bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!

I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.

This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.

In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.

In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.

The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.

Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.

It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.

In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.

The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)

There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.

This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.

On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.

Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.

Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.

But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.

Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. I remember the hype, the breathless reports that in this one, someone was going to die. I remember everyone trying to guess who it was. (We were all wrong, obviously, since it was a newly introduced character.) I remember how it was a huge deal that it was 734 pages long, because that was utterly unheard-of for a children's book at the time. (Sixteen-and-a-half years and one English degree later, I laugh at the idea that any book under 800 pages could be considered "long.") (I also look at the book and go "How is this less than 1,000 pages; how freaking thick are these pages" but that's another ramble.)

I remember trying to keep track of how many times I read this book and losing track at thirteen. I'm going to guess the current number is somewhere between twenty and thirty. It had been ten years since my last reread.

In those ten years, a lot of things have happened. One is that I grew up enough to look back critically at my memories of the series and note that Voldemort and his followers were basically just magic Nazis, and that, while effectively villainous for a children's series, I guess that ultimately it was a bit simplistic and not that original. It followed a grand tradition of British and American writing about fighting Nazis or Nazi-esque villains, because that's about as satisfyingly simple and uncontroversial a bad guy as you can get, and it is, after all, quite important to teach small children not to tolerate Nazis, but not that sophisticated.

Another thing that happened, but mostly only over the past year rather than over the course of the whole ten, is that -- suddenly, or seemingly suddenly -- Nazis have been making a bit of a comeback. As a result, "Nazis are bad; fight them" suddenly has a lot more emotional resonance and immediacy than it did not too long ago, and also I've been reading a lot of very informative articles about Nazis.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is when the series starts to be ABOUT NAZIS.

As mentioned in previous reviews, the earlier books did make it clear that Voldemort was basically a magic Nazi, although to me the earlier books' portrayals of his followers and his movement always made me think more of the Klan. And there's some of that here too, especially with the Muggles being hung high in the air with magic for fun (and at a family-friendly sporting event, too). But this is the book where we learn that they’re called Death Eaters and they have a special symbol that’s utterly taboo and something has gone very wrong if you see it, something the sight of which viscerally shocks normal wizards the same way that seeing the big red swastika banners as tall as houses hang down viscerally shocked me the first time I went to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. It is the book where we learn how many of them went back to regular society and got jobs and had families and basically pretended to be normal people (apparently none of them moved to Argentina though). As the Death Eaters all gather around their newly re-embodied leader at the finale, we get to see not just Voldemort as a lone villain, but the leader of a movement—and we start to see how that movement functioned.

But, not is all Nazis and death in this book. There is the usual whimsical nonsense in the beginning, where the Weasleys engage in an entertaining comedy of errors at the expense of the Dursleys’ living room to come and get Harry so they can attend the Quidditch World Cup match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Fred and George turn out to be clever at sports betting, and Mrs. Weasley is shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here, although she shouldn’t be when jolly meathead Ludo Bagman is involved. Everyone makes fun of Percy for being pompous about his consumer protection work on cauldron bottoms, although I personally was totally on Percy’s side for this. There are leprechauns and veelas and a Bulgarian Minister of Magic who pretends not to speak English so Cornelius Fudge makes a fool of himself miming things all day.

Then we are back at Hogwarts, where there is, as usual, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This one is a grizzled old ex-Auror with a giant magical eyeball and a penchant for shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” at the students. In short, Mad-Eye Moody is great. Or at least we think he’s great.

The big story at Hogwarts is the Triwizard Tournament, where a champion from each of Europe’s three prestigious magic schools competes against the other school’s champions in tasks of magical daring and cleverness and stuff. After all three school’s champions are chosen, Harry is also somehow chosen as champion number four, which isn’t supposed to happen, but apparently does because he’s Harry Potter. Harry is tormented by a nosy journalist and goes through a lot of school drama as he prepares for his tasks. Several beloved bit characters show up to help him prepare in various levels of cheating, including Dobby and Moaning Myrtle (PS I want a bathtub like the one in the prefects’ bathroom), and then Hermione as usual is the one who trains him on regular-ass spells he needs, like Summoning Charms. There are many French characters, whose dialogue is written in thick French accents, and after all these years it is still inordinately fun to read those bits out loud.

In the hands of a lesser writer there could be severe mood whiplash in this mix of delightful and dangerous, or the goofy names for things could undercut the severity and suspense of the more dramatic bits. But J.K. Rowling did not become the richest woman in Britain for no reason, and the reason is that she can make a story told by a drunk elf that refers to herself in the third person into an emotionally exhausting, poignant, critical piece of the puzzle.

I think this was the first time reading this book where I’ve cried, because apparently I am going sappy in my old age.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.

It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.

But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.

In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)

In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.

Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).

This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.

For the life of me, I cannot remember why.

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.

As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)

Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.

Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
2016 having been an epically exhausting year on a number of fronts—including the reading one, where I skimped on fiction and instead subjected myself to many math-heavy poker books—I decided to end it with a nice reread of the Harry Potter series during my week off. I got started pretty much the second the Christmas festivities were over, spending most of the 26th curled up either on the couch or in the tub with my first American edition of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

While I remember the basic storyline and many of the most pop-cultural moments very, very well indeed, what with having read this book at least a hundred times before (I was an early adopter), I still found myself surprised at just how familiar some of it was: I could remember the exact flow of entire sentences and paragraphs as I'd read them previously, years and years ago; I could remember pronunciations I'd gotten wrong in my head back when I read it last. I don't think I've read these books since the seventh volume came out about five years ago.

Somehow, probably because the books eventually get so serious and because they had such a profound effect on myself and on our culture, the one thing I had managed to sort of forget was just how freaking funny they are. Things aren't super heavy in this book yet, although we are introduced to the basics of Voldemort's story, and the finale is pretty damn creepy. Mostly things here are still a little bit cartoonish, with a similar vibe to other snarky British children's fantasy like Roald Dahl, featuring amusingly gross wizarding world hazards like troll boogers. The images in my head of this one are still heavily shaped by Mary Grand-Pre's drawings and a lifetime of watching Muppets more than they are the actual Harry Potter movies (Hagrid is the Ghost of Christmas Present, pass it on), since the movies didn't start getting made until nearly half the series was published.

The book itself is still a delight to hold and to read, with nice creamy parchment-y paper and that jauntified Copperplate lettering at the top of every page. I admit I did a lot of uncontrollable nostalgic giggling and a good deal of reading sentences aloud to myself just to delight in them. Rereading this one was a beautiful and pure experience that put me back in touch with my inner child and was overall GOOD FOR MY SOUL, a well-deserved and much needed joy, from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much" to the typographic note at the end.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Today in "books I was supposed to read for a book club but I didn't make it to book club," I just finished The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Sparks.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that it is pretty short, coming in at 175 pages. A lot of 20th-century lit is pretty short, I think, though I'm not sure why. There is probably research on it somewhere.
The last book I read was also short mid-20th-century women's literature, though a very different genre, but it was still interesting to see what struck me as stylistic similarities, although I guess it is just general mid-century writing that I'm responding to. There are few other similarities. Jackson was American and Sparks was British. Jackson wrote creepy gothic/horror and Spark's book is sort of everyday realism/slice of life, with a slightly comic touch.
The story takes place in 1945, in a boardinghouse in London called the May of Teck Club, for the titular impoverished-but-not-destitute women under thirty. The book has a very strong sense of time and place, with the war and rationing and all that sort of thing shaping everyone's everyday lives to a large degree; at the same time, much of it was very familiar to me as a broke young lady under thirty myself, and one who has lived in shared housing for the past ten years. Some of it is embarrassingly similar to things I see today in detail, such as the party with a bunch of hip young intellectuals drinking beer out of jam jars even though there's no shortage of real cups, and other bits are more painfully familiar in essence even if the details are different, like how freaking irritatingly faux-deep all the oversexed poetic young intellectual dudes are, and the poor young lady who works in publishing staying up late in her room doing freelance work to make ends meet while trying to emotionally subsist off of the vague air of glamour she gets from her peers for working in the "world of books." Shit never changes, does it.
The vignettes about the May of Teck's inhabitants are threaded together with a framing device that is a series of phone calls between the various girls, several years later, passing around the news that the central insufferable young intellectual dude of 1945 has just died in an uprising in Haiti, where he had gone as a missionary. The girl who worked in publishing has grown up to be a gossip columnist, so she is the one mostly trying to spread the news and collect information for an article.
The girls who are featured most often in the vignettes are Jane, the one who works for a shady publisher; Selina, a very beautiful girl with multiple lovers, including the intellectual dude, who she meets by climbing out the bathroom window to sleep with on the roof; and Joanna, who teaches elocution, apparently during every waking minute. There are another half-dozen or so girls who we know by name and with varying degrees of characterization, but Jane, Selina, and Joanna are the most important. At first it seems as if the book doesn't have too much in the way of plot, being mostly a series of darkly witty observations about the follies of young minds that take themselves very seriously, but it does all lead up to a rather explosive ending.
I should probably check out some of Muriel Sparks' other writing; it seems like the sort of thing I really ought to have read in college but didn't. It also makes me want beer in a jam jar, but if I went and poured myself one I'd probably just feel pretentious.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Hey, I managed to get a hold of this book before the book club it's for actually met! AND I read it!

L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between is an English countryside drama, not as moor-y as Thomas Hardy—more of a Jane Austen-y setting but less comedic. It follows the childlike musings and wanderings of 12-year-old public school boy Leo Colston as he spends his summer holiday at the grand old house of his classmate Marcus. Leo gets recruited as "postman" to run messages between various adult members of the estate, most notably running top-secret messages between Marcus' beautiful older sister Marian and a local farmer named Ted. Leo, with a child's love of secrets and drama and no idea what the hell is actually going on, at first enjoys the responsibility of his secret missions, but obviously everything eventually goes to hell. You can probably guess what the messages were actually about.

Considering the inside jacket flap gave away 90% of the plot, the book was still engaging and held some surprises, which I guess is what makes it Literature. The framing device is simple but executed well—old Leo finds his diary from that year; the diary has the signs of the Zodiac on it and is responsible for two motifs that carry throughout the story: Leo's obsession with the Zodiac, and his reputation—among both himself and his schoolmates—as a magician. There is also some excellent use of foreshadowing regarding the belladonna plant in the outhouse. I had guessed someone would be literally poisoned, but I suppose that would have been too melodramatic for this story.

As a coming-of-age/loss of innocence story it's about as awkward as it gets, and really paints a vivid picture of how simultaneously cynical and sheltered well-bred Victorian children were (the main story takes place in the summer of 1900, which young Leo thinks is very significant. As someone who was about 12 when 2000 happened, I can relate). Leo and his schoolmates bully the everloving shit out of each other, to the point that Leo is not only pleased with himself, but the whole frickin' school is pleased with him when it is believed he gave two other boys concussion (via black magic rather than pummelling them, but still). On the other hand, witnessing what the letters were really about gave him a monthslong illness complete with amnesia.

Leo is likable enough as a protagonist but only because he is 12 so you can't really blame him for being ignorant or making dumb choices; that is, after all, what the whole "innocence" theme really is about. And the long detailed looks into the thought processes of a clueless, slightly romantically-minded 12-year-old should be fairly relatable to anyone who was at all of a self-conscious or romantic turn of mind when they were young and clueless themselves.

The book is not long, but it does, like many Victorian novels, take something of a leisurely approach to pacing.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The next book for BSpec's book club is Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr. Y, which Lyndsay chose upon her appointment to the rotating dictatorship of book club. I'm pretty sure Lyndsay has also given me another Scarlett Thomas book out of the HMH stash, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, because ::gestures to TBR shelves::.
The title of this book is also the title of the book that this book is about, in the tradition of many other books about books. In this one, The End of Mr. Y is a little-known 19th-century work of fiction of which there is only one known copy in the world, and which is supposedly cursed, because everyone who has ever read it has died.
Our protagonist is Ariel Manto, an English Lit Ph.D. student doing a thesis on thought experiments. She's interested in the little-known 19th century philosopher who wrote The End of Mr. Y, as is her Ph.D. supervisor, who mysteriously disappears. Some time after he disappears, Ariel finds a copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop, and finds the recipe for a tincture that can take the drinker into a sort of mind-jumping Matrix-like telepathy-land that the author of The End of Mr. Y called the Troposphere.
At first I found Ariel a very relatable protagonist in that she is an overthinking, anxiety-brained, potato-baking, financially strapped book nerd with a general interest in weird nineteenth-century stuff but a sustained tendency toward serially obsessive topic-hopping, researching her way around different subjects every month. Before she does her Ph.D. she writes a magazine article called Free Association, published monthly, which sounds like a fantasy writing assignment -- she basically takes an entire month to write each article, and just writes about whatever topic she's interested in that month. (The fact that she can subsist off of one piece of writing each month pretty much blew my suspension of disbelief to hell, even if this book was published pre- the world economy imploding and takes place outside the U.S. But it was a nice fantasy.) She gets laid more than me, but not only do all novel protagonists, I'm pretty sure most real people do as well. But as the book went on, and Ariel drifted more and more into being a sort of stock Troubled Antihero, I grew more and more annoyed with the sort of flatly gritty quality of the book's depictions of the "real" world. Ariel started to remind me of The Toast's piece "A Day in the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero," except that she was female, which ought to be a bigger subversion than this felt like -- it was still all cigarettes and colorless sex, both of which are tropes that I feel are basically cheap ways of establishing a book as A Book for Adults. Characters who have a lot of sex but are too deep or damaged or whatever to enjoy any of it are one of my pet peeves, as is deliberately writing sex scenes with no emotion to them whatsoever just to establish that the character/the author/the audience/someone somewhere, I don't know, is definitely world-weary and blase enough to know that sex happens but it's nothing to get excited about. A one-paragraph sex scene randomly inserted into another scene that you could cut out without interrupting the flow of the conversation at all is one that probably should be cut. Also, if you're going to throw a lot of pointless sex into a book just for the sake of -mundanity and realism- and stuff, I'm going to notice things like that nobody ever uses condoms and the main character doesn't seem to be on birth control of any sort, yet nobody has even a single passing thought about the possibility of pregnancy or STDs.
From that point, other stuff started to annoy me more: The MC is apparently quite poor, and much attention is paid to having little money (which I relate to), but she doesn't seem to have any of the strings that being poor usually comes with: She doesn't have a credit card, she doesn't seem to have any debt, when she abandons her apartment she doesn't seem to be worried about any kind of liability for not making the next month's rent -- she's basically poor but free in a way that being poor doesn't really allow people to be free. It gives the whole thing a sort of ungrounded quality that renders all the other kinds of details that seem to be trying to establish groundedness (i.e., the constant monitoring of how much cash she has on hand -- a set of mental calculations that I am, in fact, quite familiar with) feel like a sort of poverty-chic set dressing rather than having much urgency to them. And I'm not even going to get into how the whole Aimless Academic trope that's so popular is just wildly contrary to anything I hear coming out of academia these days. Maybe it's a British vs. US thing, maybe it's an old economy vs. new economy thing, but if Ariel Manto were at a US university in 2016 trying to do what she's doing, she'd be an adjunct professor with multiple courses to teach and $90K in student loan debt, and she'd have fought out fifty competitors tooth and nail for the position, rather than being randomly invited to do a Ph.D. at a conference and just showing up and doing it.
The other thing that messed with my suspension of disbelief is that the mystical tincture that brings people to the magical realm of the troposphere is a homeopathic remedy, which means it's almost entirely water.
There are more advanced scientific concepts tackled in the book, including lots of physics ones that I am minimally familiar with, so I cannot nitpick them. But the characters specifically talk about learning a lot of these concepts from popular science books, and in the areas of science in which I am more than minimally well-versed, the gaps between real science and popular science are a major source of interest to me. An especially interesting article I read yesterday actually did talk about this problem as it relates to theoretical physics. The result: I'm enormously, if uninformedly, skeptical of about 99% of the discussions about science in this book, and this book is in very large part discussions of science and philosophy and the nature of reality and all that. The philosophy I could also probably stand to be better versed in. But ultimately, while using simplifications, metaphors, and models can help you understand scientific concepts at a rudimentary level, having an understanding of the simple versions of scientific concepts doesn't help you solve actual problems in those fields. Ariel Manto is about as well equipped to come up with major breakthroughs in anything physics-related as I am to personally design and program a functioning digital currency system (I just did a month's research and wrote an article on bitcoin). This book definitely belongs to a subcategory of "trashy-intellectual" that I actually tend to like quite a lot -- the Outlander books have a similar "my research, let me show u it" vibe, as does the Discovery of Witches series. I am enormously susceptible to this particular brand of guilty pleasure. I found myself wanting to challenge this one a lot more than I usually do, probably because the research concepts it's splashing around in are fundamental questions about the nature of reality so it seems to be taking itself really seriously, even though it's basically just a big nerd-neurosis fantasy along the lines of Dune but for different types of nerd-neurosis. The story eventually seems to conclude that you can rewrite the universe by thinking about it sophisticatedly enough, which I think is clearly a "What am I doing with my life, what is the point of doing all this obscure research nobody cares about" academic-existential-crisis-assuaging sort of fantasy.
Which, quite frankly, I do think is a really interesting set of fears to write a wish-fulfillment story for.
And frankly, the Troposphere was fun. The general mystery with the book and the being chased by ex-CIA agents and jumping around in people's minds and through history and into being mice and cats and other people was a good dramatic fantasy romp. The excerpts of fake 19th-century writing with its ploddingly moralistic tone and creepy, tawdry circuses were delightful. Many of the secondary characters are flat-out hilarious, although I'm not sure they're intended to be. The whole thing would make a trippy as hell animated miniseries or something; or even a live-action one with maybe an exaggerated Tim Burton-y aesthetic. I would totally watch that.
I'll be interested to see what aspects of the book people seize on to talk about at book club. Since this is BSpec book club and not the sci-fi group book club, I think I can at least count on the discussion not being just three hours of How Does Time Travel Work, at least.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So I was vaguely intending on only reading nonfiction from now through March but then I discovered the Bloodsucking Feminists podcast and realized I'd never read John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale, so of course then I went and read The Vampyre. After listening to the episode about it, because that's how I roll. (That is not how I prefer  to roll but sometimes I mess up.)

The Vampyre is best known for being one of the entries in the famous horror story contest between Polidori, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It... didn't win. Frankenstein won, in the process basically inventing science fiction generally and the cyborg story in particular. The Vampyre is also a pretty genre-kicking-off piece of work, being one of the earliest or possibly the earliest instances of vampire prose fiction in the English language, but if you read it you will understand why Frankenstein is generally considered the winner, even with Percy Shelley's terrible copy edits.

That said, it was a pretty valuable read, I think. It's short, so despite its flaws and the extremely eighteenth-century nature of those flaws, it's not too much of a slog (unlike, say, the thousand-plus-page Varney the Vampire, which I have been avoiding reading for at least two years now).

The story itself is fairly simple. A good-natured but flighty young dandy named Aubrey is introduced into society and befriends the aristocratic Lord Ruthven, who is a cold brooding sort but very handsome, and who only hangs out with the most virtuous of women. Aubrey and Ruthven go on a trip through Europe, which was a tradition for well-born young men at the time, and during the trip Aubrey notices that the virtuous young women Aubrey hangs out with all have their reputations ruined by the time they skip town. Ruthven also gambles a lot, and while Ruthven doesn't necessarily always win, the people he's playing with all manage to lose, and to exhibit horrendous bankroll management while they're at it. Aubrey eventually grows disgusted with the trail of fallen women and busto family men with hungry children that his friend is leaving in their wake, and bounces to Greece by himself, where he develops a flirtation with an "unspoilt" (this is a term with a large number of very specific meanings when applied to young maidens in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Brit lit) young Greek maiden, who tries to warn him about vampires. But he thinks she is just being adorably quaint and superstitious, so he goes to look at some ancient ruins or something and has to walk back home through the woods in the dark, where he finds a fancy knife and also the dead body of his Greek girlfriend, who has clearly died of being bitten in the neck. Ruthven shows back up and they keep traveling together, then Ruthven is shot by bandits and dies, but first he makes Aubrey promise not to tell anyone anything about what a terrible person he is for a year and a day. Aubrey agrees, and the dead Ruthven's body mysteriously disappears.

Aubrey goes back to England where it's time for him to bring his sister out into society. At one of these society parties he espies Lord Ruthven, apparently no longer dead, and he can't say anything because he is a Man Of His Word and also he is apparently hallucinating Ruthven in his head saying "Don't you dare," which oddly is a thing that happens in the second Twilight book nearly two hundred years later. Aubrey runs away and has a fit, and spends the next several months descending further into the depths of fever, incoherence, and unspecified trauma-induced mental illness. As he gets closer to the deadline where he can finally tell people how terrible Ruthven is, he starts to feel better, and someone tells him that his sister is going to marry the Earl of Marsden, and he's happy for like ten seconds until he finds out that the Earl of Marsden is, of course, Lord Ruthven. Instead of being able to say anything, he has a stroke and his sister marries Ruthven and is promptly et, THE END. Seriously, that's the story. The vampire wins.

The storyline is entertaining enough, I suppose, but the real joy of The Vampyre lies in its epically poor pacing, wobbling unevenly through long atmospheric scenes with actual details and quotations and stuff, and passages that read more like the author's outline or synopsis for a scene rather than a scene itself. And it tends to be all the most important, exciting bits of the story that are rushed through like this, with vague, telling-not-showing sorts of descriptions that add two centuries' worth of dust on top of what are apparently some pretty action-packed chase scenes and intense histrionics. It has an amusingly Plan Nine from Outer Space-y feel to it, sometimes, with a palpable amateur earnestness that renders the clumsy wordcraft endearing.

This story, obviously, is of enormous historical importance to the development of the vampire story generally and the rise of the Byronic anti-hero character archetype in particular, and it also provides a good amount of fodder for discussion of at least two of the four pillars of British Romanticism Fuckery that my British Romanticism class focused on (race, class, gender, and imperialism--in this case, mostly gender and class, although you could have a good time deconstructing the portrayal of the Greeks a bit). For a much more thorough look into the weird gender politics of the story in particular, I strongly recommend checking out the relevant episode of Bloodsucking Feminists.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I was in high school I went through a period of studying pirates very intensely and buying a lot of shirts from PirateMod, back when they actually used to ship me the shirts I bought. (Long story, ask me about it sometime.) One of the best books I read during this period was David Cordingly's classic book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. It was an excellent resource and an excellent read, so you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Cordingly had also written a book called Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways and Sailors' Wives.

After actually reading it, I'm much more ambivalent. The book is short, but it covers a lot of ground, and sometimes it strays into territory that seemed kind of off-topic at the expense of giving us more details on the stuff that was on-topic. I didn't mind that the whole book wasn't entirely about female sailors; the discussions of the lives of women whose lives were shaped by the sea anyway were still pretty fascinating. The book opens with a  look into the lives of the dock prostitutes in the U.S. and Britain who served predominantly naval clientele, and there are other sections that focus on how sailors' marriages worked and on communities like Nantucket, where the women ran nearly everything on land because most of the adult male population was gone at any given time. Unfortunately, there were also some chapters that were just about male sailors who slept with a lot of ladies, which is not the same thing as being chapters about the ladies, especially considering the complete lack of the women's perspective given. I would have preferred a lot more detail about the female sailors, female pirates, and female lighthouse-keepers whom we do know about. This would require a wider focus than just the 18th and 19th century British and American maritime history that Cordingly specializes in, which I would have been totally fine with.

The result is that the most promising part of the book for me is the section in the afterword/acknowledgements where he explains how he came to the decisions in scope and focus that he made: The original plan of focusing exclusively on female sailors in a wider time frame would have resulted in too much overlap with another book called Female Tars by Suzanne Stark, about women in the Royal Navy. Looks like I'll have to go read that one next!

Scope creep issues aside, Cordingly is a solid writer and a reliable historian, and the material he's working with here is quite colorful. The book provides an interesting and easily digestible look at each of the many and varied topics it touches upon, and I'm happy to have read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It has been a while since I have read an entire novel in one day, but that is what I did today, after picking up Zen Cho's debut fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown this morning from Gillian. (I had it on hold at the library, but it didn't look as if it would get to me in time for book club on Saturday, and I didn't want to start the new year off with anything resembling last year's spectacular performance at failing at book clubs.) Since I have had such an epically productive new year thus far, I rewarded myself by drinking tea and reading for the entire afternoon. It was very satisfying.
The book itself was also very satisfying, being right up my alley in a number of different ways. It's got a lot of the elements I like in Gail Carriger's books Mary Robinette Kowal's books and in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, that it takes place in an alternate version of sometime in imperial England (in this case, it seems to be during the Napoleonic wars) where magic is not hidden; it's got strong comedy-of-manners elements; there is convoluted political intrigue; and it deals with some of imperial England's assorted oppressive social issues.
It also has two leads of color, out of a total of two leads--a black man and a half-white, half-Indian (I think) woman. Or rather, teenage girl. With very strong magical powers. Hyperpowered teenage girl sorceresses are a fav trope of mine going back to my early Tamora Pierce-reading days, so YAY. And I'm trying to seek out more books with men of color as point of view characters or narrators, because I read very few of those--I think I've been more likely to find books with WOC POVs than MOC POVs because I deliberately seek out books by and about women but I've never really specifically sought out books by or about men because, y'know, I really didn't have to, with the result that it was usually books about white men that crossed my path.
Lead character number one is Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of England, a manumitted slave and the adopted son of the former Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias is not the most popular Sorcerer Royal ever; indeed, he is probably the least popular Sorcerer Royal ever, considering he was trained by his adopted father basically as an experiment to prove that black people could learn thaumaturgy too, and the old guard of comfortable British gentleman with plummy accents and bad whiskers (the accents and whiskers not actually mentioned in the book, but c'mon, you know the type) is not very happy that he ended up outranking all of them. Despite being a polite, quiet, conscientious, intelligent, usually even-tempered sort of dude, Zacharias' racist good-old-boy rivals are happy to accuse him of whatever crimes pop into their heads, including having murdered his adopted father and his father's familiar. Zacharias has all of about two friends in the formerly glorious Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, both of whom are Drone Club-type dandies who are smarter than they look.
Lead character number two is the hilariously named Prunella Gentleman, an orphan girl living at a school for gentlewitches, where, in true British fashion, young girls of gentle birth and magical ability are taught how to not do magic, because magic is terribly dangerous and their little female bodies and brains are obviously too frail to handle it. The fact that there are clearly girls of such magical ability that they have to be trained out of doing it is, of course, absolutely no obstacle whatsoever to people continuing to believe this, nor are all the female magic users in other countries, since of course, people in other countries aren't British and therefore aren't really regular people anyway. Prunella has really quite a lot of magical ability even by the standards of the girls sequestered at this school; she also has no family, no money, and no prospects. Fortunately for her, she also has no scruples, no dependents, no romantic notions of the world, and no doubts about her own abilities. She's delightfully ambitious and calculating, leaving poor Zacharias to be entire conscience and moral center of the story.
Zacharias is mostly busy trying not to get assassinated and attempting to figure out why Britain's supply of atmospheric magic is dwindling, but he takes a brief detour on his way to the border between England and Faerie (where the magic is supposed to come from) to make a speech at Prunella's school, as a special favor to one of his two friends, who was supposed to make the speech originally but insists that he is too useless to pull it off. It is here that he meets Prunella and, after a series of unfortunate mishaps, takes her on as an apprentice. What he doesn't know is that, in addition to her considerable powers, Prunella has a couple of mysterious family treasures that are also probably of great sorcerous power, only she doesn't really know what they are or how to use them. To top everything off, some dipshit sultan from halfway across the world is attempting to prevail upon Britain to subdue a bunch of cranky vampire ladies who are causing trouble over in his kingdom.
At first, the more Zacharias and Prunella attempt to solve their respective mysteries, the most confusing everything gets. But eventually, a convoluted web of human and Faerie politics begins to emerge, suggesting that all these disparate issues might be connected--which means in order to fix it, everyone's secrets will eventually have to come out. Nobody is particularly happy about that.
Most of the conflicts in the plot are deeply rooted in Britain's oppressive social structures. In college, I took at class on British Romanticism, and we pretty much analyzed each book along the lines of what I've come to think of as England's Four Pillars of Fuckery: race, class, gender, and imperialism. These are not exclusive to English history, of course, but almost all of the history and art out of England from about 1500 onward can be understood in light of these four specific traditions of othering and oppressing people, which shaped English society in almost every aspect. In this book, rivalries and scheming arise as a result of white magicians' racism against Zacharias (and sometimes Prunella); male magicians' taboo against women practicing magic; the "gentlemen's" refusal to admit magic really existed in the lower orders (and an interesting intersection of class and gender in Prunella's mercenary concern for landing herself a husband in order to establish herself); and the results of the British Empire pissing off the sorcerers and sorceresses of the lands they conquered without really understanding how magic works there or admitting that it could rival British thaumaturgy in any real way. Apart from the magic angle, this fits in well with all the best actual British literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were also all about the various ways in which British society sucked and was oppressive. It also fits in well with a long tradition of hilarious secondary characters, but that could be a whole paper in and of itself.
(Note: Supposedly there's a plague of historical fiction about Regency and Victorian England that romanticizes it and doesn't address all the ways in which it was terrible, and I admit I've never really read any because I guess my recommendations-gathering system is too good? But hearing about its existence baffles me, because stuff like Jane Austen's books and the Bronte sisters' books and everything by Dickens and like all classic Britlit books are all pretty much about how English society sucked and was oppressive. I am mildly curious as to what non-"message fiction" about imperial England could possibly look like, but not enough to seek out any of it and read it. Hell, even Downton Abbey tries to deal with this stuff, even if it ends up pulling most of its punches 3/4 of the way through any given plotline.)
Anyway, I'm very, very much looking forward to deconstructing the hell out of this book next weekend.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I'd heard of Hild a few times before Nicole Griffith came to this year's Readercon as Guest of Honor, and it definitely sounded like the sort of thing that was right up my alley: A coming-of-age story about a badass lady warrior in the early Middle Ages; in this case, Saint Hilda of Whitby, about whom I knew basically nothing. So I bought a (signed; my life is awesome) copy at Readercon, admired the gorgeous blue cover with its stern portrait of a calm, chain-mail-wearing young woman, smelled its new book smell, and finally actually started reading the damn thing this October, when the weather started to turn and drove me inside away from the gorgeous Boston fall foliage to curl up on the couch with tea or beer and get lost in seventh-century Northumbria.
Hild delivered everything it promised and more. The language is vivid and rich and poetic, bringing out the feel of the story's time and place without falling into the sort of stilted faux-archaicness that a lot of fantasy and historical fiction is prone to. Hild herself is our viewpoint character, starting from when she's about three years old and running up through her late teens, I think Griffith nails the development of her thoughts and voice through the years, always compelling and somehow relatable despite the fact that (a) Hild's entire society and worldview is very, very different from a modern person's and (b) Hild has many skills and powers of understanding that I do not possess at all and, in fact, barely understand what she's talking about and (c) Hild is demonstrably a very strange person, although largely she knows that and is less strange when seen from her own perspective.
The book isn't really fantasy, I don't think, although the role of prophesy and "seeing" and wyrd in it makes it a little hard to tell sometimes. Ideas about magic and gods are baked into the various cultures' worldview--Anglisc and Briton and Irish alike--and even conversion to Christianity can't change that. It's not entirely clear if Hild's seeing powers are completely or only mostly the result of learning, observation, political canniness, and her carefully cultivated loyal network of informers.
There is a lot of very dense political history stuff going on here, and while I was happy to jump into what I consider a new area for me--I know nothing about the seventh-century unification of Northumbria--I do think my amateur background in general British Isles nerdery helped me out a bit, since I know a lot of other readers have been driven nuts by the names of all the characters and tribes and such. Probably the most important thing anyone who's not the sort of dork who has voluntarily taken a class in Anglo-Saxon translation needs to know is: our modern habit of using "British" and "English" more or less interchangeably is VERY MODERN. "Anglisc" is the root of "English" and supposedly the English are more or less descended from the Angles and Saxons, at least in part, but "British" at its root refers to the Welsh. (Arthur, King of the Britons? He was Welsh too.)
If you can pick out which is the Welsh name among "Breguswith," "Gwladus" and "Wuscfrea," you are 110% good to go and probably the exact sort of dork this book was written for. I am the exact sort of dork this book was written for. (It's Gwladus, and it's the "w" as a vowel that gives it away you're welcome I'll stop showing off now.)
This is a book about social change, and specifically the sorts of things that constituted change in this particular time and place--war is one of them, but war is basically well-established; it obscures the things that really matter, which are trade and the perception of religious favor. The big thing shakin' up this corner of the world at this time is the introduction of Christianity, which contains a lot of concepts quite foreign to northwestern European pagans, and which brings with it other interesting things, like writing and choral music and brown people.
(I like that this is a large book because it makes it an excellent thing to whack people with when they claim that there's really any point at all when there were totes no black people in Britain and/or that if there were they must have been slaves. In the seventh century, the Romans--who controlled an empire that extended well into Africa and the Middle East and who were excellent at moving people around--had been gone barely two or three centuries; they were well within memory and their buildings were everywhere. This book makes it clear that it's not like the Romans left and poof, they immediately became Ancient History and everyone forgot about them. The POC that are in this book are generally traders and priests; slavery exists but slaves are generally taken from other tribes/kingdoms in the Isles that people are fighting with--the two most important slave characters in this book are from Munster (in Ireland) and Dyfeint (in Wales). We also get a decent look at some of the ways in which "old world" slavery at this time and place works differently than the plantation chattel slavery that (some) Americans learn (a miserably tiny bit) about in schools.)
But as much as I liked all the historical stuff and all the political intrigue and social change and other stuff that I usually like in books, I think one of the most truly impressive feats of Literature in this this book was the fact that Griffith somehow got me sort of on board with the main romantic plotline. Sort of. With many reservations and at least one almost-throwing-the-book-across-the-room. But I still sort of found myself wanting it to work out? There are many things in this romantic plotline that I am generally not OK with. First of all, I rarely get invested in romantic plotlines anyway; I tend to very impressed when the dude does not annoy the shit out of me and I don't find myself thinking that the main character is clearly way too good for this twerp. That is not what happened here--I think Cian is a big meathead idiot who mostly thinks with either his dick or his sword arm but doesn't do anything with his head except grow hair, apparently. Also, I'm still not comfortable with the twincest microtrend that seems to be popping up in like everything these days. In this one they are only half-siblings BUT STILL. WHY IS THIS A THING. To top it off, Hild knows they're siblings, but Cian doesn't because he is an oblivious twit, and nobody can tell him because he is too dumb to keep a secret so if he knows then EVERYONE WILL KNOW, so... they basically hit upon the ingenious idea of keeping it secret by having them get married because they totally can't possibly be siblings if they got married, that'd be weird! So Cian ends up in a marriage where he has married his own sister and she knows that perfectly well but is keeping it from him. I think this might be the single most twisted love story I have ever seen in an ostensibly YA book. But while I was reading it it was like the part of my brain immersed in the story was going "D'aw what a heartwarming love story and what a lot of sexual tension between these two" and then my rational mind was like... banging on the door to the cockpit where reading-brain is piloting yelling "NO WAIT THAT'S REALLY FUCKED UP, TURN BACK CAPTAIN" and seriously you guys marrying your siblings and lying to them about it is bad. So, well played, Griffith. The Sexy Twincest Plotline Game has been officially won, so can we all knock it off now?
On a different note, I genuinely and gleefully liked that Hild and a lot of the other new Christian converts seem to... not really grok Christianity very well. I grew up Catholic so all the stories and memes used in Catholicism make intuitive sense to me, but I adore seeing all the pagans take it all a bit too literally and misunderstand basically everything, rather than being real orthodox true believers. I also like that Christianity is portrayed in a very factious, non-unified manner--many of the priests are perfectly nice, and then there's Paulinus. Paulinus is basically the personification of Churchy Assholery in the story. He's also sort of a shadow Hild character at times, which is very interesting, especially since Hild knows it and Paulinus doesn't seem to.
Recommended for: history dorks, people who aren't scared by big names (seriously, my fellow reviewers, are you all trying to record the fucking audiobook for this or something?), people who want to get dug deep into a world and are willing to do a bit of work to get there. Excellent winter reading. Not beach reading at all, not even by my standards.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Sometimes I pick up books in odd places. One of the oddest was earlier this August when I was housesitting for my cousins, and I found a trade paperback copy of Daphne du Maurier's classic Gothic romance Rebecca in the pantry.
Well, somehow in all my adventures in Gothic lit I'd never read Rebecca--except for Sarah Rees Brennan's Gothic Tuesday version (http://sarahtales.livejournal.com/192435.html)--plus my Classics book club (the one I haven't been to in a year) is reading it this month, so I stole it borrowed. Borrowed without permission, but with every intention of giving it back. (Which I did.)

My initial thoughts are that Rebecca is one of the absolute house-iest iterations of the "girl meets house" style of Gothic that I have ever, ever read. The book is a weird sort of love triangle between our nameless heroine, her broody and much-older husband, and her husband's dead first wife, except that it's really more of a triangle between the girl, her husband's house, and the dead first wife's influence within the house. Or possibly it's a love triangle between Max and Rebecca and the house, and the heroine is just watching it all trying to figure out what the hell is going on, which she's not very good at (admittedly, neither was I).

Our heroine is never given her own name, and is known throughout the book predominantly as Mrs. de Winter, or often "the second Mrs. de Winter." This is not really entirely because her individual identity is subsumed under her husband's as it is because the psychological conflict surrounding her ability to take on the role of Mrs. de Winter--within the house, within the local society, within the minds of all the people who knew Rebecca--is a driving theme. Being Mrs. de Winter has at least as much to do with being mistress of Manderley as it does being a companion to Max.

Max is, by Gothic romance standards, not all that terrible. This is a low, low bar, since Gothic romance boys are generally creepers of the highest order. Max is about twice as old as our narrator, which is pretty sketchy, and he is, of course, terribly broody, but at least unlike many other terribly broody Gothic heroes he is not all like LET'S TALK ABOUT HOW BROODY I AM ALL THE TIME and seems to be mostly trying to move on and think and talk about other stuff, he's just not good at it. He's also kind of obtuse about what an enormous lifestyle change he's thrust upon our narrator, formerly a penniless middle-class schoolgirl whose only previous occupation was a traveling companion to a hilariously obnoxious American woman, and he ignores her entirely too much once they return to Manderley. There is also the small matter of THE BIG TWIST AT THE END where we learn about what *actually* happened to Rebecca, which I think is where the real literary genius of this work comes in.

(HERE THERE BE SPOILERS)

So the heroine has spent most of the book thinking that Max loved Rebecca and is sad and haunted that she died tragically, but it actually turns out that he hated her and murdered her when she told him she was having somebody else's child. The heroine is THRILLED at this news that Max is a wife-murdering murderer, having lived in the shadow of everybody (especially Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper) making a lot of noise about how awesome Rebecca was, and some other people making noises about Rebecca that were really vague and which the narrator assumed were about how awesome Rebecca was. How exactly Rebecca is awful is left rather vague in a very literary and infuriatingly Victorian fashion (PS this book was written in the 1930s), but it appears she slept around, was a drug addict, was sleeping with her cousin (oddly enough the fact that it was her first cousin did not seem to weird out any of the characters as much as it did me; the times, they have a-changed apparently), and was cruel to horses and to their mentally disabled neighbor/tenant. Other than that it's just like "she was selfish and rotten" and that is told more than shown, which is unusual for this book, although I think there is enough textual evidence to support the idea that she was highly controlling and narcissistic (as a temperament, not trying to diagnose literary characters with anything here). Anyway it twigged enough of my Ugh I Have Known That Asshole (not ones quite as skilled, thank God) buttons that I too was right on board with Max shooting her, except for the fact that she seems to have been deliberately goading and lying him into it in order to make sure she could still mess with him even after her death. And this is the sort of thing that literature has to be really, really good to accomplish, because I am HIGHLY anti-men-shooting-their-wives as a rule. There are also good solid reasons in real life why you can't go around shooting That Asshole just because they're That Asshole and I am generally on board with keeping those rules in order to have a non-murdery and civilized society, but in literature things are allowed to be more messed up than that.

All in all, while I'm not sure Rebecca is the most romantic of the Gothic romances in the sense we currently use the term "romantic," it's certainly one of the Gothic-iest that I've read in a while, and very much one of the most romanticism-y. It's dark and full of secrets. In addition to the big crumbling house and family mysteries, there's an almost absurd emphasis on natural beauty, mainly the sea and all the flowers around Manderley. The flowers are used to almost every literary purpose that flowers can be used, from being a creepy blood-red to set a creepy tone to being the focus of a weird power play between the heroine and Mrs. Danvers keeping alive the will of the dead Rebecca (JUST PUT THE STUPID VASE OF LILACS WHEREVER OMG). The heroine is highly sensitive and imaginative, and despite failing to pick up on any of the clues about what actually happened with Rebecca, she's more than capable of picking up on every slight and bit of judgment directed at her, of being excruciatingly and paralytically aware of when she doesn't fit in, and generally being an anxiety-brained basket case such as I myself am prone to being. She also spends nearly as much time playing out scenes of how she imagines things have gone or will go in her head as she does actually reporting on stuff that she witnesses happening, which is definitely something I relate to. I actually found myself getting sucked into the heroine's head and going along with whatever she thinks very easily, because not only is the book well-written enough to pull a reader in convincingly, but I actually have a lot in common with the heroine personality-wise and thought-patterns-wise. (Her and Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey. Deep down, I essentially am a dimwitted British Gothic novel heroine.)

Apropos of nothing I'm sure, who's going to see Crimson Peak with me this fall?!
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

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.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh is the fourth and, currently, last volume in R.L. LaFevers’ series about Theodosia Throckmorton, the eleven-year-old daughter of two British Egyptologists, who is able to sense magic and remove curses from ancient artifacts. In this installment, Theodosia travels to Egypt with her mother—an archaeologist who is nevertheless completely unaware of all things magical—to return a sacred artifact to the ancient order of the Eyes of Horus. As usual, she is pursued by the evil Serpents of Chaos, who are the actually dangerous order of occultists that tend to pursue her (the other one, the goofy Black Sun, were disposed of in the last book). Guarded, in part, by her contacts with the Brotherhood—another secret order, this one dedicated to guarding the lost knowledge of the library of Alexandria—Theodosia has to manage her time carefully in order to return the emerald tablet without her mother finding out, which unfortunately means a lot of playing too sick to go to the digs.

As much as I liked this book, putting Theodosia and all her special Egypt powers back into the milieu of Egypt occasionally got a little awkward as the book danced along trying to keep Theodosia sufficiently protagonist-y without splatting too hard into a white savior storyline. The results are mixed, what with Theodosia's role in the various plots and orders being very very special, but also a lot of pretty well-developed secondary Egyptian characters and a sympathetic look at the Egyptian nationalist movement.

While there is a lot of Gadji, I still think there is not enough Gadji in this book. I'd read a book entirely about Gadji.

I think this book is emotionally strongest (and least squidgy) when dealing with Theodosia's feelings of alienation towards her family and her secrecy-strained relationship with her mother, especially when more of her family history is uncovered.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Miss Theodosia Throckmorton is the sort of MG heroine I would have been completely obsessed with had R. L. LaFevers' delightful series been around when I was about ten or eleven. As it is, I'm unashamed to eat this series up with a spoon. I'd read the first two a couple years ago when I temporarily stole them from Asshole Ex's younger sister, and more recently, a friend of mine who works for HMH--after also getting me hooked on LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy--procured me copies of books 3 and 4.
I read Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus all in one day, which was yesterday, when I was suffering a stomach bug that required a billion hours of napping to get over, otherwise it wouldn't have taken the entire day. Despite my having forgotten quite a lot of what happened in the first two books, it was still a fun read, and most of it got explained again enough that I wasn't lost for long.
The basic concept of this series is that Theodosia Throckmorton, the daughter of two Egyptologists who work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, can sense magic--specifically, curses of the sort that hang around on the ancient artifacts that tend to wind up in antiquities museums. She's also a fair hand at removing them, although occasionally something gets out of hand and we get a book.
In this third installment, Theodosia and her little brother Henry discover an emerald tablet, and it appears that everyone is after it. "Everyone," in this case, includes the Serpents of Chaos, a thoroughly evil secret society; the Black Suns, a mostly just completely batty but also somewhat evil secret society; and Awi Bubu, an Egyptian mesmerist who may be more than he seems. The only people who aren't after the emerald tablet, in fact, is the Chosen Keepers, which is unfortunate for Theodosia as she supposedly works for/with them and they keep blowing her off.
As one would expect, basically all the grownups in the series are oblivious numbskulls, even the nice ones, such as Theodosia's kindly but very career-focused parents. All the same, they are entertaining secondary characters, and some of them are even sympathetic, such as the socially inept Stilton. The younger kids are much more fun, though, especially Theodosia's street urchin friend Sticky Will and all his weirdly-named brothers.
This series strikes an odd middle ground of not overly romanticizing the Victorian era but not really dealing with any of its social issues in much depth either--it's just sort of dropped in there that, for example, Sticky Will's mother is still alive but is barely making ends meet as a laundress and will have to keep laundressing until she drops dead of exhaustion. Upon reflection, I think this is probably appropriate for middle grade, so that the book remains a fun adventure and doesn't turn into an issues book, but the children who read it still shouldn't grow up to be intolerably stupid adults who think the Victorian era was all manners and spiffy hats.
On to book four, while I wait for the second His Fair Assassin book to clear at the library.

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