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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing is that pretty much every named character who shows up in the Sunbolt Chronicles gets this treatment. Everyone is important! It's pretty refreshing! This, and the interestingly weird weird structure, and one or two other factors (one and a half whole books in and there has as of yet been no romance!) make it stand out for me from the other present-tense first-person YA which it otherwise resembles.

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