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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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.


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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. A YA novel, the start of a trilogy, which the author describes as, and I quote, “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt”. I had some problems with the book, but come on, how can you not love something with that premise?

In the capital city of Hellenistic Egypt Saryenia, Jessamy is the mixed-race daughter of a Roman Patron general and an Egyptian Commoner woman. However, interracial marriages are illegal, and so Jessamy and her sisters exist in a strange quasi-legal status: raised as proper Patron girls, but with little actual rights or opportunities.

The sisters, by the way, consist of:
-Meg Maraya, the oldest daughter, dutiful and concerned with respectability
-Jo Jessamy herself, an impulsive tomboy who strikes up a close friendship with Laurie Kalliarkos, a handsome and wealthy Patron boy
-Beth Bettany, who doesn't actually appear much on-screen in this first book but is described as "sickly", though in this case it seems to be a way of excusing her rage at their social confinement
-Amy Amaya, pretty and flirtatious and the daughter most likely to make an upperclass marriage

Jessamy's one desire in life is to run the Fives, a complicated obstacle course-like ceremony which holds a similar place in Saryenian society as the gladiatorial games did in Roman life: competitors might die or might become revered celebrities, and everyone comes to watch. Unfortunately proper Patron women are not supposed to participate, and so Jessamy has been forbidden by her family to train – which doesn't actually stop her from doing so.

This is only the set-up for the first hundred or so pages of the book, after which one plot twist follows another so swiftly that it would take an exceedingly long review to cover everything that happens. Throughout there are themes of colonialism, class and race, gender (Commoner society operates as a matriarchy, whereas Patron women are given few rights and expected mainly to be modest and obedient), betrayal, court politics, religion, the writing of history (ie, by the victors), and of course, the inevitable YA love interest. The setting and worldbuilding are incredible, and so many of the ideas in this book were just fantastic and so appealing, the very best sort of fantasy and action fun.

Which is good, because I also had some problems. The biggest was the writing itself; the story is told in first-person present tense, and comes off as more simplistic and shallow than anything I've read by Elliott before. I'm not sure if she was trying to modify her style to appeal to the YA market or what, but when a book has more superficial writing than The Hunger Games (its obvious archetype), it's pretty bad. Related to this, the characterization and relationships, particularly with that Love Interest, tend toward the one-dimensional. Finally, the whole premise of the Court of Fives never really worked for me; I couldn't help but find it a bit silly to read so much drama and emotional weight given to America Ninja Warrior, Fantasy Egypt Style. Though an interview with the author included in the back of the book, about the importance of Title IX and women athletes to her life, was quite touching and justified the idea a bit more.

Ultimately I loved it and will absolutely be reading the sequels, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. The fun parts for me outweighed the bad writing, but that's simply not going to be true of everyone.

The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak. A novel set in contemporary Indonesia, but centered around the retelling of a myth from the Mahabharata (one of India's two great epics, which is also hugely important across much of southeast Asia):

Once upon a time, there were three princesses who were sisters: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika. It was intended that they should marry King Salva, but before they could do so, they were abducted by the famous warrior Bhishma, who carried them away in his chariot (this being an accepted way of getting a wife, at least in stories). Bhishma didn't want to marry them himself, but gave the princesses to the king he served. However, Amba refused and went back to Salva. Salva wouldn't accept her, saying that she was now another man's leavings. So Amba goes back to Bhishma and says that he has to marry her, because he's the one who won her. Bhishma refuses since he'd taken a life-long vow of chastity.

Enraged, Amba becomes a hermit in the forest and devotes the rest of her life to prayers and penances, asking the gods for Bhishma's destruction, since she blames him for ruining her life. Her wish was granted, and she was reborn as Shikhandi, a girl who transformed into a man and became a warrior. Many years later, Bhishma and Shikhandi face each other on opposite sides of a huge war, and Shikhandi participates in Bhishma's death.

In The Question of Red, this is reimagined as the story of Amba, a middle-class girl from a small town on Java who becomes a college student majoring in English Literature; Salwa, the perfect fiance her parents arrange for her; and Bhisma, the doctor from East Germany she falls in love with. The book has a nonlinear structure, opening in 2006 with the image of a middle-aged Amba weeping on the grave of a long-lost Bhisma, then jumping back to her childhood in the 50s and their meeting in the 60s, and forward and backward multiple times after that. Although the focus is always on Amba's personal life, the backdrop consists of large-scale political events: an attempted coup by the Communist Party on September 30, 1965; the subsequent backlash against communists and their allies which led to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people killed; the imprisonment and forced labor of political dissidents in exile on the island of Buru throughout the 1970s; and violent sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim groups in the late 1990s. I admit that I know practically nothing about Indonesian history, and so this was all new information to me that I frequently found more interesting than Amba's individual story. Which is not the book's fault, but my own for coming to it without the expected background of knowledge. Pamuntjak has clearly done tons of research, and in an afterword describes how she used interviews and personal stories to flesh out her depiction of the prison on Buru in particular.

Unfortunately the book is probably longer than it needs to be, and dragged for me in a few places. But overall it's lyric, romantic, and very well-done. It's not what I expected from the premise, but I'm glad that it exposed me to this history, which I really should learn more about.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells. The last one of the Books of the Raksura series! D: Well, the last one published so far. Plus I still have the short stories to look forward to.
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What did you just finish?
Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee. In a small village in the Indian Himalayas, a young man named Rabindra prays and prays for an English bride, who he thinks will rescue him from his boring, small-scale life. Because despite being set in the modern day (presumably? I had a hard time figuring out what time period this was supposed to be in, but a character mentions CDs at one point, so I think it can't be earlier than the 90s), his village is extremely traditional. Every person is named after a deity and expected to embody that god or goddess's attributes. There are no movies, no TVs, no pop music, no cellphones, and the villagers apparently don't even know how to work a landline:
‘Where’s the nearest phone?’ asked Hendrix.
‘There are no telephones here,’ said Mr Chatterjee after a short silence. ‘Since anybody wishing to talk to anyone else has only to walk a few yards to find them. If they’re not at work or at home, they’ll be in the shops or at the bus stop. In any case, by the time you’ve found them you’ll have told any number of people on the way, so they would have most likely heard it from somebody else anyway.’
‘That’s if anyone’s listening,’ snickered someone unkindly.
‘There is such a thing,’ said Sergeant Shrinivasan, ‘in my office in the police station. It is a device of a peculiar shape with the word “Telephone” written on it.’
‘Does it work?’ said Mr Aptalchary, slightly shocked.
‘Extremely well,’ said the Sergeant, ‘in that its primary purpose is to stop piles of paper fluttering about when the window is open.’
‘But what else does it do?’ said Mike, perking up.
‘I am not sure,’ said the Sergeant. ‘But once a year or so it produces a terrible jangling noise that makes me jump out of my seat. In fact, one afternoon I accidentally knocked the top bit from the bottom thing and a ghostly voice called out.’ The Sergeant clutched his medals, a frequent symptom, for him, of remembered anxiety.
‘What did it say?’ asked Hendrix.
‘Hello, hello, is anybody there?’ recalled the Sergeant, shuddering.

To give Mukherjee the benefit of the doubt, he seems not to be attempting to be authentic in any way, but means to give the story the feel of a fairy-tale or a quirky Wes Anderson movie. Still, it put me off from the first pages, since all I could think was how incredibly un-Indian the setting was. It reminded me a bit of Life of Pi (note: I didn't like Life of Pi, so that's not a compliment).

Anyway, Rabindra's prayers are answered when a troupe of English dancers arrives in his small village due to a series of accidents and miscommunications. Convinced that at least one of them must be his fated true love, he attempts to attach himself to them; the dancers, of course, have no interest in getting married. Culture clash ensues. Over the course of the book the village is thrown into upheaval, secrets are revealed, friendships tested, and Rabindra proves to be worth more than he ever realized.

It's all told in a very light-hearted way, more interested in comedic effect than realism. That's fine and pleasant for the first hundred pages or so, but the tone clashes badly with some late plot developments, including attempted self-immolation, a depiction of casteism (a scene which, in addition to fitting badly with the humor, reads like Mukherjee once heard that caste exists in India and proceeded to learn nothing more), and some rather graphic violence.

Clearly this sort of modern myth (tinge of magic? check! moralistic ending? check! implausible setting contrived mainly to reify the reader's more industrialized/globalized/stressful home? check!) appeals to someone, because otherwise people wouldn't keep writing, filming, and selling them, but whoever the audience is, it's not me.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett. Hey, remember when I was rereading the Discworld series? I gotta get back to that. And so here we are at book #16, in which Death, unable to move past his grief for his adopted daughter and son-in-law, quits his job and goes on a world trip to learn how to forget. Unfortunately someone has to fill the job of moving souls along, and Death's sixteen-year-old granddaughter Susan gets sucked into the role despite her determination to be unsuperstitious, logical, and never silly. Meanwhile, a trio of musicians consisting of a human named Imp y Celyn (Welsh for "Bud of the Holly"), a horn-playing dwarf, and a troll dummer invent rock'n'roll Music With Rocks In, upset the order of the Discworld, and have to choose between burning out young and famous or living long but obscure lives. In yet a third plot thread, the elderly wizards of the Unseen University become huge rock fans, try to discover the origin of this new magical sound, and proceed to act like rebellious teenagers.

To be honest, Soul Music has never been my favorite of the Death books. I think I'm not familiar enough with classic rock of the 50s through the 80s to get many of the references, and the "regular human has to take over Death's job" plot is quite similar to Mort, though I like it better there. But for all that, it's still a Discworld book, which means the standard of comparison is incredibly high. Susan is a fantastic new character, there are tons of funny lines, and the image of the Dean in leather robes with 'BORN TO RUNE' studded on the back is one that has stuck with me for years. It's hard to ask for more than that.

What are you currently reading?
Court of Five by Kate Elliott. I had a two-day long migraine this week, and needed something that was A) on paper, and not a screen, and B) very comforting. Luckily I bought this last month, and it very much fits the bill!
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What did you just finish?
A Very Pukka Murder by Arjun Gaind. A mystery novel, the first in a planned series, set in a Princely State in India in 1909. When the English Resident is found murdered by poison on New Year's Day, the Maharaja Sikander Singh decides to investigate it himself – but soon discovers that the problem is too many suspects, as nearly everyone had reason to want the Resident dead. But that's just fine with Sikander, as he likes nothing better than a really complicated puzzle.

Let me step back for a moment to explain the setting, as I'm not sure how well-known it is. In 1857, India officially became a colony of Britain, but there were exceptions: states that remained technically independent and continued to be ruled by their hereditary leaders. These became known as the Princely States; some of the best known are Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Travancore. Because they were surrounded on all sides by British India, tended to be small, and were hemmed in by increasingly restrictive treaties (such as, for example, forbidding them to maintain armies or produce weapons), their actual independence was extremely semi-.

In addition, the Princely States had to maintain a British Resident, who would live in the state's capital and was technically responsible for the alliance between British India and the state, but who was often resented and said to take on a much greater role, essentially usurping all government functions and leaving the local rulers with nothing to do. As a result of this, the cliche of the ruler of a Princely State is one of decadence and ennui, as he wastes large amounts of money pursuing affairs with European women, gambling, or in weird art projects, anything to distract himself from boredom. As you may imagine, this is not really all that accurate of a picture, but it's the stereotype Sikander is playing on, and so I mention it.

"Pukka", by the way, means "good", "real", "proper"; a pukka house is one built of brick and stone instead of hastily-thrown up shack. And so a pukka murder is one that's well-done and hard to solve.

Anyway, back to the book! The whole tone is a bit melodramatic, in the style of a early 1900s adventure novel, which I didn't see as a fault. Sikander is vastly intelligent with imposing features; bad guys are craven and ugly; women are beautiful temptresses, if somewhat flighty; Sikhs and Gurkhas are huge and martial; servants are cringing and stupid. There's even the requisite scene where Sikander gathers everyone together at the end and explains how he figured out who did it! (Not the butler, alas.) It's not exactly deep, but it can be a lot of fun if you're in the mood for it. And I mostly was, though I have to confess I was left with a bad taste in my mouth regarding the treatment of women (very James-Bond-esque) and Sikander's reaction when a character was revealed to be secretly gay. I suppose it's all fairly accurate to the time period, but it wasn't the sort of thing I wanted in my light reading, at least not this week.

I found it fairly easy to predict who would turn out to be the murderer, but that didn't reduce my pleasure in following along with Sikander's investigation, which mostly consisted of a series of interviews with various people. It was a thorough depiction of how society functioned in this place and time, particularly in regards to British-Indian relations. It's a nice enough book and a great idea for a series, but unfortunately for me the problems overshadowed most of its good qualities.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Siren Depths by Martha Wells. #3 in the Books of the Raksura series, and definitely my favorite (so far!). Moon and the rest of the court of Indigo Cloud have settled down after the adventures of the previous two books, and Moon and his mate Jade are focused on finally producing children – though it seems to be taking longer than it should, long enough that Moon fears he's infertile and therefore Jade will choose a new mate. This is further complicated when word comes that Moon's long-lost biological family have finally been discovered... and they want Moon back. With no other choice, Jade and the rest of Indigo Cloud agree to send Moon to this new, distant court, where he must once again survive alone, adapt to new customs, and hope that someone wants him. Plus there's a battle with the Fell, the evil warrior race with mysterious ties to the Raksura, because of course there is.

If I'd asked for more emotion in the previous books, this one absolutely provided it. There's Moon afraid to be alone, Moon missing the relationships he built while at Indigo Cloud, and an abundance of excitement and happiness as well. I loved all the emotional H/C. The plot was also much more of a page-turner in this book than the others, and I had trouble putting it down; the final confrontation in particular was genuinely scary.

These books are fantasy, but I was struck while reading this one how much they feel like science-fiction, particularly anthropological SF by writers like Le Guin or Cherryh; there's just so much attention to building the cultures of multiple different species, with all the rules and history and exceptions that entails, and then further complicating it by having different groups interact. It's fantasy written by someone who really loves ethnography. This little scene, as Moon tells about his travels, made me laugh out loud:
So he told them about the Deshar in the hanging city of Zenna, and their elaborate social customs that made passing through the place so difficult for visitors. Predictably, everyone wanted to hear more about the Deshar’s attitudes about sex, which were as baffling to the other Raksura as they had been to Moon at the time.
“So if they have sex without this ceremony first, they can’t have it again?” Bone said, scratching the scar around his neck thoughtfully. He was clearly having trouble following this strange brand of logic.
Moon tried to explain. “Sort of. You can only have sex with your permanent mate, and you can’t have a permanent mate without the ceremony, and if you have sex before the ceremony, nobody wants to be your permanent mate.”
Bark frowned. “But do they have to have a permanent mate?” Except for queens and consorts, Raksura usually didn’t.
“If they want babies. If you have a baby with anybody but a permanent mate, it’s bad. For you and the baby.” The idea that offspring might be unwanted was hard for Raksura to understand as well. Queens and Arbora only clutched when they wanted to, and there were always teachers to take care of the babies or fledglings.
“But how do the others know if someone’s had sex?” Chime protested. “How can they tell? If they have sex without the ceremony, shouldn’t they just keep quiet about it?”
“Do they change color when they have sex?” Balm asked thoughtfully.
“No. They just seemed to know.” Moon admitted, “I never figured that part out.”

And in this book, as in the previous ones, this is further extended into some absolutely gorgeous and imaginative set-pieces: a city tunneled throughout a statue built into the side of a cliff, an enormous underwater palace, hundreds of human-sized creatures swarming inside a huge biological sac.

A great read. I am loving this series, and thank you to everyone who recommended it to me!

What are you currently reading?
Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee, which I think is trying for a charming fairy-tale feel to the writing, but which is unfortunately coming across as twee and childish instead.
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Today is not a good day. I found last night's election shocking and heartbreaking, but I'm sure anyone reading this is not surprised by that. I don't have a lot to say about it, really. We can wait and see, we can prepare, we can grieve, but that's all self-evident. What is there to say?

Since it's not like I'm doing any other writing today, I suppose I might as well do this:

What did you just finish?
Restless Spirits by Jordan L. Hawk. A m/m romance combined with the story of a haunted house in the late Victorian age! Henry Strauss witnessed his family fall into debt and dismay due to the scams of fake mediums, and so has invented a machine that should replace the human element of summoning and exorcising spirits. Vincent Night is a medium haunted by the fact that, while possessed by a spirit, he murdered his mentor and father-figure. Together they are summoned to a haunted mansion in rural upstate New York for a contest of science vs Spiritualism: whoever can prove their methods more effective will win $500 and bragging rights, prizes which both men desperately need.

I really loved the idea of this, and the combination of Spiritualism and steampunk-ish gadgets worked very well. The worldbuilding was fantastic and could have held up a much longer book, the haunting was creepy and complex, and there was a good range of secondary characters. I was also impressed with the book's diversity; Vincent is Native American, Henry's cousin/assistant is a black woman, and another character is a transwoman, who is treated with a great deal of respect by the narrative.

The part I was least interested in, unfortunately, was the romance. It's not that I didn't like Henry and Vincent, or didn't think they had chemistry! It's just that while reading I felt a little like, "Wow, this crazy thing just happened with the ghost! Oh, I guess now we're pausing for a sex scene. If we must." The romance simply wasn't as compelling or as unique as the haunting storyline.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur. The story of a middle-class wife in modern Delhi, who is absolutely determined to see herself as perfectly normal, even as her circumstances get more and more out of control. The book is told in first-person present-tense, and Mrs Sharma's voice is absolutely gripping, making it very hard to stop reading. Here she is describing herself:
Still, I know that I have to be careful not to take a wrong step. That is why I always say to Bobby, Watch your step. Watch each and every step you take. People will tell you to walk holding your head up high, but I think that you have to keep your eyes on the ground and watch where you put your foot. We hear it on the train daily, Mind the gap. When you get on to the train, Mind the gap. When you get off the train, Mind the gap.
My name is Mrs Renuka Sharma. I am thirty-seven years of age and a married lady. I am a respectable married lady who hails from a good family, and I have a child and a respectable job, and a mother-in-law and father-in-law. I am not a schoolgirl, and even when I was a schoolgirl, when I was Miss Renuka Mishra, even then I actually never did the types of things that other girls of my age did. There was no bunking school to meet a boy, or notes or love letters exchanged, or phone calls in the darkness when the grown ups were sleeping. And it was not that I could not catch the attention of the boys loitering around me. Actually, I was quite a pretty girl, quite a clever, pretty girl, and I don’t like to boast, but the truth is that I did break some hearts in the boys’ school on the opposite side of the road. Still, I think that I knew at that time, just like I know now, that such foolishness is timewaste.

Mrs Sharma's husband, like many Indians these days, is away working in Dubai, where he can earn more money than if he had remained in India. This has left her as the sole parent of their teenage son Bobby who, despite Mrs Sharma's deeply-held ambition to see him with a MBA working in an office, is more interested in drinking with his friends and learning to be a chef. Mrs Sharma strikes up a friendship with Vineet, a man her own age with whom she is at first only interested in finding platonic friendship. At first. Vineet proves to have a very different goal. As matters progress between her and Vineet, she finds more and more convoluted ways of maintaining her self-perception as a 'respectable woman', until it all finally erupts into disaster.

The ending felt too abrupt for me, and though I do think it works thematically, I still would have loved to see some of the repercussions play out. Ultimately though, this was an excellent book, and I am eager to read more by Kapur.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch. The long-awaited sixth book in the Rivers of London series, in which Peter Grant, a young mixed-race cop in London, discovers that magic, fairies, and ghosts are real, and ends up being recruited as England's only apprentice wizard. In this book, Lady Ty (the goddess of the river Tyburn) calls in a favor Peter owes her, asking him to keep her daughter's name out of the police investigation into a death by drug overdose at a party for rich teens. Peter, of course, does no such thing, and what seems like a simple accident soons turns out to involve lost manuscripts written by Isaac Newton, a secret tradition of female wizards, Reynard the fox (currently working as a low-level crook), and, of course, the Faceless Man (Peter's nemesis) and Lesley (Peter's former partner who seems to have joined the forces of evil).

This book was pretty heavily a case story, without much page time for other developments or character moments. I missed such scenes and particularly would have liked to see more Molly and Beverly (though what we do get of Bev is adorable and I really enjoyed it). On the other hand, Guleed plays a major role, which was great, and I really enjoyed some of the new characters (Dr Jennifer Vaughan and Caroline were my standouts).

In truth, I prefer the Rivers of London audiobooks to reading them, which is pretty much the only series I can say that about. But Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is just so absolutely fantastic at capturing Peter's voice that the written word loses something in comparison. This time I read the book because I wanted to be able to keep up with the fandom, but I am looking forward to eventually checking out the audio version as well.

What are you currently reading?
A Very Pukka Murder by Arjun Gaind. A light-hearted mystery novel set in 1909 India.
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What did you just finish?
Monstrous Affections by David Nickle. A collection of short stories by one of my favorite horror authors. There are some appearances by standard horror monsters in here (vampires, ghosts, wendigo, serial killers, and a quite interesting role for the Cyclops out of Greek mythology), but this collection is mostly characterized by the unusually literary-fiction quality of the writing, where the horror or its explanation is not always self-evident and can take some reflection. Which is not to say that they're not scary! Nickle does an excellent job of establishing a creepy atmosphere, and there's some images in these stories that will linger with me for a long time.

I was also impressed by the diversity of writing styles demonstrated in these stories. "Janie and the Wind" and "The Delilah Party" both have neuroatypical narrators, and Nickle does an excellent job of capturing their voices. "Swamp Witch and the Tea-drinking Man" has a oral folklore quality that's quite distinct from the rest of the collection.

Some of my other favorite stories:
"The Sloan Men". A woman goes to visit her future in-laws, but slowly realizes that her boyfriend is not quite human and has been mind-controlling her into a relationship.
"Night of the Tar Baby". A spell that attacks anyone who expresses anger is set loose in an extremely dysfunctional family.
"The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions". This very short story (only two pages) strongly reminded me of the best of Welcome to Night Vale, though it's darker in tone.
"The Inevitability of Earth". A man tries to follow his grandfather in learning to fly, but it requires cutting all ties to earth and human relationships.
"Polyphemus' Cave". Set in the 1930s, a gay closeted Hollywood star returns to his small hometown after his father's death, and encounters the strange circus who might have been responsible.

Wild Fell by Michael Rowe. A horror novel in three parts, centered around the gothic mansion of Wild Fell, a huge isolated house built on a small island in the northernmost section of Lake Ontario. In the first part, set in the 1960s, two teenagers on a nearby beach drown horribly. In the second, Jamie, a young boy in 1970s Ottawa, speaks to his reflection in mirrors, naming this imaginary friend Amanda. But he slowly starts to suspect that Amanda might be real, and might have terrible intentions. Finally, in the modern day the middle-aged Jamie comes into a windfall of money and spontaneously buys a house – which, of course, turns out to be Wild Fell itself. From that point on, all the typical haunted house tropes come into play.

This was a moderately well-done book. The three sections don't always fit well together, and the creepiest parts are undoubtedly in the two earlier ones; the final confrontation with the house is both fairly predictable and ends far too abruptly. There's also a long passage between parts two and three detailing Jamie's early adulthood, his failed marriage, and his father's struggles with Alzheimer's, which is all well-written but doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the book or have any real point. There's some interesting stuff with gender going on, but it doesn't ultimately come to any conclusion – though on the other hand, I guess it is kinda neat that the narrator's best friend can be a butch lesbian without that being a big deal. There's also an ambiguous twist ending (ambiguous in the "is it real or not?" sense) that didn't quite work for me, but at least it was an ambitious attempt.

Ah, well. It's not an awful book, by any means, but there's so many other haunted house books out there that it's easy to find a better one.

What are you currently reading?
Restless Spirits by Jordan L. Hawk. I've got a few more chapters to go before finishing this, and then that will be the end of my Halloween reads until next year. Goodbye, scary stories!
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What did you just finish?
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical epistolary novel about a triple murder in rural Scotland in 1868. The vast majority (I'd guess 85%) of the novel is the 'memoirs' of the murderer, written while he was in prison, which explain his life story and the circumstances that led to him doing the deed. Another 10% are newspaper reports of the trial, with the final 5% consisting of statements from witnesses and the medical report on the bodies.

All of this is fairly straightforward and, though well-written on a sentence by sentence level, there's nothing to make it stand out from the herd. Usually when I read about historical crime, the author uses the specific incident in question to illustrate some larger point about society or history or the treatment of the victim or whatever, any reason to make it worth rehashing a terrible crime. (Most of these books have been non-fiction, but I would argue that being fictional just makes it all the more important to have a reason for the gore.) Burnet does not do that. I suppose there's vaguely an acknowledgement that it sucked balls to be a tenant farmer in the 19th century, but I'm pretty sure that's a point anyone literate already knows, and which Burnet does not expand on or add depth to in any way. Near the end of the book there's an attempt to question the nature of sanity (the trial hinges not on the question of guilt, but on if the murderer was aware of the consequences of his actions), but not in a way that's particularly compelling or unique. It's certainly not enough to justify the preceding hundreds of pages.

In short, this isn't a terrible book, but there's nothing outstanding or memorable about it, and I am absolutely astounded that it's been nominated for the 2016 Man Booker prize. I'm all for genre writing getting more literary attention, but there's so many better books than this!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Seance by John Harwood. A historical novel set in late Victorian England, which makes excellent use of all the best Victorian horror tropes: the ghosts of monks, creepy suits of armor, seances and spiritualism, hypnosis, mysterious paintings, handsome suitors of uncertain origin, secret passageways, swapped babies (or at least the terrifying possibility of unknown parentage and hidden real origins), and, of course, the biggest and best-known of them all, the haunted gothic mansion.

The plot is a bit of a story within a story: in the 1880s, we have Constance, the only surviving child of the Langton family. Her mother has been lost in grief ever since the death of Constance's younger sister twelve years ago. Constance stumbles upon the idea of helping her mother heal by taking her to seances, despite Constance's own knowledge that they're nothing more than frauds; this seems to go well at first, but ultimately has terrible consequences.

Meanwhile, Constance inherits Wraxford Hall and a bundle of papers written in the 1860s, telling the story of Eleanor, the then-mistress of the Hall, and her husband's abuse. Shortly after these papers were written, Eleanor, her husband, and their infant daughter all mysteriously disappeared in the same way as a previous owner of the hall. The popular opinion is that Eleanor murdered her husband and child before running away, but Constance is determined to clear her name – even if it means she herself must travel to Wraxford Hall and explore its grounds.

I have such mixed feelings about this book! The middle was fantastic – absolutely gripping, such a page-turner that I stayed up until 3 a.m. desperate to see what happened next and how the mystery would resolve. The writing does a fantastic job of being reminiscent of the Victorian style without losing the benefit of actually being modern. The characters are well-sketched and compelling (with surprisingly sensitive attention to the plight of women in a world where they have very few options, given that the author is male), the setting is deliciously creepy, the tension is incredibly well-done.

But here's the rub: the ultimate solution to the mystery didn't work for me. It's a frequent problem in stories – especially horror stories – for the question to be more compelling than the answer, but this was more than that. The ending felt too pat to be satisfying at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I came across traces and clues that simply didn't fit; not red herrings and not plot holes, but what I suspect are the traces of earlier drafts, when there was a different resolution. I don't know if that's actually what happened, of course, but the more time I spent puzzling over why it didn't work, the more flaws I saw, right down to the very structure of the book (the seances with Constance's mother in the beginning don't match well to the later parts of the book, characters abruptly drop out of the narrative without explanation, Constance leaps to conclusions that don't really make sense given what she knows, etc). And yet for all these problems, that middle section was some of the most compelling horror I've read in ages.

Ultimately I'd still recommend it, but oh! If only it had gone through a few more rounds of rewriting. It could have been so good.

Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters. A temporary pause in my horror read for Amelia Peabody #4! (I've been reading this series with my mom, which is why my progress through the books is so staggered and random.) Amelia, her husband Emerson, and 8-year-old son Ramses return to Egypt for an excavation, but before they can even reach their site Kalenischeff (a minor bad guy from the previous book) is murdered, with the blame falling onto Enid Debenham, his girlfriend/an heiress/a young Englishwoman Amelia is convinced could never be guilty, despite the fact that she's never even met Enid. The Emersons therefore adopt Enid as part of their party, along with a young Englishman going by the name "Nemo" who is busy pretending to be an Egyptian beggar and destroying his life through opium addiction – at least until Amelia makes reforming him her current pet project.

The mystery of Kalenischeff's murder doesn't actually get much page time, to the extent that it's hardly fair to call this a "mystery" novel, rather than whatever genre "madcap antics plus parody of crime tropes" is. The majority of the plot is taken up with the Emersons' efforts to keep Enid and Nemo hidden from the police, and Amelia's determination to investigate the bad guy from the previous book, whom she has nicknamed the M.C. (Master Criminal) since she still has no clue as to his real identity. The Master Criminal seems equally obsessed with her, sending her presents, visiting her in disguise, and doing everything he can to catch her attention – in short, he's in love with her. Amelia remains oblivious to this until they finally meet face to face, in what is absolutely the most hilarious scene in the book – though there's a lot of competition. I particularly liked this one, when Ramses realizes he's developing a crush on Enid:
A hideous premonition crept through my limbs. I had not failed to observe the tolerance with which Ramses permitted Enid to pet and caress him. It was a liberty he did not allow strangers unless he had some ulterior motive, and I had naturally assumed he had an ulterior motive with regard to Enid—that, in short, he hoped to win her confidence by pretending to be a normal eight-year-old boy. Now, hearing the earnest and anxious tone in his voice, I began to have horrible doubts. Surely it was much too soon – But if Ramses proved to be as precocious in this area as he had been in others.... The prospects were terrifying. I felt a cowardly reluctance to pursue the inquiries I knew I ought to make, but the traditional Peabody fortitude stiffened my will.
"Why did you allow Enid to embrace you today?" I asked.
"I am glad you asked me that, Mama, for it leads me into a subject I am anxious to discuss with you. I was conscious today of a most unusual sensation when Miss Debenham put her arms around me. In some ways it resembled the affectionate feelings I have for you and, to a lesser extent, for Aunt Evelyn. There was, however, an additional quality. I was at a loss to find words for it until I recalled certain verses by Mr. Keats—I refer in particular to his lyric poem 'The Eve of St. Agnes,' which aroused—"
"Good Gad," I cried in agonized tones.
Emerson, naive creature, chuckled in amusement. "My dear boy, your feelings are quite normal, I assure you. They are the first childish stirrings of sensations which will in time blossom and mature into the noblest sentiments known to mankind."
"So I surmised," said Ramses. "And that is why I wished to discuss the matter with you. Since these are normal, natural sensations, I ought to know more about them."
"But, Ramses," his father began, belatedly aware of where the conversation was leading.
"I believe I have heard Mama say on several occasions that the relationships between the sexes were badly mishandled in our prudish society, and that young persons ought to be informed of the facts."
"You did hear me say that," I acknowledged, wondering what had ever possessed me to say it in his hearing.
"I am ready to be informed," said Ramses, his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands, and his great eyes fixed on me.
"I cannot deny the justice of the request," I said. "Emerson—"
"What?" Emerson started violently. "Now, Peabody—"
"Surely this is a matter more suitable for a father than a mother."
"Yes, but—"
"I will leave you to it, then." I rose.
"Just a moment, Papa," Ramses said eagerly. "Allow me to get out paper and pencil. I would like to take a few notes."

A fantastically funny book, without much concern with realism or logic. This series continues to be one of my favorites.

What are you currently reading?
Monstrous Affections by David Nickle. A book of short stories by one of my favorite horror authors.
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What did you just finish?
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This is one of those books that starts out revealing nothing, forcing readers to slowly piece together what is happening through the gradual accumulation of clues. Even the main character's backstory is not revealed until near the end. Which can be a fun reading experience, but makes it extremely difficult to write about the book.

Here's what I can say without spoilers: Ricky Rice, small-time criminal and occasional heroin addict, works as a janitor for a bus station in upstate New York. One day he gets a letter in a handwriting he doesn't recognize, with a one-way ticket to Vermont and the message, You made promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it. Considering that he made that promise to a dead man and has never told anyone else about it, Ricky is understandably mystified.

The plot that follows involves cults, faith vs doubt, paranormal activity, oracles, terrorist activity, the downtrodden of modern America, the desire to belong, babies, creatures who might be monsters or might be angels, lots of elaborate descriptions of clothing, and troubled family relationships. I would not describe it as a horror novel, though I'd seen other people putting it in that category (which is why I included it in my reading this month). It's literary fiction with a slight tinge of the mystical.

The writing – in Ricky's first-person voice, aware that he's speaking to an audience – is very appealing, funny and eloquent and ironic. I do think Lavalle has interesting things to say about the anger of the oppressed, and how to deal with those who have been left out of the American Dream. Here's a passage that particularly struck me:
People like us, poor folks I mean, we're wise in some ways but in others we act like children. We can be a pretty docile bunch. I know you're not supposed to say that, but for proof just go to any hospital emergency room in a broke neighborhood, I'm talking anywhere. We slump and slouch for hours as we wait to be seen by a nurse practitioner, and a trained doctor is as rare as health benefits at our jobs. It might take five or six hours just to get some antibiotics, and the only way we're going to get seen any faster is if we've been filled with bullets. Even then it's going to take an hour.
We sit through treatment like that in hospitals and banks, at supermarkets and check cashing stores. No matter where you go, the poor have the capacity to endure. Some people even compliment us on it, as if endurance is all we can achieve.
The picture of the poor is usually of one wild, chaotic lot. Loud, combative, quick to complain, but that isn't so, not in my experience. Just dip into that emergency room and watch every tired face; we've been there for half a day and have yet to receive treatment. Most will only heave and sigh, that's the extent of our rebellion. The poor are poor and we expect to stay that way. We don't like it, but what can you do? That's our attitude. The poor aren't defeated, we're domesticated.

But that's really all the book has going for it. Such ideas are little nuggets of gold, scattered throughout a lot of dirt. Even the very structure of the book is terribly warped. The opening and middle sections are extremely, extremely slow-burn, almost more a depiction of a specific life than an action plot. That would be fine on its own, but the final section then explodes in twists and murders and shocking revelations and we-have-to-save-the-world type dramatics, and it just doesn't quite work. There's not enough payoff, or build-up, or something, and nothing feels balanced. Themes come and go, making it difficult to know what the point of anything is, or who to root for. There is something of good here, but it's almost lost in a book that needed several more rounds of reworking.

Oh, well. I was disappointed by this book, but I still like Lavalle enough as an author to seek out more.

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike. Translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Another horror read for October, possibly my favorite so far – or at least, while the others have had many and varied positive qualities of their own, Graveyard Apartment has by far been the scariest.

A small family (Misao, the mother; Teppei, the father; and Tamao, their five year old daughter) in Tokyo have found what seems to be the perfect apartment: cheap, large, sunny, easy commute, good school nearby, etc. Of course there's always a catch, and in this case it happens to be that the apartment building is surrounded on three sides by a graveyard, crematorium, and funeral temple. Nonetheless they move in, and creepy things slowly begin to happen, as in any good ghost story. These new problems are exacerbated by the tensions already simmering within the family: their strained relationship with Teppei's brother and his wife, and the fact that Misao and Teppei's relationship began as an affair which drove Teppei's first wife to suicide, whose ghost (metaphorically this time!) still haunts them.

The writing is a bit stilted (though I have no idea whether to blame the author or the translator), but nonetheless it manages to do an excellent job of conveying creepy tingles. There were definitely several scenes that I regretted reading on my own late at night. Unfortunately I felt the scariest parts were in the middle of the book; the ending didn't manage an equal impact. Possibly this was because the author shifts focus from the graveyard to an "underground road" (a forgotten tunnel near the apartment left behind by a long-ago construction project), which she seemed to find an inherently terrifying idea, but which left me cold. Graveyards are way scarier than empty tunnels!

Despite that, the book had an excellent sense of atmosphere and some truly scary scenes. I recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another horror novel! This one is about a murder in 1880s rural Scotland.
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What did you just finish?
Deadlight Jack by Mark Onspaugh. Jimmy Kalmaku and George Watters are best friends, but neither one is the typical horror novel hero. They're both in their seventies, Jimmy is a Tlingit man from a small village in Alaska, and George is a black man from Georgia. They first met and became friends in a nursing home, in the previous book. I didn't actually realize that this was the second book in a series when I started reading it, but I had no problem following along.

Jimmy and George's quiet life is disrupted when George's grandson goes missing while hiking with his mothers in a Louisiana swamp (his parents are a lesbian couple, which was treated with such amazing nonchalance that I actually didn't notice the first few references and had to go back and check. I don't know if it was a bigger deal in the first book, but I loved how normal and unremarkable it was treated here). George is determined to save his grandchild, but he first has to deal with his estranged children and the lost memories of his own childhood. The boy turns out to have been called away by Deadlight Jack, aka Professor Foxfire, a monstrous creature who dresses like a circus ringmaster and has the face of whatever kindly man the onlooker prefers. He controls the will-o-the-wisps, the ghosts of alligators, and fire-setting salamanders. He lures away small children, leading them to wander the swamp until they fade away into ghosts hungry for blood and life. There's elements of real folklore here – bits and pieces of various urban legends – but combined into a new whole that made for a fantastic villain.

The writing reminded me a lot of Stephen King, as well as the way the supernatural horror reflected the characters' troubled relationships and internal struggles. My favorite part, however, was the friendship between George and Jimmy, which is absolutely adorable. Here they are after getting lost in the swamp:
He tried not to think about George hurt or worse, he just concentrated on looking for signs that the man had been this way. He couldn’t see anything, and wondered if he was going the wrong way. Should he rely on his intuition?
Please, if there is anyone to help me, please . . .
Jimmy cleared his mind, hoping for some revelation.
He heard something then. Something sad and yet wonderful.
George swearing.
He picked his way past a collection of cypress stumps, all ragged and looking like ancient fairy castles in the beam of his flashlight.
There was George, his pant leg snarled in a bramble.
“Goddammit,” he said.
“George,” Jimmy said, hoping not to startle him, but George jumped.
Jimmy came closer. “It’s me, it’s Jimmy.”
George squinted at the light. “Jimmy?”
Jimmy felt close to sobbing. “It’s me, old man.”
“Old? I’m not the one who sent love letters to Cleopatra,” said George, trying valiantly to put on a brave face, but Jimmy could tell he had been scared to death.
Jimmy helped George free himself. His clothes were torn and muddy and his hat was gone.
“You lost your hat,” Jimmy offered.
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes, did you bring Dr. Watson with you?”
“No, but I brought you some food and water . . . and a flashlight.”
George’s look of gratitude was so pitiful that Jimmy was sure he himself was going to start crying and embarrass George even more. Instead, he made a business of finding the sandwiches in his bag.

SO CUTE, RIGHT? Overall it wasn't the deepest or most stylistic of books, but I enjoyed its unusual characters and well-done horror. I'll be seeking out the first book in the series and looking forward to sequels in the future.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

In the Valley, Where Belladonna Grows by Tim Lebbon. A novella/short story (my copy was 65 pages) about an old woman who lives alone, entirely self-sufficient, in an isolated valley. She hasn't even seen another human being in 16 years – at least until the opening pages, when a man appears on the road from the distant city, bringing news and unwelcome changes.

The writing is lovely and subtly creepy, with an increasing sense of wrongness conveyed through small natural details: a too-strong storm, a dead bird, a feral dog gone mad. The backstory is told through scattered flashbacks, filling in how the woman originally came to live in the valley, while her knowledge of all that has gone wrong in the world outside slowly increases through the hints dropped by her visitors. There's a slight sense of unreality in how thoroughly the woman is tied to her home, and how she can sense disorder within her valley just by closing her eyes.

All of this is pretty great, and I was enjoying it and looking forward to seeing how the various plot threads would be resolved – and then came the twist ending. Granted, it's not the worst execution of this particular twist I've ever seen (it's a common ending), but it's so much less interesting than everything that came before it that I couldn't help but be disappointed. Overall, this was 62 pages of a wonderful story and 3 of a mediocre one.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This was supposed to be part of my October horror reads, but it's not turning out to be a very scary book so far. There is some paranormal stuff going on, so it could still turn into horror!


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