skygiants: Lord Yon from Legend of the First King's Four Gods in full regalia; text, 'judging' (judging)
OK, so if you've been around the internet you probably have already heard that KFC recently released a romance novella featuring Colonel Sanders. It is called Tender Wings of Desire and was available for free, so obviously I downloaded it despite knowing that this made me a tool of capitalist America.

Unfortunately, Tender Wings of Desire commits the worst sin that a joke romance novella written by a corporation can possibly commit: it is boring as heck.

In case you, too, find yourself fatally curious, here is a brief summation of the events of Tender Wings of Desire:

- Madeline Parker, A Vaguely Regency Lady, who is Breathtakingly Beautiful but, Unlike Other Girls, does not like Embroidery or Matters of the Household, gets engaged to a perfectly nice Duke
- But Alas! She Does Not Love Him!
- she wants to See The World!
- so on the night before the wedding she flees into the night with zero preparation or plans
- which is fine because the next day she gets a job at an inn in a small seaside town by walking in and asking the inn if they have a job
- she's so much happier doing manual inn labor than she was as a fine lady
- no you don't understand! she's Seeing the World! a whole ... different small town of it!
- anyway then she meets a dreamy glasses-wearing sailor
- they go for a walk, once, and then they are in love
- now that she's not a lady anymore, there's absolutely no reason in the world that she shouldn't have premarital sex!
- they kiss a few times and have some tastefully ambiguous fade-to-black banging(?)
- her new innkeeper friend drops a backstory about being seduced by a rake sailor but Madeline's like "he's not LIKE that" and it's fine, he totally isn't
- but then alas, the dramatic reveal: though she THOUGHT he was but a humble sailor, his family has sent him a letter begging him to return home and assume the mantle of their business empire!
- "Yes, I'm a Colonel. Yes, I'm fabulously rich. I am a magnate of the restaurant industry, my dear, the king of an empire that I built with my bare hands. I took a sabbatical from my duties in order to see the world, see what else could possibly be out there, and on the course of my journey I found what I was looking for."
- honestly that line is the only thing entertaining enough to read the novella for and now, there it is, you've read it. You're welcome.
- (she almost dumps him because she doesn't want to go back to Being A Lady)
- (but the next chapter they're married and sailing back to Kentucky to take over the business empire so I guess that's fine)
- (can't believe I sold my soul to KFC for this)
- (I'M A VEGETARIAN)
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
I have finished rereading the back half of the Wimsey books and I have a fair number of opinions! BEAR WITH ME.

This gets a little long )
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
For me, the experience of reading this Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant was a lot like that Utena duel song that goes "allegory, allegorier, ALLEGORIEST." Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, living in a Briton village in an England afflicted by a fog that obscures memories, decide to take a voyage to visit a son in another village whom they don't quite remember but are nonetheless sure exists. Along the way, they encounter several symbolic boatmen, numerous symbolic angry widows, a Saxon child with a mysterious symbolic wound, a Saxon swordsman with a mysterious symbolic quest, various confused symbolic memory-fog-afflicted soldiers, and an elderly Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain, it goes without saying, is also extremely symbolic. There are also ogres and dragons. The ogres do things like accidentally eat poison sheep and then lie dying in ditches, sinking slowly into the mire, while children stare silently over the edge of the ditch at them. It's that kind of book.

The memory-fog that lies across the country obscures two large mysteries: what happened between the Saxons and the Britons during Arthur's wars and what lies between and underneath their currently peaceful relationship, and what memories Axl and Beatrice have lost and what lies between and underneath their current loving relationship. The book's central questions are things like 'at what price peace?' and 'at what price justice?' and 'can love be real when it's not built on anything?' These are solid questions, though I'm not entirely sure four hundred pages of dreamy unsubtle allegory is my favorite way to examine them.

My frustrations lie under a spoiler-cut )
skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
The title of Amy Stewart's Girl Waits With Gun is rather (intentionally, I think) misleading - not only is it not actually particularly hijinks-y, but Our Heroine Constance Kopp is a grown adult woman in her mid-thirties, which is honestly one of the reasons the book stood out to me.

Based On A True Story, Girl Waits With Gun kicks off when stoic six-foot-tall Constance and her two sisters (Norma, congenitally disapproving adult pigeon-fancier; Fleurette, theatrical teen fashionista) have an unfortunate street encounter with a band of local toughs, who are practicing Reckless Driving. Constance attempts to Demand Compensation. Local Toughs Retaliate by setting up an increasing campaign of threats and harassment, specifically targeting Fleurette. Constance and her sisters switch their efforts towards attempting to get local law enforcement to take all this seriously enough to do anything about it, which is unsurprisingly as challenging in 1914 as today.

Meanwhile, all this excitement starts Constance off on a course of introspection and reinvention regarding the sisters' struggling finances, their deeply retired and isolated life - a course of action taken to protect a family secret decades before, and never altered - and the possibilities open for women in 1914 to find an existence that's both self-sufficient and satisfying. Some inkling of the outcome of all this can perhaps be gleaned from the fact that the second book of Constance's adventures is titled Lady Cop Makes Trouble.

Teen Girl Shakes Off Convention stories, while often enjoyable, are not particularly rare. Adult Woman Re-Evaluates Life And Makes More Satisfying Choices is a different subgenre and one I always appreciate on the occasions that I find it, especially when it revolves primarily around her relationship with other women.

The sisters do have one Law Enforcement Male Ally, Sheriff Heath. He is progressive and ethical and he and Constance clearly have kind of a pining mutual respect Thing going on, and also he is married to an unsympathetic woman who does not approve of his choices or enjoy the Mrs. Sheriff lifestyle at all. I made some faces about this in the first book. Lady Cop Makes Trouble starts to complicate this, and make it clear that Mrs. Heath has some legitimate reasons to be deeply unhappy and dissatisfied; I'm hoping this is a trend that continues in future books.
skygiants: Kraehe from Princess Tutu embracing Mytho with one hand and holding her other out to a flock of ravens (uses of enchantment)
Q: Why did you read The Secret History, a book all about death and specifically about the untimely death of a young man, on your way home to sit shiva for a young man who died an untimely death?
A: idk I just grabbed the first long-looking paperback off my shelf I hadn't read before?? In retrospect, I realize it is possible more forethought should have gone into this.

Q: When and where does The Secret History take place?
A: Where: a small liberal arts college in Vermont where everybody is either doing drugs or murders. When: I HAVE NO IDEA. I spent the entire book desperately grappling for temporal clues. Someone mentions learning about the moon landing! "Ah," I think, with relief, "late 1960s." Then 'Free Bird' comes on the radio! OK .. 1970s? "We sat around with margaritas and watched MTV." When did MTV even start? Are we suddenly nineties kids now?? WE JUST DON'T KNOW. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that I missed some obvious statement like "It Is 1989 Now," as I was not necessarily in my best state of mind for noticing details while reading this book, see above.

Q: You mentioned murder?
A: Yes! Definitely murder! This is not a spoiler, as murder happens on the first page before we flash back to happier, pre-murder times in the beautiful Vermont fall.

Q: Do the students get away with murder?
A: I see what you're doing there, and yes, I am pretty positive that the people who wrote or at least conceived of How To Get Away With Murder were strongly influenced by The Secret History. Although How To Get Away With Murder is much less white.

Q: What about women?
A: How To Get Away With Murder also has many more women.

Q: I don't watch How To Get Away With Murder! What else is like The Secret History?
A: OK, imagine that you put Nick and Gatsby into a blender together until you come up with one smooth-surfaced social-climbing desperately insecure bystander, and then you drop this blended narrator whom for convenience we shall call Natsby in the middle of a bunch of highly-strung Classics majors who think they're in a Mary Renault novel, complete with beloved psychodramatic tropes (sad queer kids! uncomfortably close twins! the protagonist almost freezing to death in a Vermont attic before being rescued by the most intense and highly-strung Classics major of all! everybody quoting Greek all the time!) and wrap it all up in extremely accomplished prose. In case you were wondering, The American Dream Remains A Lie.

Q: So ... did you like The Secret History or not?
A: I found it compelling and page-turney and interesting to think about structurally as an exercise in dubiously reliable narration and shifting character perception! I also think probably for maximum appreciation I should have read it as an 18-year-old with a Lot of Feelings about emotionally disturbed teenagers who quote Greek at each other, or at the very least not at the time when as it turns out I did in fact read it, return to top.
skygiants: ran and nijiko from 7 Seeds, looking faintly judgy (dubious lesbians)
[personal profile] jothra got me Of Fire and Stars as a holiday present last year, on account of Lesbian Princesses. It is indeed a YA fantasy about about lesbian princesses! This is the novel's big selling point and indeed I was sold by it, although to be honest I think I would have liked it better/it might have worked better thematically were it a book about lesbian princess, singular, + a non-princess lesbian.

Dennaleia (Denna), the Good Princess, is polite and ladylike and scholarly and eager to be of use to her kingdom of origin and also the kingdom whose prince she is meant to be marrying. Her big problem is that she has lots and lots and lots of poorly-trained magic, which is illegal.

Amaranthine (Mare), the Rebellious Princess, is mad about being a princess and does not care about royalty or ruling or responsibilities; she cares only about horses! Mare does sneak out of the castle on the regular with her One Friend to find out what's going on with the illegal magic-users in town, but since she seems to have one (1) contact in the city (how she made this contact? unclear) and no (0) highly-placed contacts in the castle to pass along the information that she gains from her one (1) contact in the city, it's difficult to tell how this got started or why she believes it's effective.

(It's also a bit difficult to tell what's actually going on in the city, why it's so easy for Mare and her One Friend to wander in and out of secret magic-user strongholds, and why there are only six people involved in the political life of the kingdom. Worldbuilding and political intrigue is not necessarily the book's strong suit.)

So, I mean, Mare is very much a YA heroine in the classic vein, but she and her "ugh, the court, the politics, THERE IS CLEARLY NO REASON FOR ME TO PAY ATTENTION TO ANY OF THESE LOSERS [flips table]" and her initial resentment of Denna's respectable princesshood would I think have worked better for me if she was a stablehand or something; these days I prefer my princesses with a little more self-awareness and sense of duty.

That said, though neither Denna nor Mare really demonstrate overwhelming amounts of tactical awareness or strategic intelligence, their romance is a perfectly cute iteration of Horse Girl Falls For Nerd Girl and I'm very glad that the genre of Tropey YA Fantasy With Paper-Thin Worldbuilding and Magical Princesses Metaphorically Singing "I Want" Songs - a perfectly respectable genre which every so often is still exactly the genre I want to read! - has gotten a little bit gayer.

(But if you want really good lesbian princesses, may I recommend Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules? The baby royals are responsible AND there are asshole goats!)
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (cosmia)
After reading Peter Beagle's Summerlong and being Tragically Unimpressed, I made my book club read Tamsin just so I could remember the Beagles I have loved before.

Tamsin is very much a Beagle I have loved before. As a teenager it was probably my favorite Beagle, even moreso than The Last Unicorn, just because I identified so hard with sulky, obstreperous Jenny Gluckstein, a Jewish New York teenager who moves to Dorset and promptly falls head-over-heels for a beautiful eighteenth-century ghost named Tamsin Willoughby.

I described the book this way in book club. "But I don't want to oversell you on how gay it is," I added, worriedly. "I mean I haven't reread it since I was a teenager. It definitely might not be as gay as I remember. Maybe it isn't gay at all, and I was just projecting!"

...rest assured, this book is very gay. We're not entirely sure if Beagle knows just how gay it is? There are numerous moments where Jenny describes in great detail the tingly feelings that Tamsin's quirky smile and vanilla smell and tiny ghost freckles make her feel, and then adds something like "I guess I'll probably feel that way about a boy someday!" Will you, Jenny? WILL YOU?

(I mean, maybe she will, bisexuality definitely an option, I'm just saying. The book is first-person, with the device of being an explanation of Everything That Went Down from the perspective of several years later for Jenny's friend Meena to read; the structure makes a whole lot more sense if one just assumes Jenny and Menna are by this point dating. Meena is in the book plenty! Thematically paralleled with Tamsin, even! Meena's jealousy of the time Jenny spends mysteriously disappearing to hang out with a ghost and Jenny's jealousy of Meena's tragic crush on The Boy She Pines For Across The Choir Benches is a whole thing!)

So yes, in retrospect, it turns out I still love Tamsin - even though, in retrospect, reading it now, it's a super weirdly-structured book. The first solid third of the book is all Jenny's SULKY OBSTREPEROUS AGONIZING TEENAGE FEELINGS about leaving New York, which is fine, I guess, except it introduces half a dozen characters that are super important to Jenny in New York and will never be important again. Then another character who's incredibly important to the finale of the book shows up maybe three chapters before the end, and Jenny's like "oh yeah, I forgot to mention her? But she's been here the whole time, having weird interactions with me the whole time, let's just pretend I've been talking about it, OK? OK."

Still, Jenny's amused-embarrassed voice looking back at all the time she spent as a hideously embarrassing teenager continues to ring about as true for me as it did when I myself was a hideously embarrassing teenager. I think I'm always going to love Tamsin for that.

(Also the tragic feline love story of between Jenny's actual factual cat and Tamsin's imperturbable ghost cat continues to delight.)
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
As a comfort read project, I've been rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books for the first time since I was in high school - with the exception of Murder Must Advertise, which I wrote a paper on in college, and The Nine Tailors, which I realized I'd never read after writing my paper on Murder Must Advertise and therefore read shortly afterwards. But I haven't hit either of those yet on my reread; I've currently gotten through Whose Body, Clouds of Witness, Unnatural Death, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and Strong Poison, and I just hauled myself over the finish line of Five Red Herrings today.

It's been an interesting and occasionally unexpected experience. Here are some general impressions )

Five left, but of those five, three of them -- Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon -- are the ones that I remember best, so it'll be interesting to see if the reread continues to be as much of a voyage of discovery as the early ones have been or if the later books generally match up with the impressions they've already left in my brain.
skygiants: ran and nijiko from 7 Seeds, looking faintly judgy (dubious lesbians)
I'm familiar with John Wyndham as the author of such science fiction classics as Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, but I'd never heard of The Chrysalids before reading it for work book club.

The Chrysalids is I think the earliest example I've ever encountered of the now-familiar trope, Psychic Kids Against Cruel World. In this particular case, the cruel world is a post-apocalyptic future in what I think is strongly implied to be northern Canada, which has set up a strict religious farming society in response to massive nuclear destruction.

The fact that protagonist David is a Psychic Kid isn't actually revealed until a few chapters in, after David has already talked us through his friendship with six-toed Sophie, Sophie's parents' attempt to hide her 'mutation', the eventual discovery of Sophie's extra toe by the authorities, and Sophie's family's attempt to flee. Only then is David like, "ALSO, by the way, I have a telepathic bond with my cousin Rosemary and a couple other random kids from the closest six towns or so and we all live in terror lest anyone should find out and denounce us as mutants! GOOD TIMES."

Eventually a couple things start to disturb the tenuous balance that keeps David and his other psychic friends safe and out of suspicion:

- one teenage telepathic girl decides to marry a local non-telepathic boy, despite the fact that all of her friends think this is a terrible idea -- as it, in fact, turns out very definitely to be
- David's baby sister turns out to be an ENORMOUSLY POWERFUL telepath who is CONSTANTLY SCREAMING at all the other telepathic kids ALL THE TIME because she DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO USE AN INDOOR TELEPATH VOICE, which means that suddenly all the telepathic kids are, like, running out to the middle of the woods together for no apparent reason because Petra fell into a hole and will not shut up in their heads
- also, while we're at it, Petra informs David that there are some other people out there she's been chatting with, well beyond the bounds of what the rest of the community considers dead world; they're super far away! but they're there!

You probably have a sense of the kind of book this is by now, I think. It's a very good example of this kind of book; maybe the ur-example? In any case, I enjoyed it, in a grim and postapocalyptic but not hopeless sort of way.
skygiants: Enjolras from Les Mis shouting revolution-tastically (la resistance lives on)
I picked up Audrey Erskine Lindop's 1961 novel The Way to the Lantern at the Traveler Restaurant (the Connecticut diner that stocks books to give away) a few months back, solely based on the fact that it had a bright red cover with the words "A NOVEL OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION" emblazoned on it. Last week I finally started reading it.

By the time I got five pages in, the protagonist, a prisoner sentenced to death by the Revolution, had already:

- complained about the fact that everyone else slated for execution is being annoyingly noble and nonchalant about it
- complained vociferously about the fact that he’s slated to be executed under the wrong name
- been required to prove his identity by flashing his uniquely-scarred ass at the Tribunal (one cheek was bitten by a dog and has never recovered)
- protested to the Tribunal - who think he is a Viscomte in hiding, and do not believe that he is a real actor because the secret policeman who saw him on stage officially reported back that he was unbelievably bad - that he IS a real actor, he’s actually a GREAT actor, he was just TIRED that day
- managed to stave off execution due to the fact, in addition to the committee that wants to execute him for being a Viscomte in hiding, there’s ANOTHER committee that wants to execute him for being a spying Englishman and they cannot agree on who's right

At this point I almost stopped reading because this was already basically a perfect book and things could only go downhill from here.

The Way to the Lantern is essentially a reverse Scarlet Pimpernel: instead of being a brilliant mastermind with twelve identities which are never connected by the Revolutionary authorities, Our Hero is a completely irrelevant actor named Roberts who, through a series of poor decisions and unlucky catastrophes, accidentally has the Revolutionary authorities convinced that he is a brilliant mastermind with twelve identities.

Further detailed plot spoilers below explain how this came about )

Anyway I am now obviously planning to seek out everything else Audrey Erskine Lindop has ever written, so LOOK FORWARD TO MORE OF THAT.
skygiants: Mary Lennox from the Secret Garden opening the garden door (garden)
I have a confession: I am not a science person. It's an odd kind of mental block. I always liked history, and I actually also liked math, and it always seemed like therefore I should be able to master science too -- I mean, science is basically just math + story, right? And I'm good at both those things! But somehow I could never even build a mousetrap car that worked correctly, let alone wrapping my head around the more complex aspects of physics or biology. My glass-ceiling-shattering neurologist mother was always nice enough not to seem too obviously disappointed by this.

Anyway, Lab Girl -- a memoir about geochemist/geobiologist Hope Jahren's career in science, interspersed with descriptions of the scientific weirdness of botany -- was our book club pick a few months back. I didn't actually make it to that round of book club, but I read the book later on anyway.

...and I'm going to be honest: the book is compellingly written, botany is undeniably weird and interesting when looked at objectively, and yet when reading this book, I still found myself impatient to shove through the straight botany sections to get to the actual memoir story. I'm sorry! Science writing is cool, I just find it personally challenging, I don't know what's wrong with me.

("But just a couple weeks ago you were going on about how cool the alien linguistic morphology was in Embassytown" -- yes I know and for some reason it doesn't apply when it's made-up science! I don't know why this is!!! I guess I just find it more impressive when other humans come up with this stuff than when evolution/God/forces beyond our control do??? "My brain could do that! Except, of course, it doesn't.")

....and once again when trying to write about a memoir I find myself writing a post that's more about me than the book. It's a solid memoir! Jahren is pulling together a couple of story-threads -- one about being a female scientist, and then one again about being a female scientist with severe manic-depression, and then wrapped into that is the story of her lifelong partnership with her highly eccentric lab buddy/platonic life partner Bill. (I believe there was a Yuletide request related to this.) I'm glad I read the book, but I think I remain confident in my conclusion that biology was not the career for me.
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
OK, all the Crossroads books are pretty weird, but now that I have read it I feel justified in my remembered assessment that The Healing of Crossroads is ABSOLUTELY the weirdest.

So here's what happens in this book. )
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
Under the Healing Sign, the second book in the Crossroads series about Vets In Fantasyland, does not exactly have a plot or a structure so much as .... like, the first two-thirds of the book is mostly a series of largely nice, occasionally bittersweet anecdotes about Our Heroine BJ's first year as Fantasyland's Official Veterinarian, and then there is a Battle and a Tragedy and suddenly the book is like "PART TWO!!" and all of PART TWO is "OH SHIT WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE."

Stuff that happens in this book )

ON TO BOOK THREE, which is, as I remember, the weirdest of them all.
skygiants: (swan)
I have read Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk twice now and not yet succeeded in writing it up, but I am going to make a solid go of it now and we'll see what happens.

The trouble with trying to write up H is for Hawk is that it is such a deeply personal book, for Helen Macdonald, that I don't know what to say about it that won't sell it short or misrepresent it somehow. I often have this trouble with writing about memoirs, in a way I don't with fiction or biographies -- because as you all should know by now, the tone I am most comfortable writing these posts in, perhaps regrettably, is 'flippant,' and what right do I have to be flippant about another person's profoundly personal experience?

And the other thing that makes this hard is that I expect most of you have heard of it, or at least seen it in bookstores on the bestseller table, because it was weirdly and wildly popular for a deeply personal memoir about grief and a goshawk and the author T.H. White, with whom Helen Macdonald has no connection whatsoever except through his own weird book about grief and a goshawk. (The best review of White's The Goshawk was from [personal profile] rushthatspeaks in 2011, and you can read it here. I also read the book, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it any more than I can figure out how to write about this one, so I wrote less eloquently about Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of T.H. White instead.) So what can I say that you won't have seen on the book cover, that this is a book about those things?

I guess I can say that I felt I understood this book better in December of 2016 than I did in January of 2016, because I was lucky enough, in January of 2016, not to understand grief very well.

And I guess I can also say that when I read it in December of 2016, it was for book club, and the thing we found ourselves talking about the most is that we're not sure after all that Helen Macdonald understands T.H. White very well -- or at least, not as well as she thinks, or at least, none of us were entirely comfortable with her understanding of him, an (apparently?) straight woman putting most of another person's troubles down to the Tragedy of Being A Gay Man. The trouble is, I guess, that Helen Macdonald's book, for the most part, is about discovery; she's learning about her hawk, and she's learning about her grief, which means that neither her own motivations nor the hawk's are entirely clear most of the time. The process of figuring them out makes the book what it is.

But she's not learning about T.H. White, or at least, that's not the way she's writing it. She tells us about him like she knows him and can understand his motivations already. And honestly, T.H. White is a complex enough figure that I don't think anybody does, or can.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
When I was young I was formatively influenced by a portal fantasy trilogy by Nick O'Donohoe in which vet students go patch up unicorns and griffins. However, my personal copies disappeared mysteriously sometime in the two thousands. For years I have been scouring libraries and used bookstores, but the only one I could find was the third book in the trilogy. This did me absolutely no good if I wanted to embark on a complete reread, which I absolutely wanted to do (especially after [personal profile] rachelmanija's recent reread.)

However! As of my recent trip to Powell's in Portland, I finally hit the jackpot! So I've just reread the first one, The Magic And the Healing, and will be progressing on accordingly.

The heroine of the The Magic and the Healing is West Virginia vet student BJ Vaughan, who is on the verge of failing out of med school because she's just learned that she has a strong genetic risk factor for Huntington's chorea and is, as a result, incredibly depressed.

Before she can drop out of school, however, she is invited on a mysterious special rotation with Cool Professor Sugar Dobbs, who dumps a unicorn horn and some mythological material in her lap and tells her to be ready to present next week. Shortly thereafter, BJ and her classmates are making regular trips back and forth to the land of Crossroads, where Magic Is Real but Centaurs Still Might Need Prenatal Care.

Other vet students include:

Lee Ann, the extremely Southern one
Annie, the extremely Christian one
Dave, the extremely bro-y one (I feel like there's maybe a rule that all portal fantasies featuring several university students need to include one bro-y guy named Dave)
Laurie, the cool cynical older one who is not actually in the rotation, appears for literally one scene early on in the book, and towards the end is suddenly revealed to spoiler? )
DeeDee, the sugary-sweet one who is also not actually in the rotation, appears for all of two scenes early on in the book, and towards the end is suddenly revealed to more spoiler! )

So, A-plot is BJ discovering magical wonders while also dealing with depression, suicidal ideation, and the possibility of having an incurable, eventually fatal genetic disease; and then the B-plot is a jaunty story about our ragtag band of vet students jaunting between Crossroads and West Virginia, bonding with the locals and each other, and flailing about how to apply their current real-world veterinary knowledge to mythological species.

And then there is a C-plot about an invading army that wants to come to Crossroads and murder everybody in its path, but it's almost hilariously irrelevant for most of the book until you get to the end and suddenly our ragtag band of vet students have to join in pitched! battle!! for the survival of Crossroads!!! right before they all graduate and go off to join local vet practices. Like honestly you could probably just skip the occasional chapters where the king of Crossroads goes undercover in the evil army and you would not be missing a thing, nobody cares about this, get us back to the logistical challenges of getting the appropriate blood type for griffin blood transfusions already!

Anyway, spoiler alert, Crossroads is saved and BJ doesn't die. My memory of the next two books in these series is that stuff keeps on happening A LOT; I don't remember just about anything that happens in the second one, but the third one is burned into my memory for what remains (to me) one of the most bizarre romantic plot twists of all time. I'm looking forward to the experience!
skygiants: Mae West (model lady)
I was browsing through the nonfiction available from Open Road Media's free-books-bonanza a few months back, and a book caught my eye immediately and held it -- Marlene Dietrich's ABC: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes.

I immediately did the internet equivalent of grabbing the people I'd been chatting with by the collar in order to shout, "Marlene Dietrich* WROTE A COOKBOOK?!" I don't think I've ever pressed a "Purchase" button so fast.

*early film icon, notorious femme fatale, one of the first women to kiss another woman onscreen

It turns out Marlene Dietrich's ABC isn't exactly a cookbook, although it does contain recipes. Written in 1962, when Dietrich was 61, it's exactly what it says on the tin: an alphabetical index of Things Marlene Dietrich Considers Interesting Or Important. This means that any given page is likely to contain a miscellany of Marlene Dietrich's thoughts on such subjects as Backseat Driving (she's against it), the Beatles (she's for them), Beauty (The Seamy Side), Beef Tea (recipe), and Bergman, Ingmar ("they treat him like a king, and when you are with his disciples you fall right in step"). The book overall is exactly as weird and fascinating as you are likely to imagine from this. Some of the time Dietrich is playing the role of Sophisticated Screen Siren, sometimes she's playing the role of Your Kindly Grandma, and sometimes she just wants to tell you her Feelings About Poetry. Did I need to know that Marlene Dietrich thinks about Atticus Finch as "someone she might have married"? Yes, I ABSOLUTELY DID. (Also, who's going to write me that fanfic for next Yuletide?)

Of course there's all the parts where she gets very kindly and domestically gender-essentialist at you; Dietrich may have been bisexual, but she's certainly not letting any of that show here, and would much rather tell you about how important it is to be a good helpmeet to your husband without henpecking him.

But then, on the flip side of this, there are all the parts where she slides in an offhanded comment that abruptly reminds you that she's a German woman who watched her country become something she didn't recognize, renounced her citizenship, spoke out vocally and consistently against fascism, and performed so tirelessly for the USO during WWII that she ended up on the front lines more than Eisenhower.

The entry for Hate, for example, sandwiched in between entries on Hardware Stores and Hats: "I have known hate from 1933 till 1945. I still have traces of it and I do not waste much energy to erase them. It is hard to live with hate. But if the occasion demands it, one has to harden oneself deliberately."

There are times in this book when I found myself abruptly identifying very much with Marlene Dietrich.
skygiants: Nice from Baccano! in post-explosion ecstasy (maybe too excited . . .?)
So I've fallen into a bit of a Baccano! vortex, due to the fact that Yen Press is now at last translating the light novels!

For those unfamiliar, Baccano! is an anime that came out in 2007. Set in the 1930s, it features about five colliding train heists, two blithely clueless thieves, four different gangs, a collection of conspiratorial immortal alchemists, a whole baker's dozen of murderous psychopaths, and a bunch of delinquent bootlegging teenagers who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Somehow, it all generally turns out OK (except for the nameless murdery people we don't like, who tend to get their comeuppances in extraordinarily gruesome fashions. The named and protagonist-y murderers, on the other hand, get adorable romantic meet-cutes in between or occasionally during bloodbaths.) It's bouncy, bloody and bizarre -- the title in Italian means "stupid commotion" and the story does its level best to live up to that premise.

The anime covers the first 3-4 books in a long-running series about these wacky, frequently murderous immortals and their assorted gangster buddies. I am exceptionally excited for the point when Yen Press starts translating the books not covered by the anime -- assuming that they do; I have a terrible and probably-ungrounded fear that they're going to cancel the project before getting around to the later stuff -- but it's already been fun reading the three that are out so far:

The Rolling Bootlegs, in which an immortal alchemist's attempt to recreate the elixir of immortality is rudely interrupted by his homunculus servant-daughter's inconvenient development of a conscience, as well as a running succession of of rowdy gangsters

1931 - The Grand Punk Railroad (Local), which recounts the TRAIN HEIST FIVE-WAY COLLISION OF DOOM with a focus on the heroic intervention of a gang of teen delinquents led by pyromaniac Nice Holystone and nervous crybaby Jacuzzi Splot

1931 - The Grand Punk Railroad (Express), which clears up all the mysteries of the last book by recounting the TRAIN HEIST FIVE-WAY COLLISION OF DOOM with a focus on the heroic (....sort of) intervention of unaccompanied minor Czeslaw, intrepid reporter/information broker/repeat ride stealer Rachel, and the Rail Tracer, a lovable monster who saves the train by rampaging up and down through the cars murdering almost everyone he meets

OK, that's the write-up for those who haven't seen the series; for those who have, but not read the books yet, I'm going to put some further impressions under a cut! )
skygiants: young Kiha from Legend of the First King's Four Gods in the library with a lit candle (flame of knowledge)
Today is a snow day! THIS IS VERY EXCITING and also obviously impetus to write up the most tropical book in my backlog.

I can't remember where it was I saw Célestine Hitiura Vaite's Breadfruit recommended -- maybe via [community profile] astroprojection? -- but I picked it up on impulse for my trip to the Galapagos and did not regret it.

Breadfruit follows Matarena Mahi, a Tahitian woman with a long-term live-in boyfriend, a couple of kids, a low-paying cleaning job, and a large extended family. In theory, the novel focuses on the fallout of Matarena's boyfriend's drunken proposal one night and Matarena's subsequent case of secret wedding fever. In practice, it's more of a set of linked short stories -- Matarena bounces around and interacts with various members of her family and community, providing the opportunity for the narrator to share Interesting Anecdotes about each of them.

This may seem like a weird comparison, but the structure of the book reminds me more than anything else of Sidney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family books -- like, Breadfruit is obviously not a book for children (anecdotes range from The Time Cousin Y Ruined A Hot Stranger's Fancy Car By Giving Birth In It and The Time Matarena Went To The Gay Bar To Visit Cousin Z's Trans Girlfriend And Ask Her About Wedding DJs to The Time Rich White People Legally Stole Cousin A's Baby And Nobody Could Do Anything About It) but it's got that same feeling of a cluster of tales that come together to form a portrait of a community and a culture that the author knows intimately and wants to share.

Some stories are sad, but the book overall is not depressing; like Matarena herself, it's warm, generous, well-intentioned, and occasionally flashes sharp teeth. Vaite's written two more books about Matarena and her family, and I definitely intend to read them.
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 )

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