifically, "If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?"

My response )

(Yes, it is totally cheating to cut off right before I actually had to decide what question he would ask. But hey – only 15 minutes!)
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What did you just finish?
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan. In 1850, Jonah is a young man, just turned 18, and a slave at a tavern in South Carolina. His owner is comparatively kind to him – teaching him to read, letting him work in the house, buying him Christmas presents – but after being whipped, Jonah runs away. This is a spur of the moment decision, and he takes off without supplies or much knowledge of where he's headed. It doesn't take long before he meets up with Angel, another slave, who decides that if Jonah can run away she can too, and promptly follows him despite Jonah's attempts to shake her off.

That's pretty much it for a plot; the book quickly settles into an episodic travelogue which is mostly entertaining, though near the end it gets a bit predictable. The same set-back repeats several times in a row: – "Oh no! Someone's captured Jonah! Will he be sent back south? Thank goodness, he's escaped just in time!" – which I suppose is realistic, but felt circular. The relationship between Jonah and Angel also doesn't make much progress: she continually tries to convince him that he needs her, he takes any opportunity to leave her behind – a trait which honestly made me lose a lot of sympathy for Jonah. I get that you didn't ask her to come along, but Jesus, don't keep abandoning her in terrible situations!

The writing style is simplistic in a way that gives it the feel of dialogue without being entirely stream-of-consciousness; it bothered me for the first few pages, but once I settled into it I liked it. Both Jonah and Angel had distinct, charming voices.

I feel like this is coming off as a mostly negative review, but I did actually enjoy the book. It's just that it's not doing anything new, nor is it a particularly stellar example of the genre. It's a pleasant read, but honestly it'll probably fade from my memory quite quickly. And yet there's nothing really wrong with it either! Sometimes books that are perfectly adequate leave me with the least to say.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. The 15th book in the Discworld series, and the first one I ever read. (Probably? It might possibly have been Feet of Clay instead; I know I read those two close enough to one another, and so long ago, that I'm no longer quite sure which was first.) We head back to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, which is reluctantly dealing with a brand-new affirmative action program put in place to better reflect the city. Meanwhile, the Discworld's one gun has been discovered, and is in the hands of a man determined to reinstate the monarchy.

There are so many details here that I consider to be just part of Discworld basics that it's shocking it took fifteen books for them to appear: Angua! Bloody Stupid Johnson! Leonard da Quirm! Detritus in the Watch! It's so lovely to see them here, filling out the background of the world even more.

I have to admit that I didn't like this one quite as much as I had in my memory, though I'm not sure why. I mean, it's still fantastic, with lots of humor and some exteremly sad moments; a lesser Discworld book is still better than most things I read. I also remembered the King Arthur parody taking up a much larger part of the book than it actually does; I suppose it's just that the whole "forget pulling a sword out of a stone! Who put it in the stone?" is exteremly memorable.

One thing that I found fascinating is that this is the book that really makes the transition between traditional fantasy settings – timeless, unchanging, and mostly based on medieval Europe – and something more modern. There's been little hints at such a change in earlier books: Small Gods permanently altered the nature of Omnism, and Lords and Ladies insisted that humans had changed enough to no longer need elves, but this is a whole different level. I mean: gun control! Minority outreach programs! That's not part of Ye Olde Phantasie.

This is especially noticeable because right before I read Men at Arms I read Troll Bridge, a short story published the year before. Troll Bridge is about Cohen the Barbarian and takes place far from Ankh-Morpork, but it is quite explicitly about the world changing, leaving behind Old School Fantasy (in this case Swords & Sorcery) and becoming a more direct parody of the contemporary world. I never would have noticed these parallels if I hadn't decided to do my reread of this series in publication order, and I'm really glad I did! I'm picking up on so many things that I never had before.

What are you currently reading?
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. This book has been on my to-read list for ages – literally years! – but since I didn't actually own a copy, I'd been putting it off. Today I forgot my current book at home and ended up in the city with time to pass and nothing to read, which is obviously a valid reason for visiting a bookstore and buying three books. One of which happened to be this, hooray! I'm not very far into it, but apparently it's been long enough since I read a fantasy book to be annoyed at made-up words (what the hell is a "G'deon" and how are you supposed to pronounce that? Call it a King!), but I am still enjoying the promise of lesbian poly H/C.

Fic Recs

Jun. 18th, 2016 05:12 pm
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Some things I've read recently that I enjoyed and want to pass on:

Small Kindnesses by ophelia_interrupted. Benjamin January, Hannibal/OFC, E, 1.6k. YES THERE IS A NEW BENJAMIN JANUARY FIC AND IT IS REALLY GOOD. :D Why has no one else read this? It's fantastic! EVERYONE CHECK THIS OUT AND SQUEE WITH ME BECAUSE I LOVE IT.

Singing the Lord's song in a strange land by Nary. Based on a song, but you can easily read it as original fic. M, 1.4k. An absolutely beautiful story about slavery and mermaids (or something darker!) and motherhood and just, this is so great. You should absolutely give it a chance.

Red Sky at Morning by thewalrus_said. A sequel to Shakespeare's 12th Night, written in script format. T, 14.5k. This is just excellent! I love the plot, I Iove the characterizations, and I love the romance. Really worth reading if you have any fondness for the original play at all.

Double Negative (Eliza/Jefferson, 4k) and its sequel, An Unconventional Relationship (Eliza/Jefferson/Hamilton, 10.7k), by holograms. Hamilton: a musical, E. This is not a pairing that would ever have occurred to me, but by God, this fic has converted me. It's so hot and well-characterized and sympathetic and funny and sad and did I mention hot? Because it is. Yes. Highly recommended.
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I recently started going to a nearby writers' group – more in the interest of making new local friends than because I really wanted feedback on my writing, honestly. And none of the other MeetUp groups looked that appealing, so my choices were limited. But despite my original disinterest in the actual topic, it has been a lot of fun. We recently decided to add a new game to our meetings: someone picks a prompt, everyone has 15 minutes to write, and then we share whatever we managed to come up with.

Fifteen minutes isn't a very long time, so they're not spectacular pieces of writing, but it is neat to see what you can come up with without preparation. I don't know if anyone has an interest in reading these, but since I don't have anything else to do with the pieces and don't really intend to continue them, I figured I'd go ahead and post them here. For posterity, if nothing else.

This is the first one we did. The prompt was "A detective who is running out of money".

And here's what I wrote )
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What did you just finish?
On A Desert Shore by S.K. Rizzolo. The fourth in a mystery series set in Regency-era London, starring John Chase, a Bow Street Runner; Mrs. Penelope Wolfe, a writer abandoned by her artist husband; and Edward Buckler, a clinically depressed melancholic lawyer. I haven't read the previous three books in the series, but a) most mystery series are designed to be dipped into without necessarily reading them in order, so I figured I'd be fine, and b) a particular element of this one's summary caught by attention.

A diversion: In Vanity Fair Becky Sharpe goes to school with "Miss Swartz", a wealthy heiress who is the mixed race child of a Caribbean planter and a slave woman. Miss Swartz isn't much of a character, one-dimensional and vaguely racist in a way unsurprising for a book written in 1847, but I've always been fascinated by the idea of her. Here we have a black woman attending elite finishing schools, going to house parties, and ultimately marrying into the nobility! Given how much we love to set stories in the Regency today, why aren't there a hundred Miss Swartzs written with modern sympathies? Especially in the romance genre! Romance loves the "she's rich but not suitable, he's noble but poor, together they have an arranged marriage and ultimately fall in love" trope, and yet I can't name a single instance in which the rich heiress is black. When books from 150 years ago are doing better than you in terms of racial representation, there's a problem. So I was very excited to see On a Desert Shore, because it finally seemed to be the new Miss Swartz I'd been waiting for.

Marina Garrod is the mixed race only child of Hugo Garrod, wealthy British merchant and owner of a Jamaican plantation. However, strange things have been happening around her, and it's unclear if Marina is having a mental breakdown or if someone is trying to put a (voodoo) curse on her or otherwise harass her. Hugo hires John Chase to be her bodyguard, but before Chase can figure out what's going on, someone poisons Hugo and the race is on to figure out who the murderer is before the will is read and all of Hugo's money is claimed.

This is a promising premise! Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential in any way. One of the things I was most irritated by was the author's failure to describe what race any of her characters were. You can't write a book about racism and make your readers guess at who is white and who is black! This is necessary information! I'm aware that some readers dislike excessive, exoticizing description of minority characters' appearances, and I suspect Rizzolo may have been influenced by advice to avoid that. That's fine! But "She was a black woman" is not excessive or exoticizing! If I can only figure out a character is black twenty pages after her introduction by putting together context clues, you have failed.
Even after finishing the book, I'm unclear if Marina was supposed to be able to pass for white (because sometimes strangers seemed unaware of her heritage) or not (because sometimes strangers seemed to know immediately), which is a basic piece of information I would have liked to better understand the plot. I mean, it's one thing to leave characters' races vague if the book is not focused on race, but when it's the central motivating factor of your plot, you need to be clear.

In addition, every one of the "good" characters is not only totally a forward-thinking abolitionist (which, again, fine! I don't want to spend two hundred pages sympathizing with racists anyway, even if it would be realistic for the period), but completly modern and "colorblind" in their attitudes. These people supposedly live in 1813 London, and yet are surprised and shocked at the existence of racism around them. Despite the plot centering around the prevalence of racism. I don't know, it doesn't really make any more sense while reading it.

I was also disappointed by the depiction of depression. I was pretty excited once I realized this was a historical series with major character who suffered from depression – again, not a thing I think I've read before but which I totally want to – and yet it bore no resemblance to reality. Buckler is energized and happy when his romantic relationship is going well, and sad and lethargic when it takes a downturn. That's not clinic depression, that's normal moodiness. Social contact can be a treatment for depression, but love does not actually cure bad brain chemistry.

The writing and the mystery itself were adequate, I suppose (though Rizzolo's afterward, where she describes her research, suggest that she intended several things which I did not pick up in the actual text at all), but ultimately I was very disappointed with the book, because there were so many aspects I should have loved that were done poorly. Even the promise of "woman writer in a shippable OT3 in Regency London!" is not enough to get me to read the rest of the series.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Turbulence by Samit Basu. On a flight between London and Delhi, every passenger mysteriously gains superpowers, based on their deepest wish or what they happened to be dreaming about at the time. This does not always lead to useful powers – there's a few "Superman" types, but there's also a teenager who can control the weather based on how his stomach feels, an actress who can make anyone fall in love with her, and an architect who can grow houses directly from the ground.

Aman, the main character, gains the ability to surf the internet with his mind, becoming a super-hacker who can bypass any security system, read anyone's email, or steal anyone's bank account. He decides that the people given these powers should team up to benefit the whole of humanity, and so sets out to gather a team of superheroes. He's opposed in this by Jai, who also plans to create a team of superheroes, but his goal is for India to conquer the world. Cue lots of fight scenes, double crossing agents, spying, and short-lived allies.

The real pleasure of the book isn't so much the plot (which is pretty similar to most superhero stories), but the writing style. It's full of jokes, pop-culture references, and absurd descriptions, a bit like if Douglas Adams decided to write about modern-day Mumbai. I really enjoyed reading it, even if I don't think it'll stick in my memory for long.

What are you currently reading?
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan, another novel from NetGalley.