skygiants: Hikaru from Ouran walking straight into Tamaki's hand (talk to the hand)
At first I expected to write a rather scathing post about Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink, and then I got like 2/3 of the way through and realized that there were in fact some things I really liked about the book to counteract the things that made me stare into the camera like I was on the office, and THEN I got to the end and -

-- ok let me backtrack. The Weight of Ink is a serious literary novel about a pair of academics (the favorite protagonists of serious literary novels) who have discovered a treasure trove of 17th-century documents in a staircase written by Ester Velasquez, a Portuguese Jewish woman who Confounded All Tradition by acting as scribe for a London rabbi. The book proceeds to interweave Ester's story and POV with that of the academics as they discover various bits of evidence pointing to the things that Rachel Kadish will then later explain to us in Ester's narrative sections.

Ester's story is .... it's mostly good? I think I have come around to largely thinking it's good. It starts to pick up around the middle of the book, when Ester starts writing letters to various famous philosophers under fake male names so that she can Engage in the Discourse.

[ACADEMIC A: [Ester's fake name] did not get much attention during his career or make any important allies -
ACADEMIC B: Oh, why is that?
ACADEMIC A: Well, basically, he was very rude to everyone he wrote to.

I will admit I was charmed.]

Ester's most important relationships are with the rabbi -- a good and wise man who respects her intellect and cannot support the ways in which she chooses to use it -- and with Rivka, the rabbi's housekeeper, a Polish Jew who acts as Ester's foil in a number of significant ways, not all of them obvious or expected. Both of these dynamics have an interesting and complicated tension to them that goes well beyond the standard 'I, A Misunderstood Woman Ahead Of My Time.'

Also there is another young upper-class Jewish woman who is rebellious in wildly different ways than Ester is; a pair of brothers who are both interested in marrying Ester for profoundly different reasons, neither of which is true love; and, for a brief period of time, a love interest. The love interest is hilariously lacking in personality and equally hilariously irrelevant to Ester's life on the whole, and mostly exists to trigger a series of philosophical musings related to desire about which Ester can fight with Spinoza. I guess The Distant Shadow Of Spinoza is also one of Ester's most significant relationships.

Anyway, I appreciate the weighting of these relationships, and the way in which the narrative emphasis shifted from what I expected, and especially all the relationships that were not grounded in romance, but in other forms of love and duty and resentment and complicated emotional bonds.

And ... then there's our modern academics.

Helen Watt is a stiff-necked elderly British specialist in Jewish history, who is on the verge of retirement due to Parkinson's disease. Helen has a Tragic Backstory: in her youth, she spent a month as a volunteer in Israel in the 1950s and had a summer fling. Sorry, let me rephrase: she met an Israeli soldier who was the love! of her life!! (For a month.)

The pivotal scene in their romance occurs when Helen shows up for one of their few actual shared off days to have a date, and he hands her a copy of The History of the Jewish People and then LEAVES and REFUSES TO COME BACK until she's READ IT COVER TO COVER. This is the only way she can understand our endless, endless oppression!

(Meanwhile, he lurks outside, and periodically brings her snacks. THIS SCENE IS SOMEHOW NOT MEANT TO BE COMIC.)

Alas, Young Helen in her frailty decides it's all a LITTLE too much for her, and subsequently regrets her lost love until the end of her days. But, inspired by the world's weirdest date, she decides to dedicate her life to the study of Jewish history, so I guess ... that's all right .....?

She is assisted in her endeavors by Aaron, the third POV character. Aaron is an insufferable American Jewish Ph.D. student. He is working on a dissertation about Shakespeare and the Jews, for which he has no evidence, so instead he spends the entire book obsessing over an unattainable Cool Girl. (And she is so textbook Cool Girl! The coolest girl of all! A girl who poses nude for artists who capture a certain something about her, a girl who's just realer than other girls, THE MAGICAL IDEAL.) He sends her incredibly long, pompous emails after a one-night stand which took place on an evening in which "he waited until Marisa was on her second beer -- he kept track from a distance, biding his time. When he approached at last, his own untouched beer dangling casually in his hand --" OKAY AARON, THANKS AND GOODBYE, YOU AND I ARE DONE.

But alas, we are not done with Aaron, we are not done with Aaron at all. Eventually Aaron does come to realize that he's insufferable! A significant part of this realization comes when he visits an archive and meets a shy, demure archivist who's bad at flirting, and is suddenly struck by how desperately sad it is that people like her may never find love because they're all overlooked by assholes like him. If only people like him paid attention to people like her, their lives might be fulfilling and the world would be better! ALAS.

(There are two other archivists in the book, The Interchangeable Patricias. They have a few moments of heroically rising to Helen's aid but mostly their role is to stand as icily competent, largely humorless glowering gate-guards over the sacred text, because of course.)

So basically everything about the modern sections was nonsense to me. (Also, I got mad every time they found a document that explained to them a Piece of the Mystery in a way that was way too narratively convenient. 'Oh, look, Ester doodled out her real name and her fake name next to each other and added a note that said 'HEY IT'S ALL MY NAMES!' Isn't that handy!')

Still, Ester's story in and of itself was good and compelling and interesting, and grudgingly I became invested in it despite myself...

And then spoilers! )
skygiants: Sheska from Fullmetal Alchemist with her head on a pile of books (ded from book)
Juliet Takes a Breath was our book club book for the month of August. I am glad for the existence of this book in the world and I am glad I read it, and with that said my experience of reading it was largely one of OVERWHELMING CONTACT EMBARRASSMENT.

Juliet Takes a Breath is the coming-of-age story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a young Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx who's spending the summer of 2002 interning in Portland, Oregon! with international feminist sensation Harlowe Brisbane! author of "Raging Flower," a book about VAGINA POWER!

Unsurprisingly, pretty much every time Harlowe Brisbane spoke a sentence I wanted to retract my head all the way back inside my nonexistent turtle shell until a million years had passed and womyn power white lady feminism was a thing that could be discussed with distant scholarly complacency, like galvanism or the Cathar heresy. This is completely expected and indeed clearly intended by the book, but nonetheless, OH LORD.

Anyway, not everything is Harlowe Brisbane being exactly the way you'd expect; a great deal of the book is Juliet dealing with a wide range of family reactions to her coming-out (the width of the range in particular is really good!), and Learning New Vocabularies, and finding comfortable queer POC spaces, and attending lectures about intersectional solidarity in the wake of 9/11, and making romantic gay teen mixtapes full of Ani DiFranco songs! But oh, lord. At least one book club member said it rang extremely true to their experience and memories of Portland in 2002. Myself, in 2002 I was nowhere near Portland nor any of the Cool Yet Problematique gay spaces that Rivera is writing about here and it's PROBABLY just as well, but it does seem quite likely to me that walking around Portland in 2002 was a lot like walking around a physical manifestation of certain bits of tumblr, and that is indeed the sense I got of it from this book.

[a sidenote: the acknowledgments in the back include pointed thanks and reference to the time that the author spent with Inga Muscio, author of 'Cunt: A Declaration of Independence.' I'm not necessarily saying this book was a callout post, but .... anyway Inga Muscio also cheerfully blurbed the book on the front so it seems there were no hard feelings on her part and all is well.]
skygiants: Katara from Avatar: the Last Airbender; text 'just kicked butt' (katara kicks butt)
Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent is a compilation of oral history interviews with Pearl Witherington Cornioley, behind-the-lines SOE agent in France during WWII, packaged up into a YA nonfiction narrative.

Pearl's story is as fascinating as all the other stories about WWII female secret agents I've read, with the bonus that it's barely crushingly depressing at all! Pearl started out as a courier, posing as a traveling cosmetics saleswoman and working with an old school friend of hers who was running the SOE Stationer network -

(sidenote; she'd also been the one to recommend that her old school friend sign up for secret intelligence to begin with, and then was like 'yes now that I've set that up I'll pop on over to join his network now, thanks')

(sidenote 2; she'd also managed to somehow smuggle a secret message to her fiance Henri, a French soldier who had just escaped from German POW camp, and get him in contact with the Stationer network as well, so literally as soon as she parachuted in her boss was like "HEY WELCOME TO FRANCE HERE'S YOUR BOYFRIEND I'll just .... leave you two alone a bit")

- but eventually her boss was arrested by the Gestapo. Fortunately, Pearl had dragged several other members of the network out for a picnic that day, so they all escaped!

Then D-Day happened and Pearl was like "well, I guess it is now my job to be in charge of organizing all British supply drops and getting weapons and money to the French underground resistance, and no one else seems to be sabotaging the Germans around here, so ..... I guess that's what we're doing now?"

And that's how Pearl ended up being in charge of several thousand Maquis soldiers! With Henri playing support.

(There's a couple of Henri interviews in the back and they are mostly taken up with the story of how he rescued a baby bunny while retreating from the Germans and brought it along with him through numerous battles until they were about to be captured, at which point he was like 'FLY FREE, MY RABBIT FRIEND! SAVE YOURSELF!' "And that was the only life I saved during the war." BLESS.

There's also a very cute bit that the interviewers put in dialogue, because they also obviously found it super cute, where Pearl is like "ugh I get so mad when people say the men followed me because I was pretty" and Henri is like "BUT YOU WERE, YOU WERE SO PRETTY" and Pearl is like "I WAS NOT AND ALSO THAT'S NOT THE POINT.")

I have not yet managed to get my hands on Nancy Wake's autobiography, but I would love to compare/contrast -- they played very similar roles during the war in organizing Maquis during the liberation of France, but while Nancy Wake seems to have made no bones about being a very front-lines combatant (strangling soldiers with her bare hands, etc.) Pearl spends a lot of time in her account strongly disclaiming active heroism and emphasizing the logistics and support elements of her role. Could she have killed somebody herself if she had to? Well, gosh, she's so glad she never had to find out, that wasn't her job at all!

But I mean, Pearl also starts out early on in her narrative explaining that she is very conflict-averse and dislikes argument above all things, and then goes on to describe, in addition to extensive amounts of fighting with the Germans:

- fighting with the entire French government when it looked like they weren't going to give any of her Maquis any medals because they were technically working under the British rather than the French (ง'̀-'́)ง
- fighting with the entire English government when they tried to give her a civil Order of the British Empire rather than a military one because "there was nothing remotely 'civil' about what I did" (ง'̀-'́)ง
- fighting with the head of SOE after he accused a trusted French colleague of hers of being a double agent due to a misunderstanding and then failed to apologize -- "as Colonel Buckmaster is kind enough to visit me each time I come to Paris, can you ask him to alert me next time and I'll ask [the dude who was falsely accused] to come too?" (ง'̀-'́)ง (AND HER OLD BOSS NEVER VISITED HER AGAIN)
- fighting yet again with the English government when they wouldn't let her wear parachute wings, because she'd only jumped four times instead of five, "SO I JUST WORE THEM ANYWAY" (ง'̀-'́)ง (the editor is like 'we don't know where or how she got a pair to wear? but apparently she did?')

What I'm saying is I take Pearl's description of her own retiring conflict-averse shyness with a grain of salt.
skygiants: (wife of bath)
Pretty much immediately after finishing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell I went to get The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories out of the library! I don't know if I would have loved the stories so much if I wasn't already invested in Clarke's world and the way she uses anecdotes within context to further develop the scope of it; on the other hand, I don't know that I wouldn't have, either, because honestly the stories are delightful and I don't think there was a single one that didn't work for me.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu: The most direct link to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; three respectable country ladies have a very nineteenth-century problem (an impoverished officer who is the only guardian to a pair of tiny heiresses) and achieve for themselves a suitably creepy magical solution. Jonathan Strange cameos, and is confounded.

On Lickerish Hill: A spirited young sixteenth-century lady confounds her abusive husband with the assistance of a fairy and several confused natural philosophers, in my new favorite version of Rumpelstiltskin.

Mrs Mabb: A very Austenian fairy tale, in which a young lady is jilted in favor of the mysterious Mrs Mabb, who is probably not human, and then goes on to rescue her love interest anyway despite the consternation of her harried and sensible older sister and the rest of the community.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse: It's in Faerie. The Duke of Wellington is not prepared to cope. This story is cute but there's not much to it.

Mr. Simonelli, or The Faerie Widower: Mr. Simonelli, a wildly rude and arrogant young scholar with generally good intentions, a Mysterious Past, and a minimum of self-awareness, accidentally makes the acquaintance of a fairy gentleman and must resort to Schemes to rescue several local young ladies from becoming the fairy's next kidnapped wife. Simonelli is awful and I love him. HE TRIED HIS BEST.

Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby: The introduction explains that (in the context of JSMN-verse) this is just one of a whole tradition of 'Tom and David' stories about earnest Jewish doctor David Montefiore and fairy pal Tom Brightwind Having Adventures and Arguing Ethics and I want to read every single one of them.

Antickes and Frets: Mary, Queen of Scots attempts to use magic tapestries to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, which goes about as well as you'd expect for any scheme put together by Mary, Queen of Scots.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner: The introduction (and a footnote in JSMN, if I remember correctly) explain that this is a common example of the kind of folk tale beloved by peasants, in which the great and powerful are comically embarrassed by their social inferiors. I, a humble peasant, also enjoy watching great and powerful magician-kings be comically embarrassed by their social inferiors.
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
For some reason I was under the impression that Cards of Grief, which I picked up in the Open Road Media ebook sale last year, is a collection of Jane Yolen short stories. This is not the case. Cards of Grief is a rather peculiar novel that reads sort of like what would happen if you mixed an Ursula K. LeGuin-esque story about the inevitable impact of anthropological study on a complex alien culture up with a really id-ficcy 1980s fantasy book about the sexual entanglements of manipulative magical royals.

The premise is this: a bunch of human anthropologists have set up a study of Henderson’s IV, or L’Lal’lor, a planet full of conveniently humanoid aliens with a matriarchal culture focused around elaborate grieving rituals. They also have a strict caste and possibly subspecies split between royals and non-royals. The royals are (of course) tall and graceful and slim and fair and clever but have a very low birth rate; the non-royals, which the anthropologists very rudely label 'trogs' for 'troglodytes,' are short and broad and not particularly bright or creative but more fertile! (Thanks for reinforcing those particular tropes, Jane Yolen!)

Otherwise they're all basically human except that the royal princes (and maybe all men?) are only fertile for about five years before their sexy bits retreat back up into their innards. As a result, the royal princes spend most of those five years essentially as part of the Queen's harem, but before that they spend their first year on tour wandering around in the lowlands, banging as many non-royals as they can and also picking up any half-royal teenagers they happen to discover from previous princely banging tours to bring them back to the capital so they can bring their superior intellectual gifts into the service of the royals.

Due to kind of mumblety temporal science, five years on the anthropologist's ship is equal to fifty years on-planet, so the whole ten-year study of Henderson's IV covers 100 years of story time. The book is the final report on an Embarrassing Incident related to the study that Changed The Culture Forever and is composed of oral history transcripts, interviews and tape recordings, some gathered 'with permission' and some without, focused on a few key figures:

B'OREMOS, a prince who (we are told early on) later becomes Henderson IV's first-ever king
LINNI, a teenage artistic prodigy discovered by B'oremos on his banging tour who then becomes personal Griever to the Queen
THE QUEEN, beautiful, powerful, carelessly cruel, etc.
AARON SPENSER, an unfortunately handsome blue-eyed baby anthropologist (22! even in the future I find it hard to believe you can be a full-fledged anthropologist with 5 years' experience at TWENTY-TWO, when did you go to GRAD SCHOOL, Aaron Spenser??)

Spoilers: Baby Anthropologist Aaron Spenser was just Too Handsome not to impact the culture he was studying )

Overall, I find myself left with a a lot that's interesting (Jane Yolen is good at culture-building and mythmaking!), a fair-bit to side-eye, and one overwhelming question: how do any of these anthropologists think that sending a bunch of mysterious aliens down on a spaceship onto a planet in a burst of ceremony aren't going to have an impact on the culture they're studying? I mean I'm no expert in anthropology but this must happen literally all the time.
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris throwing his hands up in the air (clopin says wtfever)
Reading Barbara Michaels' Patriot's Dream was .... an interesting experience. One that frequently made me want to bang my head against the nearest window. But interesting!

Patriot's Dream is set in Colonial Williamsburg, whither Our Disillusioned 22-Year-Old Heroine Jan has retreated to live with her sweet but racist elderly aunt and uncle in their historic family home after a difficult year of being a teacher in an inner-city school followed by an equally difficult year of being a teacher in a private school.

CONSTANT READER: So Jan, why are you so disillusioned at your young age? Do you have a terrible past or a grave disappointment?
JAN: Teaching is the WORST, the children are RUDE and HORRIBLE and get in GANG FIGHTS and they don't appreciate the beauty of LITERATURE and nothing MATTERS in this world!
CONSTANT READER: So ... you really have no positive feelings towards your students at all, huh.
JAN: Nope! Every single one of them was an uncultured little shit.

As is generally the case in a Barbara Michaels novel, a set of suitors rapidly line up to compete for Jan's attention:

RICHARD, a sweet Colonial Williamsburg employee who agrees with Jan that the world is garbage and is going to spend the rest of his life making historical violins and pretending nothing else exists
ALAN, a rude and ugly lawyer whose favorite thing is picking fights with people, especially Jan, and who therefore is obviously going to be the final guy
A BORING DOCTOR, who is so boring I can't even remember his name
JONATHAN, a conflicted Quaker from from the Revolutionary War era that Jan starts stalking in her dreams from her first night in Colonial Williamsburg!

As revealed through Jan's dream-scenes, Jonathan is conflicted because he is a.) a pacifist and b.) vehemently abolitionist, and so even though he supports independence he ALSO starts helping slaves escape to the British ranks because the British army promises freedom which nobody in Virginia is about to do. OK; as an angle on the Revolutionary War this is kind of better than I was expecting from a historical romance written in 1976.

ON THE OTHER HAND, the historical B-plot involves Jonathan's best bud/Jan's great-great-etc.-grandfather Charles, who comes to realize that Slavery is Wrong only when he falls in tragic mutual totally uncoerced love with a beautiful white-passing house slave Leah in a plot that is literally straight out of a 19th-century melodrama.

And then, of course, our Jan, reacting to all this in the present:

JAN: So I've started reading up on this stuff, is it true about Jefferson and Sally Hemings?
RICHARD: Oh no! That's not in noble Jefferson's character!
ALAN: Oh yeah, it's definitely true.
CONSTANT READER: OK, Barbara Michaels, I'm kind of impressed that you went there in the Jefferson-worshipping bicentennial year of 1976 -
ALAN: Well, you know, probably what happened was he really loved her but they couldn't legally get married, so the only way they could be together was for him to keep her as a slave. It's very tragic.
JAN: Gosh, before I started having these historical dreams I never thought before how difficult it must have been for all those white men tragically in love with their slaves! Slavery really WAS the worst.
CONSTANT READER: I take it back!! I TAKE IT BACK.

Anyway the moral of the story is if you understand how hard life was for tragic slave-owners in the past it will inspire you to fight to improve the present I guess )
skygiants: a figure in white and a figure in red stand in a courtyard in front of a looming cathedral (cour des miracles)
Diligent search through my past booklogs does not turn any notes up from the first time I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which means it must have been pre-2007 which is when I started keeping track of my reads. It did turn up a promise that a reread of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would be "coming soon to a booklog near you!" from ... July 2015, which tells you how to trust my promises.

Anyway! Going into my reread of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, here is what I EXTREMELY VAGUELY remembered from that first pre-2007 read:

- Mr. Norrell is a stuffy, awkward little man who makes bad magical choices
- Jonathan Strange is less awkward but possibly makes equally bad magical choices
- something unfortunate and fairy-related happens to Arabella Strange, who does not deserve it
- Jonathan Strange fixes it but makes extremely unwise choices in the process
- Stephen Black, a former slave, spends the entire book using his top-notch buttling skills to be polite to a fairy who's ruining his life, which somehow saves the day and also critiques colonialism
- footnotes???

which is why here, now, I am surprised and discomfited to find myself with an EXTREMELY LARGE number of feelings and opinions on an EXTREMELY LARGE number of things, including all of the above but also including:

this is an incomplete list of scenes that made me feel things and can thus be assumed to be spoilery )
skygiants: Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena holding a red rose (i'm the witch)
In other Childhood Classics About Christianity, I also recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a book I loved and still love about NEW ENGLAND and how it is full of REALLY JUDGMENTAL PURITANS.

The heroine of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Kit Tyler, was raised in luxury in Barbados, but after the death of her grandfather and subsequent loss of his fortune, decides that her only choice is to descend on her long-lost Puritan relatives in Connecticut and inform them that she is a member of their household now. She brought all her prettiest clothes! This is going to go great!

While en route to Connecticut, Kit jumps in the water to save a little girl's doll. This is her first mistake, as all the other passengers immediately start judging her for:
- heedlessly and foolishly ruining what looks like a REALLY EXPENSIVE dress
- which is kind of a legitimate reason to be judgy
- but also, not drowning! like a witch!!

Except for Nat, the captain's son, who is instead busy judging her for:
- talking about the slaves she used to own like it's not a big deal
- which is a super extra legitimate and good reason to be judgy
- ... but also for BEING RUDE ABOUT HIS BOAT, HOW DARE

Anyway, Kit lands and meets her relatives: sweet but tired Aunt Rachel, beautiful bratty cousin Judith, saintly lame cousin Mercy, and and disapproving uncle Matthew, who judges Kit for:
- owning fancy dresses
- trying to give Judith and Mercy fancy dress
- getting bored in church
- wanting to read books that are not the Bible
- being a Royalist who approves of the king despite the fact that he's obviously terrible
- playing make-believe with the children like a devil-worshipping Theater Person
- turning up on his doorstep with literally no advance warning and suddenly making him responsible for a teenaged girl from Barbados in extreme culture shock
- admittedly the last one was a little bit rude
- I too would balk

There are about five people in town who do not spend all their time judging Kit:
- Mercy, who is too saintly to judge anyone, and also busy with a love triangle between her and Judith and the nice-but-kind-of-boring divinity student down the road
- Aunt Rachel, who is very nice but also so, so tired
- William, Kit's new suitor, who turns up at her house to creepily stare at her during incredibly awkward courting dates
- Prudence, the little girl who lost her doll, who loves Kit but can only hang out with her in secret because of her abusive family
- Dame Hannah, the sweet old Quaker woman who lives just outside of town, who is both non-judgmental AND non-creepy AND makes really good cake! FRIEND JACKPOT

So, Kit starts secretly hanging out with Hannah as much as possible. (Secretly, because Puritans really REALLY do not disapprove of Quakers.) Also, she's friends with Nat the captain's son, who becomes significantly less judgy when he and Kit are teaming up to help fix a sweet old Quaker woman's roof.

Meanwhile, in a C-plot, the whole town is stressing about the king revoking their charter, which is a super interesting bit of historical detail that is honestly mostly lost on Kit who does not really care about the Connecticut charter and early American political conflicts.

...and then in my memory the book ended with basically everyone getting accused of witchcraft, which is not exactly true but pretty close )
skygiants: storybook page of a duck wearing a pendant, from Princess Tutu; text 'mukashi mukashi' (mukashi mukashi)
A couple months ago I was talking with my roommate about the new Anne of Green Gables TV series (I have not seen it, she had opinions about it) which led to us reminiscing about Other L.M. Montgomery Books We Had Known, which led to me last weekend rereading The Story Girl and The Golden Road.

I was actually much more attached to these books than I ever was to Anne -- they're about an extended group of cousins who have very wholesome adventures together. The cousins include:

Beverly, Our Narrator, most notable for his mildly purple narration and deeply sentimental soul
Felix, his little brother, who is Fat and Sensitive About It
Felicity, who is Very Beautiful and Very Prosaic and also Extremely Bossy, like Lucy from Peanuts if she also looked like Elizabeth Taylor
Cecily, who is Very Good and Very Serious and probably also Doomed to Die Young Like Good Children Do
Dan, Felicity and Cecily's brother, who is an Annoying Brother
Sara Ray, who lives down the road and cries all the time
Peter, who is But a Hired Boy but Clever and Talented and also In Love With Felicity
and, of course, Sara Stanley the Story Girl, who is not pretty but interesting, and has a spellbindingly beautiful voice, and is prone to stopping in the middle of any given conversation to announce that she knows a story that has some vague relation to the topic at hand and will then proceed to relate that story come hell or high water, which: oh god, of course I imprinted on these books as a kid, because I of course do the exact same thing, except without any vestige of a spellbindingly beautiful voice, and also instead of 'I know a tragic story about our uncle's great-aunt's wedding' my version is usually 'I read a book once in which somebody banged a griffin.' But, much like the Story Girl, once I get started on an anecdote of this kind there is very little chance of stopping me. I apologize to anybody who has suffered from this.

ANYWAY. Fortunately, the other kids (with the occasional exception of Felicity) never get fed up with the Story Girl and are always glad to hear an entertaining anecdote about the minister's cousin's grandmother or whatever the topic of discussion is that day.

The kids also get into normal turn-of-the-century-Canadian kid stuff, like pretending to be ministers, or freaking out because the local old-lady-who-might-be-a-witch sat in their pew at church, or panicking that it might be the Day of Judgment. Normal turn-of-the-century-Canadian kid stuff centers very prominently on appropriate church behavior, as it turns out. L.M. Montgomery's world is composed of Methodists and Lutherans and that's about it. I don't remember this being weird for me as an emphatically-not-Christian youth but it is slightly retroactively weird for me now.

Other notable things that happen in The Story Girl and The Golden Road:
- Dan eats poison berries because Felicity tells him he would be an idiot to eat the poison berries, nearly dies, then goes back and eats more poison berries because Felicity made the mistake of saying she told him so
- Cecily the Very Sweet and Very Good is mean to exactly one person in both books, a boy in her class who conceives a terrible crush on her and will not leave her alone despite multiple stated requests until she publicly humiliates him in class, which she ruthlessly does; a good lesson
- The Story Girl gives a great and instantly recognizable description of synesthesia without ever actually using the word
- The Story Girl befriends a desperately shy neighbor who is known as the Awkward Man, "because he is so awkward," our narrator Bev helpfully explains
- the Awkward Man is later revealed to have a secret room in his house containing women's clothing, which, the Story Girl explains, is because he's spent years buying things for an imaginary girlfriend - and, I mean, far be it from me to question the Story Girl! but some grad student could probably get a real good paper on gender and sexuality in turn-of-the-century children's lit out of this is all I'm saying
skygiants: the princes from Into the Woods, singing (agony)
It's hard for me not to unfavorably compare every Isabelle Hollington Gothic to Trelawny, the one with the identical non-identical constantly-swapping twins, but The Marchington Inheritance runs a reasonable second for batshit plot resolutions.

Our Heroine is a children's book illustrator named Avril, which would be fine if she were not ALSO notable for her family reputation as a Strung-Out Sulky Counter-Culture Fight-The-Power Teen Rebel with constant Rage Against the Preppy machine, which meant that I had "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi" stuck on rotate in my head for the entire duration of this novel. THANKS, ISABELLE HOLLAND.

spoilers are full of hilariously plausibly annoying children )
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
I just finished Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which is definite proof that a book-length allegory CAN ALSO be a coherent and compelling novel. (Is this a Kazuo Ishiguro callout post? MAYBE.)

The easiest and most facile way to describe The Underground Railroad is basically like Underground the TV show meets Snowpiercer. I mean, significantly less silly than Snowpiercer, which is a deeply silly movie -- but insofar as it's a train-based road trip for your life in which every stop is an Allegory On the Evils of Class and Capitalism, like that, except in this case it's an allegory on America's original sins.

The book's heroine is Cora, a woman who escapes from a deep-South plantation on an enormous hidden network of rails and tunnels, gaining and losing allies along the way. Each time she gets off she thinks that maybe she's found a place where she can stop and live a human life, and each place she visits reflects a different knife-angle of the generally horrific history of race in America -- alternate histories, but real ones.

Allegory aside, Cora is very much a real and complex and compelling character, and the places she visits have heft to them. Cora's identity is bound up in the legend and mystery of her mother Mabel, the one slave in the plantation's history (before Cora) who was able to escape and vanish completely; she's a real person, too, and so are all the other perspectives that we glimpse briefly in interstitial interludes along Cora's journey. It's a really good book. It's a very page-turning book, and although it's (obviously) extremely grim at times, it's not actually a hopeless book.
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
I enjoyed Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite but I am also pretty sure that my reading experience was devised in exactly the wrong way to allow me to appreciate the plot as a coherent narrative.

I read the first half of the book on the plane between San Francisco and Chicago, which meant I got all the fantastic initial setup: a long-suffering middle-aged heroine, exiled from her home city for accidentally getting three husbands killed while following the wrong prophetic vision, accidentally rescues a cute swordsman in a brief break from protecting a plucky theater troupe from a cursed stage puppet!

Then the cute young swordsman immediately decides to be her joint boyfriend and bodyguard because he has nothing else to do with his life, and she's like "he followed me home, can I keep him? ...wait I'm an exiled superpowered divine avatar, I literally don't have to ask anyone else, I CAN JUST KEEP HIM :D" and then he and she and the theater troupe all go back to her home city to sort out a potentially apocalyptic problem in the annual setting-the-world-in-order religious ritual and also, very importantly, get the theater puppet un-cursed, and at about this point I got to Chicago and although I was enjoying myself immensely I didn't really have time to read another word until I was on a flight back to Boston.

So at this point I opened my Kobo again and spoilers! )
skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
Despite its incredibly bland title, Into the Darkness turned out to be one of the most interesting Barbara Michaels gothics I've yet read.

This is one of the ones where Barbara Michaels decides to break the "girl meets house" mold and go instead with "girl meets career." Our Heroine Meg Venturi, called back to her hometown for her grandfather's funeral, finds that he's left her half of the family jewelry business; the other half has (of course) been left to his dark and brooding protege, whom half the town is convinced murdered Meg's grandfather and the other half the town thinks was probably just blackmailing him.

Obviously, this is Bachelor A. Bachelor B is Meg's annoying fake cousin (there's always a cousin in there somewhere), Bachelor C is the boring lawyer who keeps trying to mansplain Meg's inheritance to her, and Bachelor D is the married businessman that Meg has been having an affair with but who rapidly becomes irrelevant to the plot.

Meanwhile, Meg's grandmother keeps cheerfully sharing conversations that she had overnight with the ghost of Meg's dead grandfather, the housekeeper will not stop pretending to be Mrs. Danvers, someone keeps mailing threatening antique jewelry to the house, there's another pile of probably-stolen and certainly-priceless antique jewelry hidden in the back of Meg's closet, and every so often there will be a murder attempt. Throughout it all, Meg comes to two realizations: a.) she really, genuinely loves the jewelry business and b.) she is really, genuinely sick of Various Bachelors treating her like a Gothic ingenue.

Spoilers under the cut )
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology is a collection of romance novellas by black authors focusing on celebrations commemorating the end of slavery, and it is 150% - nay, 200% - worth it for Alyssa Cole's "Let It Shine," which is now certainly in my top five and maybe in my top two romance novellas.

...this doesn't actually feel like saying that much because I tend to find romance novellas less satisfying and convincing than full-length novels overall, but "Let It Shine" is so good! The heroine, Sofie, is a black girl on the verge of joining the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; the hero, Ivan, is a Jewish kid whose family Sofie's mom used to work for, who trains at the local black boxing gym because the white country club won't have him, and joins the Civil Rights movement to share his training in how to take a hit.

Sofie falls into one of my favorite tropes -- the quiet, well-behaved girl whose self-control and steel spine are greater strengths than anyone around her realizes -- and the story also falls into one of my favorite romantic tropes, which is when two people fall in love working towards something that they put ahead of themselves and their romance. The novella is also really effective at building its heroic character moments around participatory movements and strategic nonviolence, which despite its historic importance is something I feel like I rarely see portrayed in fiction (especially romance, a genre in which "impulse control" is ... an infrequently valorized virtue .....)

Also, there is a sexy boxing ring scene and it's very good.

The other three novellas in the anthology didn't work for me as well, although "Let It Shine" is so good that it's not really fair to compare. My second favorite was probably Kianna Alexander's "Drifting to You," which is just a very cute, relatively unstressful story about a baker and a shipbuilder getting together on a celebratory Juneteenth cruise in 1875 that is a Professional Milestone for both of them as former slaves trying to establish businesses in the free black community. I was very concerned that the narrative tension was going to involve something going wrong with either the cake or the boat and imperil their Professional Careers, so it was a relief that the only actual plot features a cardboard villain who pops briefly up to harass the heroine and is put down again within three pages.

Lena Hart's "Amazing Grace" is about a former slave who goes out west as a mail-order bride and then falls in love with a former Confederate soldier instead, which would be a hard sell for me in almost any circumstance. I liked the heroine of Piper Huguley's "A Sweet Way to Freedom" a lot -- she's an unmarried, pregnant schoolteacher in 1910 wrestling with the damage to her reputation and her pride if she goes home to her family for support -- but I did not like the hero, the bar owner who got her pregnant and then bounced, and I think I would have needed a full book to believe in his reformation, which frequently is my problem with novellas.

Anyway! Alyssa Cole! "Let It Shine!" ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT, will be seeking out more of her stuff.
skygiants: Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena holding a red rose (i'm the witch)
[personal profile] jothra went to a library sale last week and asked if I had any requests: "Weird 70s Gothics? Trixie, Belden?"

"WEIRD 70S GOTHICS PLEASE," I said, and Jo duly carried out her commission so well that I don't know if anybody's ever going to top it:



Portrait in Jig-Saw is apparently so obscure it doesn't even have a Goodreads page, which, having read it, I can honestly now say is kind of a shame.

Our Heroine's name is Alixander David Somerlaid MacDonald (I KNOW), otherwise known as Alisdair; she is a Strictly Sheltered Heiress who has been raised in a Freezing Castle in Complete Isolation and Solitude with only occasional visits from her father until she comes of age on her 21st birthday.

...for the record, the year is 1973.

My legit favorite part about these spoilers is that the entire plot relies on an alternate universe where the world's most famous postmodern novelist is a Thai princess, I want to live in THAT universe! )
skygiants: Fakir from Princess Tutu leaping through a window; text 'doors are for the weak' (drama!!!)
Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age is a fairly fascinating book that's trying to do a lot of things at once: the book starts out with the dramatic recounting of MURDER!!! and then immediately takes, if not a deep dive, at least a vigorous swim through such varied topics as the history of British radio and the BBC, Keynesian economic philosophy, copyright limitations, and the founding of Sealand in order to contextualize it.

Once we get back to the story of the murder itself, however, it turns out: IT'S BONKERS. The principals in the case are two pirate radio impresarios in 1966. Oliver Smedley, An Ardent Free-Trade Capitalist, was running a station called Radio Atlanta on a boat off the coast; Reggie Calvert, A Dance Hall Impresario, had taken over an entire abandoned British navy fort called Shivering Sands in the Thames Estuary and staffed it with a rotating encampment of youths running a station called Radio City. At one point Smedley and Calvert were going to have a merger, but then they had an ACRIMONIOUS BREAKUP spurred on in part by:

- the fact that Smedley was supposed to give Calvert a shiny new transmitter and instead provided an old one that never worked
- the fact that Smedley never paid all the bills he had promised Calvert that Radio Atlanta would pay
- the fact that Calvert got sick of all this and decided to merge with another station instead

The reason for all these pirate radio stations on boats and naval forts, by the way, is because in 1966 there was no legal pop radio in the UK (as explained, extensively, via the history of radio and Keynesian economic theory etc. that makes up the first half of the book). Because the pirates were technically outside of UK territory, on the other hand, they could technically get away with doing whatever they wanted, or at least the government like "it will be way too embarrassing to launch a huge naval raid against a bunch of youths on was a fort with a radio transmitter, so let's not."

HOWEVER, the fact that everything was happening outside of territorial waters where British laws and police had no jurisdiction BACKFIRED when:

- Ardent Free-Trade Capitalist Smedley decided he was so mad that Calvert had made a deal without him that he was going to MAKE SURE that the deal could never go through
- he was going to GET BACK HIS PROPERTY [the transmitter that had never worked]
- so he sent an ACTUAL OCCUPYING FORCE composed of out-of-work dockworkers to Shivering Sands, stole a bunch of key broadcasting equipment, took a bunch of it back to the mainland, and left a bunch of toughs to hold everybody who was on the station at that time hostage!!!
- (when they met the invading force, the hostage broadcasters were like 'welp' and made everybody tea)
- ("the vessel had to return briefly to pick up [the contractor who recruited the gang], who had been left behind drinking his tea")
- and then Smedley went to Calvert and his partner, an actual professional broadcaster, and was like 'I will not let you broadcast from there again or finish making your deal unless you pay me FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS'

Naturally, everyone involved was like 'wtf????' and refused to pay Smedley a dime; Calvert threatened to involve the police but the police were like 'ummmmmm technically we can't do anything for the same reasons we haven't been able to stop you from broadcasting;' Calvert then made a whole bunch of other even wilder threats; and all the hired dockworkers sat around cheerfully charging Smedley for hostaging operations which he was rapidly running out of money for.

Anyway, in the middle of all this, Calvert drove out to Smedley's house in the middle of the night and started screaming at him, and Smedley shot him and then claimed self-defense and that his HOSTILE OCCUPATION OF A POP RADIO STATION was just a little joke gone wrong! No harm no foul if only Calvert hadn't been so UPSET about it! It did help Smedley's self-defense case that Calvert happened to be carrying A FAKE PEN FULL OF NERVE GAS at the time, which apparently, according to his family, he always carried around just for safekeeping.

...so the author's point in writing about all this seems to be that a.) this incident was crucial in getting the pirate radio boats shut down and the formation of the current BBC radio system that includes actual pop radio, b.) that this is all a forerunner of later copyright battles and offshore data centers and so on, c.) pirate-radio-on-boats in the 1960s was a WILD TIME. About the latter, at least, he is most surely not mistaken.

(This has nothing to do with the main brunt of the book but I have to spare a mention for Radio City's chief engineer, who later was hired by the mob! to perform an assassination attempt!! using a spring-loaded hypodermic needle full of cyanide!!! in what it turns out was ACTUALLY a sting operation by the U.S. Treasury department who picked the hapless Radio City engineer to act as the assassin because "he needed the fee while being clearly incapable of killing anybody"!!!! This whole incident gets two pages in the book because it's somewhat irrelevant to the author's argument but seriously, where is this guy's movie?

For the record, the same mobsters then tried to intimidate Reggie Calvert's widow into selling them the remnants of the station and she was like 'lol no' and they were like '....well, when a lady knows her own mind, she knows her own mind! No hard feelings.')
skygiants: C-ko the shadow girl from Revolutionary Girl Utena in prince drag (someday my prince will come)
[personal profile] genarti read The Privilege of the Sword for the first time recently, because I had been telling her to since 2008, and then kept trying to talk to me about it. Unfortunately at this point I did not remember most of the things she was trying to talk to me about because I hadn't read it since 2007, so eventually I also had to reread it in self-defense.

It turns out this is still and probably will always be my favorite Ellen Kushner book. The central plotline follows Katherine, a cheerful young lady who gets invited to restore the family fortunes by going to live with her incredibly weird uncle in the big city and becoming a swordsman!

Unlike many plucky heroines, Katherine does not initially have really any interest at all in cross-dresing or becoming a swordsman. However, eventually she comes to enjoy swordfighting for its own sake, helped along by the mentorship of her incredibly weird uncle's nice ex-boyfriend, the necessity of dueling for a friend's honor, and the discovery that bisexuality and gender fluidity are potentially relevant concepts to her teen coming-of-age story.

...that's the A-plot! B, C, D, E, and F plots include:

- Katherine's mom's reparation of her relationship with Katherine's weird uncle
- Katherine's weird uncle's actress girlfriend's dreamy new cross-dressing fantasy Broadway show
- Katherine's weird uncle's unfortunate friendship breakup with his mathematician bestie
- Katherine's bff's attempts to overcome trauma from rape-by-fiance by engaging in romantic gay roleplay via letter-writing
- Katherine's other bff's attempts to overcome trauma from an abusive childhood by engaging in competitive voyeurism
- Katherine's bff's gigolo cousin's star-crossed romance with a scriptwriter/potter who is on the run from her abusive in-laws who do not appear in this book
- trade routes?? politics?????

I'm pretty sure that's not all the plots. There are so many plots in this book. It's fine because the plots are barely the point at best, the point is coming-of-age and life after trauma and thumbing your nose at Societal Conventions while getting to know and like yourself! I especially enjoy how in the end, spoilers )

(Note: emo murderous Alec from Swordspoint drives me up a wall in his own book, but is significantly more tolerable to me when he's just Katherine's incredibly weird uncle. I mean he still drives me up a wall here but it's much funnier when he's driving everyone else up a wall too.)
skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
Rose Melikan's The Blackstone Key is one of the few books I've grabbed at random off a library shelf recently without ever having heard of it. Then I immediately grabbed the next two books, The Counterfeit Guest and The Mistaken Wife, so I guess they were doing something right, although also several things not right.

These books are deeply fluffy YA-ish Regency espionage hijinks starring Mary Finch, an impoverished orphan schoolteacher turned (by the end of the first book) surprise heiress with an unexpectedly encyclopedic knowledge of British law and an enthusiastic penchant for Adventures! !! !!!

Captain Holland, the series love interest, is an artillery officer who is good at mechanics and up on new military technologies. Other salient characteristics include:
- a terrible tendency towards sea- and carriage-sickness
- an ongoing resentful inability to understand all the clever literary and historical references being tossed around by the rest of the characters
- CONSTANT MONEY STRESS

I'll be honest, he won me over during the first book when Mary's like "am I a bad person for worrying about how the outcome of all this espionage will affect my potential inheritance?" and he's like "DEFINITELY NOT, if anybody tells you they don't stress about money THEY ARE LYING."

Rose Melikan is a scholar of the period and very good on British military history. She is not so good on plot. The first book is complete, hilariously convoluted nonsense involving SMUGGLERS and CIPHERS and MYSTERIOUS WATCHES and a SURPRISE CHANCE-MET DYING VILLAIN. It turns out that spoilers )

The second book is probably my favorite and definitely the least nonsense plot-wise; it's about the 1797 naval mutinies, and Our Heroine gets recruited to spy on a plotter because she happens to know his wife and will likely be in his house, which does not stretch suspension of disbelief too very wildly. (It's also sort of entertaining to watch the author do a careful dance between what I suspect is a personal sympathy for unionization and strike tactics and the fact that Mass Military Mutiny Is Definitely A Bad Thing, Our Characters Must Stop It At Any Cost.)

...then in Book Three we are expected to believe that an actual professional spy sees no better alternative for an important espionage mission than taking a well-known youthful heiress and society figure whose salient skills are, as aforementioned, a knowledge of British law and an enthusiasm for Adventure, and sneaking her off to Paris in a fake marriage with a clueless American painter while her respectable household desperately tries to pretend she's in London the whole time. At this point suspension of disbelief goes straight out the window again.

I have mixed feelings about Book Three in general; it's the darkest of the three and several sympathetic characters die as a direct result of Our Heroes' espionage endeavors including infuriating spoiler ) I'm not here for that! I'M HERE FOR THE HIJINKS.
skygiants: Hazel, from the cover of Breadcrumbs, about to venture into the Snow Queen's forest (into the woods)
With Sorrow's Knot I think I have now finished reading everything from Erin Bow's backlog, which is good in that I have consistently enjoyed it all, but bad in that I have no more Erin Bow backlog.

All of Erin Bow's work (I can now say, having read all of it) is in some way about death and undeath and the wildly unhealthy ways in which human beings react to loss; however, Sorrow's Knot is EVEN MORE explicitly about this than most. The book focuses on Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket, who are all pretty sure they know what they're going to do when they grow up: Kestel is going to be a ranger, Cricket is going to become a storyteller (despite being a boy and getting a certain degree of side-eye for deciding to stay in the women's village at all -- everyone knows it's dangerous in the forest and boys don't have any power to protect themselves with, sorry boys!), and Otter is going to train with her mother Willow and Willow's teacher Tamarack to learn the very important job of being a binder, aka Person Who Stops The Dead From Coming Back And Killing Us All.

Then Tamarack dies -- and then Willow abruptly and without explanation decides she doesn't want Otter becoming a binder after all -- and then the knots that stop the dead from coming back to haunt the living begin unraveling -- and then more people die -- and then Otter and friends get to go on a road trip! It's not a super fun road trip and it unsurprisingly features several close encounters with the dead.

I really liked the worldbuilding and the slow and careful work that Bow does to build out the daily lives of the characters and the culture -- it's a North American-based world without European influence, and I'm certainly not qualified to comment on how well it's done, but to me it felt interesting and non-obvious. Also, Otter's world is almost entirely composed of women and everything revolves around Significant Mother-Daughter Relationships and it's great, although Erin Bow sadly had not yet discovered lesbians as of this book. (Though I feel like perhaps this is the book that led to her discovering lesbians? Like, I do wonder if someone came up to Erin Bow and pointed out that she'd written a matriarchal village where Actual Heterosexual Romance is explicitly rare and still somehow only featured Actual Heterosexual Romance onscreen, and Erin Bow was like 'WHOOPS OK SORRY I'LL MAKE IT UP TO YOU' and then we got The Scorpion Rules. Which, I mean, if this is the case, I guess I'm not complaining, I'm very happy to have The Scorpion Rules!)

I also really liked the importance of stories and storytelling and lore and bits and pieces of information shared and not shared, but the pacing of the way those stories are shared with the reader sometimes felt a little off to me; there were occasionally times, especially towards the end, when I felt like the book was leading me to expect a Big Reveal that had already been revealed. But, I mean, the point of the book is not really to Reveal, it's to examine grief -- and as I have mentioned above, Bow is exceptionally good on grief.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
I regret to report that Night Fall is probably the least interesting Joan Aiken book I have ever read, in large part because there is not much time for anything to happen in it -- it's like 150 pages long and I read it in the course of one round-trip public transit ride from Brighton to Chelsea. That said, Joan Aiken managed to fit PLENTY of nonsense into, for example, The Witch of Clatteringshaws which has even fewer pages, and yet contains a Loch Ness monster, an evil plastic surgeon, a golf-club-riding witch, and the rightful king of Britain, so 'too short' is clearly only half an excuse at best.

The problem is that Night Fall spends at least 50% of its pages carefully setting up Our Heroine Meg's unhappy childhood, raised by a distant and judgmental father and his even more judgmental servants after the death of her loving but irresponsible film-star mother and stepfather. The one thing her father approves of is her engagement to the extremely boring stockbroker next door, who breaks his promise to take her to study art in Paris, and does not like her cat, and it's all very psychologically stifling.

So then by the time that Meg decides to confront her psychology by running away to a tiny mountain town where she witnessed a MURDER as a SMALL INJURED CHILD there is just not room left in the book for very much to happen, although someone does attempt to murder her by leaving a giant rat in her car, which is up there as overly convoluted murder methods go.

The best part of the book however is when Meg finally confronts the villain with his crimes, and the villain laughs evilly and explains that she cannot act against him because he has stranded a hostage on a tiny cliff-ledge who will be murdered if she tells what she knows!

The hostage is her cat!!

UNDERSTANDABLY, MEG IS HELPLESS.

(Well, not exactly helpless. She eventually dives down on the cliff-ledge to rescue the cat, then has to be rescued in turn by the love interest with whom she has spent a very nice half-hour or so talking about urban renewal, and who subsequently expresses the opinion that if she had fallen off the cliff he would have thrown himself in as well, because it's True Love. This young man is clearly very desperate for other young people with whom to discuss urban renewal. Unfortunately, Meg seems to forget in the sudden upswell of affection for anyone who is not a boring stockbroker that this still gets her no closer to art school in Paris.)

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