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June 30th, 2015

09:04 pm - Vive la France, vive l'Ecosse
Do you know what book cycled REALLY QUICKLY through the BPL system? The second Outlander book, Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber. When I put it on hold after finishing Outlander in April, I was like number 70-something in the queue. I got the book from the library in sort-of-late May and finished it June 2. (Yeah, so I'm behind on reviews.)

In this one, Claire and Jamie go to France to try and stop Charles Stuart's disastrously ill-conceived rebellion against the British crown from ever happening. Obviously, all does not go according to plan, although it might be going according to fate. They take over Jamie's cousin's wine business while he is away on a business trip and ingratiate themselves with the Jacobite factions in France, basically trying to get them to write off Bonnie Prince Charlie as a bad bet and not finance his rebellion.

In addition, Black Jack Randall keeps showing up to be an antagonist, continually finding new and inventive ways to be completely awful to Claire, Jamie, and anyone else who's around. Much of the conflict that crops up between Claire and Jamie is related to Claire's desire that Black Jack not be killed until his child is conceived, so that Frank doesn't get disappeared from the future, and Jamie's quite understandable desire to kill Black Jack immediately before he can ruin anybody else's life.

Around this story there's a fun frame mostly from the POV of Reverend Wakefield's adopted nephew, Roger MacKenzie, who meets a now much-older Claire and her twenty-year-old daughter Brianna in 1968 and begins to piece together what happened to Claire back in 1948. And Roger turns out to have some of his own connections to Claire's story, too.

The first thing that really struck me about this book is that it's bleeding enormous, and I say this as someone who likes bleeding enormous books. But this series is really shaping up to be a big, sprawling, hardcore-everything saga. Major, major upheavals occur a few times per book, and this one seems like at least four books in one--the first 1968 section, the France section, the back in Scotland for the uprising section, and the second 1968 section with its plotline about Geillis Duncan.

I like 'em all, though! And I particularly like Claire as a character, although I still think book-Jamie is much more of a jerk than TV-Jamie. But while book-Jamie is less perfect as a romantic object to me, he's still a very, very interesting character, and I think the book does a solid job of examining the aftermath of what happened to him at the end of Outlander and his attempts to reestablish his sense of self.

While there's definitely bits of this book that could have stood to have been edited down a bit, for the most part I think that there's a hell of a lot going on in these 800 pages. One of the major themes is power--both society-wide and individual--and the effects of having power and being put under the power of others has on people. Another major theme, obviously, is whether or not they can influence history, and while I probably could write a whole review just about the How Does Time Work In This Universe question, I basically refuse to have that conversation ever again, so I'm pretty cool with the fact that nobody in the series so far knows anything about it either. There's court intrigue; there's a lot of medical stuff; there's some weird stuff about magic and occultism; there's a lot of people conflating medical stuff and occultism, as usual. Babies and pregnancy also feature heavily in this one, and not in a sugar-coated way--the book explores issues of reproductive choice and coercion, what lineage/heritage do and don't mean, what it means to be a "real" parent, the emotional toll of miscarriage.

Despite my general inability to care about the sex scenes--of which there are a LOT--I've found myself pretty invested in Claire and Jamie's relationship, and not just as a cross-temporal study. I'm freakin' hooked on this series. It feeds my history dorkery, my morbid cravings for horrendously hardcore-everything drama, my "kickass ladies" comfort zone, basically everything. Hopefully one of these books I'll have the time and drive to sit down and do a full proper review that is pages and pages long and is full of my opinions about specific bits of it, but for right now, that just seems too daunting! It's so daunting it's actually been three weeks since I finished the book and I've been putting off writing a review for it. Bad self.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 11th, 2015

10:32 pm - *eats banged grains*
One of the books I was most excited for when Mark Oshiro started reading Discworld was Moving Pictures. Once he started reading it, to my surprise, I became even *more* excited, because I had not known that apparently he spent a good chunk of time living in Hollywood, and Moving Pictures is about Hollywood. Would Mark, for once, be prepared?

He was not. No one can ever be quite prepared for Moving Pictures, although it is good to have a solid background in movie references, to fully understand all the ungodly number of jokes.

Moving Pictures is strictly in the "a Modern Thing gets invented, Discworld-style, and chaos ensues" tradition of Discworld plotlines, which is unabashedly my favorite Discworld plot type. In this case, the movies are invented, as one might guess from the title, and a small town devoted to making movies springs up in a desert, and is called Holy Wood. People start being called to go there. Victor Tugelbend, a fairly boring, generically handsome, surpassingly lazy student wizard, is one of them. He is apparently called to be a fairly boring, generically handsome action hero/romantic lead with dashing moustaches, or something. He teams up with a talking mutt named Gaspode the Wonder Dog to try and figure out what is going on with this whole Holy Wood thing and why everyone is acting strange, especially why Victor's usual film opposite, Ginger--a smart, driven, interesting character whose role as a starlet means that in films all she gets to do is look sultry and be rescued--keeps sleepwalking and trying to dig a hole in the ground on the outskirts of the city.

This is the... tenth Discworld book, I think, and it does a lot to further establish and develop the rules of reality on the Discworld--especially the roles of story and belief, which are a huge theme throughout the entire series. It also has some pretty hilarious critiques of certain story tropes that are basically dumb, and a lot of fairly biting satire about the corrosive, greedy, exploitative, appearance-obsessed aspects of Hollywood culture. But it also shows love for the magic and splendor of movies and storytelling, and thus avoids becoming cranky elitist trash. Also it has a shameless cartoon-chase scene, which is not particularly elitist either. The metahumor and references certainly have created a monster in that so much comedy following Pratchett has gone down those paths so hard they've ended up well up their own arseholes, but in this case, it works beautifully--genre fiction, movie melodrama included, being a thing that relies so heavily on being "in conversation with" other stories in order to exist and function and to train its audience into understanding its shorthands.

Overall, definitely one of the more memorable Discworld books for me. Now let's see what happens when we get to Soul Music!

(Scribble in the margins)

June 5th, 2015

I've been dropping the ball pretty hard on a lot of my book clubs, and BSpec's book club to read Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem is no exception, except that I actually DID make it to the book club. I was surreptitiously (OK, not that surreptitiously) attempting to read the last 10% or so of the book during the meeting, and I finished the book the following morning.

This is not because the book was not good. It's because parts of the book were not good, and when I got to those parts, I'd space out and spend time dicking around on my phone or thinking judgmental thoughts about real life things (don't ask) and otherwise not making any progress despite sitting on the couch or my bed for pretty substantial periods of time. But the bits that were good were really good, which is why I kept attempting to read.

Three-Body Problem is a Chinese novel that has a lot of elements of what I'm familiar with as sort of Golden Age-y/"classic" science fiction, including both the fun bits that make me feel like I ought to read more classic sci-fi and the doofy bits that are why I don't. I can certainly see why the more dedicatedly sci-fi-oriented parts of SF/F fandom like it, but I think it could have been edited down one or two hundred pages (probably the same way a lot of sci-fi fans feel about the long Victorianesque food-porn-ridden fantasy doorstoppers I like to read).

Things that were good included everything to do with the video game, the space bits at the end with folding the proton, the story of the Trisolaran listener, the characterization of the one character who actually has characterization (she's the bad guy, but whatever), the one scene where they actually use the bloody nanofilaments that are the whole reason the "protagonist" is even in the story, and some of the discussion about the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese political situations in general. I was also kind of impressed at the way it managed to provide a sympathetic look at pretty much all sides of the conflict--it was nihilistic as shit, but I really felt for the aliens who were going to invade, and the humans who sold the planet out to the aliens, and the "evil" environmentalists, and also the people who, you know, didn't want aliens to invade and murder us all, even though the anti-aliens-invading side really had fewer and less compelling arguments.

Things that were less good: the protagonist was boring as hell. In fact, all but one of the characters were there just to be their jobs and had no discernible characterization outside of "having expertise in such-and-such because that's their job," although the "dirty cop" character was kind of fun, if only because he seemed to have been borrowed from a different genre so at least he shook things up a bit. There was a bit too much technobabble and longwinded discussion of physics for me, especially since it definitely seemed to be doing the classic Golden Age Scifi That Is Not Considered Literature (And This Is Why, Dammit) thing of substituting technobabble/sciencebabble for characterization. There was also some weird gender stuff, some really odd sexualization of some of the female characters at really inappropriate times (like... when bloodcrazed teen girl Red Guards are murdering people or being murdered) that took me out of the narrative, the kind of stuff that makes me stop thinking "Aliens are invading; what happens next?" and instead reminds me "I am sitting on a couch reading words that were made up and written down by a dude; that is what is going on right now. What will the next words be and will they be any good?" There were a couple of continuity issues, like the boring protagonist had a wife and son for one scene in the beginning when he needed them to take pictures, but then they are never mentioned again.

I know I am clearly missing a whole lot about Chinese culture and storytelling and the political realities of what can and cannot get published in China, and I'd love to know more about that (Sarah provided some insight in our discussion, secondhand from her Chinese grad school roommates who had read the book before it was available in English and apparently had a lot of opinions about it) (thanks, Sarah!). But I'm still not 100% sure I'm going to read the second volume? I might if I'm feeling particularly nihilistic, but generally if I'm going to read an underedited 800-page genre monstrosity I'm going to go for some sort of dark fantasy with too much characterization (and food porn) (and dresses) rather than too much physicists talking about how physics is, like, everything there is, man.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 31st, 2015

09:43 pm - India minus Indians

As many who hear me ramble about books know, I have a not-very-deep but quite enthusiastic love for Gail Carriger's fantasy-of-manners steampunk books, the Parasol Protectorate quintet and the ongoing Finishing School series. So I read the first book, Prudence, in her new series set in this universe, The Custard Protocol.

This series takes place about twenty years after the end of the last Parasol Protectorate book, and its protagonist is Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama, the metanatural child of werewolf Conal Maccon and soulless Alexia Tarabotti, adopted by the mysterious vampire dandy Lord Akeldama. She goes by Rue. She can "steal" vampires' and werewolves' skins, meaning she touches them and she turns into the sort of creature they are, leaving them mortal until either the sun comes up or they get far away enough that the tether snaps.

While Rue gets into a number of scrapes that add up to her being at least not at all a passive character--not that I'd want to be anywhere within fifteen hundred million miles of her in real life, considering her principled disdain for such stodgy middle-class values as "being even dimly aware of other people and giving half a shit about them"; I think she's supposed to be a heroine but I can only stomach her as an anti-heroine--and the further development of the wacky steampunk universe is a lot of fun, I didn't end up liking this book as much as the others.

While I'm not usually focused so much on the plots in Carriger's books as I am the wacky hijinks, I feel like the plots in this one were a little more confused than usual. I'm usually quite fine with the plots of comedies being basically vehicles for jokes, and some of these were, mainly the bit where Rue is only aware of one of the two major plotlines for a good long time and thinks people are talking about one thing when they're actually talking about another and everyone is being too ~mysterious~ to use their words and clear it up, but I still felt like I just didn't really buy it? Perhaps the jokes weren't as funny as they needed to be for me to not mind. And Rue's trip to India ended up being far too pro-colonialism for my taste--I know it's a fluffy book series taking place in an alternate history, but one of the basic plotlines (which doesn't really become clear until a good two-thirds of the way through the book) is that the English crown ~accidentally~ pissed off one race of supernatural beings in India by allying with a different race of supernatural beings in India, and they have to sort out a way to ally with both of them because the race they didn't know about ~stubbornl~y insists upon being mortal enemies with the other race and won't recognize England's ~super enlightened~ policy of blanket alliance with all supernatural races they come into contact with. The entire idea of Indian independence appears in the book only as a red herring, on the occasions when the doer of a nefarious deed is as yet unknown and therefore might possibly be "dissidents." It's a lot uglier than the trip to Egypt at the end of the Parasol Protectorate, where the plotline focused on issues that were essentially unrelated to British colonialism--this plotline is basically about how best to pull it off. I kept waiting for Rue to realize that the British were wrong to be ruling India, and she just never fucking did. If Carriger wants this universe to be fun and fluffy even though it's about the British Empire, she's welcome to do that, and I'll read it, but there are some places she just should not go if she wants to not go anywhere serious, and "India" is one of them. Now I'm half afraid that the next Finishing School book, which takes place in the 1840s instead of the 1890s, is going to involve the cast going off to Ireland to have wacky hijinks at the potato famine.

The characters were often fun the possible exception of Quesnel, who is a terrible obnoxious love interest. Ivy's twins--Primrose Tunstell, Rue's best friend, and Professor Percy Tunstell, played in my head by Eddie Redmayne--accompany Rue on her dirigible journey, and are good solid sidekicks. Basically, things are OK as long as they never leave the dirigible, but when they do it gets pretty cringeworthy at times.

Whether or not I read the second Prudence book is probably going to depend on how much I like the fourth Finishing School book, and possibly whether I hear any news of whether or not the second Prudence book involves everything from the first book coming back to bite Prudence firmly in her self-absorbed imperialist ass.

Also, was it just me or was the humor that there was considerably more lowbrow in this one? There's always been raunchy humor in the books in addition to the farce and whimsy, but this one really came off as a lot cruder and with a lot more fart jokes.

Current Mood: disappointeddisappointed

(Scribble in the margins)

May 27th, 2015

10:40 pm - Pour yourself a b. and s. and put on your mess jacket

Sometimes, I’m just not up for reading anything of substance or anything that’s going to be too distractingly interesting. The beginning of this month was one of those times, so I picked up P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, a classic in the “utter fluff” genre. This one’s  a novel rather than a series of short stories, although it is a pretty short novel.

Following an eventful trip to Cannes with his Aunt Dahlia and Cousin Angela, Upperclass Twit of the Year Bertie Wooster finds himself entangled in a handful of other people’s plotlines, each of which he manages to bungle fabulously. Bertie is in the middle of a spat with Jeeves about a white mess jacket, so Bertie is determined to solve all his friends’ problems himself, rather than letting Jeeves do all the scheming, to prove that he isn’t dumber than his valet and to show Jeeves who’s boss. Predictably, Bertie is actually a lot dumber than his valet, and Jeeves is functionally the boss.

Plotline number one concerns one Gussie Fink-Nottle, a school friend of Bertie’s who is also a hopeless nerd. Usually quite antisocial and retiring and unable to talk about anything except newts, Gussie has fallen dreadfully in love with Madeline Bassett, a friend of Cousin Angela’s from their trip to Cannes. Gussie is too nervous to bring himself to ask Miss Bassett to marry him.

Plotline number two concerns Cousin Angela, who has broken off her engagement with Bertie’s Drone Club buddy Tuppy Glossop, because Tuppy didn’t believe that a shark had tried to eat Angela in Cannes and kept mansplaining to her how that wasn’t possible and it must have been a flatfish or something. Angela—quite rightly, in my opinion—broke off the engagement and has since been flatly refusing to say a single civil word to Tuppy until he apologizes for not believing about the shark, which is the one thing Tuppy can’t seem to bring himself to do (Tuppy is a bit of an idiot).

Plotlines three and four involve Aunt Dahlia, who lost a lot of money at baccarat in Cannes and now need to figure out how to wheedle another sum out of her husband to print her ladies’ magazines, and who needs somebody to hand out prizes at the local grammar school at the end of the month.

Bertie’s initial plans involve sending Gussie Fink-Nottle to Aunt Dahlia’s house to give out the prizes, in the hopes that living in the same adorable English country manor for weeks will prompt Gussie to speak to Miss Bassett, but instead the whole thing devolves into a complex farce that sort of reminds me of the sillier everyone’s-stuck-in-one-house English murder mysteries, except that the only murder-related mystery is when Aunt Dahlia will actually murder Bertie. People all get engaged to the wrong other people; Aunt Dahlia’s wonderful French cook Anatole quits (this is a BIG DEAL); Gussie gets into more extremely embarrassing scrapes (impressive since he kicked the book off by dressing up in scarlet tights and showing up at a total stranger’s house instead of getting to the fancy-dress party); there is much emotional eating of disgusting-sounding British food.

But as entertaining as all these convoluted plots are, the real high point of this book is its voice, which, the book being a first-person narrative where the person is Bertie Wooster, is that of a high-spirited, eminently dumb, fashionable young man who is hip to all the kickin'est slang in use in England in 1920/30/40-whatever. Bertie as a narrator is in his own way wonderfully observant, his own way being that which is superficially detailed and full of vivid figurative language what would be poetic if it could be taken seriously but instead is jokes. Regardless of circumstance, Bertie thinks and speaks in the what-ho-cheerio register of a certain time period of British public schoolboy, and the closest thing to intellectual stimulation this flufftastic book provides is trying to puzzle out some of the less obvious slang terms. (They're usually pretty easy to gather from context, especially if you're decently familiar with English upper-class-twittery.) There's a running gag where Bertie always refers to his aunt as being "an aunt" rather than a person, woman, being, etc., like aunts are an entirely separate species from any other human demographic--so you get sentences like "She looked like an aunt who has just bitten into a bad oyster" instead of, say, "She looked like she'd just..." or "She looked like someone who had just..." I think I liked that one because it was a bit more understated than most of the other, more blatantly farcical gags. And while it's hard to be as witty as Wodehouse on the spot in terms of actually coming up with hilarious observations, the basic register is easy enough to ape and also quite a lot of fun to engage in! I recommend trying it next time you text someone.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 7th, 2015

09:02 pm - Mil-SF of manners?

In January I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which won last year’s Best Novel Hugo along with a whole bunch of other awards, and this week I read the sequel, Ancillary Sword, which is also up for a Hugo in a non-shenanigans-filled way.

Our protagonist is still Breq, the one remaining body of what used to be a troop carrier and hundreds of troops all linked together into one giant AI, before the Lord of the Radch destroyed her. There were reasons for that, which are uncovered in the first book. In this volume, Breq, now Fleet Captain of the Mercy of Kalr, gate-jumps to a station above a minorly important tea-growing planet to seek out Lieutenant Awn's little sister and try to mitigate the damage from the Lord of the Radch's conflict with herself.

The result is a complex melodrama of politics and personal relationships and cyborg stuff, packed with ample amounts of both shooty space action and tea-drinking imperial snobbery. The Radch continue to be a fascinating culture, with perhaps more in common with the British Empire than with the usual U.S.-military-in-space that we normally see, but with a lot of uniquely Radchaii worldbuilding--it's a gender-neutral culture; the most important type of relationship recognized in society at large is that between "patron" and "client" (romantic coupledom is considered a bit childish); family and personal relationships are put on display through jewelry, mostly pins.

It could have ended up a ridiculous mishmash, in which case I probably would have liked it anyway but for different reasons, but it all pulls together really well. The stakes are high; Breq is badass; the worldbuilding is rich; and the plots explore a lot of really important issues about identity and power and entitlement, giving moral weight to all the shooting and tea-drinking snobbery. (I realize this means this book is not for everyone; some people apparently prefer to know who the good and bad guys are by whether they're wearing white or black cowboy hats on top of their space helmets; but I like it when determining good-guy and bad-guy status involves some sort of thought about what constitutes "good" and "bad.") I like being in Breq's head a lot--her perspective is *different.* And I loooove the way the technology of the Radch affects the characters' identities and sense of self--I kept thinking that my Aliens and Others class would have had a field day with this series. Breq is not human, but sometimes she seems more human than the human characters, for many of the positive ways we evaluate "human," at least. Other times she is definitely, definitely not. There are a number of times when you get so sucked in to Breq's POV that everything she does seems to make 100% perfect sense and only later, when somebody else points it out, do you realize how odd it looks from a human point of view.

The third book, "Ancillary Mercy," is supposedly in copyedits right now, according to the author's Twitter. How do I get to be Ann Leckie's copyeditor?

(Scribble in the margins)

May 1st, 2015

10:15 pm - They're called cinnamon rolls, Widget
A whole bunch of people told me that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would be right up my alley. They have been telling me this for a good couple of years now. I have finally gotten around to reading it and am pleased to report that my friends know me very well. Or perhaps I should be less pleased to report that I am apparently very, very predictable?

The Night Circus is a lush, vaguely steampunky-Gothic, dark-romantic Victorian fantasy. It is ostensibly about two young magicians forced into a bizarre competition of skill by their teachers—both entirely dislikeable characters in their own ways—in the arena of a mysterious, magical black-and-white circus. Mostly it is about the circus, really, and although obviously the challenge that started it is quite important and provides the plot, the circus becomes a lot more than that—which I think is the point. There are many people involved in the circus besides the two magicians and their insufferable teachers, and the circus is very, very important to them. There are, therefore, a lot of vignettes and subplots and backstories and whatnot. A lot of readers, even ones who like that it takes place in the Victorian era and is full of pretty Victorian things, may not be as OK with the structure and pacing of the novel, which also tends to resemble a lot of Victorian lit in that it begins quite at the beginning and rolls along slowly and descriptively like a big sluggish river of words until it washes gently up upon the plot. The regular parts of the story are interspersed with little second-person interludes simply exploring the circus, which will probably strike some readers as pretentious and bore them, but which I enjoyed as pure one-thousand percent escapism, probably because the Night Circus is the type of place that I would love to attend. (Its fans, the rêveurs, have a dress code that just so happens to be what I wear half the time anyway. Like, it is my kinda place.)

I think my biggest complaint is that some of the magical stuff was a bit vague—I don’t know if actually explaining the mechanics of it any more would have made it better (actually, I’m 99% sure it would have ruined the atmosphere) but sometimes it didn’t have enough emotional force to really keep it all together—there’s a number of mentions at the end of how much effort it is for Celia to keep the circus running but I think if that’s the case—and if it’s been a longstanding case—the Celia POV parts of the book needed a bigger infusion of sensation-novel-ness, a stronger sense of the weight and strain of maintaining control.

This book does, however, go firmly on my “I want a movie/miniseries” list, even though it is not particularly action-packed, because it is so hugely visual and I want to see all these illusions animated! I also want an excuse for a more social experience of it, like going to a midnight showing in full rêveur wear or having a premiere party with all black-and-white food. Please tell me I can get this! Marketing to Goths is like, so hot right now, right?
Current Mood: tiredtired

(Scribble in the margins)

April 29th, 2015

03:35 pm - Brooklyn Mountain Zhang
I picked up Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang for a book club where, predictably, I missed the meeting because I hadn’t finished the book in time. This happens entirely too often. Oh well.

The book, published in the early ‘90s, is a sort of cyberpunky near-future thing in which Chinese communism beats out Western capitalism as the dominant world system, where China is the world’s only superpower and the U.S. has become a sort of backwater-y semi-colonial state after something called the Cleansing Winds campaign. The book is structured as a series of vignettes detailing the lives of a loosely connected network of characters, of whom the central and most-frequently-recurring one is a half-Chinese, half-Latino American man named Rafael Luis or Zhang Zhong Shan. Zhang looks purely Chinese due to some now-illegal gene splicing stuff, which gives him an advantage in a China-centric society; he is also gay, which gives him some disadvantages, since in this version of the future gay rights have not advanced one whit since 1992. The book follows Zhang from his beginnings as a construction tech in Brooklyn through a series of career and personal events, including a contract job on an Arctic research base, a stint as an engineering student in China, and attempts to get work in New York again now that he is basically overqualified for everything there.

Other characters include some kite fliers, a pair of colonists on Mars, and Zhang’s former boss’s daughter who has a bone disease that disfigures her face. All of their stories are seamlessly worked in with the technological advances of the world—kite racing a sort of flying-bodysuit sport where the audience “jacks in” to fliers to experience what they experience; the colonists on Mars are having issues with the systems that keep their colony livable; the daughter gets an advanced medical treatment that regrows all the bones in her face and discovers how different life is for pretty girls than ugly ones (somewhat predictably, she gets assaulted on a date). Zhang becomes something called an “organic engineer,” which is apparently like a cross between systems engineering and architecture, except more Daoist. (It makes sense in the book.)

Characterization and worldbuilding are key here, so the book only works because they’re both so very well done and so very well-integrated with one another. There’s not a huge amount of plot; Zhang has a sort of coming-of-age arc thing going on but it’s a slowly developing career path, not a “Saves the world and finds out who he really is at the same time” action-adventure story. And apart from a creepily accurate prediction of a Second Great Depression in the U.S. at the beginning of the twenty-first century—although this one supposedly had something to do with trade balances—I can’t really weigh in on how plausible a vision of the future it is. But it feels plausible, and real, and immersive, and for that it’s a good read. Everything—fashion, technology, language, setting—is very detailed, except the beer, which is always just described as “beer” and on the rare occasions it is a type of beer the characters drinking it don’t care, which sounds weird to me but that might be a quirk of when and where I live.
I was worried going into this that it would end up with some flavor of the paranoid Cold War propaganda that infests a lot of older sci-fi—instead, life under Chinese communism appears to have a lot in common with life under punitively-minded Western capitalism in an economic slump. Zhang deals with unemployment, the difficulties of gaining an education, problems of then being overqualified once the education is obtained, government bureaucracies, gentrification, housing instability, officially-nonexistent class issues, running out of money—all the usual stressful BS of being a young, single urbanite. In this way it was a little depressing, because, man, I do not need to read books to experience being unemployed and scrambling to pay rent in a crappy shoebox apartment in a gritty city. Although at least Zhang lives alone most of the time.

I liked this book, but I think I’m gonna read something a bit more escapist next.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 24th, 2015

03:25 pm - Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
I didn’t get much of anything done today, because I spent basically the whole day on the couch with a cup of coffee and Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, the sequel to her awesome historical mystery The Gods of Gotham.

Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-officer Timothy Wilde, younger brother of the larger-than-life Democratic machine member Valentine Wilde, as he deals with the psychological fallout of having half his face burned off in a fire and solves extremely sordid crimes. These crimes are not particularly “set against a backdrop” of mid-nineteenth-century New York as they are thoroughly woven within it. Where the first book’s plotlines grew out of the lurid, sordid contemporary social problems of child prostitution, body-stealing, and anti-Irish sentiment, the plots of Seven for a Secret grow directly out of the odious practice of Southern “fugitive slave catchers” kidnapping free blacks and selling them down South. (There was a certain Oscar-winning movie made about this two years ago, and excerpts from Solomon Northup’s memoir make up a good portion of the epigraphs in this book.) Chimney-sweeping, which was a thoroughly horrific industry, also makes several appearances. And we get to see a lot more of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, as Timothy’s investigations into the murder of one Lucy Adams—the secret colored wife of a prominent Democratic politician—bring him closer and closer into Party politics.

Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him.  While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.

Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.

On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.

Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!

(Scribble in the margins)

April 21st, 2015

10:46 pm - *orders Chinese food*
I picked up Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix back when I was dropping lots of money on e-books, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until just now. I didn’t know much about it going in except that it was Chinese-inspired fantasy and it was girl-led YA, which, honestly, were pretty much the only things I needed to know. I went in expecting probably a fun sort of adventure fantasy romance thingy, and that is exactly what I got.

Our heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Ai Ling, who is not married because her parents are having trouble arranging one, because of some sort of scandal that her father was involved with twenty years ago that Ai Ling doesn’t know the details of. When her father has to go back to the Palace he’d been expelled from twenty years ago, on some sort of ill-defined business trip, he doesn’t come back—so Ai Ling sets out to find him. Along the way she has many adventures of the sort that make a long ride/long walk quest fun, including being attacked by many scary demons, coming into possession of magical talismans, discovering the extent of her own magic powers, meeting a handsome young man with his own tragic backstory, gaining a fun companion who then sadly dies, eating a lot of lovingly-described food, and riding a dragon. (Is “riding a dragon” not a trope used in every single quest narrative? BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE.) There’s a strong theme of sexual jealousy running through the various backstories and larger plot, adding an element of heaviness to the standard pro-romantic-love, anti-arranged-marriage theme that’s so prominent in historical fiction and historical fantasy. (My verdict on Chen Yong, the love interest: Sometimes broody due to Tragic Backstory, but almost 100% not an annoying jerkface.) (Anyone who knows my opinions on dude romantic leads will know that this is basically glowing praise coming from me.)

This book is pretty squarely within a certain tradition of teen girl adventure stories that is unabashedly my favorite and that I tend to turn to as comfort reading, so I ate right through this with probably not enough of a critical eye for plot holes or tropes that have been overdone (they are mostly tropes I like. But I know that I have read them in, at this point, literally hundreds of different novels). The world is fun, a lived-in-feeling pseudo-medieval Chinese set of kingdoms and some nonhuman realms that I think are based at least partly on Chinese myths and legends that I’m not very familiar with (but if so, apparently there are some wicked creepy Chinese legends out there!). Ai Ling is a pretty relatable, likeable character (with the notable exception of one episode of egregious obliviousness that almost gets everybody killed), and there’s some really well-done fight scenes and a fairy-tale structure/flavor to the whole thing that appealed to me.

The ending sets up a sequel, with the broody non-jerkface mixed-race love interest faffing off on another quest to find his father instead of proposing to Ai Ling already because apparently he is also sort of obtuse, so I think in the sequel she goes on the quest with him? I hope? I’m totally up for another quest with these characters, so long as Chen Yong proposes at the end. And this is not even because I’m super invested in their relationship as because it’d just be stupid of him not to and I don’t like stupid love interests.

I could see this getting a movie adaptation if the live-action Mulan does well, although sadly I could also see it getting a really bad movie adaptation even though the book itself has a lot of strong cinematic elements, because YA adaptations.
Current Mood: tiredtired

(Scribble in the margins)

April 20th, 2015

02:51 pm - Food is serious business
I thought I had read all the Discworld books! Well, I’ve read all the Discworld novels, it turns out. There are other Discworld books out there—faux-nonfiction set in-universe to fulfill that weird sector of the book market where the books are essentially merchandise for other books. It’s a weird sort of metamarketing that I’m never sure what to make of, despite owning a whole bunch of “companion books” for some of my more expansive geeky canons.

One of these amusing extras is Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, in which a collection of recipes serves as an understructure for a whole lot of jokes. An odd thing about this book—besides its content—is that it seems to have been accidentally published with all the notes between the publisher and the agent left in. Most of these notes are arguing about what is and isn’t appropriate to publish, since Nanny Ogg generally offends people’s delicate sensibilities, and apparently her previous books had made the publisher’s wife laugh. The text itself also contains a number of allusions to leaving out certain “active” ingredients, such as arsenic, and some others which are unnamed.

Since Discworld does not follow in the fine old fantasy tradition of loading itself up with lots of food porn, the way that ASoIaF and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Redwall and basically all of the others do, instead preferring to dwell on the disgustingness of literally everything in Ankh-Morpork, the editors of this book have apparently had to alter the recipes quite a lot so that they become decent recipes that regular humans on Roundworld would ever eat. The caveat here is that the Roundworlders who do decide to make these recipes have to be British or at least be able to cook in British, because most of the measurements are given in metric and some of the ingredients are either named differently or are things I’m not sure we have in the US. I’m pretty sure “bicarbonate of soda” is baking soda, but I don’t know how much butter is 500mg and I don’t know what suet is. (OK, Google tells me it is “hardened beef or mutton fat” and how do you cook with this and WHY do you cook with this?)

Nanny Ogg appears to have collected these recipes from a number of notable personages in the Discworld, and so there appears Lord Vetinari’s recipe for bread and water, which involves a billion taste tester and several years of political manipulation, and Leonard of Quirm’s recipe for cheese sandwiches, which involves inventing all sorts of machines for making bread and cheese and then ordering some pizza. (There are also quite a number of regular recipe for curries, various English country dishes, candies, and things with names like “bananana surprise.”)

While I think I have to give the copy I read back to the friend I borrowed it from, I fully intend to borrow it back and try out some of these recipes just as soon as I learn to cook with the metric system.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 13th, 2015

05:12 pm - Historical historical fantasy
I found an article on Strange Horizons the other day that piqued my interest: it was called "The Woman Who Made Fantasy: Katherine Kurtz" and I had never heard that name before, nor did I recognize the accompanying cover art of a young man in garb with a flaming sword facing off against a dragon of blue fire. But it turns out that Ms. Kurtz' Deryni Rising was one of the very first entries in the tradition of secondary-world historical fantasy--the tradition that contains many of my all-time faves, including Tamora Pierce's Tortall works and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Turns out Deryni Rising, published in 1970, predates them all.

There are a lot of things in this book that have since become cliches, and interestingly, there are some aspects to the worldbuilding that I think would have been "corrected" in a book being written today because they're too historical and not fantasy enough--mainly the use of Latin and Greek in the Church Militant, which is not only heavily modeled on the Roman Catholic Church, but uses most of the same trappings and terminology. And to be entirely frank, much of the prose is a bit clunky. Basically, it was written in 1970 and you can kinda tell.

That said, I still found it a solid, entertaining, engaging fantasy story from beginning to end. It takes place in a little pseudo-British Isles-y kingdom populated mostly by humans and a little bit by a race of sorcerers called the Deryni, who used to be in power several centuries back but are now persecuted by the Church and mostly in hiding. Some humans can learn Deryni magic, including the ruling line of our setting kingdom with its unpronounceable faux-Welsh name. When King Brion has a very mysterious heart attack despite being in prime health, a lot of things go into motion. His son and heir, Prince Kelson, needs to come into his powers, which means he needs help from the Deryni Lord Alaric Morgan. But the Prince's mother is dead set against her son dabbling in magic, and is plotting to have Morgan arrested for treason. And an old enemy of King Brion's, a rogue Deryni sorceress, plans to take out Kelson and Morgan both. Morgan, Kelson, and a few loyal others have precious little time to get the new king crowned and fully vested with his powers... and, of course, nothing goes quite according to plan during any of it. There's a good deal of fighting, magic, assassination attempts, political plots, treason, and all that good stuff we've come to expect from historical fantasy in the 45 years since it was first published.

It's probably not going to win over anyone who's not already inclined toward fantasy, and it's got some awkward representation issues (the only two prominent female characters are both villains, and then there's the stereotypically henchman-y depiction of Moors, which doesn't make sense if there's not Northern Africa, wouldn't they have another name?). And it's a little shorter on backstory than I like, although there's enough to make sense of the characters and their actions. I could probably come up with complaints about it all day, really. But for all that, I really enjoyed reading it! The pacing is good, there are a couple really good plot twists, and there's no obligatory romantic subplot. I may well check out the sequels.
Current Mood: productiveproductive

(Scribble in the margins)

April 11th, 2015

10:17 am - Content warning: bugs
Those who know me know I read some pretty morbid stuff, both fiction and nonfiction. This is why one of my friends saw fit to lend me her copy of Jessica Snyder Sachs' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.
I fear my reputation may be more hardcore than I actually am, though, for I definitely had to stop eating at several points during this book, and I love to eat when I read.
This book presents a short but, as far as I can tell, fairly comprehensive overview of the measures by which scientists, medical examiners, and other people in the death business have tried to determine time of death. It begins with short histories of the three "clocks" that medical examiners use in the immediate postmortem period--rigor mortis, livor mortis, and algor mortis--and all the ways in which they can be unreliable. The book then moves into the mid- and later twentieth century and the development of forensic entomology--the study of all the bugs that feed on corpses, and their life cycles and migration patterns and such, in order to determine time of death by assessing what bugs are on a corpse and what stage of their life cycle they are in. This part of the book is FANTASTICALLY gross, full of descriptions of roiling masses of maggots and buzzing swarms of blow flies. The entomologists interviewed for the piece all seem like really smart, interesting characters, but the descriptions of some of the research they did--especially that conducted at "the Body Farm"--and the cases they helped solve are really kind of stomach-churning. I usually like to put in one or two interesting tidbits I learned when I'm reviewing nonfiction books, but in this case I feel that maybe I shouldn't.
I think the maggots also got to me a bit more than other gross stuff gets to me because they always made me remember that time I came home from being gone for the weekend and one of my idiot roommates in Somerville had thrown meat in the garbage and left it there for a few days, so then when I went to throw something away, the kitchen garbage was a giant roiling mass of maggots. THAT WAS A GREAT SURPRISE. Kiddos, if you throw any kind of organic waste into your kitchen garbage, empty it frequently, even if it isn't full.
After all the bug stuff the book moves on into forensics and plant studies, in which ecologists try to identify the time of death of a corpse by the state of the plants immediately surrounding (especially "crushed under" or "growing over") it. This part of the book had the most fun, non-stomach-turning, Sherlock Homes-y bits in it, as usually the local flora of an area was already being studied as part of general ecological field work, and the forensic application was mostly about matching up the clues to determine, for example, what year a rope was tied around a tree branch.
After this section we get back into the realm of gross with a lot of stuff about bacterial studies and "drip zones," which is fancy science talk for "where a dead body's juices sink into the ground." This is apparently still a baby science, or at least it was when this book was published, but it's racked up a couple of interesting cases.
Overall this is an A+ book for anyone who likes gruesome murdery things to test how much they can handle.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 2nd, 2015

09:59 pm - Never gonna look at references to "London fog" the same way again
In the few moments I have had over the past six weeks to read for pleasure, I have been (finally!) entertaining myself with Lee Jackson’s wonderfully disgusting work of weird history, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The subject of the book is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: the disgustingly dirty state of London through the nineteenth century and the attempts by various “sanitarians” and social reformers to find a way to clean it up.

This book has all the best thing one looks for in a book about Victorians (at least if one is me)—petty political dramas, bizarre personalities, lots of excerpts from primary sources with all the weird spelling and punctuation intact, some people dying horribly, overblown moralizing, old cartoons, racist garbage about the Irish that I can get insulted at, and old photographs of people with majestic moustaches. We get to meet such quintessentially Victorian personalities as Edwin Chadwick, who, in addition to being a prominent sanitarian and mid-level politician, had a name like “Edwin Chadwick.” I mean, seriously, Victorians.

The book is quite sensibly organized into categories of filth rather than straight chronological order, making it essentially a series of smaller, more tightly-focused history explorations, rather than one big sprawling narrative on London filth. Chapter subjects include garbage collection, human sewage, soot, slum housing, street mud, public toilets, and—my favorite, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me and my tastes in weird history reading—cemeteries and corpse disposal. Some personalities show up in multiple subjects, and later chapters are well fitted into the pictures painted by the previous ones, so it’s fairly easy to follow how it all comes together, even if you’re me and your ability to remember the different decades is more or less limited to “1840s—Irish Famine. 1860s—Sensation novels. 1890s—Oscar Wilde.”

Jackson is also a very entertaining narrator, in an understated, unobtrusively funny way that consists partly of his own commentary but in greater part of being able to find and juxtapose just the right examples of Victorian absurdity, hypocrisy, silliness, and just plain WTF-ery.

This book is also just super British, especially because Yale University Press doesn’t seem to have done an American copyedit and just printed the exact same book they have for sale in the U.K., logical punctuation and single quotation marks and British spellings and all. This is a choice I approve of one hundred thousand percent; I honestly think something would be lost if the style were Americanized at all. I do think that the most adorably British moment is right at the end of the “public convenience” chapter where Jackson gives a brief update on the modern state of the public toilet and warns that it is “under threat” and “falling prey to twenty-first century ‘austerity’.” This is because, as a youngish American, the closest thing to a “public” toilet I am familiar with is the one at the nearest Starbucks. British people and their quaint notions of public infrastructure! They’ll be talking about “public health insurance” next oh wait.

Honestly, this book was right up my alley—I’d recommend it to anyone not too easily grossed out as a really interesting history book, but for me, this was straight-up comfort reading: it was exactly what I expected it to be, it hit every “genre trope” I like of books in this “genre” (if “Victorian weird nonfiction” is a genre), I learned a lot of the sort of stuff I like learning. Does this make me a huge nerd? Probably. I’m probably also a big nerd who will be checking out Jackson’s other work pretty soon.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 1st, 2015

07:51 pm - More editing books
So my last career move was to take a copy editor position at a place that was happy to hire me with just my experience in technical editing and proofreading, and then proceeded to have no training in copy editing at all, let alone the substantive and developmental editing that they also expected. In an unsuccessful bid to self-train, I read The Copyeditor’s Handbook, by Amy Einsohn.

Now, when I say this bid to self-train was unsuccessful, I do not mean that the book did not help me learn a lot about copyediting and improve, as nearly everyone I worked with regularly commented that I was improving. It’s just that it did not save me my job, as the people I worked with and the people who decided who stayed and who got purged were different people, and the latter did not consult the former.

But I am glad I read the book anyway, for it is really an excellent treasure trove of information about what copyediting is, how best to approach it, what makes it different from other kinds of editing (information I sadly had to ignore but which I have filed away for future use in other positions), how office copyediting jobs are usually set up (this was where it was most obvious that the subject of the book was traditional book publishing, which is not what I was doing), and most importantly, how to do it. This involved a lot of exercises. The exercises were particularly great because they had an answer key that not only gave the right answers, but explained them, including style variants that would affect potential correct answers. It’s also written in a lively, occasionally funny voice, and discusses the various controversies, myths, and general sticky points of language in a sensible, well-informed way. I also think it hits a good balance between teaching copyeditors to be conservative in their language use and edits without being cranky, backwards, or elitist.

I may need to invest in my own copy—it seems like a really good resource to have on hand and keep using.
Current Mood: angryangry

(Scribble in the margins)

March 28th, 2015

05:28 pm - The road paved with good intentions leads to Hell, we're just walking along it the wrong way
Over on Mark Reads, I just caught up with his finishing reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s Eric, which… I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about. It’s a bit awkward that Sir Pterry died while we were reading what I’m pretty sure is the weakest Discworld book.

Of course, a weak Discworld book is still a hell of a lot funnier than many other comic novels. The power plays between the “traditionalists” in Hell and the newer “corporate boredom” faction—basically just one demon, but he’s the King—is pretty hilarious. Rincewind and the Luggage are both back, although Rincewind is not as well-characterized as he is in some of his more robust books. And the parrot is pretty funny. It’s extremely episodic, at least as much as the first two books, and it tends to be straight parody rather than satire (it’d be satire if there was any sort of genre of writing where someone gets three wishes and they go right—but there isn’t). A lot of the stuff he’s parodying is classic literature more than 80s fantasy this time around, which is great if you were an English major, but it doesn’t hold up to sustained discussion as much as most of the rest of the series—it’s pretty much just puns and references.

At least Rincewind is out of the Dungeon Dimensions now, which is really the point.

(Scribble in the margins)

March 21st, 2015

07:07 pm - It's "doughnut" with "ough" but "drive-thru" with just "u."
Stylebooks aren’t necessarily meant to be read all the way through, any more than the dictionary is. They’re reference books, and they’re meant to be used so you just look up the bit you like. But as many dorky people end up reading the dictionary straight through (I was never one of them, which I am actually a bit surprised at), I like to read most reference books I have to use straight through, to get a more complete idea of what exactly is in it and a better feel for what and where I need to look things up. Which means I really ought to have finished reading The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011 several months ago, instead of just looking around in it for things.

As far as I am concerned, the AP Stylebook does not hold a candle to the Chicago Manual of Style, either in terms of its organization or its editorial decisions. It’s organized alphabetically, like a dictionary, except for the bits that are separated off into their own sections, apparently just because the editors feel like it. There is a separate punctuation section, but no separate grammar section. There is a separate social media section, but not a separate politics or government section. The alphabetical stuff can be difficult for looking up grammar questions because you don’t always know what aspect of the question it’s filed under, whereas with the CMoS you can almost always just look at the table of contents and immediately figure out the one or two places it’s most likely to be. The grammar and usage bits are often short, which you’d think would be useful because it means they don’t make a whole lot of exceptions to things, but often just means that your answer isn’t addressed explicitly and you have to read through their examples to see if a similar construction is used as an example. And there is a sad lack of tables.

That said, you can still learn a lot from reading it, because it has entries discussing the proper ways to report on a wide variety of random things that get reported on, so it’s a great collection of random facts. The sections discussing media law and ethics are also really interesting, as are some of the longer entries that discuss news issues at greater length. There’s also a surprising amount of discussion of words’ histories, which is always fascinating.

What there is not, and what I would have found very useful, is a short discussion of style and structure on an article level, and a breakdown of the sort of journalistic jargon that you probably don’t want to actually use in the story itself (for example, there is no entry for “nut graph”). I suppose journalists are already supposed to know that stuff, but I’d like to have a short cheat sheet at my fingertips anyway.
Most of it was a fairly enjoyable read, still, because I’m a dork like that.

(Scribble in the margins)

06:23 pm - Elephants, snark, and usage advice
I admit, I was prepared to be annoyed when I first picked up Bill Walsh’s The Elephants of Style, given that its name is a shout-out to what I’m pretty sure is the least helpful book on English usage in the language. (I know many people have found it helpful, but those people are not word nerds. If you say you found it helpful, I’m glad for you, but I’m also not going to view you as having any credibility if you start to try and talk language or writing stuff.) I was additionally apprehensive when Walsh started off by proclaiming himself a prescriptivist. But he assures us he is a reasonable prescriptivist, and so I gave him a chance. And mostly, he is quite reasonable—he’s in a position of giving advice, so he must by necessity prescribe do’s and don’ts (and yes, that’s the correct use of apostrophes in “do’s and don’ts”; we all hate it, too), but he also really knows his stuff, and is pretty up-front about when his peeves are his own peeves that he has developed through the application of logic, which is a thing with a pretty limited role in language. While he wears the curmudgeonly thing as a persona, the book is situated firmly in the “make them remember it by making it funny” school of teaching, rather than the regular boring elitism that so unfortunately plagues much grammar and usage “advice.”

Walsh is a newspaper copy chief, so while his advice runs to “newspaper style” in some ways that are not always applicable to everything, his main goal seems to be making things as readable as possible, rather than, say, showing off how articulate you are (which is, sadly, the goal of a lot of other self-described prescriptivists). And this book has a lot of really solid advice on how to do that, including areas where he advises throwing out or working around certain aspects of “technical correctness” to get more natural-sounding sentences (what one of my creative writing teachers called “invisible writing”). And it doesn’t spend a lot of time rehashing the basics—it’s pretty much all about the “elephants in the room” of writing; the bits people actually get confused about or about which there’s no consensus. He’s also got some useful, if scathing, advice about the “flair, panache” definition of style, like a list of the most tired tropes to use in an introduction.

Overall, it’s very silly, but solid as an elephant.

(Scribble in the margins)

03:41 pm - I needed this book, exclamation mark.
I borrowed June Casagrande’s The Best Punctuation Book, Period from a girl at my office, and so far, it is indeed the best punctuation book I have found. The first half breaks down every punctuation mark in English, with one chapter devoted to each, and covers nearly every conceivable way each one can be used. As you would expect, the chapter on hyphens is the longest. It’s easy to navigate, as each chapter has a gray tab with the mark in question in the outside margin, making it easy to find the mark you’re looking for by thumbing through the book. The discussions and example sentences are clean, clear, and easy-to-follow, and breaks down how the usage varies by the four major publishing styles (news, book, academic, and scientific). For thornier questions, the author also put together a Punctuation Panel of expert editors, who all give their opinions, and the book discusses on what issues the panel is split and along what style lines (if any), etc. The back half of the book is a giant alphabetical reference table of punctuated words and phrases, marked with little icons for each style they apply to. The author has a light touch in terms of voice, but most of the book is “meat” with very little in the way of asides or jokes. This is exactly as it should be, though—it’s really a reference book, and it has come in useful for me on several occasions already.

(Scribble in the margins)

09:48 am - Language Rock Star: Mignon Fogarty
I am currently on a quest to read every grammar, usage, and copyediting book in the office, because reasons. I started simple, with a volume from the “Quick and Dirty Tips” line, The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl, by Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl. This book is set up so you read one grammar or usage tip per day, thereby taking a year to read a book that’s less than 250 pages long. Not happening. I am in fact rather embarrassed that it took me about six weeks to get through this, because I was keeping it on my desk and trying to read a couple of tips every day, and then had to work from home for half of February.

In addition to the actual author photo of Fogarty in the back of the book, the front of the book features a cute cartoony avatar of the “Grammar Girl” persona, a bookish-looking brunette white girl with glasses. I assume this is meant to make the book look relatable to the 80 percent or so of the editorial field that is brunette white girls with glasses. Like, I’m assuming it’s supposed to be a cartoon of Fogarty, but it could be a cartoon of me, or Colleen, or Linsey, or Lisa, to name four of the five editors in our pod.

Anyway. The book itself is really good, breaking down a miscellany of grammar and usage issues into small, clearly-explained bits, making it both a good grammar guide and an excellent illustration of what’s meant by the detestable term “snackable content.” The reader’s main companions in illustrating the various issue at hand are Aardvark, who I assume is an aardvark; Squiggly, who seems to be a snail; Grammar Girl herself; and the nefarious peeves, who look kind of like a cross between small turtles and fat stripey gummy bears. The examples also draw heavily from pop culture and more-or-less-current events. It’s not quite The Transitive Vampire, but the example sentences are still a lot more fun and memorable than most school grammar textbooks (not that that’s a very high bar).

Not every day’s entry is a straight-up language lesson, though—about one day a week features a word game, like a word search or a jumble, and many of the Wednesdays are devoted to short profiles of “Language Rock Stars,” important or influential people in the history of English grammar study, development, and documentation. Some of these rock stars go way back (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster) and others are linguists, writers, and editors who are currently active. (Some of them are also people whom I personally consider confused hacks, like William “I Once Reprimanded a Newspaper for Using Newspaper Style” Strunk, but I can’t pretend that they weren’t influential. Unfortunately.)

Overall, this book is well-researched, useful, easy to understand, and a good balance of actual usable advice (most of it) and things that are just fun to know (just enough). And the index means it actually is usable as a reference book, even though the body of it is structured to be pleasing to read through rather than to find a specific topic. Huzzah indexes! (Sadly not “indices.”)

(Scribble in the margins)

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