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July 27th, 2014


02:14 pm - A conclusion to an excellent trilogy
After nine years, I have finally gotten around to reading Monica Furlong’s Colman, the third and final book in her Wise Child series. Wise Child was one of my favorite books when I was a young wannabe-witch (as opposed to now, when I am an old wannabe-witch), but I always thought of it as a stand-alone (mostly because it was during the period when I was rereading it frequently) so Colman was never really on my radar as a real thing. But after I reread Juniper earlier this year, I figured it was about time.

Colman follows directly on the events of Wise Child, which I admit I had sorta forgotten, and I might need to dig that out and reread it. But it looks like Juniper, Wise Child, Wise Child’s father Finbar, her cousin Colman, and their former-leper friend Cormac are all on Finbar’s boat running away from the town and Cormac’s religious zealot brother. At first they flee to Ireland, where Cormac has family, but then they head to Juniper’s old home of Cornwall, where she was a princess, and where she has a feeling that all is not well.

Upon arriving in Cornwall they find Juniper’s parents dead, her brother Brangwyn imprisoned and kept as a sort of puppet regent, and her aunt Meroot and uncle-in-law the Gray Knight having taken over Cornwall and a big chunk of the Northlands. Meroot and the Gray Knight are not good rulers, oppressing the people with enormous tribute demands and enacting severe violence upon them when any demand is not met. The people are also forbidden from meeting in groups larger than six, which is always a bad sign. The lot of them, with the help of Juniper’s ornery mentor Euny, conspire to save Prince Brangwyn and take down Meroot and the Gray Knight. The actual doing of this involves arms smuggling (largely on Finbar’s part), disguises, a lot of doran magic, some help from the goddess that lives on top of the tor near Euny’s hut, the obligatory getting work as a scullery maid in order to infiltrate the castle, and some surprising streaks of doran power from Colman, our narrator. Apparently there are sometimes male dorans, they just aren’t very common. I wonder what Granny Weatherwax would have to say about that.

While the general story development of this book is perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and satisfying way to wind up the trilogy, bringing in elements of both previous books into one storyline—one does get the feeling that if Monica Furlong hadn’t died, it could have gone through another round or two of editing/rewriting, and could have been better. The dialogue is sort of awkward and chunky in parts, and I think some parts could have used further development. This book was published posthumously, so I don’t really want to complain that anyone has done anything wrong in the development of the book—Ms. Furlong simply cannot be expected to rewrite sections posthumously, and I’m very, very glad that her estate did allow this story to be published, so that we her fans could read it and find out how the story ends. The whole thing’s just very sad—perhaps not tragic, as Ms. Furlong did live a long and interesting life and she died at a respectably old age (I think she was 72?), but definitely sad. The choice to make Colman the POV character is a bit odd, but I think it works, as Colman is still essentially a child so we get to see his understanding of what is actually going on grow as the story goes on. He’s also sort of a dorky and likeable and fairly everyman sort of character, which I think works well when there’s a lot of weird magic going on. It allows him to do a lot of observing.

I would particularly have liked more Finbar. Finbar is great! He goes away for part of the book, which is fine, but then he’s kind of ignored for a bit when he does come back, and I am going to assume that had this book gotten more polish, someone would have pointed out when Finbar was forgotten and added him back in.

I highly recommend reading Wise Child sometime in the year or two before reading Colman, unless you have a really great memory, which I don’t. But even having forgotten how Wise Child ended, it was still a beautiful read, and really makes me want to learn more about early-Christian Wales and Cornwall. There’s not nearly enough really early, historically-based Celtic fantasy out there.

Oh, and the cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon is gorgeous, as usual.
Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: disheartened
Current Music: Sinead O'Connor, "Her Mantle So Green"

(Scribble in the margins)

July 23rd, 2014


11:22 pm - Sines and cosines and quaderaticks
After the embarrassing escapade where I wasn’t sure if Snuff existed for a while, I started paying much closer attention to Discworld book releases, and so I was aware of the release of Raising Steam well in advance. However, so were several dozen other people in the Boston metro area, so I had to wait several weeks for the ebook to become available at the library.

My two main thoughts on Raising Steam are one, that it is hilarious and great and I adored it and at one point it almost made me cry, and two, that it is not quite as good as most of the other Discworld books and it’s really sad to see that Terry Pratchett does appear to be losing some of his touch. I mean, Terry Pratchett at his most mediocre is still funnier than most other people at their funniest. But I was still unreasonably disappointed that they didn’t come up with any wacky Discworldian name for a railway, and just called it the railway—sure, there were cute names for the individual engines and stations and lines, but remember when they invented rock’n’roll and called it “Music With Rocks In”? That was awesome.

Anyway, Raising Steam follows pretty much immediately after the events of Snuff, and the events that aren’t directly to do with the railway are mostly sequelae to the more recent Vimes books—mainly Snuff and Thud!—and yet, Raising Steam would more properly be set in the Moist von Lipwig subseries. This is a bit confusing at Moist is not actually the man behind the railway.

The man behind the railway is Dick Simnel, a blacksmith’s son from Sto Lat who somehow manages to invent mechanical engineering properly and builds a steam engine. He takes it to Ankh-Morpork, which is, after all, where stuff happens, and presents it to Harry King, the sewage tycoon. Moist gets involved when a stern Vetinari tells him to make sure this locomotive business isn’t going to be bad for the city, which Moist manages to do by making the Bank of Ankh-Morpork, of which he is the head, a ten-percent owner in the company, thus solidifying Moist as a not completely random choice of protagonist.

The plot mostly involves a bunch of dwarf religious extremists, known colloquially as “the grags” even though a “grag” is a particular type of religious official and not all the grags are extremists, who are still annoyed about the Koom Valley Accord where they stopped fighting the trolls, and are deeply committed to returning to a sort of fundamentalist dwarfdom where they don’t interact with anybody else and they shun all inventions that other people have come up with as being intrusive abominations. The first big target of this is the clacks towers, the Discworld version of the telegram, but soon their wrath is turned to the locomotive, especially since Lord Vetinari now seems very keen on using the locomotive to connect Ankh-Morpork and Uberwald. There was also an odd subplot about the Low King and gender that I wanted to like but didn’t really, because we’ve done dwarves and gender already and it also popped up kind of weirdly late in the book.

There is still a great deal of delightful Discworldian absurdity and punning (and footnotes), featuring place-names such as the Effing Forest and Downsized Abbey and The Netherglades. I feel that Discworld might be tipping ever so into that self-referential sort of point where the humor gets dependent upon previous stuff in the series—like, my first Discworld book was The Truth, which is late enough in the series that I was fairly confused not having any prior knowledge, but funny enough to keep reading anyway, but here I think someone who hadn’t read all the other books would just be utterly lost and not entertained at all. As someone who has read all the other Discworld, I don’t mind so much, because it really is good to see characters like Otto Chriek and Sacharissa Crispslock randomly showing up a lot, and it’s definitely worth it to have Vimes and Moist both featuring fairly largely in the same book and having to interact with each other more than just in passing.

The end of the book was a lot tamer than I’m used to from Discworld; I was pretty sure things from the Dungeon Dimensions were going to show up at the end since that’s a common recurring theme in the A Powerful Thing Gets Invented On Discworld formula (sadly, it is a bit of a formula by now), but they didn’t, there was just cleverness and dwarf politicking.

I do love seeing Discworld getting increasingly steampunky, even as I’m not a huge fan of it getting more serious. I also think the later books could stand getting edited somewhat more tightly, but this is a complaint that seems to be inevitable when any author gets successful, the editors start getting all wary of messing with the golden goose and possibly pissing them off, so the books get not just longer but also more full of rambly extraneous stuff. I often like extraneous stuff, but sometimes it really is just… extraneous. In this case, I think the same footnote occurred more than once, but not in a way where the repetition was the joke; that sort of thing.

Anyway, it is what it is, and what it is is still a highly entertaining Discworld book, which is pretty much what I wanted, so I’m pretty happy.

 

(Scribble in the margins)

July 22nd, 2014


09:05 pm - Counterfeiting! Riots! Chases! And... some douchebag

Reading along with Mark Does Stuff, I've just finished rereading what might be my favorite Tamora Pierce book, Bloodhound. Predictably, the stuff I thought was the most awesome was precisely the stuff that bored some other people, and the stuff that irritated other people did not irritate me at all, and the few things that I did dislike basically bugged only me.

Whatever. I still think Bloodhound is fabulous. The main plot is about counterfeiting, which I think is amazing because economics are awesome, and it really fits in well with the “doggy books'” exploration of class, being the only Tortall subseries about people who aren't noble (or live closely with the aristocracy) and who live paycheck to paycheck. I also love the exploration of Port Caynn, because port cities are fun, and having Beka, who is so tied to Corus and whose identity is very much bound up in her home and her neighborhood and her people, have to adjust to working in a whole different environment and try on a whole new identity while she's at it.

Pearl Skinner is also a great villain because, in a refreshing departure from the sympathetic genius villains we see so much of, she is thoroughly unlikeable in every way, and she is stupid. And honestly, don't mean and stupid people often seem to rise to the top in the real world? Charisma certainly helps, and the charismatic villain is someone we should all read lots of stories about and learn to watch out for, but there really are quite a surprising number of people who seem to acquire and keep power through sheer assholitude, despite a total lack of ability to actually manage it or to get anyone to like them. And with those kinds of people, having that power seems to further insulate them from having to ever get a fucking clue, and they just get dumber and meaner until, in the real world, they're writing whiny Wall St. Journal op-eds about how those lazy peasants are so meeean and ungrateful these days, just because we crashed the entire world economy to the ground, like that has anything to do with someone being unemployed or losing their house, where do they get these crazy Communist ideas? ...Ahem. Anyway, in Pearl Skinner's case, she's mean and vicious and stupid and irresponsible, and surprise surprise, she'd rather kill herself then actually face up to the consequences of her actions. Also she abuses her minions and kills off co-conspirators until the remaining ones are chomping at the bit to turn on her the second it looks like they might get away with it, which is one of the elementary Evil Overlord mistakes on that list that was popular around these here Internets a few years ago.

There is, of course, more to this conspiracy than Pearl, because Pearl is too stupid to have come up with it on her own; just stupid enough to go along with it.

The bulk of this books seems to be Beka Learning Things, even though she's not in training anymore like she was in Terrier. She learns how to handle her adorable scent hound, Achoo, and she learns about Port Caynn, obviously. She learns more about detective-ing and continues to conquer her shyness and learn the “soft skills” needed in a people-facing job like Dog work. She also learns How To Flirt, which is a subplot of the book that I have very strong but also somewhat contradictory feelings about.

One the one hand, I do appreciate that How To Flirt is presented as stuff Beka must learn and think about, that it is awkward and uncomfortable when she just applies the usual Stuff Is Happening sorts of mental processing to it, and that she has to decide to deliberately employ certain maneuvers that she has copied from other people. I appreciate this because God damn do I hate it when people act like flirting is just a naturally occurring consequence of being older than 13 and like there is no social learning or construction going on. I mean, it's one of my pet peeves when people act like any kind of knowledge is naturally occurring and does not have to be learned, but stuff involving sex and romance pisses me off the most, most likely because if you actually start paying attention and looking at who thinks what and where are you getting your knowledge or basically apply any form of metacognitive or critical awareness, it becomes screamingly obvious that finding two people who actually have the same ideas about How It Works Obviously is next to impossible. And yet most people seem really certain that there is a universally understood Way It Works and apparently no amount of endless miscommunication will convince them that this is actually a confusing and ambiguous subject, and, for all the lip service given to The Importance of Communicating in Relationships, it's next to impossible to get someone to actually identify their expectations and tell them to you in plain English so that you can compare your ideas about How It Works. So I like that Beka is not automagically on the same page as everyone else just by existing.

On the other hand, the text still sort of presents Beka as the odd one out and all third parties as being fully on the same page about what is in the body of knowledge that Beka has to acquire in order to pursue romantic relationships. This is bollocks. Also, I really hate Dale. I never particularly liked him—I thought he was sort of boring and I used to kind of breeze through his sections without thinking about it very much like I do with most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots in fiction—but reading along with the MR community really made me hate him more. This is because in the MR community there was a lot of discussion about who liked what and what wasn't working for whom etc. etc., and generally the only thing that occurred universally was that everyone in the commentariat is a relatively sensible and aware-of-other-persons-existing sort of person and, as such, we all agreed that people's mileage may vary greatly in what they do and do not find sexy or annoying. This, for me, threw into sharp relief how much not a single person in the cast of Bloodhound thinks that anybody's mileage may vary, and Dale is the worst of the lot. It's not that Dale is a bad person. It's just that Dale is a rake, and so I hate him for the same reason I hate most rakes, which is that they get into a particular groove of this is their rakey way of doing things, and they forget that their personal groove is not an immutable law of the universe and human nature. And I realize that having the whole conversation about what individual people do and do not like and what each person's expectations are and etc etc etc all that stuff that most dudes won't even arse themselves to talk about with supposedly serious partners (I say “supposedly” because of the number of times I've seen—and, once, been subjected to—“serious” being assumed out of a certain length of time without any discussion of what it means or whether the other party wishes to take the relationship to some sort of “next level”) isn't fun, and the whole point of being a rake is to just have fun without the serious bits, but the result tends to be self-absorbed, oblivious people who expect pretty members of their preferred gender to just automatically and seamlessly slot themselves into the rake's preferred modus operandi, and apparently they somehow manage to shield themselves from ever even learning that not everyone is guaranteed to be playing their game the way they're playing it, and they act all shocked and confused and surprised like they've never heard of such a thing when one of their marks has some sort of personal like or dislike or quirk or history or, you know, anything. I think they might block it out on purpose because it would require effort to remember. Dale is not only not an exception to this, he's pretty much the quintessential embodiment of oblivious lazy rakish assumption-making. I mean, if a dude in his twenties who's supposedly met oh so very very many ladies in his day tells you he's never met a woman who doesn't like being snuck up on and grabbed from behind in the street at night, that dude is either deeply, deeply stupid, or he's lying and he thinks you're deeply, deeply stupid, because it is wildly statistically unlikely that that is actually the case.

Dale also makes Beka sit around and watch while he plays games. This is a practice that needs to die in a fire.

Unfortunately, the book rather comes down on the side of Here Is What Flirting Is, Everyone Agrees On It, You Will Like It Once You Learn Because It Is Fun, Period. Which, sorry, Tamora Pierce, 99% of what you write is pure genius, but that's the most stupid lie about human sexuality I've heard since Cassandra Clare had someone dead seriously describe Jace Wayland as “everyone's type” and had another character use him as a test for whether or not she was a lesbian. I understand it's important to have books for teens that don't shame female characters for being sexual but everyone needs to stop portraying shit as universal when it isn't universal. (This goes double for whoever wrote Blood and Chocolate; I still have a headache from trying to follow the characters' thought processes in that book.)

Luckily, Beka's being unthinkingly groped by Dale is only part of what she spends her time in Port Caynn doing. She meets a lot of characters who are actually intelligent and interesting, from Master Finer, the cranky genius silversmith, to Amber Orchid, a nightclub performer and a transwoman who lives by day as a dude named Okha in a relationship with a gay man (apparently Port Caynn's queer scene doesn't have their terminology sorted out nearly as neatly as the modern world does) and who also gathers information on Pearl Skinner and her court but simultaneously refuses to act as a birdie to her boyfriend, who is a Dog. Amber is a very smart lady and I would read an entire book just about her. Beka also learns a lot about what a really corrupt police force looks like, which I really appreciate—a lot of cop stories show the cops as being pretty unequivocally the good guys, but I feel like the Beka Cooper books do a much better job of simultaneously illustrating how cops can be the good guys and why it is that societies need well-functioning police forces, but also not shying away from the fact that well-functioning police forces are actually pretty rare and difficult to achieve, and at least as often what you get is a bunch of venal bullies with power issues demanding respect without doing much to earn it. (Although even in Port Caynn it looks like none of the corrupt Dogs have been casually choking random civilians to death. Also, can the news go away this week?) And there's a rather heartbreaking bit about one of the Cage dogs in particular, how she left the street beat and became a Cage dog (that's the professional torturers, basically) for the sake of her kids, in order to stay safe so she could raise them without worrying that she was going to die, but the job has inured her to enacting violence upon the helpless so much that she's started hitting her kids.

Also, the action scenes are great. Tamora Pierce has always been fabulous about writing action scenes, but these are extra-great, because they are so visceral and gross and I really get the feeling that with Beka's books she's leaving the “YA” idea behind as anything other than a marketing designation—Beka is an adult and these are adult action scenes. Also, I think it's very important to have violent visceral action scenes in a book that's mostly about money, in order to ground it. So we get the bread riot, a solid punch in the gut to bring home what's really so bad about crop loss and rising food costs, and this is effectively placed at the beginning of the book in and among a lot of conversations about the chaos that could occur from runaway inflation, which is a thing that is basically also all the prices rising, just with different money theory stuff behind it. Also, the climax isn't just, like, smashing up all the counterfeit monies; it involves literal swimming in shit, which I think serves as a nice metaphor for a country being awash in money that isn't even worth shit.

In short, COUNTERFEITING YAY.


Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: blessed quiet

(Scribble in the margins)

July 19th, 2014


01:57 pm - In which I am a big dork, as usual
At my fancy new freelance gig there is often some downtime between jobs, which, after having examined all of the house style guides multiple times, I decided to use to review the CMoS, since I haven’t actually had to use it in a while. And that, dear reader, is how I ended up reading the entire Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, by the University of Chicago Press, cover to cover. (Yes, I know that’s not how style guides are mean to be read.) (And yes, I know there are sixteen editions, but the office doesn’t have the sixteenth.)

Some of it, it must be confessed, was rather dull, although I suppose this is to be expected, as style manuals are not really intended to be light adventure reading. Other bits were surprisingly entertaining, as Chicago’s editors occasionally have snarky opinions about certain misuses, particularly hypercorrections. But neither of these is all that important. What is important, and what I am pleased to report, is that the CMoS 15 is extremely well organized and eminently easy to read, discussing style issues in clear, plain language, in detail, and with plenty of illustrative examples. It also defines all the language and publishing jargon that it uses.

As someone who has been in editorial services for a few years now, I read this to “refresh my memory”—and refresh it I did, not just about Chicago’s particular style conventions but also about a lot of writing and publishing stuff that I had once known but grown a bit fuzzy on, like the difference between a “font” and a “typeface” (I blame Microsoft Word for continually confusing me on that one). I am, however, somewhat embarrassed at the amount of stuff I straight-up learned, some of which was dorky etymology/history stuff (like about the use of Fraktur typefaces in German typesetting), but some of which was actual editorial things that I really ought to have known already (it seems “till” really is its own preposition that means the same things as “until,” not a shortened form with an extraneous L).

In multiple cases, particularly for things involving punctuation and capitalization, there are multiple “systems” of doing it correctly. In these cases, the CMoS quite usefully gives its preferred rules first, but also gives rundowns of the less preferred systems along with explanations of why they are less preferred but not wrong (dated, regional, etc.). This has already come in helpful when trying to disentangle copy that seems to have been written my multiple people using different styles, and when project managers have come to ask me about my edits, which has already happened twice.

The organization of the CMoS is beautifully sensible and easy to navigate. It starts off with some basic discussion of What Are Things That Need Editing, such as books vs. journals and some notes of manuscripts, different stages of proofs, etc. Then it gets into the nitty-gritty grammar and usage stuff, starting with basics like parts of speech and punctuation and progressively addressing more specialized topics, such as how to treat foreign publications and math. I was particularly interested in the chapters on names and foreign languages; it had me thinking about the panel I attended at Readercon lat weekend. The later parts of the book deal with special documentation and with indexes and appendixes (sadly, CMoS does not use the old-fashioned “indices” and “appendices,” which are my favorites). The two appendixes roughly delineate the common production processes in book and journal publishing, just to give the editor a better idea of their place in the system (and, presumably, so that one does not have to ask stupid questions at work).

One of these days I should acquire my own copy of the 16th edition, to see how they compare, and because as an editor I should really have a better collection of stylebooks than just the writing guides I have from Pearson, which are mostly MLA, anyway. If any mysterious wealthy benefactors are reading this, I have an Amazon wishlist. (I am also afraid of ponies, FYI.)

But for now, the real question is, do I spend my next bout of downtime reading the Associated Press 2009 Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, or do I just start reading fiction at my desk?
Current Mood: geekygeeky
Current Music: Mark Readin' Stuff

(Scribble in the margins)

July 17th, 2014


10:39 pm - I sit in awe.
“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.”

No, wait. I’m mixing my quotes.

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.
It did not end well.
” –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
” –Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The angel and the devil falling in love, however, did make a lot of people very angry, and there were times when they themselves did regard it as a bad move, particularly when a lot of people died.

This is the basic premise of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, the third installment of which, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, released in April. (There was a book tour where the author came to Boston, but I had elected to be in Paris at that time. I’m very bummed I missed the chance to meet her, but I regret nothing, because Paris. I’m sure she’d understand.)

So, on the one hand, this trilogy is a YA romance between a blue-haired teenage art student and a warrior angel from another world, or at least, that’s how one would describe it if one were trying to be as simplistic as possible in order to dismiss it in some clickbaity article about how Kids These Days are only reading fluff instead of srs bsns literature. In actuality, while the series is indeed a romance between Karou (the art student) and Akiva (the warrior angel), it’s also a sprawling epic about love and war, about hatred and hope, about genocide and terrorism and political mythmaking, about the duties of soldiers, about the dangers of partial knowledge and of hubris, about the power of friendship, about truth and betrayal and the ends of worlds. It’s about a lot of things, basically. It’s a romance not because it’s cute and fluffy but because it’s a story about the power of love to overcome everything, and I mean everything. It’s got a body count that makes Game of Thrones look like Goodnight Moon, not least because some of the characters can die multiple times, and it’s also got a lot of jokes about cake.

In this third installment, the story, already spanning two worlds, expands exponentially to encompass a multiverse of parallel universes—many of which are dead—including the home world of the seraphim tribes before they came to Eretz and began colonizing the chimaera. We learn more about the mysterious and powerful (and scary) Stelian seraphim and what it is that they do instead of fighting chimaera. We learn about the Beasts—the actual Beasts, not the chimaera, but the devouring monsters vast as worlds that swim in the darkness beyond the sky. We meet some awesome new characters, most notably Eliza Jones, a biology doctoral student who escaped from a family cult that claimed to be the descendants of the fallen angel Elazeal. Eliza is a thoroughly awesome character. Despite having a very tortured background (literally, because cults) and being a being of such immeasurable power and knowledge that the human mind cannot comprehend it (including her own, briefly, before it gets started out), she’s also very human—concerned with doing well and being taken seriously at work, spending a lot of time being annoyed at the douchey racist sexist white boy in her lab for being a douchey smug bigot, and she has a grumpy snarky sense of humor that endears her to Zuzana but is still a fundamentally nice person (unless you’re the douchey lab boy). She also seems to be starting something with Scarab, the young Stelian warrior queen, at the end of the book, so YAY for the multiverse being saved by lesbian WOC angels of unimaginable power! You don’t see that in a book every day, unfortunately. (I would read all the books about lesbian WOC angels saving the multiverse.)

Zuzana and Mik, in addition to remaining cute and funny, get to do some pretty awesome stuff that I cannot talk about because spoilers, although they are also traumatized by getting caught in their first battle. Zuzana, being Zuzana, is concerned that everyone knows about it when they do epic stuff.

Tying with Zuzana for my favorite cranky POV character is Liraz, ice queen killing machine, the most deadly of the bastard seraphim warrior regiment, the Misbegotten. Liraz’ personal motto is “Feelings are stupid,” which makes her the stiffest, most awkward dork in two worlds when she starts having them anyway.

Akiva gets progressively less boring (sorry, I am bored by male love interests on principle, he’s really a pretty decent one) as the series goes on, and in this book he really becomes interesting, spending most of his time fucking around with magic he doesn’t understand and trying to pull off brilliant but monumentally-unlikely-to-work feats of military strategy, such as creating an alliance between the remaining chimaera and the rebel Misbegotten, or trying to recruit the Second Legion, or trying to talk the bloodthirsty Emperor Jael out of his quest to acquire nuclear weapons. I like Magical Rebel Leader Akiva a lot, actually.

Karou also starts doing all the things, after spending much of Days of Blood and Starlight passively resurrecting people but sort of… being forced to snap out of it in the most traumatizing way possible. But in this book, she is again a fount of resourcefulness, awesome magic, and crafty outside-the-box thinking. Sneaky, sneaky Karou comes up with the plan that saves the Earth from falling for Jael’s plan and sends Jael back to Eretz sans weapons.

While Karou and the other awesome characters come up with many brilliant plans that work and save the day, they also have lots of plans that turn out to be terrible ideas, or that fall apart horribly and with great loss of life (or the threat of great loss of life, if they can’t stop it fast enough), because the worlds Laini Taylor has built here are bitterly violent, run by unmitigatedly terrible people, poisoned by centuries of warfare and bad blood even among the people who aren’t fundamentally bad, and governed by Murphy’s Law.

One very interesting choice that Laini Taylor makes in this book is that it ends before they save the multiverse. It actually mostly works, though—for starters, the book is already six hundred pages long, so it was probably time to end it. Second, the conflicts we’ve been following throughout the series—the ones with characters on both sides, when the good guys were fighting bad guys with names and motivations and personalities that we got to know—are wrapped up, and those are the kinds of story that is more exciting and visceral to read, like, actual action and dialogue scenes about then the sort of indescribably cosmic threat of Devouring Beasts with no names or personalities, so I wonder if trying to have a proper story climax about them would just be weird. Thirdly, due to the particular roles of prophecy, myth, and seraph genetic manipulation, while that last battle hasn’t happened yet, we know basically how it’s going to happen, so I guess there’s not a lot of tension there. I’d love to see a short story or novella about that fighting-the-monsters campaign someday, though—I want more crazy angel fights! And I already miss these characters! And we know that Laini Taylor can write a great novella because Night of Cake and Puppets was completely kick-ass.

In case you’ve missed the point here, I really love Laini Taylor and everyone should go read all of her books immediately.
Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: musical roommates

(Scribble in the margins)

July 10th, 2014


09:38 pm - Silver, wood, and peppermint
Gail Carriger seems to have received my complaint that I have to wait until November for more wacky steampunk books, and recently blessed the Internet with a short story, a prequel to the Parasol Protectorate books called The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, the Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar. It is about Alexia’s father, Alessandro Tarabotti.

We knew going into this that Mr. Tarabotti (a) has no soul, (b) used to work for the Templars, and (c) was not what most people would generally consider a nice man. This all turns out to be quite true. Mr. Tarabotti is about as judgy as the Dowager Countess Grantham, although with a much greater propensity to engage in fisticuffs. He is very at ease shooting archaeologists, setting priceless historical artifacts on fire, and causing dirigible crashes that kill off the younger brothers of college boyfriends. All in all, he is a fairly detestable person, but he is still quite a fun character, in that way that “the smart asshole in a room full of dumb assholes” is always a fun character when done properly. Mr. Tarabotti is done very properly.

Floote shows up in this story, as does Alexia’s mother Letitia, although she neither says nor does anything much. We also get some intriguing hints about further mysteries of this fictional universe. (I would like a short story about the cat-embalming aunt, particularly.)
All in all it was quite a good read and an excellent way to spend 99 cents. Now, back to your regularly scheduled whining about how long I have to wait for the third Finishing School book.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 9th, 2014


11:25 pm - In which I learn the reason I hated nearly everyone as a teen was because they were all werewolves
Because for some inexplicable reason I decided I wasn’t in enough book clubs, I decided to join in on the July book for the Parasol Protectorate book club over at Gail Carriger’s blog. I missed the June book due to library slowness, but this month we’re reading a nineties YA classic, Blood and Chocolate, and the library had enough copies for me to get my hands on it.

Blood and Chocolate is possibly the original horny teenage werewolf story, or very close to it. It isn’t nearly as bad as that description makes it sound, though. For one, the protagonist is herself already a werewolf, rather than a dippy lovestruck human waiting for big werewolf man to save her from the boringness of humanity. There is a dippy lovestruck human waiting for magic to save him, but he is a dude and he also reacts really badly to magic when it happens because he is, at the end of the day, pretty much just a regular person.

The main things that struck me while I was reading this book were (a) I’m actually enjoying this book and (b) I am entirely certain that if I’d read this book when I was actually a teenager, or anywhere near the stage of life this book is purporting to portray, I would have hated it as I have hated few things in this world. EVERYBODY IS HORNY. ALL THE TIME. Not just the werewolves, although the werewolves are certainly like Distilled Essence of One-Track-Mindedness, but also the humans, who, apart from one brief interlude where Bingo and Jem are friends and watch a movie, are just teeth-hurtingly perfect descriptions of exactly the kind of “alternative” teens who think that dressing their one and only interest in life up in different clothes than the jocks do somehow counts as having niche interests or otherwise being different. I attracted a lot of those dudes throughout high school and college and being reminded that they exist still makes me seethe with rage. (Nothing like having your supposedly fellow “different people” insisting that you cannot POSSIBLY be ACTUALLY interested in all the stuff that we supposedly have in common, like they’re all super ~artsy!~ and shit right up until the point where you want to keep talking about art and then they’re all baffled because they’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous as someone actually liking art to the point where they want to talk about it, to make you feel alienated and lied to. Actually, fuck “feeling” lied to. I got lied to, a lot.)  Aidan Teague talks big about how he wants art and magic and possibility, but all he actually wants is a girlfriend and to get laid. Vivian talks about respecting humans and feeling out of place in her pack, but she pretty much just wants to get laid, too. Not a single soul in the book appears to spend even half a second contemplating ideas like “Not ready” or “Not old enough,” which makes both the human and werewolf characters completely alien to me, particularly as teenagers, although I suppose it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of quite a lot of teenagers since I definitely recall those people being around. But at the time I only knew who those people were if they were being assholes to me about it, so it’s interesting for me now, as a twenty-six-year-old, whose social circle is largely made up of people I didn’t go to high school with, to read a story about… well, really, to teen me it would have been a story about those people, with all the Othering and judgementalness that that phrase implies. I don’t know if I could have even finished reading this book if I didn’t have a literature degree, with all the expensive years of work in learning to stretch my empathy and get into the heads of characters that aren’t like me. It was still hard, sometimes, for me to suspend my disbelief enough to engage with the characters, even though I know intellectually that all the stuff that’s hardest for me to believe was actually the nonfantasy element. (I get the feeling that the author was probably one of Those People as a teenager, because, while I may have difficulty relating to hypersexuals and not be able to really grok them, I am unable to avoid realizing they exist; however, one of the hallmarks of Those People is that they are 110% convinced everyone is just like them. Since ever y single character in this book is horny as shit all the time, I’m guessing that that’s how Klaus thinks everybody is.) (Oh god, my asexual elitism is coming back and I’m not even fully asexual anymore.)

Stuff I had no problem reading or believing: Lots of fairly intense violence. Complicated werewolf mythology and even more complicated werewolf pack politics. Murder and mayhem and people dying in fires. I really could have done with probably half as much horniness and twice as much everything else, because the everything else is exactly what I want out of urban fantasy novels.

Stuff that was creepy: The story ends with Vivian ending up with the creepy werewolf dude who’d been previously dating her mom, accepting that she can’t get involved with humans because she’s part of an incestuous little species of nasty, domineering assholes. On the one hand, it fits, because Vivian really is a nasty domineering asshole. On the other hand, it’s hard to root for “nasty domineering asshole finds self-actualization by being nastily dominated by another nastily domineering asshole” as a romance. On the third hand, not all books have to be about people you actually like. Sometimes it’s enlightening to read stories about unfathomable aliens and try to grok how in the world anyone could actually think like that. This is also why I read a lot about serial killers, although a lot of serial killers have more comprehensible-to-me thought processes than Vivian. (Except for the bit where Vivian’s inner monologue has lines that are exactly out of Eliot Rodgers’ manifesto, but the less said about that the better. At least the book came first.) I hate to write a protagonist off as an unlikeable bitch, because YA heroines are routinely derided as unlikeable bitches if they have any personality at all (and as boring Mary Sues if they don’t), but really, this book is only enjoyable if you give up the idea that Vivian is a heroine of any sort—she is an antihero at best. She’s not as bad as the other werewolves, because the other werewolves are basically all tantrum-throwing abusive serial killer child molester stalkers, but she’s jealous, self-absorbed, misogynistic, reckless, game-playing, one-track-minded, smug, rude, mean, and frequently really stupid. She’s confident in her looks, which would be great if she weren’t also incomprehensibly stupid about the limits of physical beauty’s ability to carry the entirety of a relationship. (This seems to be a stupidity shared by the rest of the werewolves, so maybe it’s not entirely her fault?)

This seems to be one of those books that was engaging enough that I liked it while I was reading it, but the more I think about it the more I actually have major, major complaints about basically everything, so perhaps I should stop reviewing it before I completely kill off any fun I had reading it.

(Scribble in the margins)

09:07 pm - Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox the boy who buys the beef
At this year’s Readercon, the Memorial Guest of Honor is the amazing Mary Shelley—author of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, daughter of noted freethinker William Godwin and the awesome early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of famed Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and apparently half-auntie to at least one illegitimate child of Lord Byron, although probably so was everyone.

I’ve already read Frankenstein on multiple occasions (and written a number of papers on GOD VICTOR YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT), read Daisy Hay’s biography of her and her whole clique, Young Romantics, and read this Kate Beaton comic:


So it was a bit of a challenge to seek out NEW things to read about Mary Shelley in order to prepare for the convention.

Enter stage right, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo, shelved unassumingly on the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith, waiting for a morbid nerd such as myself to stumble upon it so it could tempt us out of our book-buying hiatus. (I bought three other nonfiction books about dead people that day, too. Le sigh.) I started reading the book in the middle of a thunderstorm because that is clearly the only way to do the thing properly.

The book itself is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of research, being about numerous distinctly different things, although they all do relate back to Frankenstein sooner or later. All the things are pretty interesting, though. A big chunk of it is biography of Mary Shelley and her whole nutty Romantic set, including her half-sister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, some English dude who was really into boats, and some other friend that Percy Shelley was trying to get Mary to sleep with so he could feel less bad about the fact that he was banging Claire Clairmont. Guys, these people might have been literary geniuses but they were so fucked up.

Other sections of the book, which I was less familiar with going into, include: the history and habitat of the actual Frankenstein family in Germany. I HAD NO IDEA THERE WAS AN ACTUAL FRANKENSTEIN FAMILY. I wonder if they still exist or if they’ve changed their name (or are all like “FRANKEN-SHTEEN!” about it). There is a bunch of stuff about body-snatching and resurrection men, the murder aspects of which I was fairly familiar with (although I did learn a new nursery rhyme about Burke and Hare!). There is also a hell of a lot more stuff than I’d ever heard before about the actual SCIENCE that all this grave-robbing, body-snatching, and prostitute-murdering was in service of, although if you want some quick funny treatments of the subjects I recommend the Sawbones podcast episodes on “Reanimation” and “Corpse Theft and the Resurrection Men.” We meet such infamous Italians as Luigi Galvani, from whom we get the word “galvanism” (which used to refer specifically to the science of using electricity to make dead things twitch, which was SUPER FUNNY the one or two times the book also used it in its modern sense of “motivated”); his nephew Giovanni Aldini, who did further experiments in galvanism in England, Alessandro Volta, who invented the voltaic battery and did some impressive debunking of galvanist theory; and Humphry Davy, who was high on nitrous oxide. We also travel back in time a bit and meet several interesting alchemists, who are what we had before they got their process down enough to be scientists.

My biggest gripe with this book is that it’s rather poorly edited. The subjects jump around a lot, which would be OK on its own, probably. But there are weird issues with the line editing and confusing word choices, and there are some small bits (a paragraph here, a tangent there) that could really have been scrapped or severely condensed (we don’t need a two-page recap of the plot of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; might as well just go reread the poem). Whoever wrote the captions to the (totally awesome) images appeared to have just dashed them out without proofreading them or deciding if they needed to be in sentence form or not. This bums me out, because the book is well-researched and about awesome things and essentially well-written.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 8th, 2014


07:06 am - A badass from Bad Ass
Reading Equal Rites along with Mark Does Stuff did something odd this time—I think I actually appreciated the book somewhat less than I remembered. This may be because it’s been a good eight years or so since I last read the damn thing and since then I’ve read too many other Discworld books and too many other books about feminism/women’s rights/smashing the patriarchy sort of books, so this one just doesn’t hold up as well as what I’ve gotten used to. I also think, in direct opposition to The Color of Magic, where the spaced readings helped ameliorate the episodic nature of the book, for this one, they just sort of dragged out a book that’s a lot more fun if you just zip through it all in one sitting, because frankly, a lot of Equal Rites is kind of abrupt, particularly the ending.

Equal Rites is about Esk, a young girl from a tiny hamlet in the Ramtop Mountains called Bad Ass, because somehow Terry Pratchett knew that in about 25 years someone was going to have to read this on camera. Esk, being the eighth child of an eighth son, is bequeathed a wizard’s staff on her birth, under the misconception that she was an eighth son of an eighth son. Although it is strict tradition (i.e. “the lore”) that women are witches and men are wizards, attempts by the fearsomely provincial Granny Weatherwax to train Esk up as a witch start to go a bit wahooni-shaped as it becomes apparent that Esk very definitely has wizard magic, not witch magic (the two are pretty distinctly different). In a long and typically hijinks-riddled adventure to get to Unseen University in distant Ankh-Morpork, Esk meets a variety of interesting characters, including Simon, a geeky young wizard with a great ability for figuring out the theoretical underpinnings of magic, an ability that also manages to attract the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions every time he starts up science-ing about magic. Esk and Simon have to defeat the Things in the Dungeon Dimensions while, back out on Discworld, Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle have to put aside their differences and figure out how to help them. It’s all very heartwarming but mostly it is a vehicle for jokes and for Granny to boss people around.

The biggest disappointment of this book, though, is that Death doesn’t show up at all. But at least there is plenty of the Librarian.

Don’t get me wrong, Equal Rites is still better than 99% of other fantasy out there, especially of the stuff written by white dudes in the eighties, and I had many laughs while rereading it. On to Mort!

(Scribble in the margins)

July 6th, 2014


11:13 pm - I'm on a bit of an Irish history kick lately
I picked up Jill and Leon Uris’ Ireland: A Terrible Beauty with the intention of giving it a quick skim; the book is part of my dad’s motley collection of old Irish stuff that he’s decorated the “camp” in Maine with. Much of this stuff is at least as old as I am; it includes a collection of VHS tapes about Irish emigration, and a lot of signs and wall hangings that I recall as fixtures in the basement of our first house, the one in which I shared a room with my little brother.

Ireland: A Terrible Beauty was published in 1979, right in the middle of the “Troubles,” after Bloody Sunday but before Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. The book is largely, though not entirely, a photo book, almost as big as a coffee-table book. The photos are gorgeous, some in color and some in black and white, taken all around Ireland during the seventies. There are breathtaking landscapes and shots of Ireland’s numerous ancient ruins and old castles; there are also pictures of and interviews with locals of various areas of the country.

The text, bless it, does not pull any punches. The Uris’ have OPINIONS about how shit was being run in Ireland and they are going to tell you about them. While the Uris’ aren’t Irish, they really did seem  to fall deeply in love with the country and its people, and most of their strongest opinions are disdain and ire for those parties that they deem to have been oppressing the Irish people and subverting their ability to prosper—the historical British government, the authoritarian, sex-phobic  Catholic Hierarchy, and the Protestant Ulstermen. Their descriptions of the “Orangemen” or “Orange Order,” as is the common name for Ulster Unionists, sound very like some analyses of the Tea Party that I’ve seen around on progressive sites. Most of their judgments seem to square pretty well with what I already did know of Irish history (the Church giveth and the Church taketh away…), so I am inclined to give them credit for putting their biases out in the open and to figure that they are a trustworthy enough source on factual matters.

The first half of the book is about the Republic of Ireland, and it’s alternately sweet and sad, full of lovely lovely pictures and detailing Ireland’s weirdly mixed history of glory and oppression, of poets and warriors, of art and of famine. The second half of the book is about Ulster, and features a lot of pictures of graffiti-covered ghettos patrolled by military and paramilitary men with big guns. There are some sections about awesome historical things and the beautiful geography in Northern Ireland as well, but most of it focuses on the Troubles, both the history leading up to them and the situation as it was when the book was written. My favorite bit is a short interview with a very young pIRA leader named Martin McGuinness, talking about him living on the run and his hope to one day have a steady job. Martin McGuiness is now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

While it’s obviously not the most current source of information on Ireland and her many woes, it’s still very informative, both as a solid introduction to the geography and older history of the island and as a snapshot of the island in the mid-seventies. I’m very glad I read it.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 3rd, 2014


07:09 pm - Art and love
Sometimes, you read a biography or memoir of an artist because you’re already a big fan of the artist. In fact, that’s probably the case most of the time people read biographies or memoirs of artists. But other times, if you’re me, you read the biographies of artists whose work you’re not familiar with because somebody told you the book was really good, and then afterwards—if the book was as good as they say—you go check out the artists’ work.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m just today listening to Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, because last night I finished reading her memoir, Just Kids. I read it on my dad’s recommendation, because I had embarrassingly little idea who Patti Smith is.

Just Kids isn’t quite a memoir in the traditional sense, in that very little page space is given to—well, most of her life. It also doesn’t focus on her time being famous. While there is a bit of childhood stuff in the beginning, mostly for background, and some more on her adult life at the end, quite briefly, the bulk of this book takes place over the space of maybe five years, her first five years in New York after running away from home in 1969, when she was broke and obscure and struggling to get by and make art. These are also the five years that she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe, because really, the book isn’t about Patti Smith so much as it is about Patti and Robert. It’s more of an elegy or a very long love letter than an autobiography.

The book is full of awesome, crazy little stories about Patti and/or Robert meeting all sorts of interesting, weird people that were famous or would be famous later, from Jimi Hendrix consoling her about being too nervous to attend a party to Allen Ginsberg buying her coffee and a sandwich because he thought she was a pretty boy. The two “kids” are very interesting characters in their own right, as well—two dedicated artists and absolute kindred spirits, whose devotion to and support of each other managed to weather quite a lot of things that would have ended an ordinary couples’ relationship, such as Robert being gay and both of them getting involved with other people. Patti in particular is quite relatable in a slightly dorky way—apparently people tended to assume she was either a junkie or a lesbian or generally a lot more “wild” than she really was, due to her appearance and the “scene” she was part of, but she apparently didn’t even drink much, and was happy to spend a lot of time home reading and writing. That isn’t to say she didn’t have adventures, but they weren’t sex and drugs adventures; they were totally artsy nerd adventures—like, she went to France by herself without either speaking the language or booking a hotel first, to visit Rimbaud’s grave.

A lot of the book is about clothes, which, as a Goth, I approve of. Patti Smith has a bizarrely specific memory for who was wearing what at what event, even for someone in the sort of artsy scene where people consider dressing to be a form of arting oneself up. Some of these remembrances may be aided by photographs, of which there are a bunch of adorable ones included in the book, but I am still very impressed.

Patti Smith’s poetic sensibility and identity as a poet first and foremost infuse her prose writing. She has wonderful, lyrical ways of describing things, both physical things and emotional experiences, and she’s smart without being dense, and full of references without being pretentious. She definitely comes off like someone you’d like to have a glass of wine with and listen to her tell you stories about When I Was Your Age all day.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in the seventies, or rock and roll, or art in general.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 1st, 2014


08:23 pm - Career advice for the advice-needing career woman
For various personal reasons (namely, changing jobs) I figured it was high time I read this book that my mom lent to me last year, Hannah Sigelson’s New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches. Whether or not it will prove to be useful in my new jobs remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to be full of very good advice! It’s quite well-researched—the author interviewed a ton of highly successful career women and also a ton of young women who had recently entered the workforce. There’s a fairly heavy focus on white-collar corporate jobs—the kind of thing that requires a college degree—but since that is actually the kind of jobs I have I am not complaining.

The book is short and readable, although there are times when I think it gets a bit twee/buzzwordy in the way it discusses certain concepts (the book is less than 200 pages long but it has a seven-page glossary). It covers a good breadth of topics, from dealing with bad bosses to what “mentoring” actually means. Some of it seems pretty obvious—flirting at work isn’t good for getting taken seriously, that sort of thing—but other information is much less so, like how to avoid getting stuck with all the assistant/administrative tasks just because girls tend to be better at them. It also discusses stuff like perfectionism and, near the end of the book, takes a turn for the fairly explicitly feminist and discusses the dangers of inter-female sabotage, both as a concrete possible problem at work and as part of the larger picture of women in the working world and the social forces that shape our success or lack of it.

Overall I’d say it seems like a good recommendation for any other young women looking for or just starting work.
Current Mood: exhaustedexhausted
Current Music: noisy roommates

(Scribble in the margins)

June 28th, 2014


08:56 pm - This is the world I reread with my terrible mercy
I reread Holly Black's fabulous decadent vampire novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown for BSpec book club! I adored it just as much the second time around and I particularly enjoyed being able to subject book club to my long rambly opinions about the meanings and evolution of the vampire myth. The original review is here.

And don't forget this bit of very important life advice from Bela Lugosi (as portrayed by Martin Landau): "If you vant to make out with a young lady, take her to see Dracula!"

(Scribble in the margins)

June 27th, 2014


11:12 pm - I have not the barbarity required to thoroughly review this book
This. THIS is why I joined my classics book club. BIG FAT OVERWRITTEN NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH NOVELS. I love them but they’re also work enough that I rarely read them if somebody doesn’t make me. My book club doesn’t actually read that many of the really big fat long ones, due to time constraints, but it looks like once every summer we give people a head’s up a few meetings in advance if they want to take up a big psychological doorstopper.

This summer’s brick français was Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, a vaguely satirical novel about a judgy and ambitious young peasant who seeks to obtain worldly success by deliberately adopting all the hypocrisies of Restoration-era France. This mostly seems to involve becoming a priest even though he’s not religious, sleeping with his employers’ female family members, and keeping up an internal running commentary about how much everybody sucks. He is a worshipfully committed Bonapartist, a fact which he constantly has to hide from his rich employers and the rich ladies he has seduced and all their rich friends, while he wows them with his obedient pious little abbé act. His main actual talent lies in memorizing things, closely followed by lying.

The style of this book is peculiarly modern at times and a billiondy trillion percent pure nineteenth century in others. The classical novel habit of describing everybody and everything as “beautiful” or “charming” instead of telling you what it actually bloody looks like is still in full effect, as is the focus on foreheads as a part of the body that one pays a lot of attention to in order to determine how attractive somebody is (foreheads: the cheekbones of the 1800s). People speak and think in long convoluted formal sentences, most of the time, full of oh!s and ah!s and going into “transports”, which can mean anything from ranting to having an orgasm, apparently. Other bits are just… well, snarky is really the only word for it. Stendhal himself is the snarkiest character, frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us not to get offended at how stupid the characters are because they’re fictional, or to tell us about a fight he had with his publisher about whether or not he should include the actual political discussion going on at the supar sekrit political meeting Julien attends, or just to inform us about how nice he’s being by skipping stuff. The politics we do get are a bit murky and confusing since I am not all that up on my 1830s French political history, but I think I managed to figure out that the Ultras are the monarchical right-wing party and the Liberals are the sort of squishy, conceptually-kinda-leftist-but-still-pretty-elitist bourgeois party—basically, the Liberals are liberal the way the New York Times is liberal? And then I’m not sure how Bonapartism fits into it except that the ultras totally hate it. Even without really understanding the politics, though, the way Stendhal uses political bickering to characterize his petty provincials and smug Parisians is hugely effective, so that even at the distance of nearly two hundred years the reader recognizes That Guy in his various flavors of Oh My God, That Guy, I Hate That Guy-ness.

So, the simple version of the plot is that Julien, a peasant who is the son of a carpenter but who has been graciously taught to read by some old guy, goes to work as the tutor to the children of M. de Renal, the mayor, and has an affair with his wife, Madame de Renal, and then he goes to seminary and has kind of a bad time but is a great student, so then he goes to work as the secretary for a Parisian blue blood named M. de la Mole, and has an affair with his daughter, Mathilde de la Mole. Madame de Renal is basically the only character in the book who’s not a scheming terrible person; Mathilde de la Mole is chronically bored and idealizes medieval heroism in a completely ghoulish, bonkers way that I sort of sympathize with even though it’s also really kind of terrible. Pretty much everyone else is just plain stupid, except for some of the priests. Then everything suddenly gets really action-packed and weird at the end and there is shooting and a trial and everybody dies tragically and I fucking love French novels.

There really is quite a lot to unpack in this novel, despite its seeming silliness and melodrama and generalized griping, and I’m probably going to save the serious unpacking for book club. Oh, how I wish I were still in school and could write a paper on this! There must be some fabulous crit of it out there. Alas, I am not in school and I don’t have the time to find ten secondary sources and craft a six-to-ten page paper by Sunday. But there is a lot of stuff about ambition and opportunity and class, and of the absurdity of Restoration society, and of all the stupid and convoluted feelings and thoughts and drives that aren’t love but that manage to drive people to having affairs anyway. There’s also the accomplishment of having us sympathize with—if not always root for—a thoroughly cranky and ambitious hero who is deliberately hypocritical and often stupid. Julien Sorel is definitely a Special Snowflake Asshole Genius Antihero sort of character, but luckily his author doesn’t take him too seriously and doesn’t really expect us to either, so it’s less obnoxious than that type usually is even today (and specifically I mean that the text isn’t obnoxious; the character is definitely obnoxious).

This book also contains most of the points brought up in The Toast’s excellent Every French Novel Ever post, although not necessarily in the same order.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 21st, 2014


07:52 pm - More floating teenage steampunk spies, because why not
After last weekend’s wacky hijinks with Etiquette and Espionage, I was luckily able to immediately get hold of the sequel, Curtsies and Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger. Curtsies and Conspiracies follows Sophronia Angelina Temminick as she returns for her second semester at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Qualit-Tay, a school in a large dirigible that trains young gentlewomen to be spies.

The main plot in this novel concerns another crystalline valve, no longer a prototype, and smaller than the plot valve in the last book. Adorable Baby Genevieve thinks this one has to do with protocols rather than communications, which, being something to do with real telecommunications instead of purely Carrigerian steampunk technobabble, is the single thing in the book I had the hardest time getting my head around (Reason I Am Not An Engineer #34825976389274573289574). It also seems to have something to do with Sophronia’s flibbertigibbet roommate, Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott, the daughter of evil geniuses but who just wants to be a regular proper lady and wear sparkly things. Or possibly with her younger brother Pillover, a sulky but ultimately kindhearted ten-year-old student at Bunsen’s academy for evil geniuses. At any rate, Dimity is nearly kidnapped by some thugs on multiple occasions, until the final act of the story when she actually is kidnapped and we start figuring out what’s going on, but of course I’m not going to tell you what it was.

Sophronia spends much of the first half of the book being ostracized by her friends as a result of getting distressingly high marks on her midyear exams, so she hangs out with Vieve and Soap instead. Soap, predictably but quite charmingly, is developing into an awkward love interest that Sophronia is in utter denial about, because she has espionage to do. Something is up with the odious Monique de Pelouse, who is not going to be finishing after all, but who is planning a dreadfully lavish coming-out ball in London. Something else seems to be up with a bunch of the teachers, including the unfortunately moustachioed but otherwise very dapper vampire etiquette teacher, Professor Braithewope. Things get even more complicated when the finishing school acquires guests—and the guests are ­boys. Specifically, they are one Professor Shrimpdittle from Bunsen’s, and a host of Bunsen students, including Pillover Plumleigh-Teignmott, a chinless family friend of Dimity’s named Lord Dingleproops, and an arrogant, broody, and very wealthy Viscount’s heir named Felix Golborne, Lord Mersey, who develops a fantastically irritating crush on Sophronia. Dingleproops and Mersey are a part of a new clique at Bunsen’s that seems to be Gail Carriger’s dig at disaffected teenage Goth steampunks, as these guys brood a lot, dress predominantly in black with brass/bronze accents, sew gears to their clothes to no useful purpose, and wear eyeliner. They also are dreadfully snobbish and like going to parties and spiking the punch. I want to condescendingly pinch all their cheeks and then hand them all over to the Lady of the Manners for some finishing.

There are some very fun cameos by characters who either show up in or are deaded by the Parasol Protectorate series, including the dewan, the old potentate, the Lord Woolsey before Conor Maccon becomes Lord Woolsey (Maccon only shows up indirectly, via Sidheag’s dialogue about “Gramps”), Countess Nasdasdy, and some other Westminster Hive members. But the crowning glory of cameos goes to the brief but memorable carriage lift Sophronia gets from Lord Akeldama, who, in a very Lord Akeldama-ish fashion, insists upon being in no way involved in anything but seems interested in possibly recruiting Sophronia for not-getting-involved purposes when she is finished. I fervently hope this means more Lord Akeldama in the rest of the series, because Lord Akeldama is perfection itself. I want to be Lord Akeldama when I grow up, even though I think I’d be terribly unsuited to it.

Sophronia is an unabashedly wish-fulfillment-y character and I am not complaining, because everything about her and her situations is so colorful and wacky-hijink-related. I think the thing that really is the problem with most wish-fulfillmenty characters are that they are boring and there is often a lack of tension, but the multiple plot threads Sophronia keeps juggling—particularly her moral dilemmas about an attempt at character assassination that she’s really not properly trained how to do—keeps things fast-paced, and everything and everyone is just too clever and bizarre to be boring. It’s sort of like Victorian teenage girl James Bond (which, as a girl who likes Victorian things, I like better than regular James Bond, but apparently a lot of people find James Bond not at all boring, is what I’m getting at).

I am desolated that I have to wait several months for the sequel and for the beginning of the Custard Protocol series. Whatever shall I do with myself?

(Scribble in the margins)

June 20th, 2014


06:20 pm - you know that introspective crowd from Cork
This Father’s Day weekend, I gave my Dad a book, and he gave me a bag of books. This seems a bit backwards to be but I am not complaining.

One of the books was a little old pocket-sized book of quotations about Irish stuff, straightforwardly named The Irish Quotation Book: A Literary Companion, edited by Mainchín Seoighe. It is a very delightful little book, with an array of quotations about Ireland and the Irish throughout history. Many of the quotations are by very famous Irish writers like Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats, others are by less-famous Irish writers; some are by non-Irish writers who traveled into Ireland and wrote about it (Anthony Trollope says “The Irish people did not murder me, nor did they break my head”). They are arranged sort of by theme, although there are no section headings or chapters. Usually this is fine, with history gently progressing and thoughts meandering tangentially from subject to subject, but there is one section where there’s a quote about how all true Irish love horses and then the next quote is about families shutting themselves up in their tiny destitute cottages so no one could see them die during the Famine. It was a very jarring transition.

The overall picture that this paints is that Ireland is a beautiful green land filled with cows and history, and its people are friendly, witty in a rather silly way, Catholic, prone to extreme moods, and frequently very miserable due to everything in the country being run shitty from about 1600 onwards. They also write a lot of poetry. All of this is more or less consistent with the picture I had of Ireland and the Irish previously, although I learned some amazing new jokes.

Like a lot of “literary companions” and quotation collections, the thing I got most out of this book was a long list of longer works that I now want to check out. I’ve realized my Irish history is actually embarrassingly spotty, mostly half-understood stuff picked up sort of through osmosis and generalized nostalgia from growing up in an Irish-American family.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 16th, 2014


08:42 pm - Who doesn't want an exploding wicker chicken?
Today in “utterly delightful things,” I started reading Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series the same way I began reading her Parasol Protectorate series—in a cute rustic cabin in Maine. Her stuff really is grade-A vacation material—light, fluffy, and hilarious.

The Finishing School series is a YA series that takes place in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series, perhaps some thirty years earlier. The first book, Etiquette and Espionage, follows fourteen-year-old tomboy and klutz Sophronia Angelina Temminick as she is packed off to Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, or Quali-Tay, depending on how annoyed the speaker is. Sophronia soon discovers that she is a “covert recruit”, which basically means that she didn’t know about the true nature of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s until she got there. The true nature, of course, is that the young ladies of quali-tay are actually being trained in espionage and subterfuge, of which “learn all the expected social graces of proper useless ladies” is an important part of their cover.

At finishing school, Sophronia makes friends, such as the bubbly Dimity—descended from a line of evil geniuses, but who actually wants to just be a regular proper lady—and a younger Sidheag Maccon, Lady Kingair (who is, if possible, even more awesome than in the other series), and Sophronia makes enemies, such as the beautiful but absolutely petty Monique de Pelouse, a senior who got demoted to debut after Sophronia had to rescue her during her “finishing” assignment. Monique has also hidden something known only as “the prototype,” and they keep getting attacked by flywaymen who want it, so Sophronia takes it upon herself and her friends to figure out what the prototype is of and where it is hidden.

If you know anything about Gail Carriger’s other novels you know there will be at least one dandy vampire, at least one hot werewolf, some dirigibles, and a lot of food. All these are indeed here in abundance. There are also a lot of robot maids and butlers. I really, really want a robot maid, by the way. I refuse to do all the cleaning for three adults myself, but it’s wildly annoying to come home every day to three people’s worth of mess. (Ideally the other two adults would clean but we’re only fifty years or so into that societal revolution, so I can’t really plan on that for the next several decades, apparently.)

The novel also continues Carriger’s gift for comedy-of-manners style absurdist humor, mimicking the affected tone of the best in awkward Victorian humor.

There is also a mechanical sausage dog called Bumbersnoot.

Underneath the seemingly random assortment of awesome nonsense, this is a good solid entry into the tradition of fun, feminist-friendly YA books that I am particularly devoted to. The secret agent finishing school setting  provides an opportunity to have lots of different female characters with lots of different opinions on what they want to be doing with their lives, and in which they are encouraged to get up to all sorts of interesting doings of stuff. (This includes one girl who is not a student—a nine-year-old Genevieve Lefoux, niece of mad scientist teacher Beatrice Lefoux. Vieve is already cross-dressing and already having fabulous taste in hats.) Sophronia also breaches questions of class and race when she makes friends with a bunch of the sooties, the working-class boys who run the engine room in the enormous dirigible that constitutes the school. The head of the sooties and possible romantic interest for later in the series is Soap, a Black boy from South London who is always up for Sophronia’s ill-advised adventures and engages in friendly street fighting with Sidheag.

Overall this was the sort of book that makes me want to make friends with the author and have tea parties with her, although I’d be worried about not making the tea well enough. Alternately, I’d love to attend Madame Geraldine’s, although I’m not sure how good I’d be at the fighting stuff (I am terribly bad at fighting) and I might be too Irish to really be considered “of quali-tay.”

At any rate, it is time to check out the sequel, Curtsies and Conspiracies!

(Scribble in the margins)

June 7th, 2014


03:38 pm - All you need is giant Japanese Iron-Man suits and a battleaxe
The thing for me about military sci-fi that is a large part of why I don’t read/watch a lot of it is that I feel like a lazy asshole sitting around consuming it when all the characters are busting their asses all the time. This was a big problem for me when I was watching Battlestar Galactica; I used to try and see how long I could hold certain karate stances during episodes or I’d just feel bad about myself. I ran into a similar problem when I began reading Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill on the bus, which is why I read most of it in two sessions on an exercise bike at the gym. Results: book is pretty good, also my legs hurt.

All You Need is Kill takes place in a future where alien robots filled with nanobots, called Mimics, are trying to xenoform the earth to a weird toxic wasteland, and are thus in a perpetual war with humans, who liked the earth the way it was. The best weapon the humans have are these big Iron-Man-suit kind of systems called Jackets. The book is told from the point of view of Keiji Kiriya, a fresh recruit to the Japanese wing of what has become essentially an international army. After dying horribly in his first battle, Keiji gets stuck in a time loop, reliving the 30 hours before his death over and over again. He has no idea why, and the only person who might know or be able to help him get out of it is an American Special Ops soldier named Rita Vrataski, colloquially known as the Full Metal Bitch.

This book has its “of course it is” moments but overall it’s a fun, fast-paced read. The English translation gives it a gruff, straightforward, military style. It’s short, and split into four long chapters that are further split into numbered scenes that keep track of the time loops. It’s got gritty grimdark war-is-hell kind of stuff all over the place, not in a way that I found particularly moving but enough that it didn’t seem to be taking war lightly. It’s got a very cinematic quality that’s definitely begging to be made into a graphic novel or a movie; I’m not sure if Edge of Tomorrow is actually that movie, since apparently they whitewashed the characters and moved it to Europe, which I’m guessing means they also wiped the role of Japanese technology in modern civilization.  Bad job, Hollywood.

I hope I will be able to formulate more and better thoughts on this before (and, most likely, during) the book club meeting for this on Thursday, but I didn’t want to put off writing a review until then even though it would probably have more to say.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 31st, 2014


08:44 pm - When I am fifty I shall write a novel as good as Persuasion
There is a bit of a long story about me deciding to reread Cold Comfort Farm right now but the short version involves me excitedly fobbing it off on a friend and then realizing that I don’t remember it half as well as the movie version, since I’d only read it once but I’ve seen the movie a good ten times. This is in part because Cold Comfort Farm is one of the very few stories where the movie adaptation is actually quite as good as the book, largely due to its stellar cast. But it’s an odd thing to have that opinion and yet be unable to remember enough about the book to remember why one has that opinion, so I went to reread it to see if it still stands.

The answer is yes. Cold Comfort Farm, the book, is delightfully silly. It is a bit overwritten at times, mostly on purpose.  The genre it is making fun of has a history of also being dreadfully overwritten, even while a number of them have gotten to be Classic Works of Literature, basically all the ones by Thomas Hardy. The genre in question is nineteenth-century-ish earthy English moor romances, of which I would never recommend reading a single one that isn’t written by Thomas Hardy, and even then, only read one every couple of years.

The basic storyline is such: Miss Flora Poste, a well-educated, neat, and thoroughly modern twenty-year-old, finds herself orphaned and with only a hundred pounds a year. Rather than work, which she suspects she wouldn’t be very good at, Flora decides to live off her relatives, of which she has rather a lot. She winds up living with her aunt Ada Doom’s family, the Starkadders, at a dreary mess of a farm named Cold Comfort, in the town of Howling, Sussex, where everyone and everything has ludicrously dramatic names. They all have what novelists of the time called “rich emotional lives,” which, to Flora, looks very much the same thing as being a bit stupid and unhealthily fixated on very specific ways of being miserable. Flora takes it upon herself to “tidy up,” poking and suggesting and cleaning her relatives into less dysfunctional lifestyles. For a number of them this means getting away from Cold Comfort Farm, an activity which has been strictly forbidden by Aunt Ada Doom, reclusive matriarch of the clan, who had seen something narsty in the woodshed when she was two and pretends to be mad.

While my modern copy-editor’s eye really wants to excise about fifteen or twenty percent of the descriptions for being utterly unnecessary (and I have a high tolerance for worldbuilding and backstory and infodumps and general minute detail), the rest of it is all absurd in the best possible way, featuring painstakingly dramatic use of eye-dialect, some highly judgmental but pretty astute inner dialogue by Flora, and excellently weaponized manners. The secondary characters have a tendency to be distinctly Types, but this is absolutely on purpose, and very effective for comedy. Also, sadly, some Types are not mere tropes invented by novelists, but tend to exist in real life, and it is quite satisfying seeing Flora fob off Mr. Mybug, the epitome of That Weirdly Sexist Pseudo-Intellectual Guy Whose Only Interest In Life Is Sex But He Keeps Trying To Dress It Up In Fancy Language In Order To Make It Sound Like There’s Some Appreciable Difference Between Him And A Mayfly And You Should Pay Attention To Him. (And they really do always insist in falling in love with one and it really is MOST TRYING. Ahem.)

Flora Poste is a literary character very dear to my heart, especially since I have admitted to myself that I am definitely fussy and concerned about doing things Properly, for all that I style myself all subcultural and shit. Her monologue on being bad at lacrosse is one of the single passages in literature that I have most identified with, ever. I aspire to ever be a quarter as socially ept as she is, and her powers of managing people are positively inspiring.

Despite minor flaws with lack of editing, this book gets A+ thumbs up all the stars would read again, and I recommend it and the movie to all human persons with any sense of humor.

(Scribble in the margins)

02:57 pm - The star is life and death
Mark reading Terry Pratchett has been the highlight of these many last long work-filled weeks since I have returned from Paris. He has just finished The Light Fantastic, which I read yea these many long years ago. I think I have read it twice, actually, once in high school and once in college, but that doesn’t mean I remembered it all that well.

The change in quality from The Color of Magic to The Light Fantastic is noticeable. All the things that are awesome about The Color of Magic are still awesome, like the puns, the cinematic writing, the puns, the absurdly logical worldbuilding conceits, the puns, the Luggage, and did I mention the puns? But the plot starts to look a lot more like a plot in this one, and Pratchett starts developing his wonderful gift for sending up fantasy tropes by adding an unusually-seen element to them rather than just parody-exaggeration. For example, TCoM had Hrun, who was funny, but mostly his sword was funny; TLF has the octogenarian warrior Cohen the Barbarian, a lifetime in his own legend, who is hilarious and a much more memorable character.

I had somehow managed to completely forget what the climax of the story was—this is surprisingly usual for me since Pratchett’s climaxes are always very chaotic and strange—so I was pleasantly surprised at how adorable it was and I will never forget it again, I hope.

I feel like I ought to have more to say on this book but it was rather short and a lot of my favorite stuff about Discworld hasn’t really been developed yet at this point in the series.
 
Current Mood: nerdynerdy

(Scribble in the margins)

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