skygiants: Mosca Mye, from the cover of Fly Trap (the fly in the butter)
I was resigned to waiting until October 17th for A Skinful of Shadows to come out in the US. However, [personal profile] izilen, horrified at both the long wait after the UK publication and the clear inferiority of the US cover, acquired a copy on my behalf and mailed it over the ocean -- after first warning me it was the darkest Frances Hardinge book yet.

Having now read it, I don't know that it's actually that much creepier than the first third of Cuckoo Song, or the bits of Lie Tree where Faith in her deepest self-loathing slithers snakelike through the island purposefully destroying everything she touches. It definitely has a higher body count -- a much higher body count -- but I mean it's a book about a.) ghosts and b.) the English Civil War so maybe that's to be expected ...?

Like many of Hardinge's books, it features:
- a ferocious underestimated girl struggling to hold onto a sense of self in a world that wishes her to have no such thing
- a recognition that the people you love and who believe that they love you will sometimes betray you, sometimes for reasons they believe are good and sometimes not
- a ruthless and terrible female antagonist whom the heroine cannot help but respect and admire
- a struggling journey up out of solitude towards a coalition built of necessity with the least likely individuals
- including an undead bear
- admittedly this is the first Hardinge book to include an undead bear
- it is also the first Hardinge book about literal ghosts, a lot of ghosts, a lot of very unpleasant and sinister ghosts but also some ghosts for whom I have a very deep affection, including the very bearlike bear.

I also have a great deal of affection for Makepeace - the illegitimate scion of a very old noble family that is quite confident it will be able to chew her up and spit her out, and finds itself repeatedly mistaken. I don't think I love her yet quite as much as Trista or Faith or Mosca, but that's what I said about Faith right after I read The Lie Tree, too, and LOOK AT ME NOW.
skygiants: Kozue from Revolutionary Girl Utena, in black rose gear, holding her sword (salute)
For the past approximately 15 years, I've been attempting to write a novel about Sir Kay, the Orkney knights, and weird Arthurian family dynamics. It's one of those things that I pick up about my extent draft of approximately every five years, think "huh! maybe with some extensive revision," get halfway through the extensive revision, realize I still haven't figured out how to do it, and put it down again. Maybe someday! With extensive revision!

Anyway it was probably about five years ago that I realized that someone had already written this book, sort of, and since then I've been hunting in bookstores for used copies of Phyllis Ann Karr's Idylls of the Queen, which I have now finally acquired and read.

This was a weird reading experience in the way that it always is when reading a book that's almost the book you would have written. About half the things that she's doing are very specific things that I am also really interested in, and it's deeply mysterious to me I arrived at them completely independently when she was already there three years before I was born. And then there are things that I never in a million years would have done, like making Sir Kay desperately in hopeless love with Queen Guinevere. What? I mean, OK, sure, but I wouldn't have ever gotten there. There must be a word for this, that weird feeling of almost-mine-but-not-quite.

Anyway, the thing that Karr does that I think is most interesting -- that I would like to do and probably will never do half so well -- is the way that she looks very closely at Arthurian stories from Malory and various lays and legends and hews very much to the letter of What Happens In Them, while also sort of shaking them inside out and looking at how that might have looked to the various different humans involved (often, especially, the women). It's really clever and a lot of fun, while also being about as disturbing as anything that takes much of Malory and various other early Arthuriana literally would have to be.

The actual plot of the book involves Queen Guinevere being accused of murder, and Sir Kay and Mordred going on a DETECTIVE SPREE ends up getting tangled up not just in Guinevere's alleged crime, but also all the weird backstory Orkney blood feud stuff of who murdered whom in revenge against whom. Eventually there's a Locked Room Denouement in full Poirot style, but first there is the TWO MOST ANNOYING KNIGHTS IN THE WORLD on a ROAD TRIP, hanging out with various Arthurian side characters like Nimue and Morgan and Sir Pelleas and Sir Ironsides and irritating the heck out of all of them, and it is honestly amazing.

KAY: I'm traveling with Mordred because he's the worst, and because he's definitely a suspect for the murder.
SOME RANDOM NORMAL ROUND TABLE PERSON: Sir Kay, why are you traveling with Mordred? He's the worst! Aren't you worried that his bad reputation will rub off on you?
KAY: Um, excuse me? I was given to understand that I was the rudest and most annoying knight of the Round Table? I'm pretty sure you should be worried that my bad reputation is going to rub off on this poor, innocent child, so why don't you lay off??

[later]

Mordred: I am totally ready to be murdered by ANYONE, probably YOU, probably TONIGHT. Here I am, LANGUISHING IN MY BEDROOM, WEAPONLESS -
KAY: CHILD! why are you such a DRAMA LLAMA

[later]

MORDRED: Now, hypothetically considering the possibility that maybe Guinevere did want to murder someone -
KAY: I'll fight anyone who accuses the queen! I'll fight you anytime, anywhere! How very dare you imply that it's even REMOTELY POSSIBLE that the Queen might have been in ANY WAY responsible for -
MORDRED: lololol look who is the drama llama! PS are you ready to murder me yet?
KAY: CHILD!!!!!

(To be clear, Mordred is like in his thirties in this book.)

[KAY AND MORDRED ARE ARGUING AGAIN]
KAY: Suddenly, I feel like shit! Why is this!
NIMUE: That's because I cast a spell of magical depression on you to get you to briefly -- oh, so blissfully briefly -- stop talking.
KAY: Mordred is the one who was ruder, why didn't you cast it on him?
NIMUE: You're the one who told me that Mordred was very emotionally fragile and I should be careful of his tender ego!
KAY: ...ugh, so I did. Ugh, and I meant it. Fine.

Basically what I'm saying is that it's still remotely possible that someday I will get my version into shape for other human eyes to see, but despite the strangeness of the experience, I'm not mad that Karr did it first.
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
I've been cleaning up transcripts for Civil War-related interviews at work recently, which reminded me I never wrote up Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union.

The heroine of An Extraordinary Union, Elle Burns, is very loosely based on Mary Bowser, a historical Civil War spy with an eidetic memory who worked undercover as a slave in Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. Unsurprisingly, all the bits that feature Elle undercover and interacting with the other slaves in the household are really excellent, I would happily read twelve different iterations on Vaguely Fictionalized Mary Bowser.

The love interest ... is fine? I honestly don't remember much about him. He's Scottish with a tragic backstory, he is also a spy, he's smitten with Elle at first sight, and as a result I spent a lot of time in the first half of the book being kind of annoyed at him because I hit that thing where I'm like 'the stakes are too high for you to be making a pass here, knock it out! go back to spying!' I prefer my romantic espionage to come with a slightly higher dose of stressed-out mistrust and refusing to act on any feelings whatsoever because The Cause Comes First, and that goes double or triple when the stakes are so very much higher for one partner than the other. Anyway, once the romance is established (and I got over my irritation with the hero for attempting to pursue a romance at all under the circumstances) the Romantic Spyjinks were also very good and the heroic self-sacrifice level rose accordingly. The second book in the series is supposed to be coming out sometime in the next few months, I think, and I will be looking out for it.
skygiants: Eve from Baccano! looking up at a starry sky (little soul big world)
Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books that I find I like better the more distance I get from it -- not that I didn't enjoy reading it, because I did, but over time I've also sort of come to appreciate the shape of it in a way I didn't necessarily when I first read it a few months ago.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is very definitely a coming-of-age story: Dante Quintana is a kid figuring out his own queerness, and Ari Mendoza, our POV character, is a kid figuring out his ability to make any kind of connections to other human beings at all. Ari doesn't have friends, and doesn't feel like he needs them particularly, but he and Dante meet at the pool and click, and it's good! It's nice! Friendship, that's a thing!

Then Ari happens to save Dante's life, and things get weird; and Dante moves away for a while, and this also makes things weird; and Dante has a huge crush on Ari, which he is pretty upfront about, thus making it less weird but also, I mean, it's hard! People are hard!

Mostly the book is the long slow process of Ari learning to communicate with:
- Dante
- his parents
- some girls at high school who it turns out might actually be (ugh) also his friends
- his new stray dog
- the universe
- himself
- and his angry feelings around the gap in his family that represents his brother, who is in prison
- and his complicated feelings around identity and queerness and masculinity
- and how much he really really loves his dog and his truck and maybe also some people

It's an almost meditative book and only a romance in its ending moments; most of the beats throughout the book are quiet, resonant, and not necessarily where one would expect them to fall.
skygiants: Kozue from Revolutionary Girl Utena, in black rose gear, holding her sword (salute)
I happened to see on Twitter that today was the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride, which I guess makes it a good day to post about As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride.

This is Cary Elwes' memoir of the making of the film, a book I had vaguely meant to read for years, but did not actually get around to until our new roommate left his copy in the house this summer as a sort of placeholder before actually moving in. It's very charming! I'd sort of always had a vague sense that Cary Elwes must in some way resent being forever branded as The Man In Black, and I'm sure that at some points he has and does, but this write-up is probably the most overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic Hollywood making-of memoir I've ever read. It's clearly intended for people who love the film and want to go on loving it, without a complicated feeling in sight.

My favorite part was probably the enthusiastic things that Cary Elwes and everyone interviewed had to say about Robin Wright and her acting as Buttercup; they're all like "we sailed through on jokes! playing the straight man is the hardest role in the cast! ALSO SHE CAME FROM SOAP OPERAS, SOAP OPERAS ARE SO HARD, DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY LINES PER DAY --" I went in braced to feel vaguely defensive of Robin Wright and Buttercup, as I so often do, and instead I was charmed and endeared!

I also enjoyed accounts of:
- Mandy Patinkin turning up to the first rehearsal with six months of sword practice under his belt, much to Cary Elwes' dismay
- William Goldman freaking out about Rob Reiner setting the leading lady on fire
- Andre the Giant accidentally conking Cary Elwes out on set
- Cary Elwes carefully arranging himself on the grass in an elegant lounging position to hide that he'd broken an ankle joyriding in a golf card
- so much detailed description of sword training and fight choreography! *__* SO MUCH
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
Thanks to the kindness of [personal profile] aamcnamara in loaning a copy so I did not have to fight through the library line, I read The Stone Sky - third in N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, following up on The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate - last weekend.

I don't think Essun destroyed any cities at all this book! I'm so proud!

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

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

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

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

I will admit I was charmed.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway! Alyssa Cole! "Let It Shine!" ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT, will be seeking out more of her stuff.

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