skygiants: Susan from The Bletchley Circle looking out a window (i crack the codes)
So my assigned fic for this year's Yuletide was Statistical Methods in Risk Assessment, a Bletchley Circle fic. Bletchley Circle is an extremely historically-grounded mystery series about the aftermath of WWII and the codebreakers at Bletchley, which meant that I spent a fair bit of November and December falling down a wartime Britain research hole, starting broad and eventually narrowing in on what I actually needed to know to write the fic.

I did not write up any of the books I was reading up at the time, under the general Yuletide veil of secrecy, but I think all of them are worth the perusal:

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, Ben Macintyre

Like most of Ben Macintyre's books, this is a true-history spyjinks story which leans heavily on the hijinks. Eddie Chapman was a thief in prison on the Channel Islands when they were occupied by the Germans; he got the bright idea to get out of prison by offering his services to the Germans as a spy. Then, after being thoroughly trained in Advanced Spying by the Germans, he was parachuted into England to blow up a factory, where he was immediately caught by the British, and promptly informed them that he was in fact more than happy to be a double agent.

The usual sort of Elaborate MI5 Ruses followed, perhaps the most impressive being the hiring of a stage magician to fake the destruction of an entire factory for the Germans so they would assume Chapman was still a totally independent Nazi agent, yes sirree. It's not my favorite of Macintyre's books, but it's a fun read -- or it was at the time; I suspect "lol, those gullible folk-dancing Nazis!" might seem a bit less funny now that we are all realizing how very much Nazis are no longer a thing of the past.

(Ben Macintyre's funny bone is clearly tremendously tickled by the Nazi Who Obsessed Over English Folk Dancing. He never misses an opportunity to bring it up. Long after I have forgotten the rest of this book, I will remember the English folk-dancing Nazi.)

Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49

So Mass Observation was a research organization founded in the 1930s which encouraged Ordinary British Citizens to write in or diary about their daily lives, which quite by happenstance resulted in the creation of this really astoundingly thorough primary-source record of what it was like for a middle-aged British woman to live through WWII. In other words, a researcher's godsend.

It's also sort of astounding how much of a plot there is to this unstructured diary; it feels like something that could be a novel. Nella Last, at the beginning of the war, is a housewife married to a man who doesn't much like to go out and doesn't much like for Nella to go out either, at all, ever. As the book goes on, and she starts taking on war work and becoming involved in local organizations, she begins to write more and more about how trapped and stifled she's felt for most of her marriage; she starts standing up to her husband, taking on new projects, sleeping downstairs in the bomb shelter just so she can have her own space. And meanwhile one of her sons has to join the army, and hates it, and ... falls in love with another soldier? ... I mean obviously Nella Last doesn't say or think that that's what it is, and I am hesitant to start writing RPF about ordinary people, but it looks an awful lot to me like that's what is going on. Fiction has its patterns for a reason, is I guess what I'm saying.

Anyway, it's a fascinating read, though generally not a cheerful one. And occasionally some bit of period-specific awfulness of Nella's will come up and hit you in the face -- when she chattily goes on for a while about how obviously Hitler is awful but perhaps he's not entirely wrong on the eugenics thing, for example, or when her other son comes home and starts complaining about the Jews in his town and Nella's like "lol kiddo looks like you've gotten a bit racist!" in the most unconcerned fashion imaginable.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, Sarah Helm

This is the book which really ended up shaping my Yuletide fic the most -- like, the thing I wrote is probably based on this book as much or more as it is on The Bletchley Circle.

Vera Atkins, a Jewish Romanian, joined the British SOE division as a secretary in 1941. She quickly rose in the organization, became the head of section F (France) and became influential in the deployment of women agents behind the lines. In 1943, the primary network of British agents in France was compromised; though many of the men and women who were captured by the Germans tried their hardest to alert headquarters, SOE's refusal to believe anything was seriously wrong meant numerous other agents heading to France dropped straight into Nazi captivity. This is the grim flipside of Macintyre's trademark cheery spyjinks.

(One captured agent radioed in under duress and pointedly did not provide his double-secret security code -- the whole point of the double-secret security code was to show when someone was radio-ing under duress -- and Atkins' boss radioed cheerily back to tell him that he'd forgotten his double-secret security code and not to do it again! I MEAN.)

Many of Vera Atkins' agents turned up after the war, but many more did not. This book is only partly about the actual wartime espionage; much of the rest of it is about Vera Atkins' determined journey across postwar Europe, visiting concentration camp after concentration camp to attempt to find out what happened to the missing ones. As you might imagine, this does not make for easy reading. But at least her quest wasn't fruitless; she did eventually trace every last one of them.

(For the record, there also exists a RIVAL biography of Vera Atkins. I did not read it, but there is a beautifully scathing review of it that purports to be from the author of this biography, which you can read here if, like me, you are entertained by the prospect of historians getting into fistfights over their subject matter.)

I also read the parts of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan that were available via Google books, because I could not get my hands on a copy in time to read the whole thing before I had to write my fic. But the bits I could read were extremely helpful and I do intend to read the whole thing at some point! Noor Inayat Khan also turns up quite a lot in A Life In Secrets; Sarah Helm seems to think that Vera Atkins was particularly interested in Noor among all her agents, but personally I think this may just be due to the fact that Sarah Helm was particularly interested in Noor among all Vera's agents. Not that one can blame her -- her story is tragic, but incredibly compelling.
skygiants: young Kiha from Legend of the First King's Four Gods in the library with a lit candle (flame of knowledge)
Are you guys tired of Gothics yet? Because I have TWO MORE! And then I am caught up (on Gothics) (not on books in general) (despite my best efforts, that is unlikely to ever happen.)

Anyway these are a new-to-me beast, Andre Norton gothics! I had no idea that she had written anything of the sort until Open Road Media put out all those free ebooks a month or so back, at which point I of course grabbed as many as I could find; I have saved some for later, but while in the Galapagos I read Iron Butterflies and Snow Shadow.

Iron Butterflies )

Snow Shadow )
skygiants: Fakir from Princess Tutu leaping through a window; text 'doors are for the weak' (drama!!!)
Mary Stewart's Wildfires at Midnight was another emergency used-bookstore Gothic novel purchase for my plane ride today, but, alas, kind of a disappointing one.

Wildfires at Midnight traps Our Heroine, fashion model Gianetta, at a vacation-and-fishing lodge in the beautiful mountains of Skye with a Wacky Cast of Characters including:

- a movie star
- a couple of ambiguously lesbian mountain-climbers
- a more famous mountain-climber
- a writer of travel guides
- a happy Boring Fishing Couple
- an unhappy Boring Fishing Couple
- Gianetta's famous writer ex-husband, who cheated on her after they realized they had nothing in common
- Gianetta's alternate love interest, an attractive man with a tragic past
- Gianetta's husband's buddy with no personality

So far so Gilligan's Island, except of course that one of them is ... a MURDERER!!!

Which seems like an OK setup, except all of these people are awfully boring and somewhat indistinguishable (I kept forgetting which boring fishing couple was which, and mixing up Gianetta's husband's buddy with Gianetta's alternate love interest) and the ones who do show a glimmer of being interesting (i.e., most of the other women) disappear from the story with pretty astounding speed. (Not all dead! But the ones who are not dead are still written off into places where they cannot be interesting anymore.)

The denouement! )
skygiants: Jane Eyre from Paula Rego's illustrations, facing out into darkness (more than courage)
Yes, of course when my Kindle died and I had to go used-book hunting I also picked up the first $2 Gothic novel I found, what else did you expect?

Isabelle Holland's The DeMaury Papers is, nowhere near as off-the-wall bizarre as the first book of hers I read, Trelawny (aka the one with at least seven twin-swaps.) Instead, it goes the other direction and becomes hilarious in just how much it straight-faced commits to EVERY SINGLE GOTHIC TROPE. Sinister houses, dead wives, secret societies, evil governesses -- this book has it all!

Our Heroine, Janet de Maury, works in publishing and also just so happens to be the daughter of a Famous Dead Humanitarian Who Founded a Famous Society For World Domination Peace In Our Time, about which Janet has always been somewhat dubious.

JANET: Huh, weird! Our dreamy boss Tony, a book publisher who is also a former congressman who is also about to be named ambassador to a foreign country who is also incredibly handsome and charming who I've also had a crush on since I was fourteen, suddenly wants to pay me a lot of money to write a biography of my father!
BECCA, THE GENRE-SAVVY: Ah, yes, Janet's boss is definitely evil.

However, before she can write the biography, she has to go visit her beautiful dead cousin Rosemary's widower husband Gideon, where he keeps all of Janet's father's papers in the attic of his SINISTER WELSH CASTLE!

JANET: I've met Gideon three times and he's always been incredibly rude and taciturn. Also, I'm pretty sure he blames me for Beautiful Cousin Rosemary's tragic death in a mysterious hit-and-run accident in Italy. I am super not looking forward to spending a month in his sinister Welsh castle.
BECCA, THE GENRE-SAVVY: Ah, yes, Janet and Gideon are definitely going to fall in love.
JANET: However, I am excited to meet Rosemary's son Benedict, a temperamental child who was in a tragic accident and can now only walk at plot-convenient moments!

Before she can meet Benedict, however, Janet is introduced to the rest of the castle's inhabitants:

ROGER, Gideon's younger half-brother, who is charming and witty and likes taking Janet sympathetically aside to explain to her about how regrettably awful Gideon is, because he's definitely not evil!
SHEILA, Benedict's beautiful nurse-slash-governess, who seems to resent Janet for inexplicable reasons and also hate dogs, because she's definitely not evil!
THE DOG, Janet's new best friend and the real love interest of this book!

GIDEON: WELL. I did not want you here, and I would like to make it very clear that you are going to have a miserable time here, because --
JANET: ... omg whose is this dog.
GIDEON: -- um, well, it's a stray that we found and were going to give to --
JANET: wrong, this dog is now MY dog.
GIDEON: ........
JANET: I love this dog so much, coming here was totally worth it just to meet this dog.
GIDEON: .........
JANET: Sorry, were you saying something?
GIDEON: Oh, just that a mysterious person seems to have dumped out all 50 boxes containing your father's papers and now fifty years' worth of documentation is in a disorganized heap on the floor, sorry about that!

But, determined to push on, Janet gets fifty MORE boxes and decides to hire an assistant to help her achieve a semblance of archival order!

GIDEON: Perhaps you would like to hire Gwyneth, the local vicar's bitter daughter? She has a clubfoot and a very intense stare but people say she's very productive!
JANET: Gwyneth seems to have a crush on Gideon and a Bad Attitude, I have a very bad feeling about the fact that I've been guilted into hiring her!
BECCA, THE GENRE-SAVVY: Ah, yes, Gwyneth is definitely evil and we are definitely about to hit some seventies Gothic novel ablism up in here.

GWYNETH: Hey, it's nice to have a job again, my dad is sweet but I really appreciate having the chance to get out and about and exercise my professional skills!
JANET: Gwyneth, I cannot believe I had any doubts about hiring you. I abase myself. You are wonderful in literally every way.
BECCA, THE GENRE-SAVVY: ... my apologies for misjudging you, Isabelle Holland.

JANET: So, Gwyneth, what did you used to do in the big city before you came home to take care of your aging father?
GWYNETH: Oh, I worked for the British secret intelligence service. Bygone days!

Gideon, of course, also worked for the British secret intelligence service. And also the Israeli intelligence service. Because Gideon is not only a Welsh lord, who is also possibly a spy, but ALSO ... the child of a beautiful Jewish Holocaust refugee!

JANET: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about all your mother's tragically dead relatives.
GIDEON: Really? Are you?
JANET: .... um?
GIDEON: Well, it's just your beautiful cousin Rosemary always gave me the impression that you were kind of shallow and didn't care about other people's suffering.
JANET: ........... thanks, Rosemary.
GIDEON: Well, isn't it true that you weren't super into your father and his Secret Society for World Domination Peace?
JANET: Oh, that's because my father was an asshole.
GIDEON: ... but aren't you spending all this time sorting out his papers and writing his biography?
JANET: Oh, that's because my dreamy boss is paying me a lot of money.

In between all this setup, there is of course time for the obligatory Gothic novel dramatic elements, like:

- the mysterious syringes Janet keeps spotting in Benedict's room and which Sheila puts down to Mysteriously Appearing Plot-Convenient Diabetes!
- the time that Janet finds a mysterious note in her room warning her to leave, which then disappears!
- the time that a car almost runs over Janet and Gwyneth!
- the time that someone takes potshots at Janet and Gideon in the woods!
- the time Janet goes up to the attic in the middle of the night looking for her dog and someone clocks her over the head!
- the time someone KIDNAPS THE DOG which is REALLY THE LAST STRAW

The dark secrets and denouement )
skygiants: cute blue muppet worm from Labyrinth (just a worm)
Those who follow me on Twitter may have seen me bewailing the fact that my Kindle tragically expired last week with FIVE DAYS left in the trip and NO PHYSICAL BOOKS.

Obviously, I made a plea for one of the people I was visiting for work to take me to the nearest used bookstore as soon as our meeting was done, where I found a copy of China Miéville's Embassytown.

I've read a lot of Miéville over the years, and I'm kind of annoyed at myself that somehow the one I missed when it was published is perhaps the best one he's ever written. Instead at that time I was reading Kraken. Which ... had elements in which it that were fine ... but was CERTAINLY NO EMBASSYTOWN.

Embassytown is that rare beast, science fiction of hard linguistics. It's set on a human trade outpost on an alien planet, which is populated by an intelligent species, the Ariekei. Communication with the Ariekei is uniquely difficult due to the fact that their language (known only as Language) must a.) be spoken by two mouths at once and b.) spoken with single conscious intent -- so they can't understand a programmed computer voice, or two people with distinct consciousnesses speaking at once; the only thing that registers to them as speech is one mind, speaking in two voices. Or, at least, a very close approximation thereof.

The staff and Ambassadors of Embassytown have gone to great lengths to create that approximation and keep a functioning level of trade communications with their host species, and it's gone OK, for a while. Unfortunately, one experiment is about to accidentally trigger something new, and horrifying -- a genuine linguistic apocalypse.

Caught in the middle of all this is our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, a child of Embassytown who achieved moderate fame as a child by virtue of being enshrined in Language as a living example of an Ariekei simile: "the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her." Avice then rose to the status of minor celebrity by becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who ever left -- and then came back, because her new linguist husband Scile (latest in a line of several spouses) has decided that he would like to write his dissertation on Language. Pretty soon, Scile starts to get a severe bee in his bonnet about the fact that a small group of Ariekei are using similes to teach themselves something that has previously been impossible for them as users of Language: how to lie. Though the problems this causes in Scile and Avice's relationship are fairly rapidly overshadowed by the aforementioned linguistic apocalypse.

This is already a long post and I haven't even mentioned about half the stuff in this book (the living architecture! the space travel! Avice's incredibly intriguing android bff!) It's probably the best showcase of Miéville's incredibly inventive imagination since the Bas-Lag books, but he's leveled up in plotting and leveled out in -- grimness? Not that this book isn't grim, at times, because it CERTAINLY is, and a lot a lot a lot of people (of various species) die, and there are certainly times when it seems like all hope may well be lost, but --

-- well, here's a thing that struck me very much, reading this book at this particular moment: as things get more apocalyptic in the book, I kept waiting for the random acts of senseless hate and prejudice that always appear in an apocalypse, and they never happened. Plenty of horrible things do happen, but they're all either accidental, or motivated by grim logic, or, at absolute worst, ambition. Hatred has a place in this book, but it's always personal. Xenophobia, even under situations that seem like they would almost inevitably create xenophobia, has very little place at all. That's enough, in this story, to allow a turn away from total catastrophe and into change and adaptation. And in spite of the fact that I would not ever call this book cheerful, there's something kind of amazingly optimistic about that.
skygiants: Beatrice from Much Ado putting up her hand to stop Benedick talking (no more than reason)
[personal profile] cinaed happened to be telling me about Heyer's Black Sheep (one of the few I have not read) right before I went on vacation to the Galapagos, and then it happened to be available for Kindle checkout from my library that very day, and so the path for fluffy travel escapist reading had been prepared.

As it turns out, I like pretty much everything about Black Sheep except ... maybe the end .......?

So Black Sheep is one of those Heyers which focuses on an ironical older couple caught up in the orbit of a Very Dramatic younger couple, though in this case the whole point is not to let the younger couple get married. Our Heroine, 28-year-old Abigail Wendover, shares guardianship of her wealthy teenage niece Fanny with her sweet-but-histrionic older sister Selina. Fanny is under the earnest impression that she is desperately in love with Stacy Calverleigh, a sketchy fortune-hunter who is in his late twenties and very, very obviously gross (to Abigail!) (but alas not to Fanny or Selina!)

Enter Stacy Calverleigh's weird uncle Miles, the family black sheep who bounced off to India [obligatory colonialism warning] years ago and happens coincidentally to be back in town.

ABIGAIL: Well, sir, now that you are conveniently in town, will you help me break up my niece and your nephew?
MILES: I would, but: I'm not responsible for him and I don't care.
ABIGAIL: Would you care if you pointed out to you repeatedly how it was an important and ethical thing to do?
MILES: I definitely would not care about that. But you seem like fun, so can keep doing it if it means you'll keep hanging out with me!

Miles is Not Respectable any more than his nephew is, but, to her deep embarrassment, Abigail finds herself Showing Him Marked Preference. He is just so entertaining! However, the rest of her highly respectable extended family is even MORE down on him than they are on Stacy Calverleigh, because there is a Dark Tragic Secret Linking Them In Their Past --

MILES: Oh, yes, I definitely tried to elope with your brother's fiancee way back in the day. Embarrassing times for all!
ABIGAIL: Oh, so this was a Love Tragically Thwarted kind of thing?
MILES: Definitely, definitely not, SO happy we didn't go through with it. That was a disaster waiting to happen.

So this is all set up in the front half of the book, and then Abigail mostly spends the back half of the book zooming around in twelve different directions trying to stop Fanny from running off with Sketchy Stacy, while also grappling with the question of whether she would be a big fat hypocrite to do everything in her power to prevent Fanny from marrying Stacy against her family's wishes and immediately afterwards herself bounce off to marry Miles against her family's wishes. Like, it's definitely different just due to the fact that she is an adult and Fanny is not! But is it that different?

Spoilers for the end )
skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
I just finished reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show -- a deeply weird, depressing, idealistic, fascinating, occasionally horrible book. I think I loved it but I don't know at all whether I feel OK telling anybody else to read it, so I'm just going to talk about it and we'll see where that gets us.

Summer Will Show -- set in 1848 but written in 1936, and if you read it you will not forget it was written in 1936 -- focuses on Sophia Willoughby, a pragmatic, stoical, narrow-minded, extremely upper-class Englishwoman who has banished her philandering husband and is engaged in raising her two children on her well-ordered estate.

Sophia is very competent at fulfilling her role but feels deeply trapped and frustrated by every aspect of it, including being a mother. She hates having to worry about her sickly children and all the things that could conceivably kill them; she dreams of retreating to a cottage and doing things that it would never conceivably be allowable for her to do, like chopping her own damn wood. Obviously it is nonetheless awful when within the first forty pages or so, both of her children catch smallpox and die.

At a loss for purpose and next steps, and maybe not exactly in her clearest state of mind, Sophia decides to go to Paris and demand that her husband get her pregnant again so she can at least have something to do with the rest of her life. She happens to land right at the start of the February Revolution and the rest is lesbian revolutionary spoilers. )
skygiants: Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena holding a red rose (i'm the witch)
Intisar Khanani's Sunbolt Chronicles is an ongoing fantasy serial which currently consists of Sunbolt (novella) and Memories of Ash (novel.) It stars Hitomi, a Plucky Street Urchin with magical talents; she begins as a bit player in a revolution and subsequently bounces through a rapid succession of plot elements including but not limited to:

- an escape from a sinister dungeon!
- a bond with a life-sucking supernatural individual!
- a mentor with a mysterious past!
- a mission from a phoenix!
- a missing mother with inexplicable motivations!
- a wedding invitation in the middle of a feud in the middle of the desert!
- vampires!
- werewolves!
- tanuki!
- magic school!
- a heist!

The series definitely has a protagonist and it definitely has a villain, but otherwise it is structured more or less as A Series Of Interesting Events; Hitomi always has a goal of one sort or another, but she's frequently thrown off-course into other adventures in a way that makes the story feel TV-episodic in a way that novels usually don't. I find it interestingly difficult to predict what's going to happen next. Part of that is because of the serial structure, and the other part of it is --

OK, you know how when you read a novel it is frequently very easy to tell who the thematically important people are going to be, especially love interests, because the author will take a moment to indicate something about their appearance or manner that's interesting, and you're like, ah! We're meant to care about THAT person, they will most likely play some sort of important role later on.

The thing is that pretty much every named character who shows up in the Sunbolt Chronicles gets this treatment. Everyone is important! It's pretty refreshing! This, and the interestingly weird weird structure, and one or two other factors (one and a half whole books in and there has as of yet been no romance!) make it stand out for me from the other present-tense first-person YA which it otherwise resembles.
skygiants: (swan)
As mentioned, I had a strong urge to reread some E. Nesbit thanks to Everfair, so I took The Enchanted Castle with me on vacation.

The Enchanted Castle is quite possibly the ur-Nesbit. It has everything:

- a group of squabbling but affectionate siblings
- a ring of invisibility! (or is it a wishing ring?) (or is it a TOKEN OF THE GODS THAT EXACTS A TERRIBLE PRICE FOR ITS USAGE?) (or is it just going to make you repeatedly and unfortunately late for tea?)
- a background tragic long-lost romance
- people turning into statues! statues turning into living statues! (quite useful, as it turns out that "all statues that come to life are proficient in all athletic exercises")
- implausibly friendly Greek myths come to life; see also 'living statues' (Eros is "a really nice boy, as the girls instantly agreed" and Psyche is "a darling, as any one could see")
- A DINOSAUR; see once again 'living statues'
- an unsubtle critique of capitalism
- a fair bit of probably accidental period classism
- a brief unfortunate incident of blackface
- a collection of construct puppets that come horribly alive and demand, in the most Uncanny Valley fashion possible, to be shown to a really good hotel!

The bit with the puppets that come alive is probably the most memorable set piece of The Enchanted Castle, a book that contains a number of extremely memorable set pieces; they are simultaneously so disturbing and so hilariously banal, requiring Our Plucky Heroes to screw their courage to the sticking point and NOT ONLY cunningly walk them to the tunnel where they plan to imprison them, but ALSO at the same time answer polite questions about their schoolwork and whether they play sports. The worst of all possible things!

Really, nowhere does E. Nesbit show how much she knows her way around writing kids more than in The Enchanted Castle. The magical adventures are wonderful, and occasionally rise up into the numinous and almost haunting -- I'm fascinated by the dropped remark at the end that this book would have absolutely been an epic tragedy, were it not for the convenient fact that the people who found the magical ring were children and not yet adults -- but the parts that are just kids hanging out complaining at each other without any magic at all are just as compelling, and also hilarious.

More Nesbit rereads are almost certainly in my future, though I don't remember loving any of her books quite as much as The Enchanted Castle. (Edward Eager rereads, too, since every single thing he ever wrote is an ardent love letter to E. Nesbit, which is how I discovered her in the first place.)
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
Nisi Shawl's Everfair is an alternate history in which a group of British socialists and African-American missionaries form an unlikely partnership to buy up a parcel of land and found an independent Utopian nation in the Belgian Congo. Unsurprisingly, things do not go 100% Utopian from there. On the downside, the colony has to deal with international intrigue and attacks by hostile Belgian forces as well as internal conflicts about race and religion and governance; on the upside, everyone does get mechanical limbs and mechanical airships!

The book covers about 30 years of story-time, beginning in the 1890s and progressing up past the end of WWI. Some things change as a result of the existence of Everfair, and others don't. As a thought experiment, it's extremely compelling and well-thought-out. As a story, I found it interesting to read but a little difficult to fall into completely -- the story progresses as a series of brief chapters from a variety of POVs, and often skips ahead months or years in between chapters. This allows for a thorough and complex picture of the whole colony, but, on the flip side, made the individual character arcs feel really choppy (at least to me).

The only character thread that really spans the whole book is the fraught romance between Daisy Albin (AU E. Nesbit -- most major characters are AUs of historic figures, but she was the only one I could recognize without looking it up because I am not an expert on the Fabian Socialists but I am an expert on E. Nesbit's Life Choices) and Lisette Toutournier (AU Colette, whom I feel I ought to have recognized, but did not, because I have never actually read any Colette.) Spoilers )

Anyway. Everfair is worth reading, and I'm glad I read it, but I did not like it as much overall as Shawl's short stories, which I now want to reread. Along with a lot of E. Nesbit.
skygiants: ran and nijiko from 7 Seeds, looking faintly judgy (dubious lesbians)
I really wanted to love Peter Beagle's newest novel Summerlong, because I love Peter Beagle and I never thought we would get a new Beagle novel, but alas I did not like it so well as I wished.

Summerlong follows long-term stable romantic partners Abe Aronson, a cranky Jewish retired professor that it's difficult not to read as Beagle's self-insert, and Joanna Delvecchio, a flight attendant counting down the years until she can retire and do what she wants.

Their relatively settled patterns are disrupted by the entrance of Lioness, a Mysterious Beautiful Young Woman who is Vaguely Greek And Somehow Unworldly, Strongly Identified With Spring, Makes Flowers Bloom, and appears to be Fleeing Or Hiding From Someone, Maybe, IDK, A Divine Greek Husband...?

Basically this appears to be Peter Beagle's stab at a divine-mundane novel in the vein of DWJ's Eight Days of Luke, in which a brush with myth triggers a change in the lives of the humans caught up in it. This is all well and good as far as it goes, and certainly Peter Beagle has the chops for the numinous mundane, except that the mundane part interwoven with the myth has all the features of those professor-midlife-crisis novels that have long been my nemesis, featuring irritated spoilers )

...however, the whole thing was almost worth it for how hard I laughed during one particular sequence in which Abe reads the entire Lymond Chronicles while repeatedly flying back and forth between Chicago and Seattle. This is as far as I remember the only other fiction namechecked in the entire book. Why the Lymond Chronicles, Peter Beagle? Did you just now read them and decide you had to tell the world?
skygiants: Beatrice from Much Ado putting up her hand to stop Benedick talking (no more than reason)
I have been reading some more Jennifer Crusie! Top-tier Jennifer Crusie, this time.

My favorite of the three was Faking It, which I devoured in a sitting on a plane ride today. It is definitely, DEFINITELY screwball -- 'let's have a running gag of calling each other by the names of side characters in screwball comedies' screwball -- and features the romance between Tilda, a reformed art forger desperate to recover some early false-identity paintings before they are exposed, and Davy, a reformed con artist that she meets in a closet belonging to the owner of the paintings while he is attempting to ineptly burgle the house at the exact same time that she is. SO MANY hijinks ensue. Also, so much time in the world's largest fictional closet. At one point three separate people are hiding in that closet and TWO OF THEM DON'T KNOW THE OTHER ONE IS THERE. I kept expecting them to find Narnia in the back of it.

This is also definitely another of my favorite kind of trapped-in-an-inn sort of comedy which features a number of zany side characters who all end up living in the same house with our leads, including:

- Tilda's sister Eve, a nice kindergarten teacher who has a wild dance club alter ego named Louise; it has reached the point where people buy Eve and Louise separate Christmas presents
- Eve's best friend and ex-husband, Andrew, who owns the night club where Louise works and is hypocritically a little concerned about Louise's wild ways
- Andrew's very nice new lawyer husband Jeff, whom everybody loves and relies on in his role as (ironically) the zany family's token straight man
- Eve and Andrew's teenage daughter Nadine, who is constantly trying on boyfriends in an attempt to see if their career paths will suit her; Nadine and her boyfriend du jour are also constantly accompanied by Nadine's loyal retainer who appears to be perfectly content with his lot as the one permanent member of Nadine's rotating harem
- Tilda's mother, who channels all her frustration at being fifty-something and trapped in an art gallery she hates into constantly tearing through Double Acrostics until she finds herself suddenly caught in a dramatic love triangle between
- the boring rich man who owns all the paintings that Davy and Tilda keep attempting to burgle
- and the cute hit man who might be attempting to murder Davy and is definitely attempting to get Tilda's mom to come away with him to Aruba

And these are just relatively major characters, and does not even mention Davy's father who seduces the depressing painter who lives upstairs, and Eve/Louise's temporary love interest who hasn't yet figured out they're the same person, and the caterer who is secretly an FBI agent, and -- I mean, there are five billion things going in in this book and they're all completely ridiculous, but it's all super cute family-who-cares-about-each-other ridiculous which is just about my favorite kind of ridiculous.

Welcome to Temptation, to which Faking It serves as a sequel, is also very much about families, but rather less zany (although not zero amounts of zany.) Welcome to Temptation stars Davy's sisters Sophie and Amy, who have been hired to come to small-town Temptation in order to shoot some very tasteful soft-core porn. The love interest is the town's single dad mayor, and the book's emotional focus is on figuring out how to break out of dysfunctional family patterns without completely destroying the important relationships at the heart of them, which is one of the reasons it feels more serious and bittersweet than Faking It despite the fact that the actual plot is "SMALL TOWN SCANDALIZED WHEN ASSHOLE FOUND MURDERED AT PORN SHOOT."

The best part of this book is definitely the end, when spoiler )

And then there is Bet Me, perhaps the first Jennifer Crusie I have read that features no dead bodies, gangsters, or hit men whatsoever! Instead it has a lot of good solid adult important friendships, which is actually really nice to read about. It is probably also the most satisfying of the three as romance, with a nice slow-developing Beatrice and Benedick kind of trust-and-friendship-out-of-irritable-rivalry thing. I keep trying to come up with a pithy summary of the plot, but there isn't one really -- mostly it's really just various scenes of Min and Cal and their pals hanging out and forming one friendship-family out of what was previously two friendship-families, held together with a great deal of banter.

(...that said, I realize what Crusie was going for with the whole 'Cal appreciates chubby Min's body exactly the way it is and therefore pushes her to eat what she wants,' I know the sexy donuts thing worked for many people as body positivity, but dang, DO NOT SHOVE FOOD INTO SOMEONE'S MOUTH IF THEY'VE SAID THEY DO NOT TO EAT THE FOOD, do not do this, consensual donut eating only please!)
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
I'm a little sad the cover of the copy of Belva Plain's Crescent City that I snagged off the free bookshelf at the Traveler Restaurant is not as amazingly EIGHTIES! HISTORICAL!! as the one on the Goodreads page, but we can't have everything.

Anyway, I grabbed Crescent City because, EIGHTIES! HISTORICAL!! aside, it's about a Jewish family in New Orleans during the Civil War -- not a thing one sees frequently in historical romance -- and I was super curious how that would play out.

(Sidenote: I'd never heard of Belva Plain before, but apparently she was basically like the Jewish Philippa Gregory and spent the 80s and 90s writing tons of bestselling books about Jewish women having dramatic historical times and/or Contemporary Issues. Reviews seem to think Crescent City is pretty same-old as far as her stuff goes, but it was new to me!)

Crescent City starts out when Ferdinand, a formerly poor European Jew who has Made His Fortune in New Orleans, comes home to collect his two kids David and Miriam from their aunt and grandpa in the shtetl and bring them to their new life of Southern debutante wealth and fortune!

And then, eventually, the Civil War, but it takes a while )

I'm not sure I necessarily need to seek out anything else by Belva Plain after this, but I am glad I picked up and read this one. The book is, you know, the kind of EIGHTIES! HISTORICAL!! that it is, and certainly its Jewish-but-nonetheless-extremely-white perspective on the Civil War leaves a LOT of room for intersectional improvement, but it is pretty cool to see historical fiction about Jewish people that has the fact of their Jewishness interwoven into the story without making specifically-Jewish-suffering the entire point and plot. And there's still not a whole lot of that going around.
skygiants: storybook page of a duck wearing a pendant, from Princess Tutu; text 'mukashi mukashi' (mukashi mukashi)
A month or two ago, I went to the Yiddish Book Center for an archives conference that happened to be hosted there.

The idea of collecting Yiddish books was first conceived of by Aaron Lansky in the late 1970s, when Yiddish books were being thrown away by the thousands as a generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were starting to die and leave their possessions to children who didn't see a point in keeping a lot of books around that they couldn't read. Lansky -- at that time a graduate student in Eastern European Jewish Studies who was having a near-impossible time actually getting his hands on any Yiddish books to read -- put out a call in his hometown that if people were thinking of throwing away their Yiddish books, they should send them to him instead. Pretty soon, the story goes, his parents called to tell him that he had to figure out another solution because they were fairly sure the second floor of their house was about to cave in from the weight of the books that people were passing onto them. The Book Center, as it now exists, seeks out Yiddish books and digitizes them; sorts titles to identify unique ones; provides copies of Yiddish books to other libraries; runs a translation program to print Yiddish titles in English; and runs cultural and educational programs, among a bunch of other stuff.

I can't speak Yiddish -- it's a language lost to me by several generations -- but I've been starting to look into classes; I'd give a lot to be able to read Yiddish books. Until then, the next-best thing is reading about Yiddish books, so I put Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books on library reserve.

Anway, last weekend [personal profile] aquamirage and I went to go see the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and it was amazing, and all my Yid-lit feelings came roaring to the surface again. I came home and immediately picked up Outwitting History, which turns out to be a relatively light and cheerful collection of anecdotes about salvaging a language and culture that has at several points throughout the 20th century been the target of brutal and deliberate extinction. This is entirely in keeping with the general tone of Yiddish literature, which is often funny and depressing and uplifting and pessimistic all at once. (After seeing Fiddler, [personal profile] aquamirage said, 'I knew the whole plot but I didn't know how funny it was going to be!') So, you know. Come for the cute stories about enthusiastic elderly Jews stuffing the faces of bemused book-collectors with kugel and borscht, but stay for stuff like the first shipment of Yiddish books back to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
To continue the trend of catch-up reviewing fluff I've read over the past month, the Cecelia and Kate novels recently came out in super-cheap omnibus edition, so I spent my work trip back in September rereading them for the first time in about 12 years.

For those unfamiliar, Sorcery and Cecelia: or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot is basically the ur-example of the Regency fantasy genre recently taken up by such folks as Mary Robinette Kowal and Galen Beckett. It's an epistolary novel co-written by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, featuring two sprightly young Regency cousins, one of whom (Kate) goes to London to have her Season with a melodramatic magician, while the other (Cecelia) stays home, starts picking up magic, and bickers with a cranky local squire. Kate and Cecelia write each other copious letters to complain about their respective love interests, gossip about their aunts and siblings, and exchange information regarding important magical conspiracies and also about important new dress patterns, and it's all incredibly charming.

Subsequently Wrede and Stevermer wrote two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, or: Ten Years After, which are still enjoyable but do not have the same spark. The Grand Tour is written as a combination of diary (Kate) and court deposition (Cecelia) about events that occurred on their honeymoon trip, which means, first of all, that the book feels sort of unbalanced, because Kate is going on and on in her diary about her magical new nights with her new husband while Cecelia is like OK PALS HERE'S THE FACTS; but also, second of all, neither format really works as well as epistolary for conveying either the voices of the characters or the dynamic between the cousins. Like, they spend all book in the same place, but they don't actually spend much time talking to each other. Which is sort of frustrating!

The Mislaid Magician is better, because it's back to epistolary, but it also incorporates letters from the respective husbands (James and Thomas) along with the ones between Kate and Cecelia, and -- well. Hmmm. You know, I used to like James and Thomas a lot? And it's not that I dislike them now, but all the things they sort of take for granted as Regency dudes grates on me much more now than it did when I was 18. They're not awful! They're perfectly fine! But Sorcery and Cecelia, both Kate and Cecelia spend a great deal of time challenging and deflating the assumptions and self-importance of their love interests, and once they're married -- especially with Thomas and Kate, of whose married relationship we see a great deal more -- it settles into much more of a Regency household status quo. Like, there's a sort of layer of paternalism, an assumption of the husband's rights to Forbid Things and Act Protectively that is of course thoroughly plausible, and it's probably likewise plausible that it wouldn't bother Kate. But it bothers me, a little, though not enough to ruin the books.
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
I had to do a separate post for Jennifer Crusie's Agnes and the Hitman, because a.) it was not included in the omnibus and b.) it's not just a Jennifer Crusie book, it was co-written with military suspense author Bob Mayer, and c.) it is SLAPSTICK MURDER BANANAS. Think, like, The Sopranos meets Bringing Up Baby.

Our Heroine in Agnes and the Hitman is a food columnist who writes under the name Cranky Agnes, who is about to get married to a mediocre dude in order to land an amazing house and a great line of best-selling co-written cookbooks.

Suddenly: a guy turns up and attempts to kidnap her dog!

In response, Agnes accidentally murders him by hitting him on the head with a frying pan!

Unfortunately, Agnes has qualms about calling the police, as this not the first time that Agnes has hit a guy in the head with a frying pan.


Anyway. Instead of the cops, Agnes calls in her lovable gangster faux-uncle, who subsequently calls in his actual nephew, a stoic hit man. Shane the hit man is supposed to watch out for Agnes until they figure out why criminals keep turning up at her house and attempting to murder her and/or kidnap her dog.

MEANWHILE, Agnes is mostly just annoyed because all these criminals, gang members, hit men, and murder are getting in the way of her real goals: catering a perfect wedding for the daughter of her best friend, mob princess Lisa Livia!

Further plot points include catering mishaps, a million-dollar missing mob necklace, Lisa Livia's mob-widow mother's ongoing attempts to sabotage the wedding, a mysterious murder bunker/basement in which Lisa Livia's mob-widow mother may or may not have murdered Lisa Livia's mobster father, Agnes' accidental adoption of a confused teenage gangster who initially turned up as part of the chain of would-be-murderers in her house, the health inspector's legitimate concerns about all this catering being done in a house which has so very recently had so much murder in it, and the surprise arrival of a lonely flamingo in a box.

Oh, and to add to the chaos, Shane the stoic hit man and his partner (a slightly older, more philosophical hit man who's along for the ride) are engaged in an ongoing battle with their OWN murder assignment. However, Shane also helps Agnes get a new air conditioner and thoughtfully runs various catering-related errands without being asked, so everyone is agreed that he's a good egg really. And, to be honest, he does come off as one of the most endearing Jennifer Crusie romantic prospects I've encountered thus far!
skygiants: Izumi and Sig Curtis from Fullmetal Alchemist embracing in front of a giant heart (curtises!)
Before my last big work trip, I got out a Jennifer Cruise four-in-one bundle from the library, because the library had it in e-book and I figured I would need something escapist to read on my travel adventures.

...that was a much simpler time, when I really believed my biggest stressor this fall was going to be too many transcontinental flights, but we'll let this pass for now. Anyway! Jennifer Crusie, her earliest endeavors. This four-pack includes:

Getting Rid of Bradley: in which a woman who has finally ended her relationship with her ex-husband, Terrible Controlling Bradley, finds out he might be involved in Shady Dealings by virtue of accidentally attacking the policeman investigating the aforementioned Shady Dealings. The policeman then moves into her house as a bodyguard and decides he loves a.) her, b.) domesticity, c.) her dogs, in approximately that order. Eventually they adopt more dogs. It's quite cute.

Strange Bedpersons: in which a liberal teacher becomes the fake fiancee of her conservative lawyer love interest, with a side plot about our heroine Tess taking on a neoconservative author who's written a book making fun of the activist fairy tale that inspired her as a kid. I was kind of :/ about this one even before political happenings in the US made it completely impossible for me to find Conservative Lawyer Nick in ANY WAY appealing as a love interest for Tess. On the other hand, all the scenes in which Nick attempts to do something that he thinks he is helpful that in fact is wildly contrary to Tess' interests or style while his uber-efficient secretary is like 'this is a bad idea, she won't like this, LET ME JUST DO SOMETHING FOR HER THAT SHE'LL LIKE' gave me a great alternate ship. Has anyone written the billionaire romance novel in which the billionaire's uber-efficient secretary who is effectively running the romance for him ends up stealing the heroine out from under his nose? Someone should write that billionaire romance novel.

What the Lady Wants: a love letter to noir, in which a femme fatale hires a PI to investigate her uncle's murder!! ... except she's secretly pretty sure that he wasn't actually murdered, she just wants to find a missing document, and the PI is actually just a real estate agent who's taken a year off to play PI on a bet. Also, gangsters. The noir trappings in this one are fun even if I did not like the hero at all; I think Jennifer Crusie was going for 'fun forties banter' but he tipped a little too far over into asshole early on for me and never quite pulled himself out enough.

Charlie All Night: in which love and hijinks among the oddballs who work at a local radio station! So of course I was going to like this one. Our heroine is a producer; our hero is the new late-night radio host who is secretly only there to investigate crimes at the station and does not actually want to be famous or successful at all, but it is TOO LATE, curse his velvety chocolate voice! Also notable for the fact that a.) it includes an actual gay character and b.) notably in a collection that also includes Getting Rid of Bradley and What the Lady Wants (theft! gangsters! murder!), the crime in this book just turns out to be that spoilers )

Over the course of reading these four books -- plus Agnes and the Hitman, which I also read, on which more anon -- I have learned that Jennifer Crusie really likes the following tropes in her romance:

- evil ex-boyfriends
- adorable failboat dogs
- murder
- fake dating
- screwball hijinks
- surprise bodyguarding
- weird but lovable gangster uncles
- women who have a Personal and Easily Identifiable Style (this one stood out to me just because, while I think I have a style, it encompasses a WIDE ARRAY of types and shapes of garments, so 'only ever wears twirly sundresses, looks super notable in a fitted skirt!' stood out to me because .. I wear both ......)
- dudes who have emphatically zero interest in long-term romantic commitment with anyone on page one, and have decided they're definitely going to marry the heroine by page one hundred (well before the heroine has decided she has any interested in marrying them back)

And for the record, yes, I know, I have it on everyone's authority that Faking It and Bet Me are the best ones, I have Bet Me out from the library now (see: stressors, escapism, YOU ALL KNOW WHAT'S UP), but at the time I needed the maximum amount of Jennifer Crusie for the minimum amount of hassle. It was a very long plane ride.
skygiants: Jane Eyre from Paula Rego's illustrations, facing out into darkness (more than courage)
So in Barbara Michaels's Houses of Stone, Our Heroine Karen is an academic with a focus on early nineteenth-century Gothics (oh yes I see what you did there Barbara Michaels, we all saw what you did there) who is convinced she's had the break of her career when her dashing bookseller friend finds a handwritten manuscript of a genuine! female-authored! early American Gothic novel!!!

In order to prove the manuscript's authenticity, Karen promptly drops everything -- including bailing on a pre-planned trip with one of her theroetically best friends, which soured me kind of on Karen, as Karen is deeply offended by the notion that her friend might be a little put out by this -- to skedaddle down to the house in Virginia where the manuscript was found in the hopes she can find some details that will prove the manuscript is genuine and, ideally, autobiographical.

Given that the plot of the manuscript is "TRAGIC ORPHANS arrive at a MYSTERIOUS HOUSE! ft. a SINISTER MADWOMAN!!! and POSSIBLE SURPRISE INCEST!!!!!!!!' I'm not really sure why Karen is ever convinced she's going to prove the manuscript is autobiographical -- I mean, as far as I know there's no evidence that Ann Radcliffe was ever imprisoned in an Italian castle or abducted by banditti -- but sure, this seems like legitimate academic research, I guess.

But alas, Karen has difficulty pursuing her research, because sinister events are pursuing her! Her rented room catches on fire! Someone tries to run her over! The house where the manuscript was found may well be haunted! The local DAR chapter just will not stop asking her to give them a historical lecture on the Brontes!

As usual, the book features two eligible bachelors -- Bachelor A is the cranky owner of the house where the manuscript was found, who MIGHT have a sinister secret, or MIGHT just be sinisterly attractive; Bachelor B is Karen's academic rival who's EITHER pursuing her because he wants to steal the manuscript OR because he wants to steal her heart!! -- but honestly there's probably less than 30 pages in total spent on either of them and neither Barbara Michaels nor Karen really cares all that much.

And then there is PEGGY, Karen's sidekick, a sixty-something historian who is mysteriously independently wealthy and is super enjoying the opportunity to wade up to her knees in Gothic intrigue and flirt with Karen's dashing bookseller friend. (This is why Karen's dashing bookseller friend is not Bachelor C; he's busy.) Peggy is, to be honest, significantly more interesting and likable than Karen. Karen spends most of the book very cranky, which is fine, but also, Karen is mean about all her friends (except Peggy -- well, sometimes she's even mean about Peggy, in a 'I DON'T NEED YOU, MOM!' kind of way) and she's also mean about her other academic rival, the one who is not a love interest, because she's older and intense and wears too much makeup. Karen! The whole book is centered around your ardent feminism! BE LESS MEAN TO OTHER WOMEN.

I also did not find the manuscript-within-a-manuscript particularly convincing, mostly because it's written in more close a third person than any contemporaneous Gothic novel I can remember reading, but, you know, pastiche is hard, I get it. Anyway, I can't complain too much given that a solid 2/3 of the plot is just Karen and Peggy standing around analyzing Gothic tropes and that is the sort of thing that I do love.
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
I picked up The Rivers Ran East -- a theoretically factual 1950s account of an explorer's journey in the Peruvian jungle -- based entirely on seeing a tumblr post featuring the quote "Ever since he had aimed that gun at my throat, I had liked him immensely. And now I liked him even better, and was terribly sorry he was not going in search of El Dorado with me," because I did not fully believe this was something that a real human had written in a theoretically factual account.

Reader, it was, and he did.

This book might as well be titled 'I'm Leonard Clark, and welcome to Jackass.' )
skygiants: Cha Song Joo and Lee Su Hyun from Capital Scandal in a swing pose (got that swing)
I think the release of Courtney Milan's Hold Me officially marks the end of this fall's Sequel Season for me! It was also great timing because the book came out right as I was about to board an 11-hour flight from Europe to San Francisco, while plague-ridden, and having a new Courtney Milan was the only thing that made this experience tolerable.

(Well, that and the fact that my flight was practically empty so I got a whole row to myself. SUCH LUXURY.)

Anyway, Hold Me is the sequel to Trade Me, in which financially-strapped student Tina traded lives with a billionaire student Blake, resulting in romantic hijinks and -- relevantly for Hold Me -- the formation of a household consisting of Tina, Blake, and Tina's roommate Maria, the heroine of this book.

Maria is a trans Latina woman who bonded with Tina over being one of the few non-eighteen-year-olds in their undergraduate class, and who has spent the last several years writing an increasingly popular blog featuring various apocalyptic scenarios built on statistical math projections. Her current problems include:

- the fact that sharing a household with a couple who just had a whole romance novel feels a lot less comfortable than sharing a household with just her buddy Tina
- the oncoming fact of graduation and resultant need to get a sensible job as an actuary, and possibly spend less time blogging
- relatedly, an ongoing ambiguous flirtation with a long-time commenter on her blog that is taking up a lot of time and attention that she should probably be using to research sensible actuary jobs
- the fact that she keeps bumping into her brother's new bestie Jay, an asshole with a lot of unexamined assumptions about makeup/fashion/visible femininity and how those things don't go together with intelligence or scientific achievement

Physicist Jay na Thalang is, of course, both the long-time blog commenter and the romantic lead of the story, because this is an unabashed Shop Around The Corner trope with no bones about it. His problems include the unexamined sexism and a host of familiar academic woes of the 21st century (imposter syndrome, grant-writing, job instability, the dream of tenure....)

Jay also, for the record, has a tragic backstory involving suicide of a loved one and resultant family complications which didn't ... not feel real or integrated? ... but did feel like it got possibly a too-snappy resolution -- I liked both Jay and Maria's families, but I think overall Trade Me did a much better job of making me invested in the protagonist's parents/relatives and integrating them into the plot; it was one of that book's great strengths. (Tina's mom is still my favorite.) I would've liked to see more of Maria's brother and grandmother, especially. That said, I loved Maria and the loving detail poured into her nerdy math-science-apocalypse blog TREMENDOUSLY, and I like Shop Around the Corner tropes, and all the university/college/grad school stuff felt extremely well-drawn to me; overall this continues to be one of my favorite Milan series.


skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (Default)

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