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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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Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan. In 1850, Jonah is a young man, just turned 18, and a slave at a tavern in South Carolina. His owner is comparatively kind to him – teaching him to read, letting him work in the house, buying him Christmas presents – but after being whipped, Jonah runs away. This is a spur of the moment decision, and he takes off without supplies or much knowledge of where he's headed. It doesn't take long before he meets up with Angel, another slave, who decides that if Jonah can run away she can too, and promptly follows him despite Jonah's attempts to shake her off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you currently reading?
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. This book has been on my to-read list for ages – literally years! – but since I didn't actually own a copy, I'd been putting it off. Today I forgot my current book at home and ended up in the city with time to pass and nothing to read, which is obviously a valid reason for visiting a bookstore and buying three books. One of which happened to be this, hooray! I'm not very far into it, but apparently it's been long enough since I read a fantasy book to be annoyed at made-up words (what the hell is a "G'deon" and how are you supposed to pronounce that? Call it a King!), but I am still enjoying the promise of lesbian poly H/C.
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Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Yes, yes, I know: somehow I made it to adulthood having never actually read this before (I did see the Studio Ghibli movie? But they're different enough that I don't think that counts), or any other book by Jones. Feel free to rec one if you think there's any I should particularly read!

I hardly think I need to summarize this, but just in case: Sophie is the eldest of three children and therefore according to the rules of fairy tales, which she knows very well, nothing interesting or successful will ever happen to her. And so it seems at first: Sophie works in her family hat store, while her younger sisters are given interesting apprenticeships, one to a witch and the other to a baker. And then one day Sophie encounters the Witch of the Waste, who – for no reason Sophie can tell – puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman and prevents her from telling anyone what happened.

Sophie takes this as an excuse to leave home, and ends up at the residence of the Wizard Howl, the titular moving castle. She has been always told that Howl is heartless and eats young women's souls, but that turns out to be an exaggeration. Sophie makes herself at home as a sort of maid/cleaning lady, and makes friends with the castle's other occupants, Calcifer the fire demon and Howl's apprentice Michael. They travel about, having assorted adventures, until Sophie realizes that Howl is also under a spell cast by the Witch of the Waste, which leads to a magical showdown and, of course, a happy ending for everyone.

(Well, not the Witch, I suppose. But everyone else!)

The real charm of the book is less the plot and more the characters and their interactions. I saw it called "fantasy slice of life" somewhere, and it is very much that; there's a great many pages spent on bacon sandwiches and cleaning supplies and tantrums over hair dying gone wrong, and yet it's all very nice to read and endlessly comfortable. I had been about to say that it was more "middle grade" than I usually read, but on thinking that over, it actually contains some fairly complex ideas. I think it's just that the writing style itself has a childlike quality. I did not see the ending romance coming until it was suddenly there, happening, but it's too sweet to dislike, so I'm on board.

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A novel of three women from three generations of the same family. In 1950s rural Bengal, Sabitri is a poor but intelligent student, who lucks into a scholarship for college in Kolkata. In 1970s Kolkata, Sabitri's daughter Bela falls in love with a student leader of the Communist Party, and elopes with him to America when his life is threatened. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Bela's daughter Tara drops out of college after her parents' divorce and goes through a string of years taken up with shitty boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and drugs.

The three timelines are interwoven, with events happening to one woman often reverberating down to have consequences in her daughter's life. In addition to the women themselves, secondary characters appear to occasionally take over the point of view: friends, husbands, employers, and so on. The ending, when revelations from all three generations crash together into one moment, felt a little too easy, but emotional nonetheless – like a Hallmark commercial that makes you cry even while you know it's cheesy.

I've read several other books by Divakaruni before, and I'm generally a fan of her writing, but this one seemed slighter than usual. It was pleasant enough while I was reading it, but now that it's done, I can't think of much to say about it. Ah, well. I suppose it's one of those books that has nothing exactly wrong with it, but doesn't do much good of note either.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. The 14th book of the Discworld series, and we're back to the witches! This time, in the tiny rural kingdom of Lancre, Magrat Garlick is engaged to the king but not quite sure if the life of queen is really for her; Granny Weatherwax is distracted by signs that she's going to die soon (witches know these things, you see); and Nanny Ogg is just generally Nanny. However, the royal wedding plans are interrupted by arrival of elves – not grand Tolkien elves, not tiny flower fairies, but the elves of changelings and Tam Lin and fairy gold: nasty and brutal and utterly untrustworthy.

What particularly stood out to be this time (though it's hardly unique to this book) is the sheer number of themes and ideas Pratchett can weave into a single narrative. Here we have: a parody of Midsummer Night's Dream, thoughts about folklore and elves (of course), beekeeping, parallel universes, crop circles, stone circles, magnetism, the problems and power of romanticism, why humans like cats, the cost of being the very best at something, and probably several more that I missed.

I keep having to fight my first impression of Pratchett as an easy read – and he is very readable! But it's like Picasso reverting to line-drawings. You really have to know what you're doing before you can get back to basics.And on that note, words I had to look up in a book I must have already read a dozen times:
Castors: each of a set of small wheels, free to swivel in any direction, fixed to the legs or base of a heavy piece of furniture so that it can be moved easily. (So that's what those things are called!)
Chicane: an artificial narrowing or turn on a road or auto-racing course.
Ablation: the loss of surface material from a spacecraft or meteorite through evaporation or melting caused by friction with the atmosphere.

I love this book, from I ATE'NT DEAD and Only one queen in a hive! Slash! Stab! and The price for being the best is always…having to be the best and Nanny waving a bag of sweets to interrupt Granny and Diamanda's 'who's the best witch' competition, and the utterly horrifying nature of Pratchett's elves. He's the best at conveying terror through indirectness:
It was still alive. Elves were skilled at leaving things alive, often for weeks.

And just so you know, I am STRONGLY RESISTING quoting the entire final confrontation with the elf Queen. But it's tempting!

What are you currently reading?
Theoretically, I am reading This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian, another NetGalley book.

Practically, I am reading World Ain't Ready, a Les Mis High School AU with fake-dating. It is 185k long. You guys, that is longer than The Fellowship of the Ring. It also holds the record for being the first fic I've bothered to load onto my ereader (I usually keep the fic on my computer and the books offline, but now I've broken the barrier). It seems nice so far! But I'm only on chapter 3.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
I've been mildly sick with stomach cramps for several days now (food poisoning? side-effect of the new anti-depressant I started last week? allergic reaction to the large amounts of coconut milk I was drinking? who knows!) which means a) I haven't been online much, so if I missed anything, apologies and please let me know, and b) I read a lot of stuff!

What did you just finish?
Penric's Demon by Louis McMaster Bujold. In a faux-medieval Spain where gods, saints, and demons are all far too real, Penric finds himself possessed by a demon (or twelve demons, depending on how you count them). The impoverished younger son of a minor noble who's never before left his small town, Penric now finds himself of great interest to the church, nobility, and well, his own demon, which has never before possessed a man, and is far too interested in how they differ from women.

THIS WAS ADORABLE. Penric is a sweet, earnest, thoughtful character, and his adventures are small in scale, but completely uplifting. It's a novella rather than a full-length novel, but I was made so happy by reading this.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. Someone is summoning dragons in Ankh-Morpork, with the goal of scaring the populace into crowning a new king. Unsurprisingly, this does not go as planned. To save the day we have Vimes, captain of the Night Watch and satire of the cynical alcoholic noir detective; Carrot, the Watch's newest recruit, full of idealism and naivety; and Lady Sybil, breeder of pet swamp dragons (miniature, less dangerous versions of the real thing).

A lot of people recommend this book as the one where Discworld "gets really good". And... I have to agree! There is a noticeable jump in the complexity of the world and the depth of the satire (though I'm still going to stick with Wyrd Sisters for my favorite of these first eight books, but that's just because I prefer Shakespeare to noir). This has the introduction of so many wonderful characters, not just the main ones, but it's the first time we see Vetinari as Vetinari, and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and Colon! and Nobby! I don't know what more there is to say; it's a wonderful book, funny and dark and exciting, and I love it so much.

(A question for other Discworld fans: the next book up is Eric. I've only ever read the non-illustrated version before. Should I wait until I can scrounge up an illustrated copy to reread, or is it not worth it?)

Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair. A novel which begins in Kerala, India in the early 1940s, before traveling to Colombo, Sri Lanka for the late 1950s (ie, just in time for both places to undergo major political crises). The narrator is Indu, the pampered only child of a lawyer and activist involved in the freedom movement. She receives an unusually advanced education for a girl in her time and place, and eventually becomes a reporter. But despite the setting, the book is far more concerned with Indu's daily life, her domestic dramas, private griefs, and friendships, than it is with riots or marches or independence movements. Early on, limiting the story to Indu's POV is very frustrating - does anyone on Earth think this sort of thing is cute rather than irritating?:
Damu exploded. "You are mad. Reckless to get involved in all this Congress–bongress speechmaking and processions when you have a family to look after."
Indu, startled, looked at Damu and then at her father. Why was Damu so angry?
"I’ll be arrested within a week if they pass the resolution on the twelfth," Gopalan said. "We know it’s going to be passed; all the provincial committees have voted for it."
"What’s ’rrested?" Indu wondered. It sounded bad.

But thankfully she quickly grows out of that. The whole book does feel a bit like a first draft – there are idioms that are misused, plot threads that disappear, that sort of thing – but nonetheless there's a real engrossing, page-turning quality to the book. There's nothing new or radical here that isn't the same as a million other coming-of-age dramas about young women from small towns, but if you like that genre, this is a particularly well-done example of it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. A book I decided to read solely on the basis that it seemed like an excellent comfort book for lying on the couch under blankets and cats. And it was! It's an epistolary novel, told entirely in letters between Cecelia and her cousin Kate, young woman in a Regency England where magic is normal. Kate has gone to London for her first Season, while Cecelia was left behind in the country, due to a theory that they would cause too much trouble if brought out together. A plot involving evil stepmothers, nefarious wizards, a mysterious marquis, poisonous hot chocolate, and a fake betrothal soon develops. The whole thing was hilarious and delightful, and I finished it in a day.

What are you currently reading?
The Grand Tour, or The Purloined Coronation Regalia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. The long-delayed sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia. Sadly not quite as good, though still an enjoyable read.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
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Pyramids by Terry Pratchett. Teppic is the newest pharaoh in a faux-Ancient Egypt country, except that he doesn't really want to be pharaoh. Meanwhile, the ghost of his father deals with the process of becoming a mummy, the high priest is deeply committed to preventing change, and there's a handmaiden who really enjoys her job.

Rereading this series in publication order continues to be so much fun! This book introduces some of Pratchett's deeper satire and philosophy that will come up again and again throughout the series – but most particularly in Small Gods - ideas like human belief being what gives gods their power, the contrast between tradition/ritual and faith/individualism, the dangers of ossified religious hierarchies while still supporting the importance of belief to humanity. This is also another book about what is starting to seem like one of Pratchett's favorite tropes: people who can't quite go home again, who have been changed by their life experiences to the degree that they have trouble relating to those around them. I hadn't noticed that as a major theme before, but it's been in these early books over and over again: Rincewind (who is explicitly told "wizards can't go home again"), Mort, Teppic... even Granny Weatherwax, who never left home in the same way, is quite clearly not just one of the villagers. Also the reveal at the very end about Dios is straight-up horrifying.

But besides that philosophical stuff, this book is really hilarious. I love the take on Ancient Greece, the ~magic~ of the pyramids, the camels, and the long line of translating mummies. It's still not one of my very favorite Discworlds, but I loved it so much more than I remembered.

Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep by Marah J. Hardt. I'm a huge fan of the genre that can be loosely described as "popular books about weird science"; it includes authors like Mary Roach and books like Parasite Rex or Sex on Six Legs. So obviously when I saw this book offered on NetGalley, I had to read it immediately.

I'm not sure how to summarize it, because really, the subtitle says everything you need to know. If you want to read about how much lobsters pee on each other during sex (answer: lots) or the octopus that can detach its penis and throw it like a dart at the females of its species, this is the book for you. The writing style is a nice mix of breezy and funny, while still conveying a good amount of scientific information. There's also a chapter at the end about how all this studying of sex has influenced conversation efforts. It was fairly optimistic, which is a nice change from the "EVERYTHING IS GOING EXTINCT AND NO ONE CAN EVER EAT FISH AGAIN" tone of a lot of current writing about overfishing and ocean pollution.

Overall, a fun read, though not particularly life-changing.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Penric's Demon by Louis McMaster Bujold. A few months behind everyone else, but I'm so excited for this novella!
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
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Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. In 1857 on the Mississippi River, Abner Marsh is a steamboat captain without a steamboat. He gets an offer from a wealthy stranger to provide the money to build the biggest, fastest, fanciest steamboat on the river – as long as Marsh asks no questions about the stranger. It's hard to describe the plot, because there are so many twists, time skips, and reversals that any halfway thorough summary would spoil 3/4ths of the book. And in a way, I don't think the plot is the most important part. Rather than being "about" what actually happens, the book is instead a tribute to a certain time and place – the steamboats of the mid-1800s - and a love of old-fashioned ghost stories. Here's a quote that I think really encapsulates what GRRM was going for:

Karl Framm pushed through the crowd, a brandy in his hand. “I know a story,” he said, sounding a little drunk. “’S true. There’s this steamboat named the Ozymandias, y’see...”
“Never heard of it,” somebody said.
Framm smiled thinly. “Y’better hope you never see it,” he said, “cause them what does is done for. She only runs by night, this boat. And she’s dark, all dark. Painted black as her stacks, every inch of her, except that inside she’s got a main cabin with a carpet the color of blood, and silver mirrors everywhere that don’t reflect nothing. Them mirrors is always empty, even though she’s got lots of folks aboard her, pale-looking folks in fine clothes. They smile a lot. Only they don’t show in the mirrors.”
Someone shivered. They had all gone silent. “Why not?” asked an engineer Marsh knew slightly.
“Cause they’re
dead,” Framm said. “Ever’ damn one of ’em, dead. Only they won’t lie down. They’re sinners, and they got to ride that boat forever, that black boat with the red carpets and the empty mirrors, all up and down the river, never touching port, no sir.”
“Phantoms,” somebody said.
“Ha’nts,” added a woman, “like that Raccourci boat.”
“Hell no,” said Karl Framm. “You can pass right through a ha’nt, but not the
Ozymandias. She’s real enough, and you’ll learn it quick and to your sorrow if you come on her at night. Them dead folks is hungry. They drink blood, y’know. Hot red blood. They hide in the dark and when they see the lights of another steamer, they set out after her, and if they catch’er they come swarming aboard, all those dead white faces, smiling, dressed so fine. And they sink the boat afterward, or burn her, and the next mornin’ there’s nothing to see but a couple stacks stickin’ up out of the river, or maybe a wrecked boat full of corpses. Except for the sinners. The sinners go aboard that Ozymandias, and ride on her forever.” He sipped his brandy and smiled. “So if you’re out on the river some night, and you see a shadow on the water behind you, look close. It might be a steamer, painted black all over, with a crew white as ha’nts. She don’t show no lights, that Ozymandias, so sometimes you can’t see her till she’s right behind you, her black wheels kicking up the water. If you see her, you better hope you got a lightnin’ pilot, and maybe some coal oil on board, or a little lard. Cause she’s big and she’s fast, and when she catches you by night you’re finished. Listen for her whistle. She only sounds her whistle when she knows she’s got you, so if you hear it, start countin’ up your sins.”
“What does the whistle sound like?”
“’Zactly like a man screaming,” said Karl Framm.
“What’s her name agin?” a young pilot asked.
Ozymandias,” said Framm. He knew how to say it right.
“What does that mean?”
Abner Marsh stood up. “It’s from a poem,” he said. “
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

That, that sort of creepy old folktale, a story to tell around a campfire, is what Fevre Dream wants to be. It's also a bit of a love story between two straight men – Abner Marsh and Joshua York, the wealthy stranger – and though I didn't end up shipping it myself, you'd have plenty of opportunity to do so, what with all the comments on how much they trust one another, how deep their friendship is, and how important they are to one another.

There are vampires, who of course don't follow the standard rules of vampirism (why does every vampire story these days need to come up with its own new mythology?). For a while I thought GRRM was going to use the setting to comment on slavery – it's hella easier to get away with eating people when you can just buy them – but that never quite pans out. It might have worked better if a) there was more than one black character who actually got a name, or that character got to have his own plot or motivation (though to be fair, this is a book that's hugely focused on the two main characters; even the main antagonist only gets one or two notes of characterization), and b) there wasn't a timeskip over the Civil War with the vampires' lives appearing to proceed as normal after the end of slavery. So that was a missed opportunity.

I really liked this book. I haven't read anything of GRRM's outside of 'The Song of Ice and Fire' series, but this was wonderful. And a great choice for Halloween, which is why I read it now!

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. A retelling of Macbeth (well, with a little Hamlet and Richard III thrown in, plus a smidge of King Lear) if the three witches were the main characters, Duncan had a surviving child, and Shakespeare were around to witness the events before writing his play.

This book is SO GOOD. SO GOOD. It's always been one of my absolutely favorite Discworld books, and I was shocked to realize how early it comes in the series. How can the first appearances of Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick already be this good? How can someone who so far has only been writing satires of the contemporary fantasy genre leap all the way up to Shakespeare and take him on? (And honestly, what Pratchett does with the "out damned spot" plot is both more logical – of course it should be Macbeth who obsesses over this, not Lady Macbeth! – and far, far more horrifying than Shakespeare's original.) How does Pratchett go from pure comedy to a book full of philosophy and humanism and analysis of the power of words and stories and quite dark undertones?

I don't know. But I love it. I happen to have read Macbeth* just last week, and so I caught a lot more references and quotes that I would have otherwise, which deepened by enjoyment. But even if you've never read a single Shakespeare, this is an excellent book: funny, full of complex characters, and with plenty of social commentary. And hint, hint – if you've never read Discworld before, this is a great book to start with.

What are you currently reading?
She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha. A novel I got off of NetGalley.

*You know how in old books, people get together and read Shakespeare plays out loud? Not actually acting, but just passing a few hours having fun? Well, there's a tumblr, SocialShakespeare, that organizes such readings over Skype! I've always wanted to do this, but never had enough friends who were interested to organize a reading myself. So this tumblr has been one of my favorite discoveries of the last few months. Check it out! They're figuring out a schedule to read 'The Taming of the Shrew' right now, so it's a good time to sign up.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
What did you just finish?
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. An alternative history novel about the presidency of Charles Lindbergh (pilot and kidnapped baby dad), who is elected after running against FDR's third campaign. In real life, he seems to have been a serious anti-semite and Nazi admirer; as you might imagine, having him as President causes the history of WWII to go rather differently.

However, the vast majority of the book isn't about politics, or war, or anything else you might assume from the summary above; instead, it's written as the childhood memoirs of main character Philip Roth (which, by the way, I found really confusing! Don't write something that's blatantly fantasy and then name the main character after yourself. What is even the point of that?), the youngest child in a middle-class Jewish family in Newark, NJ.

Taken as a memoir, the book's pretty good. The writing is lovely, the depiction of tense family relationships is great, and I liked the ordinary people dealing with large sweeps of history. Roth does a very good job of showing how normal, reasonable people can become caught up with popular prejudices, and how something that seems absolutely unthinkable (like, you know, the Holocaust) can begin.

However, as an alternative history, the book is terrible. There's almost no change to history for the first 300 pages (and the few changes that are made mostly involve changing the dates on real events rather than coming up with new things to happen), and then there's suddenly INCREDIBLE DRAMATIC changes for about twenty pages, only to be resolved with a confusing deus ex machina that puts everything back on the course of real history, to such an extent that the US ends up entering WWII in literally the exact same month as in reality. Why write a whole book only to erase everything you did at the end?

So, what happens is that after two years of colluding with the Nazis as president (because they were the ones who kidnapped his baby and have been raising it as a hostage, WHAT THE HELL THAT IS THE WORST PLOT TWIST), Lindbergh abruptly decides to resist them, which he does by flying to Germany without telling anyone (???) and then disappears. This leads to eight days where the Vice-President takes control and tries to set up concentration camps and declare war on Canada, except that Lindbergh's First Lady has apparently also decided to stop working with the Nazis (even though she also knows about the baby thing) and so she makes a speech over the radio about how the army/police/supreme court/congress/everyone should stop listening to the new President and just go back to normal. Which somehow... works? Right away? Without devolving into civil war with some people listening and others not? How she pulls this off is not explained.

It's also never explained why Mr and Mrs Lindbergh stop being antisemites. I suppose it might be implied by their friendship with a Rabbi, but that would make for a really unfortunate moral. The entire book has been about how everyone hates this particular Rabbi – Christians hate him because he's Jewish, and Jewish people hate him because he's seen as a collaborator – so the message ends up being "Make friends with Nazis! If you're nice enough and patient enough, they'll totally stop being Nazis! :D" So I prefer to think that wasn't Roth's intention. But without that, there's literally not even a hint of an explanation for why the Lindberghs change their minds. Maybe Roth felt guilty for writing an entire book that's going to cement in everyone's memory what a dick Lindbergh was? But he was an antisemite, that part's accurate to history; I don't see why he needs a redemption arc that never happened.

So it's hard to assess the book as a whole. It wasn't at all what I expected or wanted it to be, but I suspect that what I wanted was really not Roth's goal. And I'm pretty sure he did a good job at what he set out to do! It's just that what he wrote was not what I thought a book with the title The Plot Against America would be, and so I was disappointed.

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett. Ahhh, this reread is still making me so happy! I barely remembered this book – I know I read it, but I'd forgotten about 99.5% of it entirely, and so it was mostly a new experience to me.

A wizard is someone who uses magic. A sourcerer is someone who creates entirely new magic (get the pun? A "source" of magic. I totally did not get it myself until someone pointed it out to me, mostly because I figured it was just a British spelling. In my defense, they put u's in a lot of things!). When the first sourcerer in a very, very long time is born, it leads to chaos, magical war, and (almost) the end of the Universe. Fighting for peace are Rincewind the cowardly, unmagical wizard; and the Librarian, who was accidently turned into an orangutan, but prefers it to his former human state, thank you very much. Along the way you get parodies of 1001 Nights, Conan the Barbarian, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

But despite all the silliness obvious from that summary, this was the first book so far that as has the depth and darkness that I know Pratchett is capable of. There were so many startlingly powerful moments – burning the library, Rincewind's decision to go and face the sourcerer, the deaths in the war, the reshaping of Ankh-Morpork, and basically every single thing about Coin. It was just amazingly good.

One thing I've noticed while doing this reread is Pratchett's huge vocabulary. I think of the Discworld books as easy to read (at least on a sentence by sentence level, if not in all their allusions and implications), perhaps because I started reading them myself when I was very young. But just in this book I came across multiple words that I needed to look up: peristalsis, actinic, and well, more than that, but I've forgotten the others. I suppose back when I first read them, I simply figured out the meaning from context, but since I almost never come across words I don't know anymore, to do so multiple times in books I'd mentally classified as "easy" is surprising. Also, I'm pretty sure I spent an embarrassing number of years thinking "vermine" was a real word.

BookBurners, Episodes 1-3. This is the first serial out from Serial Box, which is a new company attempting to make books that are like TV. Episodes come out weekly, and are designed to be the right length to be read in about an hour (which usually translates to around 40-50 pages). "Seasons" will be between 13 and 16 episodes. (Full disclosure: I have a connection with Serial Box generally, but not with Bookburners specifically.) Bookburners is sort of like The Librarians, or Warehouse 13, or any of the many other similar TV shows/movies/book series with a plot of "hunt down magical objects and keep them from destroying the world".
Badge, Book, and Candle (Ep 1) by Max Gladstone. Sal is a NYC detective who gets caught up in problems outside her usual sphere when her younger brother steals an old book and is promptly possessed by the demon living inside it. She mets the team sent by the Vatican to deal with situations like this one – Grace (a martial artist who is always grumpy and only wants to read), Liam (a cheerful talkative guy, formerly possessed by a demon himself) and Menchu (the older, wiser priest leading the team) – and by the end of the episode has been hired to work with them. I really like the characters and action in this, but something about the plot didn't seem to fit the length. It needed to be either shorter or longer, but as it was it felt rushed and off-balance. But eh, pilots are hard, and this makes a good introduction to the world.
(You can get this episode for free off the Serial Box website.)

Anywhere But Here (Ep 2) by Brian Francis Slattery. Sal travels to the Vatican to learn more about the history and function of her new team. Meanwhile, a dude in Madrid accidentally opens an old book that allows him to create anything he can imagine. I liked this episode more than the first one; the evil book in this one was deliciously creepy and full of inventive, fascinating imagery. The length was just right for the story, and it was a great first case.

Fair Weather (Ep 3) by Margaret Dunlap. When a bookstore in Rome abruptly vanishes, Sal tracks down the latest evil book to a nearby yacht, and promptly gets herself, her team, and some innocent bystanders trapped on-board with a deadline ticking down until they're all buried by demon goo. This was by far my favorite episode yet. The writing was fantastic – very funny in the beginning, with lots of great snappy dialogue – and then with a surprising dark twist at the end that I did not see coming at all. It was less creepy than the previous episode, but the action and mystery were just so clever and well-done.
(Episodes 2 and 3 I read as ARCs from NetGalley.)

What are you currently reading?
I finished Fair Weather just a few minutes ago, so nothing yet!
brigdh: (I need things on a grander scale)
What did you just finish?
The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. The second book in a fantasy trilogy, though it's only connected to the first book by being set in the same world; many of the characters and specific locations are new. Oree is a blind painter and craftswoman living in the city of Shadow, where gods are almost as common as mortals. Even her ex-boyfriend is a god! She also has a weird, silent homeless man living in her house, whom she'd assume is a human, except for the fact that any time he dies (which he does frequently), he immediately resurrects. When another god is murdered, Oree comes to the attention of the forces of the local police state, than a mysterious and powerful cult, and finally the rulers of her world.

It took me a long, long time to get into this book; for something like the first 200 pages, I simply wasn't grabbed by it, even though a lot of the tropes are personal favorites (street urchins! artists! established relationship! interesting magic! angsty secret backstories!). But once I liked it, I really liked it. Much more than the first book, in fact. I don't know exactly what changed, but at some point I couldn't put it down, and got really emotional invested in the characters.

The ending did make me suspect one of Jemisin's personal favorite tropes is "insanely power imbalanced god/mortal woman relationship", which uh, is not my cup of tea, to put it mildly. But good for her! Embrace that id.

I also didn't like Jemisin's portrayal of the main character's blindness. I was really intrigued by having a blind character (full disclosure: I'm blind in one eye), but it never felt very believable; she still thought in a very visual way, and it just didn't seem to have had any affect on her. The blindness was depicted in such a vague, unspecific way that it took me until very end of the book to even figure out how blind she was (since "blindness" is a rather large category from 'legally blind' at one end to 'complete darkness' at the very other). I also feel like it's sort of cheating to decide to have a blind POV character, and then let her "see" magic and have magic in something like 95% of the scenes, so you can treat them exactly the same as if you had a sighted POV character.

But despite these qualms, I did end up highly enjoying the book, and recommend it.

Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teule. Translated from French by Emily Phillips. In a small town in rural France in 1870, a drunken mob accused an innocent man of being a Prussian spy, and attacked and killed him, then (according to legend) ate him. This novella is a fictional retelling of the event. I figured it would be gory, but hey, Halloween is coming up! I wanted a scary book to read.

Oh, friends. What a terrible choice. First of all, there's the writing, which is incredibly stilted, to the point of being laughable. I'm not sure whether to blame the translator or if the problem was already there in the original, but someone really should have fixed it. For example:
‘What a lot of people have come for the Saint-Roch fair this year! Don’t you agree, Antoine Léchelle?’
‘Oh, good day, Monsieur de Monéys. Yes, I’ve never seen such a crowd. Twice as many people as usual. Six or seven hundred, they say, which is surprising in a village of just forty-five souls. The crowds stretch right to the other side of the village and the fair goes down to the dried-up lake.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if all the inhabitants of all the surrounding hamlets had decided to gather here today. Probably everyone within a fifteen-mile radius has turned up.'

YEP THAT IS DEFINITELY HOW ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS SPEAK. A huge amount of the first chapters are this sort of info-dumping, in between sickly-sweet emphasizing of what a good person our main character is, such that it would be over the top if it was describing a Disney princess. The middle and end of the book are entirely devoted to endless descriptions of torture, to the point where it becomes almost ridiculous. Although there is sex scene to interrupt the violence:
Her soft pubic hair rippled gently, clear as day, with an inviting innocence. She sat
on the trough with her legs apart, her labia laughing like a clown’s grin. The paleness of her belly could only have been stolen from the moon. It drove the boy wild. Desire swelled in his breeches like a mushroom in a field.

...yeah. To be fair, I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything other than "endless descriptions of torture" from a book with this plot, but I guess I thought there would be a plot, suspense, explanations. Anything other than a badly done written version of grimdark torture porn.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mort by Terry Pratchett. The first Death book! And like Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, Death here doesn't quite feel like Death later, but overall this book is much more of a "Discworld" book, if that makes sense. There's the mix of comedy with deep insights (this book is both funnier, and takes on vastly more serious topics, than the first three), some long-running themes (like stories having their own shape which resists change; what people see being determined by what they expect to see; that "justice" and "fairness" are concepts just as imaginary and human-invented as the Tooth Fairy) are introduced, the worldbuilding is more recognizable and deeper. And, on a petty level, there are footnotes! The Death books have always been my favorites, though I had somehow managed to entirely forget Albert's backstory, so that was a nice surprise in a book that otherwise felt like a well-known friend.

It occurs to me that I haven't actually been summarizing the Discworld books, mainly because I kind of assumed everyone reading this had already read them. But that's not true, and I should do so! Mort: Death (as in, the Grim Reaper, the skeleton with a scythe, the literal anthropomorphic personification of mortality) takes an apprentice, who happens to be an ordinary farm boy named Mort. Why did Death do this? Possibly with the intention of finding a friend/husband for his adopted daughter. Or maybe because Death is having an existential crisis, and was hoping to actually, somehow, retire. But the reasons don't matter once Mort, due to a teenage crush, does not kill the Princess who's due to die, altering the course of history and possibly tearing the fabric of space and time. Together, they fix things almost destroy the universe!

What are you currently reading?
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Another book I decided to read mainly because it's October. I'm not sure the horror genre usually includes realistic Nazis, but hey, they're scary to me.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
What did you just finish?
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson. A nonfiction book about the psychology of eating: how and why people become picky eaters, and how to change; how the body signals and interprets hunger; eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia (a really interesting detail I'd never heard before is that there's apparently increasing evidence that anorexia is genetic and not highly linked to pressure on teenage girls to diet - though of course such pressure is still negative and can cause other problems); cultural pressure to link certain tastes to gender (for instance, sweets for women and meat for men); different cultural traditions of how to introduce new foods to children; basically, every topic you could imagine related to taste preferences.

All of that was quite interesting and fun to read about. My main problem with the book is that, unlike Wilson's previous books, the information is not presented simply for the sake of being interesting, but with the attitude that it's necessary to learn these things in order to deal with the modern world's obesity problem. It's not a diet book (thankfully!) but over and over again Wilson emphasizes that it's important to do such research and apply such findings because no one knows how to eat anymore and we need to fix that. Which, if you're perfectly happy with how you eat, is a bit annoying to read, and certainly not what I expected from the book. So, be warned. If that's not too much of a problem for you, there is a lot of cool new information here, and I'd give it a qualified recommendation.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. The first Granny Weatherwax book! It's interesting to see her in this early version, because she's similar-but-not-quite to how she will be in later books. She's a little less certain of herself, a little more easily swayed, a little more superstitious. A little younger all around which, of course, she is!

The structure of the book is interesting too: a young woman is born with the power to become a wizard, a title that has always been restricted to men. The local witch attempts to train her as a witch instead, but when that doesn't work, they both head to the main wizarding school, Unseen University, to try and enroll the girl. Given that summary, wouldn't you assume that the young girl is the protagonist, not her witchy mentor? And yet it's Granny who has the real personality and drives the plot, Granny who starts and ends the book, and of course Granny who has many, many sequels, while Esk is almost never mentioned again.

Pratchett is becoming more and more Pratchett here, which is lovely to watch and always surprising to me at how early it happens. There's still only, like, two footnotes in the whole book, while I think of footnotes as so fundamental to his style, but the characterizations, the world, the random asides, are all here. I'd forgotten how big of a role the Dungeon Dimensions have in these early books. They've been central to all three so far, while I can't remember them showing up in any of the more recent Discworld books. I'd practically forgotten them entirely. I suppose it's a sign of how the fantasy genre as a whole has changed; there's not many best-sellers these days focusing on Cthulu-esque insanity-inducing monsters.

Also someone needs to stop me going to the Mark Reads reviews of these books. I keep being tempted because it's such a convenient place to find chapter-by-chapter discussion, and yet I disagree with nearly every single thing he says and always end up enraged. I know better than to hate-read annoying blogs, I do!

Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho. OH MY GOD YOU GUYS THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. Imagine if Georgette Heyer decided to write a fantasy, still set in the Regency, but rather than Heyer's own particular attitude to anyone who was not an upperclass English man, was actively anti-racist, feminist, and anti-colonialist. And then add a Wodehouse-esque terrifying aunt. Even the names of the characters are brilliant: Prunella Gentleman, Paget Damerell (nicknamed Poggs), Robert Henry Algernon Threlfall (aka Rollo)! It's a very funny book, though shaded by subtle references to sorrow, prejudice, and loss.

So, okay, what is the actual plot? Zacharias Wythe is the brand-new Sorcerer Royal, the highest magical position in Britain. He is also a black man, bought out of slavery as a infant, by the previous Sorcerer Royal, who was determined to prove that black people could learn magic. Unsurprisingly, this was not a popular move, and Zacharias's elevation to Sorcerer Royal (a position granted by the wizard's staff) is even less so. His position is further complicated by the fact that England's magic seems to be disappearing, requiring him to travel to the Fairy Court to figure out the cause, and an international disturbance in which the Sultan of a strategically important Southeast Asian island REALLY WANTS Zacharias to help him get rid of his annoying witches, while Mak Genggang, leader of said witches, REALLY WANTS Zacharias to tell the Sultan to shut up.

Zacharias just wants everyone to leave him alone so he can focus on his research, and I LOVE HIM. He is explicitly described as reserved, and yes please, I want ALL the reserved main characters and their problems with emotions and relationships. Everyone should cuddle Zacharias, he needs/deserves it.

MEANWHILE, Prunella is a young woman, the orphan of a British magician and an unknown woman (but who was probably Indian) being raised in a school for young ladies with magic, due solely to the affection the headmistress had for Prunella's father. In this Regency Britain, young ladies are not supposed to practice magic (it, like math, is obviously too much for their delicate constitutions), and so this school mostly teaches how not to do it. But Prunella is just too magical, too talented, and too ambitious for that, so she eventually ends up in London, determined to make a wealthy marriage and make use of every advantage she can scrounge up. She is basically Zacharias's opposite in every way: stubborn, self-confident, charming, more concerned with what works than what's right. And yet I love them both! It's fantastic.

This whole book is fantastic, from the little details like talking caterpillars and the Fairy King's pink waistcoat, to the glorious pile-up of the climactic action scene, to a sweetly adorable romance. I need everyone to read it because I am so requesting it for Yuletide and someone better write the fic. It's apparently the first in a trilogy, though you wouldn't necessarily know that from the book itself; all the plot-threads are wrapped up very tidily. I still can't wait for more, whenever the next book comes out.

What are you currently reading?
The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I enjoyed her first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, when I read it, back years ago when it was first published. Despite liking it, I somehow never got around to reading the sequel. Well, now I am! And not just to get the book off my shelf.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
What did you just finish?
Drown by Junot Diaz. A series of short stories set in the Dominican Republic and the New York City area, about a young man (or young men? It's unclear if it's always supposed to be the same character, or just a series of remarkable similar ones) and his experiences with family troubles, immigration, romance, and drugs. This has gotten a lot of praise for its style and language, and while those are good, everything else about these stories are the things I least like about the contemporary "literary fiction" genre: stories that are very clearly autobiographical with the thinnest veneer of fiction! stories in which nothing happens other than navel-gazing! characters who are so thinly sketched that they often don't even have names! stories in which "what happened" is so opaque that, after finishing, I have to sit around and struggle to figure it out, finally piecing it together only by remembering an oblique detail from the narrator's mother's one-paragraph overheard phone conversation! There's also a real focus on the grimness of life in these stories, which I don't always mind, but unless you're super into reading about child abuse, poverty, drug dealing, dudes who treat the women they're involved with terribly, and vomiting, I cannot recommend it.

Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes by John Besh. A cookbook with some very nice photographs of New Orleans scenery, but not much actual writing outside of the recipes, which makes it a bit hard to review. I do take issue with the "home cooked" part of the title, unless ingredients like "fresh blue crabs", "1 pound chanterelle mushrooms", or "whole mallard ducks" are normal items in your pantry. They are not in mine, so I will not be making a lot of the recipes herein.

I did try both the "Creole Stuffed Bell Peppers" and "Dirty Rice" (well, without the chicken liver, because ew) and they were both delicious, so I can't criticize too much. There's also a whole chapter of different variations on jambalaya, and that's always a thing I like in cookbooks: a range of styles on a single, common dish. Overall I've definitely seen better New Orleans cookbooks, but this one does has some worthwhile qualities.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson. I absolutely loved her book Consider the Fork (a history of cooking styles and techniques), so I jumped on this when I saw it. Unfortunately it's turning out to be a "why are people so fat these days?" type of book, which is not at all what I expected or wanted. At least there's still some interesting science in it.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. The main problem with my Discworld read is turning out to be the temptation to just read all forty books straight through. No! I want to actually have non-Pratchett books on my reading list as well! But I'd forgotten just how good they are, how incredibly readable. Which is a long way of saying I gave into the temptation and totally starting reading this one early. Granny Weatherwax! :D
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
What did you just finish?
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan. The first book in a new mystery series set in modern-day Mumbai. It opens on the day Inspector Chopra is retiring from the police force, which is also the day his long-missing religious uncle sends him a baby elephant to take care of. Given that Chopra lives in an apartment building and knows nothing about animals, this proves to be a problem. Meanwhile, he gets caught up in investigating the death of a young man who turned up on his last working day, since the new police chief seems determined to dismiss the death as a suicide.

I liked this book overall; it has a light, cheerful tone, an attention to the detective's family and friends, and a very slight hint of magical realism that reminds me of cozy mysteries like The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or The Cat Who... books. Unfortunately this gentle quality crashes head-on into the darkness of the mystery itself (the final revelation involves the human trafficking of children, presumably for sex work), making it feel out of joint. It would have been a better fit if Chopra had solved a problem involving a cheating husband or missing car or something.

That's an easy thing to fix going forward, so I'll definitely be checking out the next book in the series when it comes out.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett. It's so hard to review Pratchett! It doesn't seem fair to just write a summary of the plot (especially since often the plot is the least important part of his books), but I don't want to just ramble about my feelings either.

Well, maybe I do want to. Just a bit.

I never liked Rincewind much as a character back when I started reading the Discworld series; I generally liked the wizards books least, and even within them I preferred Ridcully or the Bursar or the Librarian to Rincewind. But on this reread I've become really fond of him, and am looking forward to his appearances in future books.

It's always fascinating, to me, to see how much Pratchett has changed over the years, and what has stayed the same. The politics of Unseen University seem very different than they would be later, and trolls turn to stone in daylight! That never happens again, does it? And yet this description of the villain is so clearly Pratchett, so clearly his view of humanism that will show up again and again, that I was in awe while reading it:

Trymon had tried to contain the seven Spells in his mind and it had broken, and the Dungeon Dimensions had found their hole, all right. Silly to have imagined that the Things would have come marching out of a sort of rip in the sky, waving mandibles and tentacles. That was old-fashioned stuff, far too risky. Even nameless terrors learned to move with the times. All they really needed to enter was one head.
His eyes were empty holes.
Knowledge speared into Rincewind’s mind like a knife of ice. The Dungeon Dimensions would be a playgroup compared to what the Things could do in a universe of order. People were craving order, and order they would get—the order of the turning screw, the immutable law of straight lines and numbers. They would beg for the harrow…
Trymon was looking at him. Something was looking at him. And still the others hadn’t noticed. Could he even explain it? Trymon looked the same as he had always done, except for the eyes, and a slight sheen to his skin.
Rincewind stared, and knew that there were far worse things than Evil. All the demons in Hell would torture your very soul, but that was precisely because they valued souls very highly; evil would always try to steal the universe, but at least it considered the universe worth stealing. But the gray world behind those empty eyes would trample and destroy without even according its victims the dignity of hatred. It wouldn’t even notice them.

Ahhhh. How does he do that? That twist of words, that incredible horror in-between the humor, and that love for humanity under it. It's already amazing here, in such an early book.

What are you currently reading?
Drown by Junot Diaz. Another in my 'get all these books off my shelves' project. I'm not liking it as much as his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, unfortunately.
brigdh: (I'm a grad student)
What did you just finish?
No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Chambers. A nonfiction book with a very interesting premise, but unfortunately not so great an execution. Chambers's central argument is that after the US outlawed the slave trade in 1808 (note: the slave trade, not slavery itself. That is, new people could not be imported into the US to be sold as slaves, but the ones already there could still be exploited. Slave trading had also been made illegal in the British colonies by this time) Cuba – as a Spanish colony – was one of the few places that still allowed the importation of new African people. This allowed Cuba to become the primary producer of sugar and coffee, crops which were farmed in such a way that they were incredibly deadly. There's an estimate that life expectancy for a slave on a sugar farm was a mere five to eight years. Other than the obvious human moral horror of this, it doesn't work as a capitalistic system – unless there's a steady inflow of cheap new slaves. Chambers provides evidence that, despite it being technically illegal, Americans captured new people in Africa, sold them as slaves in Cuba, and then sold the sugar and coffee they produced in Europe and Asia for further profits. Some Americans even went so far as to buy their own plantations on Cuba. A great deal of money was made this way, enough to stabilize the early American economy. In addition, American politicians fought to maintain the status quo, since if Cuba had been assimilated to the US the slave trade would necessarily have become illegal, but if Cuba achieved independence from Spain, it was likely to have been snapped up by the British, French or Mexican governments, endangering US interests on the island.

Okay. So that's clearly an important bit of history. The problem is that Chambers doesn't demonstrate the evidence for it as well as he might. Partly due to a lack of documentation – since it was illegal, many of the people involved deliberately destroyed records of this trade – but partly due just to his writing style. He skips between way too fictionalized interpretations of what people were thinking: "It was Christmas Eve, 1816, and Benjamin Bosworth felt good. He was drinking rum and thinking about sex, money and the funny way men’s feet kicked and twirled when they were hanged by the neck." to excessively dry lists of numbers: "Immediately after the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, Cuban ingenios and cafetales expanded at a frantic, unprecedented pace, and sugar production nearly doubled in just eight years, rising from 16,731 metric tons in 1791 to 32,586 metric tons in 1799.26 Meanwhile, in an attempt to outmaneuver the French, Great Britain granted U.S. traders greater access to British colonial markets in the Caribbean, and the U.S. re-export trade increased in value “from $8 million in 1795 to $26 million in 1796". There's barely anything in between these two extremes. He also tends to make grand claims at the beginning of a chapter ("Whereas the previous chapter concentrated on the activities of the smugglers, assassins and thieves in Cuba who created this early trade, this chapter details the strategies of elite ship captains and consuls in an overlooked U.S.–Cuba–Baltic circuit (1809–12) that linked Boston with the frozen docks of St. Petersburg and the sweltering warehouses of Havana") that he can't quite live up to.

In addition, the book ends very abruptly. Chambers chose to focus on what he calls "the generation of 1815", that is, the first generation of Americans born after independence. Which is a fair choice, but by ending the book as they pass out of political power, nothing has particularly changed or peaked or stopped in Cuba, so it feels like a very arbitrary point to stop. There's no conclusion to the events. I feel like I need a sequel to know what happened to the trade and politics he's set up.

Ah, well. An interesting topic, but I can't quite recommend the book overall.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett. If you didn't know, I'm a huge Pratchett fan, especially of his Discworld series. They've been some of my favorite books, as well as hugely personally important and influential to me, ever since I first stumbled on them around age 13. I haven't posted much about them in recent years not because I loved them less, but because I'd reread them so many times I'd sort of worn out their humor and goodness. They were too familiar. The obvious solution seemed to be to let them rest for a few years, until they'd faded enough from my memory that I didn't have every single plot-point and joke firmly memorized.

But a few years have passed, Pratchett has passed away, and there are a few new books in the series that I've never read. It seems like a good time to do a re-read.

Starting with The Colour of Magic, the much depreciated first book, which I've only ever read once before, long ago when I was first getting into the series. I remembered not liking it much, and it has a terrible reputation even among Pratchett fans, which is why I've never before reread it. But I should have, because this time I loved it. Okay, yes, it's much shallower than the greatest Discworld books, and overall it's a forgettable piece of fluff. But such an enjoyable piece of fluff! I could hardly put it down because I was having such a fun time that I wanted to keep reading. The humor is great, and already in this early book there's so much of inherent magic of Discworld: a cranky Death! Corrupt Ankh-Morpork with its barely-liquid river! Bumbling wizards! Climaxes with a million plot-threads piling up! There's differences too; I'd completely forgotten that this book actually has chapter breaks, which feels so odd in a Discworld book. And there's only two footnotes in the whole thing!

I suspect I might not have liked this when I was younger because I didn't know the books he was parodying. But now I've read Lovecraft and Leiber and McCaffery and Dungeons & Dragons and all the general fantasy tropes he's mocking. And sure, "the fantasy genre" is a much lesser target than "organized religion" or "Shakespeare" or "mortality" that he'll cover later on, but that doesn't make this book less of a good time.

The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope. I've never actually read any Trollope before, despite having constantly heard him recommended. A quick google suggests that this probably wasn't the best one to have started with, but ah well. I'd picked it up years ago at a second-hand book store, and needed to read it to get it off my shelf.

In 1860s rural England, a low-end gentry woman named Clara has recently discovered that she's about to be very poor. Her brother should have inherited the family estate, but instead he killed himself, and as a woman, Clara can't inherit. Instead the money and land will go to a very distant cousin she's never met. She accepts an offer of marriage from Captain Aylmer, who's a pompous cold fish, but at least she can trust him not to kill himself or leave her in poverty. And then she meets that distant cousin, and realizes he's A) hotter than Aylmer, B) a better person than Aylmer, and C) way more in love with her than Aylmer is. WILL TRUE LOVE PREVAIL?

Obviously it does. Nonetheless, this was a very pleasant book, with lots of interesting insights into the gender and class politics of the time. Based on what I'd heard before, I'd expected Trollope to be much funnier than I found this book. Instead I'd describe him as a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; Dickens-like in his style of writing and characterizations, and Austen-like in the focus on women and "smaller", more intimate plots. I'll definitely read more by him in the future.

What are you currently reading?
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan. Another NetGalley book; this one looks like the start of a cute mystery series.


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