I am currently creating a website for “The Change,” the series of which Stranger is the first. Food features prominently in the series, and I’d like to have some recipes on the site.

Since I know a number of you cook, I invite you to create a recipe from the book. If you’re interested, pick an item (or as many as you like) from below the cut, create a recipe, ideally photograph the result, and write out the recipe. I will put it on the site and credit you under whatever name you like. I’m fine with multiple recipes for the same dish, so more than one person can pick the same dish. No payment, so only do this if it sounds fun. And please feel free to link if you have friends who might have fun with this.

Depending on how geeky you want to get, this is after the apocalypse in Los Angeles, so in the book, all ingredients are either locally grown or imported from the surrounding area. Rice is a rare delicacy, and tea is not available at all. (Coffee is grown in Santa Barbara, and is moderately expensive but widely drunk.) Local grains are wheat, corn, and barley. You can either ignore this limitation or work with it, up to you.

Note that one of the characters is an experimental chef, hence some of the weirder dishes.

All food mentioned in the book is below the cut-tag; spoilers if you think that’s spoilery. Read more... )
Benjamin January is working at a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and due to being endemic in Africa, many people from Africa have some level of immunity. The characters in the book are aware of the latter fact but not the former, and have no useful treatment even if they did know the cause.) Meanwhile, both free people of color and slaves are mysteriously vanishing. In more cheerful news— well, cheerful for a while— Ben meets Rose, a free woman of color running a school for girls. Rose is a great character, and their slow burn romance is lovely.

That being said, the book as a whole was awesomely depressing. Not only was it set in a yellow fever epidemic, not only did it contain a brief but absolutely horrifying torture sequence, but both the epidemic and the horrifying torture were actual historic events, ie, they really happened to real people. Also, dead children. Truly grimdark, though not gratuitously given that it’s real history. Not even Ben and Rose’s charming courtship and politicly crude policeman Abishag Shaw’s delightful way with words ("But I do think I should point out to you that even if Miss Chouteau gets cleared of Borgialatin the soup herself, it ain't gonna win her freedom,") can lift the general gloom.

I have been told that this and Sold Down the River are the darkest books in the whole series. However, I already started Graveyard Dust, and it looks like Hambly is careful to get new readers up to speed on events, so Fever Season is probably skippable if you like the characters but want to miss the awesome depressingness.

Fever Season

Spoilers: Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Aug. 26th, 2014 09:32 am)
I'm on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. I have photos of sights in the town, pretty dresses, etc and more sights plus my new hair cut.
Yes, it’s another post-apocalyptic series opener, but it’s infused with a generous spirit—call it a utopian dystopia.

The small, walled community of Las Anclas bears little resemblance to Los Angeles, whose ancient ruins sprawl nearby. To Ross, a badly wounded prospector fleeing a powerful enemy, it’s paradise compared to what he’s used to—to its residents, not so much. Yuki misses the freedom of the wild ocean and dreams of escaping with Paco. Engineer Mia loves blowing things up, but she feels socially awkward. Felicité, the daughter of the mayor and defense chief, knows precisely what she wants: to make half of a power couple with Indra, Jennie’s boyfriend. Jennie herself is delighted to be chosen as a Ranger, the town’s elite defense corps; she’d feared that prejudice against the Changed, people like her who’ve acquired strange powers, made her a long shot. Mia and Jennie, best friends, find themselves attracted to secretive Ross. Characterization is rich and stereotype-free. For gays and lesbians, sexual orientation is neither more nor less a defining characteristic than it is for heterosexuals. Equally exceptional is the depiction of conflict. The confusing adrenaline rush of war is followed by PTSD, its lingering afterimage. The five dynamic narrators and action-packed plot deliver thrills while slyly undermining genre clichés.

A first-rate page turner that leaves its own compelling afterimage.
Barbara Hambly has written some of my very favorite fantasy novels. She’s also famous for the Benjamin January series, about a free black man who solves mysteries in 1830s New Orleans.

I never got around to reading these, despite hearing very positive things, because American historical racism— particularly in the slavery era— is something I find crushingly depressing. Just to be clear: contemporary racism is also depressing. However, there’s certain topics which I personally find really hard to handle, either from over-exposure or just because. Slavery in America is in the top five, along with the Holocaust. I am also a very hard sell on books set in concentration camps.

However, several fans pointed out to me that the Benjamin January series is not solely about racism, and that later books in the series focus more on adventuring. Also that there’s dueling, hurt-comfort, and pirates, and that really the series is about found family and community.

I give you this preface in case you’ve also been avoiding the series for fear of crushing depressingness. This book is not crushingly depressing! I really enjoyed it. Also, for those of you who like worldbuilding, it creates an engrossing, vivid, complex, and, as far as I’m aware, extremely historically accurate milieu. Lots of suspense! Great female characters. Also great male characters. Even very minor characters, who appear only for a scene or two, often suggest an entire novel’s worth of backstory.

I am horrible at following the plots of mysteries and basically read them for the characters and the setting. So I will avoid a close description of the plot. I will just say that Benjamin January was born a slave and freed as a child, became a surgeon in Paris but couldn’t make a living because he was black, and recently moved back to New Orleans after his wife died because everything in Paris reminded him of her.

New Orleans is both familiar and foreign to him after his long absence, which makes him a perfect narrator: he knows everything the reader needs to know, and notices everything because it’s all slightly alien to him. He’s a believably honorable and decent person who tries his best to do the right thing, even in circumstances that make that seem like the worst possible option.

A woman is murdered at a ball, and he’s sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. The mystery is cleverly constructed, but it’s also an excuse to introduce the society, the characters, and their complex relationships. January is intensely conscious of everyone’s place in society, including his own; the scenes which I did find hard to read were the ones where he’s forced to abase himself to white people in order to survive. Like noir, the murder investigation inevitably uncovers the rot and injustice in society; unlike noir, people who take care of each other and try to do the right thing may well triumph.

I found the novel interesting but slow going for about the first two thirds. There are a lot of characters, some of whom have several names, and I kept losing track of the minor ones. But at that two-thirds mark, January leaves New Orleans to investigate, and the book becomes incredibly suspenseful from that point on. Also, a certain favorite thing of mine makes a delightful surprise appearance that I won't spoil.

I will definitely read more of this. Especially now that I’ve figured out who everyone is and how they’re related. I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking that Minou and Dominique were two different people rather than one person with a nickname.

(I also did this in the Lymond chronicles, which had a character named something like Edmund, Earl of Sandwich, who was alternately called Edmund and Sandwich. It took me two books to figure out that they were the same guy. You’d think I’d have less trouble with movies, but I once was startled when the black-haired, blue-eyed protagonist of a war movie reappeared after his tragic death. I then realized that there were two black-haired, blue-eyed soldiers.)

In short: if you want to read a meticulously researched historical novel in which intersectionality is essential to the story, this book is it. But if that’s all you’ve previously heard about it, I wanted to point out that it’s also surprisingly fun. Daring escapes and dramatic battles figure prominently in the last third.

A Free Man of Color
Mea culpa: "To yard sale" is real slang meaning "to fall down." However, it comes from skiing/snowboarding, when a violent fall scatters your equipment like junk spread out on a lawn for a yard sale. Very witty and intuitively clear in that context! The context in Ward's book was a guy who was stumbling around his apartment either naked or in pajamas, I forget which. Nothing would have scattered had he keeled over.

Lover Revealed (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 4) is the one with the human cop hero and the sad virgin vampire heroine. I actually liked the heroine, Marissa. The hero, Butch, was a total jackass. You could not have come up with a better example of how "alpha male" traits taken to extremes are actually asshole traits.

Butch had one of the stupidest conflicts I've ever come across in a romance novel. He's human and if his vampire girlfriend drinks his blood, he'll DIE. So she drinks from a vampire friend instead, which is how vampires normally feed. Butch is jealous because feeding has sexual overtones, and demands that she drink from him instead, even though it will KILL HIM. He gets so demanding about it and furious at her drinking from someone other than him that his poor girlfriend, who doesn't want to KILL HIM, starts starving herself!

So he would rather DIE by forcing the woman he supposedly loves to KILL HIM, thus leaving her alone, heartbroken, and horribly guilty, than have her perform a mildly sexual act with a friend that she needs to do TO LIVE.

Admittedly, this is called out as stupid in the book. But it's also portrayed that it's totally natural for Butch, a MANLY MANLY MAN, to prefer death to having his girlfriend have a relationship with another man which she has no choice over and does not regard as sexual (though Butch does.)

There was a nicely effective bit of body horror when Butch is infected with eevil and his come turns black. YIKES.

Bad medicine: Do not cram stuff into people's mouths if they're having a seizure!

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: "I threatened the king's life to ahvenge your honor!"

Lover Awakened (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 3) was my favorite. The hero of this one, Zsadist-- just pause to admire that-- is not an asshole. He's a physically and emotionally scarred survivor of kidnapping and repeated rape, who thinks he's too damaged to be anything but a killer and has some serious hang-ups about sex. Within the completely over the top context of the book, I have to say that this was handled pretty realistically and sensitively. And also milked for maximum angst. The heroine, Bella, is sexually assertive and mostly rescues herself. Very nice!

Zsadist's twin brother, Phury-- just pause to admire that-- has possibly the all-time best "how I lost my leg" story. Incidentally, a number of the male vampires are disabled, sometimes with magical compensation but often not. I liked this aspect of the series.

Bad medicine: If you've been injected with a drug, vomiting won't "get it out of your system." It's in your bloodstream, not your stomach.

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: Before Zsadist left, he took one last look at the fish tank. The food was almost gone now, snipped off the surface by little gaping mouths, mouths that came at it from the underside. (I like this, actually. Zsadist is feeling triggered and unsettled and not consciously noticing it, but everything around him has taken on a slightly sinister tinge.)

In Lover Unbound (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 5), we learn that Vishous-- just pause to admire that-- is canonically bisexual and has a crush on Butch. Sadly, this is the book about his romance with a woman, Jane, a doctor who gets kidnapped to tend Vishous' wounds. The romance made no sense in this one. Vishous is traumatized by early noncon same-sex encounters so now he can only have sex by dominating women in completely consensual BDSM settings, and he and Jane have sweet banter and then he repeatedly dubcons her but it's OK because she consented, sort of, and then he subs for her in penance for... something. What? It also turns out that he knows how to resurrect the dead, which may have been set up in previous books but seemed out of the blue in this one. Bonus WTF "happy ending."

Bad medicine: You STILL don't stuff things in people's mouths if they have a seizure!

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: Butch's jaw dropped and he pulled a bobble.
rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: Let me sum up)
( Aug. 15th, 2014 01:58 pm)
I will do an actual write up shortly, but first I had to quote this. The context is that the character is having trouble walking.

It seemed like at any moment his knees were going to take a vacation and he was going to yard sale like an idiot. - J. R. Ward, Lover Unbound.

I can tell from context that "yard sale" means "fall down."

...How in the world does "yard sale" get to mean "fall down?"

This made me think of how difficult it is to invent slang. Actual slang tends to have properties which makes it more-or-less comprehensible:

People use words and phrases in a natural context, so you can usually figure them out from that context.

Slang is usually not isolated, but part of a whole slang culture, from Valley-speak to doge. If you know some of the slang from that culture, you know its rules and can use them to figure out new-to-you slang. For instance, all the "bad = good" slang. If you know that law, you can figure out that someone being enthusiastic about something while calling it "trash" probably means that "trash = good."

Slang usually has some sort of internal logic - words that don't make sense to people don't get repeated, while the ones that make sense to lots of people get used and thus become common coin. It's not totally random. If you've been exposed to the "bad = good" slang culture, you might be able to get "puketastic = good" to catch on. But fetch will never happen.

One author can't replicate the wisdom of crowds. So they need to have a good ear and make good use of context. Ward is generally pretty good at context - it was obvious what "yard sale" meant - but not so much on the ear.

Anyway, reading her books reminded me of one of the worst failures of context for invented slang I've ever encountered, the only movie I've ever walked out on, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. I saw it with a friend in an advance screening. It's a gangster movie full of totally incomprehensible invented slang. The point at which we walked out went something like this:

Gangster 1 bursts into a solemn meeting of gangsters.

Gangster 1: Guys, guys! Capelli bought a boat drink!!!

This is obviously deeply meaningful to the gangsters.

Gangsters: Mmm, ahhh. That changes everything.

Me, Friend: [WTF looks.]

Gangster 2: And we all know what this means, right?

Gangsters: [Nod.]

Friend (whispers): I don't know what this means!

Me (whispers): He got whacked?

Friend (whispers): He ratted them out to the feds?

Me (whispers): He came out of the closet?

Friend (whispers): He moved to Miami?

Gangster 3: Yeah. We gotta tarantula.

Friend (whispers): Let's go get boat drinks.

We left.

(Actual reviews to come!)

ETA: I looked up "boat drinks" in that movie. When you go to Heaven, you lounge on a boat drinking, so boat drinks = dead. However, I may have misremembered the actual slang in that context, because "buckwheat" = "killed horribly." So the dialogue I remember might have actually been "Capelli's buckwheat."

I leave it to you, my imaginative readers, to figure out why buckwheat means killed horribly. A derivation of "pushing up daisies," minus the "pushing up" part that makes it make sense?
Sometimes I worry that I am a jaded reader who has lost the capacity to be boggled by a book. Then something like Lover Revealed comes along, and I realize that no, I can TOTALLY still be boggled. I am sincerely amazed that this series was published by a traditional publisher. Not because it’s terrible. (It is, sort of, but it definitely has its virtues as well.) But because it’s so utterly cracktastic and bizarre.

How do I even describe the whacked-out id-fest that is this book…?

It’s about a brotherhood of ginormously muscular vampires. Like these guys: http://www.kinseyinstitutegallery.com/data/photos/189_1r2002_29_32.jpg. (NOT WORKSAFE.) A lot of scenes in the book would look basically like that if drawn, in fact.

They are manly, manly, manly vampires. Who do man things. They are possessive and alpha. Manly! Muscular! Into brand names! When they bond, their sweat smells like Old Spice. And they wear very, very expensive brand-name clothes. And use manly slang.

Best of all, they have manly, manly names. ACTUAL NAMES: Vishous. Phury. Rhage. Rehvenge. Xhex (the lone manly female vampire. I presume this is pronounced Sex.) Tehrror. Hhurt. Tohrture. Ahgony. Zsadist.

ZSADIST.

They spend their time male-bonding, fucking, angsting, ogling each other’s beautiful yet manly bodies (and faces, and clothes, and hair), and hunting vampire-killers who are wusses who smell like baby powder. You’d think their manly, manly, manliness would be shown to better effect if they had opponents who weren’t ludicrously overmatched.

The worldbuilding consists of the letter h. A truly cool vampire does not avenge a loved one's death - he ahvenges it. They don't have contests like mere mortals - they have cohntehsts. And only a plebe would go into seclusion when she could experience the far more special sehclusion. And so forth. An especially manly man is phearsom.

This book has more homoeroticism than many novels I’ve read in which men were fucking each other on-page. The Brotherhood vampires are constantly touching each other, sprawled naked on a bed with each other, discussing each other's sex loves, popping giant boners around each other, and admiring each other’s swelling muscles.

Except for two of them (who get a canon romance later, good for you, J. R. Ward), they are canonically straight. Straight, I tell you! These are heterosexual romances. In theory. Here is an actual excerpt from Butch’s totally heterosexual POV.

"My flesh," he whispered.

He seemed to hesitate before turning to Butch. Then he pivoted and their eyes met. As candlelight flickered over V’s hard face and got caught in his diamond irises, Butch felt his breath get tight: At that moment, his roommate looked as powerful as a god… and maybe even as beautiful.

Vishous stepped in close and slid his hand from Butch’s shoulder to the back of his neck. “Your flesh,” V breathed. Then he paused, as if asking for something.

Without thinking, Butch tilted his chin up, aware that he was offering himself, aware that he… oh, fuck. He stopped his thoughts, completely weirded out by the vibe that had sprung up from God only knew where.

In slow motion Vishous’s dark head dropped down and there was a silken brush as his goatee moved against Butch’s throat.

With delicious precision, V’s fangs pressed against the vein that ran up from Butch’s heart, then slowly, inexorably, punched through skin. Their chests merged.

Butch closed his eyes and absorbed the feel of it all, the warmth of their bodies so close, the way V’s hair felt soft on his jaw, the slide of a powerful male arm as it slipped around his waist. On their own accord, Butch’s hands left the pegs and came to rest on V’s hips, squeezing that hard flesh, bringing them together from head to foot. A tremor went through one of them. Or maybe… shit, it was more like they both shuddered.


This is part of a climactic initiation scene in which all of the Black Dagger Brotherhood fondle and then punch Butch, then tell him to turn around and face the wall. Honest to God, I had to go back and re-read several paragraphs to figure out what Ward meant to have going on next if it wasn’t a gangbang. It sounded exactly like a slightly euphemistic description of an orgy.

My best guess on how the Black Dagger Brotherhood came to be is that the author took as her inspirations Tom of Finland, gangsta rap videos circa MTV, and the Gucci men’s wear catalogue, then smoked a giant doobie and wrote a vampire novel.

The result is completely rhidiculous, yet strangely rheadable. I read the whole thing in a day and am now halfway through Lover Awakened, the bhook about Zsadist. Send help. And an h-remover.

Lover Revealed (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 4)
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Aug. 2nd, 2014 09:59 am)
Pick up the book nearest to you and turn to page 45. The first sentence explains your love life.

I got the tragically apt Bruce gave up trying to eat.

- Ransom, by Lois Duncan.

Amuse me by doing this in comments, minions.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Aug. 1st, 2014 02:11 pm)
I am attempting a meme.

[profile] wordsofastory gave me...

rachelmanija and food.

Food is my passion. My first meeting with [personal profile] oyceter consisted of an hour-long discussion of tropical fruit. (Best tropical fruit: fresh lychees and Alphonso mangos. I have still, sadly, never had a mangosteen. Worst tropical fruit: custard apples. They taste fine. I just can't deal with the grainy AND slimy texture.)

One of the very best things about Los Angeles is the food. Even LA-haters cannot deny that this is a great city for food. We have great high-end fancy dining. We have excellent medium-priced restaurants. We have AMAZING low-end cheap food - taco kitchens at the back of corner stores, food trucks, guys with rainbow umbrellas selling fresh fruit - mangoes, soft young coconut, pineapple, oranges, cucumbers- that they slice up while you watch and douse in chili, seasoned salt, and lime.

People in LA love food. They are passionate about food. They photograph their meals and post them on the internet. They follow food trucks on twitter. They make earrings of teeny cupcakes and wear them to pastry shops. If you read the Chowhound board for Los Angeles, every single restaurant thread will have at least three posters claiming that it used to be good, but now it's gone downhill. This includes restaurants that opened last week. The sushi is always fresher on the other side of the freeway.

My grandmother used to say, "Food is love." I would say, "food is feeling." Food is memory. Food is culture. Food is passion. A bad relationship with food, or an illness that affects eating, or only bad food available will make you miserable in a way that goes way beyond the actual moments where you confront the problem food. Being able to enjoy food again is a shocking joy.

As I type, I am drinking a cup of coffee with powdered creamer because my milk ran out, and eating wafer cookies with black sesame cream.

rachelmanija and werewolves.

The biggest influence on how I think of shapeshifters is Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. If you transform yourself into an animal, you think as an animal thinks. Will you remember how to become a human again? Will you still want to, when you can soar as a hawk?

To me, the most interesting thing about being a person who can become an animal is what it would feel like to be an animal. I can't know what that would be like, but when I think of the moments when I've thought the least and felt the most, when I've reacted most purely on instinct... they're all moments that felt, if not good exactly, very pure. Very clear. Stripped down to the basics. Usually, in fact, that does feel good. If it doesn't, it's because of context - like, you're fighting for your life. But that can feel good, too.

When I imagine being an animal, I think of a combination of being enraptured in the present moment, caught by the beauty of a sunrise or the taste of a peach, and of an adrenaline rush. Halfway between combat and meditation.

I'd like being a wolf, I think. It would be very tempting to stay one.

rachelmanija and fashion.

I had no interest in fashion until [personal profile] oyceter convinced me to watch Project Runway, and in between designers squabbling and having meltdowns, I started getting a sense of how different silhouettes and colors create different feelings, and the history of fashion, and why people get very passionate about matchy-matchy. Watching the designers dissect the designs and listening to them explain why they liked one dress and disliked another, I started seeing what they saw. And then I started having opinions.

I now own quite a few dresses. And shoes. And blouses. And skirts. I periodically poke through ebay and etsy, and I wear shoes to work that I bought in Paris. I have Betsey Johnson dresses and Prabal Gurung for Target shirts and a dress. I wear my matchy-matchy belt and shoes and smile to myself.

For myself, I like very girly dresses with fitted tops and skirts that swing. I like bright colors and jewel tones and patterns, and also slinky black and corsets. I like black leather jackets and Battenberg lace, and slashed tops and high boots and trench coats. I don't wear stiletto heels.

The main thing I learned from Project Runway is that fashion is supposed to be fun, and it's about wearing things that you like and that make you look good.

I used to think of it as this horrible game of one-upmanship and that it was all about desperately keeping up with the correct thing, or else everyone laughs at you. But now that I'm out of high school, I think of it as a buffet you pick and choose from, and a set of elements that, if you understand them, you can use to create a look that will say what you want to convey. It's like writing, if you think of it. You select the tropes, or you select the silhouettes and colors and shoes. If you do it right, you have said, and you feel, "Playful!" or "Sexy!" or "Badass!" or "Classic Elegance!"

You are embodying a feeling, not just a look. Sometimes you're embodying a story. See how these dressesconvey the sense of an atmosphere and a story? And these convey a different story.
It just occurred to me that some of you may have never experienced possibly the most amazing song in existence, MacArthur Park. I refreshed my memory of it yesterday. It's not a parody song - I think - but appears to be very serious. Which makes it much more hilarious. Go on, check it out. At least the first minute or so.

Here, have the Donna "17-minute orgasm" Summer cover. I think I left the cake out in the rain. OH NOOOOOOOOOOO!
Please nominate the most irritating, ear-grating, vomitously sappy, wildly offensive, or otherwise horrifying song, of any era, in any language. Ideally, with a youtube link. (If the horror is partly due to lyrics and they're not in English, please tell me what they mean.)

This is open to anything, including joke songs, avant-garde songs that might secretly be jokes, etc. The only nominees I don't want are songs that you only dislike because you have completely personal bad associations, like that it was playing when your true love dumped you. They should be annoying because of inherent qualities in the song itself. Though being relentlessly over-played can add to the horror. You may make several nominations.

Yes, I am aware of Dave Barry's "Bad Songs" column. It's one of my all-time favorites.

I will start off the race to the bottom with a song that makes me want to rip my ears off every year, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Also They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha, which I believe has been scientifically proven to induce psychosis. In me, anyway.

ETA: This may be a case of "personal bad associations," but I had a much-loathed roommate whose alarm clock was John Denver's Leaving on a Jet Plane. She always played the entire song, so every morning I was forced to listen to John Denver leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaving on a jet plane. Go on! LEAVE.
I will be on a panel on portal fantasy at Sirens this year. I need to read portal fantasy!

Panel description: Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace?

SUMMARY:
Everybody knows about portal fantasy, where characters from the "real world" cross into a separate fantasy world. It is a classic trope that still draws readers—the Chronicles of Narnia have never been out of print. And yet new portal fantasies are very seldom published, and many agents and editors have said that they're unmarketable. What exactly is this subgenre, and why is it so loved and so shunned at the same time? What new stories does it still have to offer?

ABSTRACT:
1) What is portal fantasy? What makes it different from "our world has a hidden side" fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, many urban fantasies, secret history fantasy)? What makes it different from stories about going to Faerie (or do those count as portal fantasies)?

2) Why do people love portal fantasy? Why do people hate it? Why is it currently (almost) unpublishable?

3) Portal fantasies we have known and loved.

4) Crypto-portal fantasies -- stories that arguably qualify as portal fantasy but don't "feel" like portal fantasy to a lot of people. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for instance, or The Fall of Ile-Rien.)

5) Most influential portal fantasies -- what has shaped the genre and people's reactions to it? To what extent are portal fantasy debates crypto-Narnia debates?

6) Portal fantasy is sometimes accused of being a narrow, cliched genre that has little room for new stories. What are some storytelling opportunities in portal fantasy that have not yet been explored?

7) Another common accusation against portal fantasy is that, because the "real world" isn't in danger, the novel lacks stakes. Is it possible to write a portal fantasy that isn't just "my magical vacation," and if so, how? What novels have achieved that and which ones have failed?

8) What are the pitfalls of portal fantasies? What are some examples of how it can go terribly wrong?

9) What about reverse portal fantasies, where characters from the magical world enter our own? Do they count as part of the same sub-genre, and either way, what do they have to offer?

- end description -

My requests for you:

1. Rec me some portal fantasies I might not know about or have thought of. Assume I'm familiar with the usual suspects.

2. When people say that portal fantasies are "my magical vacation," with no stakes, what actual portal fantasies actually fit that bill, and how? Apart from books for very young children and comedies/parodies, I'm having a hard time thinking of them.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first three. The entire first two-thirds dragged, despite some fun individual scenes. I’m not even sure if it was all necessary set-up for the startling climax. However, that climax does promise a more interesting fourth book.

Spoiler-cut. Read more... )
In Flying Finish, Henry Gray is a lonely, buttoned down, slightly impoverished earl with a pilot's license, a chip on his shoulder about his ancestry, and a bad attitude in general. When his sister goes deservedly ballistic on him, he attempts to shake himself out of his rut by taking a job as a groom who escorts horses on international flights.

His life starts to change when he notices an odd pattern: grooms on flights between England and Italy tend to vanish in Italy. And then, on one flight, he meets an Italian woman who smuggles birth control pills (illegal in Italy at that time) and speaks no English. It's love at first sight - probably the only love-at-first-sight story that I've ever found truly convincing. (I completely buy sexual attraction at first sight, and camaraderie/connection within a brief conversation. But Francis sells me on actual love.) Meanwhile, Henry begins to realize that the vicious young groom who's been bullying him on flights may not only resent Henry for being a lord...

Despite some oddities and dated bits, Flying Finish is one of my favorite Francis novels. The romance subplot pulls off a very difficult premise, and the climax is a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Warning for horse harm. Also for human harm.

In some ways Rat Race feels like a run-up to Flying Finish. It also features a withdrawn pilot hero and some extremely suspenseful flying sequences. But the romance, while nice, isn't as memorable, and the hero's blossoming from a going-through-the-motions existence to actually living isn't as vividly drawn. It's also hampered by a hilariously dated portrayal of a creeper hippie. (Creeper hippies still exist. It's the language that hasn't aged well.)
Re-read. This has one of Francis’s best premises, and the execution lives up to it. Neil Griffon, an antique dealer, has temporarily taken over his trainer father’s stable after his father was seriously injured in a car crash. Neil is kidnapped by a dangerous madman who demands, on pain of destroying the stable, that Neil hire his son Alessandro as a jockey… and let him ride their prize stallion in the Kentucky Derby.

The theme here is fathers and sons. Neil’s father was emotionally abusive and distant, but competent in his own sphere; Neil, forced to step into his shoes, must gain the trust of all the employees who prefer his father. Alessandro’s father is a sociopathic megalomaniac, but gave him everything he ever wanted. The heart of the book is the relationship between Alessandro and Neil, an oddly paternal one though Neil is only 15 years older, and Alessandro’s growth into becoming his own person.

Excellent suspense, plus Francis’s usual good characterization of the supporting cast. My favorite here was Etty, confident in her place as a female “head lad” in a male-dominated profession. Though Francis doesn’t use the word “asexual,” Neil describes her as having no interest in sex. The phrasing isn’t sensitive in current terms, but the sentiment is nonjudgmental.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that Alessandro seemed to have stepped out of an entirely different novel, one where the arrogant and damaged young man is the romantic lead, and was forced to interact with Francis’s down-to-earth characters, who either didn’t notice how hot he was or noticed but didn’t let it cloud their judgment. His interactions with the no-time-for-this-shit Etty were comedy gold.

Warning for horse harm.
Pamela, a lonely little girl, lives in an isolated house with her two aunts (one nice, one distant and strict). Her absentee father visits occasionally, and her mom is dead. But her life gets a lot more fun when she gets a magic amulet that enables her to meet a mysterious boy her own age and his herd of pastel ponies.

Obviously, the best part of this book is the pastel ponies. Who wouldn't want a herd of pink, blue, sunset, and sunrise-colored ponies named after clouds? I wish I'd read this book when I was nine, because I would have absolutely reveled in the pretty, pretty ponies. Probably a better title would have been The Rainbow Ponies.

Ponyboy is annoying - the book was written when it was common to portray boys being sexist as cute and funny, and that has not aged well. But like I said: pretty, pretty pink ponies! If you think you'd like that, you will certainly enjoy this book.

Season of Ponies
Re-reads, but it's been so long since I read High Stakes and Nerve that all I really remembered was that I didn't think they were in the top tier of Francis's books. Dick Francis is perfect for when you really want to read about someone having a worse day than you are. I may have bronchitis, but at least I'm not suicidally depressed/fighting off an axe-wielding criminal while I have a broken wrist/blindfolded, chained, and soaked in freezing water.


Blood Sport is the most interesting of the three. The plot isn't as well-tuned as his norm, with an unusual amount of low-stakes wandering around looking for clues, but the hero makes it memorable.

Gene is a former James Bond-type secret agent turned private eye (unusually for Francis - his heroes tend not to be professional hero types) suffering from long-term, severe depression. He spends a lot of the book trying to convince himself not to commit suicide. Treatment is never mentioned, and he seems to think it doesn't exist - at one point he muses that some day depression will be recognized as a disease, and babies will be inoculated against it. Originally published in 1967, when there most certainly were treatments for depression. However, to this day many depressed people never seek treatment, so I believe that Gene wouldn't.

In the first and best action set-piece, Gene's boss invites him on a boating trip, where Gene meets the boss's sweet 17-year-old daughter and saves someone's life in what appears to be, but of course is not, a boating accident. The boss gives him a job - hunting down a missing race horse in America - with the clear intent of keeping him too busy to off himself. There's a semi-romance with the teen daughter of the "I'll wait till you're 21" type, of which the best thing I can say is that it's less squicky than usual. There's a much better non-romance subplot involving a woman Gene's age who seems to be a standard unstable, alcoholic sexpot, but who is then given actual depth and a very satisfying storyline.

The pieces of this book don't fit together as well as Francis learned to do later. Gene has a helper who needed better characterization for his storyline to really work, and the final action climax isn't that climactic. But the depiction of depression is very realistic, and it's a good example of how to write a depressed hero without making the book itself depressing to read.

Nerve has an excellent A-plot, in which Rob Finn, a struggling jockey from a family of musicians, is the target of a plot to undermine his career. This book is impossible to put down starting from the first paragraph, in which a jockey shoots himself in front of Rob.

The B-plot, in which Rob tries to court his true love who won't marry him because they're cousins, is less successful. Francis is a bit hit-or-miss with romance. Some of his romances are fantastic. This one never quite worked for me - Joanna's "totally cousins" objection seemed a bit ridiculous and lampshading it didn't help. I never quite bought their relationship.

But the slow disintegration of Rob's career is nailbitingly readable, even though there's no physical jeopardy until about halfway through. The showpiece action sequence, in which Rob is kidnapped, blindfolded and chained, drenched in water on a freezing night, and must free himself and then race the next day, is brilliantly done. Nice comfort via hot soup afterward, too.

I had totally forgotten High Stakes before I re-read it and I can see why. Even now, it is fading from my memory. A toy inventor gets mixed up in some mystery involving racing and... um... wow, I honestly cannot remember more and I read this 48 hours ago. The romance is with a woman whose sole characterization is that she's American. The only parts I remember are the toys, which are cool, and an action sequence in the toy workshop.
This is brought to you by yesterday's diagnosis of acute bronchitis. In retrospect, I probably should not have waited one month to go to the doctor. I kept thinking, "It is just lingering irritation from the flu! It will go away any day now!"

Yesterday my boss listened to me tragically cough my way through our weekly meeting for the fourth week in a row, and said, "GO TO A DOCTOR."

I now have two prescriptions, an inhaler, six canceled clients, one blessed co-worker taking over the meeting I was supposed to run today, and a week off work. The inhaler, which I had never used before, is great. I hadn't realized just how much trouble I was having breathing until suddenly I wasn't. (Don't worry. Apparently my oxygen saturation is fine. Also, I don't have pneumonia.) Anyway, I am staying home and resting as much as possible for the next week.

Please recommend or send to me anything in the following line:

1. Things which are comforting. If you're not actually going to send or link them, they should be things I won't need to go out in person and buy. (On the advice of LJ, I already have a humidifier.)

2. Media in which someone is comforted. If you have heard of hurt-comfort, that is what I mean. If not, media which prominently features stuff like someone with pneumonia, a gunshot wound, hypothermia, etc, being cuddled, fed soup, or the equivalent. Any genre! Fiction, fanfic, movies, etc.

3. Media in which someone feels worse than I do. Any recs for good survival stories, with people stumbling around Mt. Everest, Death Valley, adrift on a raft, etc? Fiction or nonfiction.
.

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