skygiants: Mae West (model lady)
I'm not sure the people who made Gilda actally knew they were writing the most dramatic equilateral bisexual love triangle in forties noir, but that's .... definitely what they did?

so many spoilers! )
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
Thanks to [personal profile] sovay, I've been zooming through a reread of the Benjamin January books, but I got held up on waiting for one at the library, so instead I've spent the last three days zooming through Underground, which is now on Hulu.

Underground is a show about an escape from slavery that is about 95% amazing.

The 1% that is not good at all involves one fairly nonsense scene where Native Americans act as stage dressing for a white guy, and the 4% that is only moderately good involves Riley from Buffy and his wife as nice white people who decide to help the Underground Railroad and learn that it is difficult, which is mostly fine, except when they're doing distraction can-cans on top of a piano or Riley from Buffy is wandering around in boxer shorts, why, costumer, what were you thinking. I mean, the distraction can-can was effective! I was distracted! But maybe not ... in the way the show meant me to be distracted ...

However I was ONE HUNDRED PERCENT invested in:

- Noah, mastermind behind the escape plan, aka Aldis Hodge finally getting to run his own con like we all wanted him to do on Leverage except now with the HIGHEST STAKES IMAGINABLE
- Rosalee, the heroine, a house slave who spends the whole season going through an incredibly satisfying arc of discovering her own strength, determination, and cleverness
- Sam and James, Rosalee's brothers -- one older, who still hopes he can buy his way to freedom; one younger, who hasn't yet been taught the ways in which he's different from the kid up in the big house, who happens to be his half-brother
- extremely morally ambiguous Cato, who's in line to be plantation overseer, but instead blackmails his way into the escape plan
- Moses, a slave preacher that Noah is convinced is going to be their ticket out because he can read, and Pearly Mae, his wife, who actually can
- ERNESTINE. Ernestine is the mother of Rosalee, Sam and James; she makes extremely calculated, occasionally terrible, but also occasionally very satisfying choices to safeguard her family; she is probably the most competent person in a show full of highly competent people (so much competence all around though! it's honestly one of the show's main selling points, it's very much a heist show in this way) and I am glued to Amirah Vann's face every single moment it is on screen.

Here, have some beautiful faces )

The show is, unsurprisingly, quite dark at times, and the body count is ... not low, so, you know, fair warning for all the things one would generally think to warn for, but it's not hopeless. It's also beautifully shot (occasional inexplicable costuming choices aside) and the use of music is STELLAR. I'm waiting for an OST. [personal profile] frayadjacent has a very good recruiter vid over here which I would recommend watching to get the feel of the show. But, I mean, generally I would also just recommend the show.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
A couple people had recced Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett's Point of Hopes to me before I finally picked it up -- it's a mystery novel set in a Netherlands-inspired approximately Renaissance fantasy world built around a heavily astrological culture and featuring many, many queer people, including:

Protagonist #1: Nicholas Rathe, the World's Most Honest Renaissance Policeman, who is slooooooowly investigating the disappearance of an increasing number of apprentice children in town
Protagonist #2: Philip Eslingen, an extremely dashing out-of-luck mercenary who loses his job in a missing-children-related riot and is then semi-recruited to semi-help with Rathe's investigation

This is one of those mystery fantasy novels where the worldbuilding is fantastic and interesting and thorough, and the mystery is kind of .... there as an excuse to hang the worldbuilding on, mostly; there's some Obviously Sinister culprits, and our hero spends three-quarters of the book sort of vaguely side-eying them before being like "aha, yes! these potentially sinister individuals definitely ARE sinister!" several chapters before the end. It is not a particularly satisfying mystery.

I think the relationship between Nicholas and Philip is supposed to carry the emotional weight of the series, but there's not a lot of it in this book; by the time it ends, they're .... friendly acquaintances? I'm not sure at this point whether I'm going to read the sequels -- like I said, I thought the worldbuilding was great and super interesting, but I'm not yet feeling a plot/emotional heft. People who've read the rest, thoughts?
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
One of my coworkers recommended me When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, which is 100% unsurprising because this is definitely a book geared towards making librarians and archivists feel good about themselves, with several chapters dedicated to the valiant patriotic efforts of the ALA.

I mean, I'm not knocking it, it did make me feel good! It's basically an exploration of what books meant to soldiers on the front as one of the few viable forms of entertainment a person could tote around with them on the battlefield, the various efforts that went to getting those books there, and the impact that they had when they did.

The ALA kicked off the trend by running a massive book drive, but the huge bulk of the book is dedicated to the publication of Armed Service Editions (ASE), which were lightweight little books selected for publication and distribution en masse to the armed forces and designed to fit inside a uniform pocket.

When Books Went to War makes a big deal about how the ASEs represented all kinds of genres for all kinds of tastes including classics and history and science and so on, but looking at the list in the back, it seems like they were really mostly contemporary fiction with a few other options thrown into each batch, and the choices were occasionally baffling (weirdly, for example, Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon was published as an ASE, but not any of her other novels.) Hilariously, romance was not really represented -- after all, these were manly books for manly soldier men! -- until soldiers wrote in and were like "WE WANT SEX SCENES, PLEASE SEND US FOREVER AMBER," and the Council on Books in Wartime dutifully sent Forever Amber to the front lines, as well as Strange Fruit, which MIGHT have been a controversial and searing examination of racism and interracial romance that was banned in multiple cities but ALSO had sex scenes in it.

(As a sidenote: wow, I had heard of Forever Amber but not read the Wikipedia article until just now and it's AMAZING. "[The] attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" as reasons for banning the novel." Thirty-nine illegitimate pregnancies! I know it's like 800 pages, but still, how is there room?)

Anyway, the book does not provide a particularly nuanced examination of why any of the books in question were chosen or approved or sent overseas, and there are a whole bunch obvious questions about wartime propaganda that don't really get asked. However, all the anecdotes and primary source quotes about soldiers pouncing on books and devouring them and writing earnestly back to authors and publishers are really genuinely heartwarming, as is the fact that the most popular novels by far among the troops were >A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday, because it turns out what extremely stressed-out troops on the front lines really want is heartwarming YA from the point of view of plucky teenage girls. Who says male readers can't identify with a female viewpoint!
skygiants: Beatrice from Much Ado putting up her hand to stop Benedick talking (no more than reason)
Basically the kinds of things I want to read when I'm on vacation falls into the category of 'stuff I can imagine owning in battered paperback' -- romance, mystery, historical fiction, Gothic.

Last time I was on vacation, in the absence of new Courtney Milan or Rose Lerner, I turned to Eloisa James' Desperate Duchess books, which are inoffensive and certainly served their vacation purpose, though most of them left me wanting more substance than they were ever going to have.

The hook of the Desperate Duchesses books is ongoing story of the chess-obsessed estranged married couple who spend most of the entire series falling back in love with each other, plus their equally chess-obsessed bff/rival/third member of an emotional threesome. Approximately a third of each book is usually dedicated to their adventures and it is usually the most interesting third of the book.

Desperate Duchesses: Pragmatic young heroine decides to pursue the dignified and sinister chess-obsessed rake in order to escape from sweet but wildly embarrassing and undignified family home, but decides there is no harm in practicing no-strings-attached makeouts with less dignified, funnier rake while she's at it. (Meanwhile, in the series A-plot, the chess-obsessed people have a series of Significant and Sexy Chess Matches, the chess-obsessed rake briefly gets engaged to the heroine, and then fairly rapidly gets un-engaged to her again.)

An Affair Before Christmas: Heroine and her husband spend half the book accepting the fact that she's not interested in sex and would like to pursue other interests and bonding activities, but of course in the second half it turns out that she was never sex-repulsed at all and just has a bad allergy to hair powder that has been interfering with all sexy Regency activities. (In the series A-plot, Chess-Obsessed Rake attempts to get engaged to a no-nonsense lady while recovering from a duel, and fails.)

Duchess By Night: Our Heroine, a respectable widow, decides to throw caution to the winds and spend a couple weeks cross-dressing at a wild party full of Actresses and Gambling and Mad Science, where she bonds with Head Mad Scientist and his precocious daughter. Should have been my favorite, but then the Woman Discovers Freedom Through Cross-Dressing plot gets its wires tangled up with the Sensible Adult Teaches Manchild That Mad Science Is Irresponsible Around Children plot and kind of ends up tripping over itself. So, like, Our Heroine gets really into fencing and power games and gambling and Dude Stuff, almost figures out how to bond with the Actresses and Loose Women instead of judging them, almost comes to the verge of calling out the hero and everyone else on how everything they do plays into the gendered status quo, and then decides that what she really wants is to go home and live exactly like she always did except with the addition of one now-domesticated mad scientist and now-significantly-less-endangered-by-lack-of-OSHA-standards daughter. (In the series A-plot, Chess-Obsessed Rake briefly considers making a play for the heroine and decides that given his track record it's really not even worth it.)

When the Duke Returns: Hero comes back to his married-by-proxy wife after several years of nonsensical Orientalist adventures, having converted to a nonexistent Mysterious Eastern religion and sworn to stay virginal as a result. Hero and heroine proceed to sort out their marriage while dealing with the terrible plumbing problems in hero's ancestral home, which would be a lot cuter if not for, you know, all the nonsense Orientalism. (I don't actually remember what happens in the A-plot, I think the chess-obsessed couple just do a lot of married-people flirting.)

This Duchess of Mine: The reunion romance between the chess-obsessed couple, except they've already gotten to the point of respect and reconciliation over the course of five previous books, so this one has to resort to some drama involving 'but Mr. Chess might DIE of a mysterious heart ailment ANY MINUTE NOW!!!' in order to actually fill itself out. Spoiler: Mr. Chess does not die of a mysterious heart ailment. (In a surprise B-plot, the chess-obsessed rake is abruptly distracted from his impending emotional threesome with the chess-obsessed couple by suddenly remembering he has six illegitimate children and deciding to track them down, adopt them, and marry someone to be their new mom.)

A Duke of Her Own: The chess-obsessed rake attempts to hunt down a solid co-parent for his six illegitimate children, and discovers two candidates amid Shakespearean farce; heroine, meanwhile, gets over six years of pent-up embarrassment about having a sex drive. Astoundingly little chess ensues.

There are a couple of next-generation books too, I think, but that is probably more than enough implausibly sexy dukes and duchesses for now!
skygiants: Azula from Avatar: the Last Airbender with her hands on Mai and Ty Lee's shoulders (team hardcore)
I am basically the world's most biased reviewer of Rahul Kanakia's Enter Title Here, because a.) Rahul has been a good friend for many years and b.) I read an early draft of this book and fell madly in love with it on the spot and have been waiting FOREVER for the official version to come out!

Reshma Kapoor, the protagonist of Enter Title Here, is awful, and I love her very much. If you do not like awful protagonists, this might not be a book for you. On the other hand, if you like the kind of breathtakingly ruthless teenage girl whose character arc eventually ends her in a place where she can say "nowadays, I try not to destroy people unless I am at least 90% sure that they deserve it," then this book is DEFINITELY for you.

Reshma is a high school senior, and the most important thing she's got going for her is that she's willing to do more to get what she wants than anyone else in her school. Somewhere between Cersei Lannister and a Terminator, you find Reshma Kapoor. Reshma is determined about two things: she is going to be valedictorian, and she is going to get into Stanford. But there are thirty-one thousand valedictorians in this country, and only sixteen hundred spots at Stanford, which means she also needs a hook.

That hook is going to be the currently-untitled novel that Reshma is writing, which will take her through an exploration of Normal Teenagerhood, building to an epiphany:

By the end of the novel, I'll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.

I don't mind calling it that because, you see, we're still at the beginning of the novel, and right now I'm still my cynical old achievement-obsessed self. But in three hundred thirty-two pages, you and I are going to look back on that 'bullshit' and laugh at the naiveté of my hard-bitten prose.


Obviously, in order to progress through her character arc, Reshma also needs:

a best friend -- Alex, the one person in school as ruthless as Reshma is, who supplies Reshma with Adderall and can therefore be blackmailed into answering Reshma's texts and inviting her to parties
a rival -- Chelsea, the one everyone thinks really deserves to be valedictorian, who can't possibly be as nice as she seems (or can she?) (OR CAN'T SHE??)
a couple of contrasting love interests -- that's Aakash, the deeply earnest nerd who's pined after her for years, and George, the underprivileged jock who lives in the basement to stay in the better school district and has deeply resented her for years, and one of them is almost certain to be Reshma's true love as long as they never, ever find out about Reshma's real self
a villain -- maybe Reshma's mom, whose inconvenient sense of ethics leads her to disapprove of her daughter's willingness to break the rules for personal gain? or her Nice White Lady English teacher, who's convinced that Reshma's parents are the ones pushing her to the edge? or maybe Susan Le, the wunderkind tech mogul who stole Reshma's parents' company out from under them? so many possibilities!
a mentor -- Reshma's psychiatrist/literary critic, who thinks that all this structure and character development is great but what the book REALLY needs is for Reshma to MURDER SOMEONE!!!

...it is possible that murder is not the answer. (Or maybe it is!)

(There is also a brief period during which Reshma contemplates ending her novel by riding off on a unicorn and becoming a queen of fantasyland, BUT ALAS that option is rejected relatively quickly.)

Anyway, Reshma, as I have said, is awful, and the book, like her, is intense and funny and weirdly touching and ruthless and consistently unexpected, and knows all the rules and exactly when to break them, and I love it very much and I am so glad it is finally out in a form that other people can purchase and read.
skygiants: Audrey Hepburn peering around a corner disguised in giant sunglasses, from Charade (sneaky like hepburnninja)
Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows is not much at all like the Heist Society books except in the crucial central factors of a.) having a plot that would probably make a lot more sense if everyone involved was at least ten years older but b.) nobody cares because everyone loves TEENS DO A HEIST!!!

Six Of Crows is set in an approximately nineteenth-century-tech fantasy world in which certain people called Grisha are born with moderate magical/telekinetic/healing powers. Somebody has discovered a highly addictive substance that amplifies Grisha powers a bajillionfold and then burns them rapidly out. As a result, a crack team of teenaged criminals from the alt!Amsterdam slums has been hired for an equivalent bajillionfold amount of dollars to break the scientist who invented the substance out of alt!Russian prison!

The team includes:

- Kaz, a notoriously ruthless (sixteen-year-old) gang leader with a genius brain, a limp, and a vendetta against another gang leader whom he holds responsible for his brother's death
- Inej, a (sixteen-year-old) acrobat and aerialist, who's working through her contract with Kaz's gang so she can leave and find the family she was stolen from
- Jesper, a (sixteen-year-old) gambling addict and sharpshooter with a crush on Kaz
- Matthias, a (sixteen-year-old) Grisha-hunting alt!Russian soldier who has spent the last year in prison thanks to
- Nina, a (sixteen-year-old) Grisha with healing powers who has spent the last year trying to get Matthias out of prison
- Wylan, a runaway merchant's son who functions simultaneously as hostage and demolitions expert

...OK, it actually makes a lot of sense for Wylan to be sixteen (and once Wylan is sixteen Jesper also has to be sixteen or else their ongoing flirtation throughout the book gets weird) (and then I guess everyone else has to be sixteen also) (plus OK it's a YA novel) (BUT I DIGRESS)

Anyway, like I said, who doesn't like 'TEENS DO A MAGIC HEIST'? This was a highly enjoyable read with solid worldbuilding, and it's always so refreshing to read a YA fantasy novel in which no super-talented teens seem likely to have a magic destiny or rule a kingdom, they just want to earn a cool bajillion dollars in order to pay off their gambling debts.

(Fair warning though, I did not know this was the first in a series when I picked it up and there is a MASSIVELY cliffhanger ending.)

(Also fair warning, pretty much every single teen has a dramatic tragic backstory, some of which include slavery/harm to children/sexual violence.)

(Also there is one scene with REALLY GROSS EYEBALL STUFF.)
skygiants: Fakir and Duck, from Princess Tutu, with a big question mark over Duck's head (communication difficulty)
Now I have finished Earth Logic, the sequel to Fire Logic, and I am still chewing over my thoughts about it, but one thing I can say is THAT WAS A VERY ODDLY STRUCTURED BOOK.

Earth Logic begins five years after Fire Logic, when all the surviving major cast members of the last book have formed an affectionate extended family unit featuring two gay couples and one token straight couple and their collective kid. And they are all sort of hanging around having curtainfic until the time seems appropriate to ... do something ....... about the ongoing war of resistance and attrition against the invading forces from the last book, who have now been constantly invading for thirty years, and the process of waiting is DRIVING ZANJA UP THE WALL.

About a third of the way in, Zanja has a prophetic vision that one of her other slightly prophetic friends needs to murder her in order for anything to happen. What will happen if they murder her? NOBODY KNOWS, but SOMETHING IMPORTANT.

So they all have a collective freakout and Zanja is like "NO SERIOUSLY YOU JUST NEED TO MURDER ME, I don't know why but it's VERY IMPORTANT," and then they angst for several more chapters and then dutifully get ready to murder Zanja, and the one person who has truth powers instead of prophecy powers is like "awww, isn't it cute how they can't tell the difference between symbolism and reality," and quietly arranges things so all the confused and angsty but dutiful prophets, including Zanja, will THINK Zanja has been murdered but in fact she will only have been SYMBOLICALLY murdered so that while she's busy being symbolically dead her body can generate a whole new personality that will wander off to shuffle some plot cards.

All this progression have been very stressful if I thought there was a snowflake's chance in a Boston July that Zanja was ever going to be dead for real, but never for a single second did I consider that as a possibility so I was free to laugh at three people constantly agonizing about their visions while the fourth is like 'UM IT'S JUST SYMBOLISM, GUYS, IT'S GONNA BE FINE.'

Eventually The Gang pick up a new member, a cook who is UNDERSTANDABLY BEMUSED by all of this personal drama (and thus is my new favorite) but helps keep everyone sane during the waiting period by making amazing biscuits. And they all sit around stressing about Zanja and building a printing press and discussing nonviolent ways of ending conflict until somewhere near the end of the book.

Meanwhile, in the B-plot, the long-suffering second-in-command of the enemy forces has a very long slow arc of reconsidering her life and the cycle of constant violence and the way one is supposed to think about children and the future, with occasional assists from the Wandering Plot Coupon that is Zanja's Symbolically Dead Personality, and it's an amazing arc, I love it.

Ending spoilers, some conflicted feelings )
skygiants: Rue from Princess Tutu dancing with a raven (belle et la bete)
Writing up Plain Kate reminded me that I never did a post about the other dark and non-romantic fairy tale that I read recently (...ish), T. Kingfisher's The Seventh Bride.

I'm familiar with Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher mostly by proxy -- people talking about her and reblogging her stuff in my vicinity -- and I've been meaning to read her stuff for a while; I liked The Seventh Bride and thought it was well done, but I'm not sure it was the best place for me to start.

In The Seventh Bride, Rhea the teenage miller's daughter is deeply disconcerted one day to learn that a friend of the local lord has asked for her hand in marriage. Rhea has minimal interest in marrying a stranger at best, but she and all her family are aware that if she refuses, economic consequences could potentially be severe.

Before the wedding, Rhea's creepy new husband-to-be asks her to come to his creepy manor house in the middle of the woods and spend a couple of days there, which everyone agrees is WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE, but. (The author clearly wants you to feel sympathetic for the family and their predicament and their inability to help their daughter, and I do, but I kept wondering at this point why, even if they know they can't cancel the marriage, one of her family members doesn't at least go with her into the creepy forest! But that's another story.)

Anyway, although Rhea is aware that the situation is deeply sketch, she is nonetheless still surprised to find the creepy manor house populated by several other wives, each one weirder, angrier, and more magically cursed than the last.

What follows is an unnerving sharp-edged fairy tale full of the kind of surreal and vivid imagery that I associate with Peter Beagle, or even Angela Carter. Occasionally I felt that the prose style was a little bit at war with the actual story. Kingfisher/Vernon (both from this book and from the the other snippets I've seen of hers) has a light, warm authorial voice that gets a lot of its humor out of pragmatism -- it's the kind of thing I tend to like a lot, and often balancing that kind of voice with a darker story can work very well for me, but in this case I was thrown a little off-balance a few times as events got more and more Gothic and the cute pet hedgehog continued to look adorably sardonic about it. I liked the book overall, though, and will definitely be reading more Kingfisher.
skygiants: Kraehe from Princess Tutu embracing Mytho with one hand and holding her other out to a flock of ravens (uses of enchantment)
I liked The Scorpion Rules enough that I went looking for other Erin Bow books and found Plain Kate, which is the kind of middle-grade fairy tale that's sharper and darker than a good many adult novels.

When a mysterious peddler tries to buy her shadow in exchange for her heart's desire, protagonist Kate is very clear on the fact that it's a VERY BAD idea to make a deal with him. However, Kate's a strange-looking orphan girl who's suspiciously good at wood-carving, and doesn't have enough money to apprentice to a Guild so she can actually sell the things she makes -- which would be difficult enough if it were not a bad harvest, and people were not on the lookout for witches to blame for it. Without any options left, Kate makes the deal and trades away her shadow in exchange for some good travel and camping supplies so she can leave town.

She doesn't actually ask for her heart's desire -- not to be alone anymore -- but the peddler gives her cat the ability to talk anyway, as kind of a freebie.

And, of course, he warns her that she might want to try very hard to find people that will take her in before anyone notices that her shadow is disappearing.

Over the course of the rest of the book, Kate discovers why the peddler wants her shadow, and what he plans to do with it, and what she's going to have to do to stop it. It's not good! People definitely die! The book itself is very good, though, and works through cycles of violence and revenge with compassion for the people caught up in them. Kate spends a big chunk of the book traveling with the Roamers -- Romani or equivalent -- and although I am no expert, I liked the way they were written, as people with different customs to the rest of the country around them but generally no more or less fallible than anyone else. (Though, on another note, the peddler and one other character are both Magical Albinos.) Her most important relationships in the book are all really interesting and complex: her friendship with Drina, a Roamer girl who wants to help Kate but may be overestimating her ability to do so; her non-romantic, almost Stockholm-ish tie to the peddler; and, of course, the cat, who is SUCH A GOOD AND CATLIKE CAT.

Spoilers for those who want to know in advance about risks to animals )
skygiants: Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist with her arms over her eyes (one day more)
I read Jo Walton's My Real Children for book club last month, which many people who know me in real life now know because I briefly acquired a bad habit of going around saying things like "well, I've made my decision and ideally it won't accidentally lead to nuclear war!"

My Real Children follows a woman named Patricia Cowan through two alternate timelines: one in which she marries a dude named Mark when he asks her, and one in which she doesn't.

Personally, marrying Mark is definitely a mistake, because Mark is an asshole -- which is not to say that Trish's life is miserable forever because she made a mistake, but, you know, there's a significant period of misery time in there. On the other hand, the world in which Trish marries Mark is, on a global scale, significantly better than the world in which Pat dumps Mark and finds True Love with a woman (Bee) and a city (Florence) and is generally very happy with her personal choices; Pat's world is even more deeply messed up than our current one, in a hundred small and large ways that do and don't affect Pat and her overall wonderful family life. How exactly these changes to world history have come about is not necessarily clear or obvious.

In both worlds she has children, and loves them, with some complications.

(In the Pat-and-Bee world, the father of their children is a secular Jewish guy who said a couple things that made me put the book down and side-eye it for a minute -- "I'm Jewish, of course I speak Hebrew;" dude, you are a secular Jew! in England! there is no 'of course' there! -- but this is a relatively minor caveat.)

Mostly it's a relatively straightforward narrative of two different lives lived differently, by someone who starts out as the same person, but is arguably not by the end. Sad things happen, because sad things eventually happen in every life. There are small tragedies and large tragedies, and people get old, and people die. Things are terrible for some people and don't affect others. A whole city gets wiped off the map, but if you're not in the country where it happens, then, I mean ... it's sad, but you get on with things .........? (Which is the sort of thing Jo Walton has always excelled at, how it's possible to live a perfectly normal life around fairly terrible things.)

Spoiler for the end )
skygiants: Lauren Bacall on a red couch (lauren bacall says o rly)
[personal profile] nny recced me Mike Carey's Felix Castor books after we went to go see Crimson Peak last year.

BECCA: And so, based on this film, I have decided that what I really want is an ongoing television series about a plucky Victorian ghost-interviewing female duo!
[personal profile] nny: I cannot help you with the plucky Victorian female duo part, but the Felix Castor books involve an exorcist who eventually sort of starts siding with the ghosts?
BECCA: That does fulfill one of my criteria!
[personal profile] nny: Also there is a succubus who eventually settles down to attempt domesticity with her nice librarian girlfriend.
BECCA: ...you have my attention.

So now I have read all five of them that there are currently (and maybe forever? I'm not entirely clear), starting with The Devil You Know, in which exorcist Felix Castor is hired to get rid of a ghost at an archive, starts feeling guilty about casual exorcisms, and ends up solving her murder.

The books as a whole are set in a world that is basically just like ours, except ghosts and zombies and undead were-creatures and demons started popping up a few years ago and everyone knows about and is annoyed by them. The tone is very consciously noir. The streets are always mean, the skies are always grey, and Castor is 100% an eternally down-on-his-luck noir protagonist -- he's constantly getting beaten up, spending his last five dollars on a beer (where the subsequent last-five-dollars comes from is never entirely clear), accidentally uncovering the dark secrets and sleazy pasts of the people who are supposed to be paying him, pissing off one or another of his only three friends in the world, and reluctantly making moral decisions that mostly entail sulkily spitting in the face of someone a bit less moral than he is.

Aside from our hard-bitten down-on-his-luck protagonist, relevant recurring characters/forces include:

Nicky, a health-and-conspiracy-theory-nut zombie acquaintance of Castor's, who does research for him in exchange for old jazz records
Juliet, the aforementioned succubus, who turns up as a terrifying demon enemy to sexy-devour Castor in book one and eventually decides she'd like to stick around and become a.) an exorcist and b.) a lesbian
Rafi, Castor's buddy who got possessed by an extremely powerful demon a few years ago in an distressing event which was partly Castor's fault, and who now has to be kept in a silver-lined cell lest he go on a rampage
Pen, Castor's Wiccan landlady and Rafi's True Love, sort of
The Fanatical Catholic Exorcists, who keep wanting to recruit Castor
The Fanatical And Well-Funded Scientific Paranormal Researcher, who keeps wanting to recruit Castor and grab Rafi for experimentation

As in most noirs, there's a lot of every kind of violence (tw for pretty much every possible thing), a lot of people die, half the time Castor leaves things worse than he finds them, and there's a fair bit of male gaze throughout. (There's one hilariously egregious bit at the end of book two when Pen and Juliet and the little girl-ghost that Castor is trying to rescue that day are all tied up and unconscious, which, given that Juliet is inhumanly strong and has demonic superpowers, is notable.) Also, while Nicky and Juliet overall are by far the most interesting characters, I did not like at all the turn Juliet's storyline took in the fifth book.

All that said, they're entertaining reads, and have sort of filled the Rivers of London-shaped hole in my lineup while I wait to find out how a thing that happened a few books back gets resolved. (I like the Peter Grant books better than the Felix Castor books, but my expectations for them are also much higher, so there's a way in which they are much more stressful to read!)
skygiants: Kurai from Angel Sanctuary, giving the finger, with text 'are you there, God?  It's me, Kurai' (unprodigal)
You know that trope, that very common trope, where there's a character that's nonhuman, or not-quite-human -- dangerous, eerie, other, powerful, has no reason to care about the fate of human beings -- and then there's True Love With A Human Being and that changes them and makes them more human, for better or worse?

OK, it should surprise no one that one of my favorite tropes is that trope, except instead of True Romantic Love with a human being that grounds the powerful inhuman character, it's the true and unmistakable feeling of older sibling-hood. At heart, underneath your human veneer, you're an inhuman powerful whatever, except now circumstances have landed you with a water bottle (wherein water bottle means 'annoying younger sibling') and you gotta be responsible for this water bottle which means that at heart, underneath your human veneer, you are constantly feeling one of the most human emotions imaginable: SHEER EXASPERATION.

The two books that I can think of at the moment that do this are two of my very favorite books. (I reread one of them for our book club this month, which is why I'm thinking about this right now.) Three times makes it a real trope, so I'm inviting examples!
skygiants: Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena holding a red rose (i'm the witch)
I was on vacation this weekend, so, as is traditional, I kicked off with a Barbara Michaels Gothic, Vanish With the Rose.

The premise of this one is that our heroine Diana's baby brother vanished while working for an elderly woman at (of course) an enormous country house. The country house has since been sold to an enthusiastic pair of professors and history nerds who are very keen on remodeling and fixing up the gardens, so Diana -- for the record, an adult, high-powered lawyer -- turns up to investigate! in disguise! AS THEIR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT!

Almost as soon as she begins the plan, Diana finds herself in MORAL AGONIES about it. Emily and Charles are so nice! They really BELIEVE she's going to turn in a solid diagram about where they can place the ha-ha!!

She would never be able to see a rose, much less one of the lovely old varieties, without being reminded of her perfidy toward people who had trusted her.

In between paroxysms of guilt about her landscaping perfidy, Diana rounds out her circle of acquaintances with some possible suspects/routes in the Gothic novel dating simulator, including

WALT - the sullen hot one, a contractor with a chip on his shoulder about being smart but under-educated, who is in on Diana's secret and Disapproves Of Her Taking In Those Nice People
ANTHONY - the funny weird one, Emily's wildly talkative son who can't hold down a job and collects useless old cars, giant dogs, and cacti
MARY JO - the ambitious nineteen-year-old cleaning lady with an even bigger chip on her shoulder than Walt, who is putting herself through college by holding down three jobs while resolutely ignoring her abusive ex-husband's occasional fits of murderous rage

Diana's judgmental asshole father, in town for a judgy visit, sums up the inevitable Romantic Choice: "On the whole, I think I'd prefer the strong silent sullen gentleman with the muscles to the loquacious youth with the garish taste in haberdashery."

That said, Diana actually spends much more time in the book making giant shiny eyes at Mary Jo than either of them, AS IS RIGHT AND JUST.

Mary Jo gave Diana's hand a brief squeeze before withdrawing hers; Diana felt as if she had won a prize.

After a few days of desperately trying to fake her way through landscape architecting, Emily and Charles take off on an antiques-buying trip and leave Diana house-sitting. Diana and Anthony start having visitations from what might be a ghost, while Mary Jo's asshole ex turns up with a gun and starts taking potshots at anyone who might be around, including all of Anthony's giant dogs. As a result, Walt, Anthony, and Mary Jo all move into the house with Diana!

The rest of the book goes pretty much as follows;

ANTHONY: I'm gonna tear this house apart trying to figure out what's going on with the ghost!
WALT: I really, really would like to solve the problem of the abusive ex with the gun!
DIANA: I still have to figure out what happened to my brother! Did the ghost get him? Did the abusive ex with the gun get him? DID ONE OF MY LOVE INTERESTS GET HIM?
MARY JO: You guys do what you need to do with the Gothic plot and all, I have an actual exam tomorrow and will be in the library with a math textbook.

In the end, I was genuinely surprised by the resolution! )
skygiants: Ben Sisko with hands folded and goatee (diplomacy!)
I don't actually remember why [personal profile] genarti decided I should read Doctor's Orders, Diane Duane's Star Trek McCoy-centric TOS novel, but it ended up on my shelf and so I did.

BECCA: all of Duane's TOS characters are always so pleasant and philosophical and well-intentioned and consistently competent
I don't know if I believe it but it is soothing to read
GEN: heee, right?
I am very fond of that part
also they all stop and think fondly about astrophysics in ways that I do not think fits what's actually onscreen but DO think fits what ought to be true of people in this career path so I'm good with it
BECCA: 'snappy banter,' says McCoy, thinking earnestly about how the crankiness is a useful persona that he puts on when it's convenient for the well-being of the rest of the crew
GEN: hahahahahahahaha
and for his own entertainment, but yes
BECCA: they DO stop and think fondly about astrophysics with GREAT FREQUENCY
and biology
and the value of gathering scientific data for the sake of gathering scientific data
way more than any character on TOS ever has

I mean it feels -- and it is -- very much the kind of fanfic in which the author firmly writes all their own ethics backwards into canon.

GEN: To me it's always felt like she's writing the attitudes of 70s/80s TOS fandom into TOS
like, "I know all of these super geeky writers who are really into space and whom I really like as people, THIS IS THE STAR TREK OF THEIR HEARTS"
BECCA: hah that is probably also true
I mean it also very much does feel like fanfic
'Chekhov's catchphrase!' says Checkhov, in his first appearance, and then wanders off to be competent somewhere offscreen
'Nurse Chapel's off taking her doctoral exams!' says a throwaway line, a/n: 'ok it's always been my headcanon that Nurse Chapel eventually moves up to MD'

The actual plot involves the Enterprise going to investigate a planet where three different intelligent species have independently evolved and trying to convince them to join the Federation; everyone frantically runs around taking soil samples and trying to get enough linguistics data to calibrate the universal translators, Kirk leaves McCoy in charge as a joke and then beams down and gets lost while having a philosophical discussion with an alien, some cranky Klingons show up and everyone rolls their eyes at them, there's one or two space battles but mostly, you know, it's philosophical discussions and harassed linguists complaining about verbs. As I said, it's a pleasantly soothing read! And significantly more invested in the actual day-to-day labor of the scientific and exploratory process than any episode of Star Trek ever has been or will be.
skygiants: fairy tale illustration of a girl climbing a steep flight of stairs (mother i climbed)
At a con last year, [personal profile] coffeeandink handed me the Joan Aiken book she'd been reading on the way down there, remarked that it had not been her favorite Aiken, and asked if I wanted to read it on the way back anyway.

I said all right, because mediocre Aiken is still usually bound to have its redeeming qualities, and then forgot about it until just recently when I was feeling in the mood for a.) Aiken and b.) Gothics.

Morningquest is not really quite a Gothic, as it turns out, though a girl definitely does meet a house in it. I don't really know what it is. It begins when Our Heroine Pandora Crumbe is introduced by her mother -- a very quiet and self-contained person with an unhappy marriage and a quiet, narrow life -- to the wealthy, talented and eccentric Morningquest family.

On their first visit, Pandora's mother keels over of a heart attack at the dinner table!

Thus, Pandora is sort of accidentally bequeathed to the Morningquests, who include:

GIDEON MORNINGQUEST, a tremendously successful conductor with a moderately limited interest in his children
MARIANA MORNINGQUEST, a beautiful and famous soprano who has a mysterious connection to Pandora's mother (subtext: they were probably in love), with whom Pandora falls promptly also in love

and the Morningquest children

DAN, possibly a musical genius, definitely a smug asshole with no morals
BARNEY, the good-looking brilliant one, who leaves behind him a trail of abandoned girlfriends and cats (all named Mog)
TOBY, the sweet scientifically brilliant one who only really talks to his sister Selene
DOLLY, the passive-aggressive and mildly toxic one who is, alas, not really brilliant at all
SELENE, the reclusive one who only really talks to her brother Tony
ELLY AND ALLY, chaotic neutral telepathic twin geniuses

plus assorted household extras

UNCLE GRISCH, an artist, former dancer, and gay Holocaust survivor who is busy rewriting great works of English literature
TANTE LULIE, a Jewish refugee relative of Gideon's first wife, who makes all Mariana's clothes and keeps the household fiscally solvent
DAVE, a useless American that nobody likes

The rest of the book sort of weaves through Pandora's interactions with various Morningquests, her development as an artist, and her search to find out more about her mother.

Along the way, there are various plot threads that spring up involving baby theft and attempted murder and incest and the aforementioned telepathy and drug smuggling and secret underground tunnels and surprise marriages, but, like. Most of these .... don't actually turn out to be all that significant to the shape of the book? Not in a dropped plot-thread way, exactly; more in a 'life just sort of goes on' way. The woman whose baby is stolen in chapter five or so is obviously really devastated, and eventually ends up leaving town, and by the end of the book she's remarried and has another baby, and eventually towards the end of the book a working theory emerges about what the hell was going on with the baby theft, but by that point it's too late to do anything about it, so ...

What actually is significant to the shape of the books? Families, I guess, and a sense of home, definitely, and what home means for refugees, immigrants, people whose past has been lost -- Tante Lulie and Uncle Grisch are the most constant and stable presences in Pandora's life, Pandora's non-Morningquest love interest is a Czech filmmaker-in-exile, Mariana's a possibly-Jewish refugee from Europe, and eventually Pandora finds out that her mother was Jewish too. Which is a surprise to her, but it wasn't a surprise to me.

Because the thing is, the whole Bohemian intellectual cobbled-together family of refugees full of complicated backstory revelations feels -- well, kind of seventies, sure, but one hundred percent real to me. My grandmother and grandfather were both Jewish refugees -- he German, she Czech -- who met and married in the UK in the 1940s. My grandmother was one of a handful of women in her Cambridge med school graduating class. I never met her, but by all accounts she was a wildly brilliant and charismatic person whom everybody fell in love with, who had a habit of picking up lost people and installing them in her house. On my shelf, I have a photocopied book of the letters that she wrote to her long-term lover, who lived in Israel, which his wife sent to my aunts after my grandmother died. My mom and her sisters had a very Morningquest childhood. I'm still finding out things that I never knew, and so, I think, are they.

And, I mean, I NEVER expect to walk out of a Joan Aiken book going 'wow, such realism! what a true portrait!' ESPECIALLY GIVEN the telepathy and the baby theft and all the rest, but there we are.

(And maybe I would have been less punched in the chest by refugee feelings had I read this a different week than this week that we are in right now. There's that too.)
skygiants: ran and nijiko from 7 Seeds, looking faintly judgy (dubious lesbians)
I really really liked Laurie Marks' Fire Logic, and I'm going to complain about some stuff below but I want you guys to keep in mind that overall I thought the book was SUPER enjoyable.

...overall I did. First complaint: the first seventy or so pages of the book are EXTREMELY GRIM and features invasions and conquest and genocide and a great deal of overall unpleasantness, so it took me quite a while to get into it.

However, I perked right up when after those seventy pages of despair Our Heroine Zanja, a professional linguist/spy/diplomat/warrior/semi-clairvoyant, was rescued from a tragic fate in prison by Our Other Heroine Karis, a gentle giant heroic blacksmith with superpowers!

Zanja pretty much falls head over heels in love with Karis like twenty minutes after meeting her, and really, who can blame her, I suspect basically ANY OF US would do the same. Alas, Karis has a.) a secret destiny and b.) a really overprotective friend who's like THIS WILL ONLY END IN TEARS and c.) a Tragic Drug Addiction that means that after a day's work of heroic blacksmithing she spends every night in a helpless state of stoned obedience, hence the really overprotective friend who's like NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS WILL ONLY END IN TEARS.

(I love Karis, but I will note that she is basically the World's Most Sympathetic Drug Addict. Her drug addiction is not even 1% her fault; when she is in withdrawal she suffers nobly and heroically but is never even a little bit an asshole; similarly when she is drugged-out she is helpless and lacking in agency but never an asshole, not even the least little bit, because fantasy drugs are convenient like that.)

Anyway, as a result, instead of following Karis around forever like a puppy dog as is her dearest wish, Zanja reluctantly lets Karis' Overprotective Friend have her way and agrees to ride off instead to join the underground military resistance. There she befriends Emil, the middle-aged leader of this particular troupe of underground military resistance who would really rather just be back at grad school, and has a brief fling with Annis, an enthusiastic pyromaniac, and then encounters a moral dilemma in the form of an enemy prophet who maybe just wants to be friends, but eventually Karis and Zanja are reunited and go back to taking turns dramatically rescuing each other/getting into peril as soon as the other one's back is turned/dramatically rescuing each other again.

Some more facts about this book:
- there are basically no straight people in it (well, that's not quite true, there are two straight married people and everyone spends the whole book being like 'well, that relationship is doomed')
- pretty much everyone is generally well-intentioned and heroic and self-sacrificing and trying their overall best, except for the people who are Definitely Shady
- there is a lot of very good found-family-ing
- also so much hurt-comfort, so much, MY GOODNESS the number of times Zanja or Karis are near-death and tender physical contact is the only way to help
- speaking of injuries, I would like to note that most people in this book who have injuries are eventually magically healed of them and this includes long-term disabilities
- speaking of long-term disabilities, Karis has no ability to feel sexual desire as a long-term side effect of the drug addiction, which everyone in-universe agrees is VERY TRAGIC, and, I mean, there are specific in-character reasons for Karis and Zanja to find this a.) distressing and b.) a significant relationship obstacle, but like. Kids, it is possible to have a successful relationship that is not 100% dependent on whether or not Karis is ever able to enjoy sex, I promise this is not the Saddest of All the Long Tales Ever Told.
- there's an elemental magic system underlying the whole thing but I have not mentioned it because I don't reeeeeeeally understand how it works
- and speaking of worldbuilding, there is a flashback whose sole purpose appears to be to establish the existence of a whole city that seems to be just sad drug-addicted prostitutes. A whole city. A WHOLE CITY.
- ... I mean, I mock, but CITY OF PROSTITUTES aside, Marks seems to be very interested in exploring violence and causes of violence and the possibility for non-violent responses to violence, and cultural shifts and cultural exchange, and despite the high levels of violence I would characterize the book as generally optimistic
skygiants: Hazel, from the cover of Breadcrumbs, about to venture into the Snow Queen's forest (into the woods)
Tonight [personal profile] obopolsk and I went to go see Indecent, a play about a play -- to be specific, about Sholom Asch's Yiddish-language God of Vengeance, in which the nice young daughter of a pious hypocrite who makes his money from a brothel falls in love with one of the prostitutes.

So basically it is a show about a.) lesbians b.) Yiddish theater c.) metatheater, aka BASICALLY ALL MY INTERESTS, hi Paula Vogel and thank you for this. You will be unsurprised to hear that I almost entirely loved it.

The cast consists of seven actors, and three extremely brilliant musicians (including an accordionist with more swagger than I've ever seen from an accordionist before). All of the cast whirl from role to role. Sholem Asch is almost always the same, until he gets too old to be the young man, and then he's the old man. Manke and Rivkele, the two lovers in God of Vengeance, are always the same, even when they're different people -- the first cosmopolitan German Manke, who has no difficulty playing a lesbian but worries about how to portray a Jew; the two young Yiddish actresses who express their feelings for each other onstage every night, until one of them can't speak English well enough to make the leap to Broadway; the rookie all-American actress out to shock her parents by playing a lesbian Jew onstage (who gets the biggest laugh of the night when, after she surprises her Manke with an extremely passionate onstage kiss, she mentions that she went to Smith).

Lemml, the Polish villager who happens by luck to be there at the first reading of the play in I.L. Peretz's living room and falls in love with it, is always the same actor and the same person too -- God of Vengeance's guardian spirit, stage managing every production until the entire Broadway cast is arrested for public indecency, and a disillusioned Sholem Asch can't or won't do anything to stop it.

It's all very good, the cast is very good, the music is fantastic, the linguistic shifts are too. Here's the thing I really want to talk about, though. The play is an hour and forty minutes long. We were probably about an hour and twenty minutes in when Lemml went back to Poland, when the actors put stars on their shirts, when we were in the Warsaw Ghetto with the cast doing the show in pieces in order so as not to go up against curfew.

I'd been loving the play up until then, but at this point I started to get angry. I knew that we had to be near the end of the play at this point, and I was sitting there fuming and thinking to myself, 'oh, come on, Paula Vogel, you're going to end the story here? They ALWAYS end the story here, it's a huge black slash across our history but it's not the end of it by any means, ending it here takes a story that was about the power of love and language and literature and just makes it about this one thing that it's always about, PLEASE don't end it here --'

And just as I'm thinking this, as the cast is grimly lining up in front of an invisible concentration camp with ominous pronouncements about dust and ashes printed on the wall, the actor playing Lemml looks out at the audience and says, "Please don't let it end here," and the actresses playing Manke and Rivkele burst out from the line and run off into the wings for the next scene.

AND OK, SARAH VOGEL! Fine! FINE! You knew exactly what you were doing! I've never had my mind read in such an impressively infuriating fashion before.

(The play does not, in fact, end there. It doesn't go as much beyond it as I would like, but it doesn't end there.)
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
Coincidentally I've been reading a bunch of stuff lately that is somehow related to the Opium Wars. I was not expecting Courtney Milan's latest series to join the collection, but I am excited by the discovery!

Taken by itself, Once Upon A Marquess is cute but not the strongest of Milan's romances. Our Heroine Judith is the daughter of a disgraced former member of the nobility who was convicted of treason in China, along with her beloved brother, and has spent the last nine years desperately trying to support her younger siblings and achieve for them the opportunities they've lost; also she makes clockwork. Our Hero Christian is her former suitor, who also happens to have been her brother's best friend, who also happens to be the person whose testimony got her father and brother convicted of treason; also he has a history of opium addiction and what seems to be some form of OCD; also he's incapable of not making jokes.

(I spent the entire book hearing the voice of Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins doing all Christian's dialog. I don't know if there's any evidence that Courtney Milan has played Dragon Age but if she does I refuse to believe there wasn't an influence.)

Christian and Judith, as mentioned above, are reasonably cute, and I tend to find romances with significant emotional backstory more plausible than lust at first sight. But honestly the weight of the book is not really on their dynamic so much as it is on Judith's relationships with her siblings (as we all know sibling stuff is my favorite stuff!) and on setting up SIGNIFICANTLY MORE ONGOING PLOT, and specifically geopolitical/worldbuilding/history plot, than I think Milan has ever really done in her romance series before.

Spoilers )

Also I read Her Every Wish, the companion novella about Judith's friend Daisy, a flower-shop girl who's entered a competition for seed funds to open her own business, and Daisy's ex Crash, a mixed-race bisexual bicyclist and numbers man. I liked everything about the outlines of this plot, which is about how layers of toxic assumptions can work at cross-directions to hurt people who care about each other, and thought it needed about four times the page space to actually do the emotional arc justice -- like, there were enough real issues in Daisy and Crash's initial split that fixing all of their internalized prejudices and insecurities with one or two mildly anvilicious clue-bat conversations didn't quite feel believable or satisfying to me.

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