rachelmanija: Fucking new guy hates my favorite rabbit book (FNG Hates My Rabbit Book)
( Jan. 16th, 2017 12:38 pm)
I participated in the [community profile] fandom_stocking gift exchange, and got a slew of lovely gifts, from icons to book reviews to links to beautiful things. Thank you again to everyone who gave me things! If any of that sounds nice, go check out the comments to my stocking and enjoy the pretty and the recs.

I also wrote two gift stories.

For Nenya Kanadka, I wrote a 2000 word original FF short story, The Pirate's Blessing. A space pirate seeks a very special blessing from the Goddess, and a priestess gets an unexpected blessing of her own. It is tagged
Space Pirates, Ritual Sex, and Holy Space Aikido, which should give you an idea of the tone. I hope it's as much fun to read as it was to write.

For Monanotlisa, I wrote a 400 word short based on Sarah Waters' Victorian lesbian Gothic Fingersmith. It's post-book and so spoilery, and I'm not sure if it makes sense if you haven't read the book, but if you have a thing for hands and gloves, and I know I do, you might like it anyway. Every now and then something just comes to me in a flash, whole, and this was one of them. It's also FF, but a totally different tone. First Page.
A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated. Read more... )
First off: great title.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from a review that liked it more than I did because the premise is so high-concept:

I was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, which is a devastating ice world, and avoiding High Summer, so hot it kills everything in its path, West of January is highly original and superbly written. Not only is the world divided into Months and Days, each a particular climate steadily moving west, but the inhabitants are very segregated, each following the same patterns every cycle, never learning from the previous one (that often ends in disaster) because they do not pass their knowledge down.

Vernier is a lost colony on a planet whose rotation is almost the same speed as its revolution, so the habitable zones constantly but slowly move across the planet. So people can be born in the grasslands of Tuesday, north of September, and be three months old when they die of old age. I had a little trouble wrapping my head around this. However, Duncan obviously had it very clear in his head. There’s diagrams and everything. On that level, it’s pretty neat in an old-school, cool idea sf way.

The book starts out very strong, with the protagonist growing up in a weird, vividly depicted herdspeople society. Then he leaves home and it becomes a picaresque, with him visiting a whole bunch of societies which are wildly different from each other. I would have liked this, but there were a couple problems.

One was that the coolest part of the concept got a bit lost in the flurry of “and here’s the sea-people! And the jungle people! And the original settler people!” That’s fine, but there could have been any reason for that; I wanted more of the implications of the 200-year days.

The other was sex. So much sex. Knobil goes somewhere, and every woman in sight flings herself on him. I think Duncan was consciously imitating a classic picaresque form where this sort of thing happens, but it got so irritating. (The only reason I think this is conscious in any way rather than just “because a lot of guys write that” is that I’ve read other books by him and it’s the sort of thing he’d do. That being said, ditto, it’s probably also because a lot of guys write that.) Anyway, it got increasingly boring and ridiculous. A lot of the women were doing it because they wanted some genetic diversity rather than because he was hot, but still.

Finally, the whole book trailed out as it went along, ending in a fizzle. I was really grabbed by it when I started, but ended up putting it down for weeks at some point in the middle. Usually I read his books in one sitting (or two days, etc, depending on interruptions).

Dave Duncan writes sf and fantasy which is pulpy in tone but often driven by genuinely original concepts which are very carefully thought out and then explored in all their implications. For instance, the “A Man of his Word” series has one of the more unique magic systems I’ve encountered in fantasy – it’s word-based magic, but the specific type is one I’ve never seen before or since – and rather than just rest on those laurels, Duncan proceeds to spend a lot of the series taking the concept to unexpected places. His books have plain prose and somewhat basic characterization, which is probably why no one ever mentions him when they’re talking about writers of ideas, but he really is one. He does tend to pop up in discussions of underrated writers, so there is that.

Obviously, West of January is not one of his better books. It looks like an early work that was recently re-issued, so that might explain some things. I’m still pleased to have grabbed a bunch of his books for cheap and for Tool of Satan to have mailed me hard copies of others, and will report on them as I get to them. He’s a genuinely interesting writer and worth reading if you like his kind of thing, which at his best is quirky, surprisingly intelligent takes on pulp sf and fantasy tropes. I like that kind of thing. If you do too, I suggest The Cursed, which has a very odd/cool take on curse-or-blessing (90% curse) powers in a medieval setting; there are some mild "dude wrote this" gender issues but on the other hand the protagonist is a pretty awesome middle-aged female innkeeper. For an epic fantasy series, Magic Casement (A Man of His Word Book 1) is also interesting/quirky, as is the "King's Swords" series (more small-scale, more fighting and politicking, less magic) and-- hey, this is 99 cents today!-- The Reluctant Swordsman (The Seventh Sword Book 1). I have not read the latter but I've been recced it frequently. Interesting premise for sure.

West of January
King’s famous/infamous first novel. Most of you probably know the gist of it whether you’ve read it (or seen the movie) or not— it’s just that iconic— and it doesn’t matter if I spoil it in outline because King also tells/teases you with what happened right from the get-go. But if you don’t, it goes like this:

Carrie, who is secretly telekinetic, is raised in near-isolation by her abusive, mentally ill mom, a batshit fundamentalist whose beliefs bear only the most tenuous relationship to any actual religion. Carrie is not taught of the existence of menstruation because all things bodily are the Devil’s handiwork, and panics when she gets her period in the girls’ locker room shower. Because teenagers can be fucking monsters, she’s pelted with tampons by the other girls, who smell blood in the water in more ways than one.

Sue Snell, a girl who feels guilty over failing to stop the bullying, joins forces with some other teenagers to try to give Carrie a nice prom. Unfortunately, the hateful bully contingent also has plans for Carrie, and also at the prom. Let’s just say that Carrie doesn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done at that age and under those circumstances if I could’ve killed people with my brain.

I first read this book when I was a bullied teenager, so I was an ideal audience in one sense. However, it was neither the first book I read by King nor the one that made me go on to read more. (Those were The Stand, followed by Firestarter.) I liked it but I didn’t love it, which is still my feeling about it now though probably not for the same reasons.

At the time, though I identified with Carrie’s situation, I didn’t identify with her as a person. She’s sad and plodding and downtrodden and not all that bright; none of what happens to her is her fault, but in addition to circumstances caused by others (like her terrible clothes) her personality gives off an aura of victimhood that makes the bullies decide to pick on her rather than on someone else. (King is very, very clear about that part: bullies gonna bully. If Carrie hadn’t been there, they would have just selected a different target.) To be clear, I don’t mean that she’s insufficiently awesome for me to identify with, just that her flaws aren’t my flaws.

(I confess: when our ages matched, I found an unsettling amount to identify with in Harold Emery Lauder. I mean. His goddamn name is only one syllable off mine, and it has almost the same metrical emphasis. That’s not exactly a coincidence. In both cases, it was selected by a teenage writer because it’s unique, the meter makes it memorable, and it just sounds like a writer’s name. King really had my number. But that’s not a coincidence, either: name aside, it was his number, too.)

What’s most remembered about Carrie are the set-piece scenes. The shower and the prom scene are iconic for a reason, but there’s quite a few in the book that have that same extraordinary vividness of emotion and image. They’re bizarre and singular in terms of events (so you recall them) and depicted with perfectly selected details, like the sort of nightmare you wake up from to lie sweating and telling yourself “It’s not real, it’s not real,” and dread having again for the rest of your life.

The other notable element is the blistering, raw, absolutely dead-on portrayal of what it feels like to be a bullied teenager. And also what it feels like to be any teenager in the sort of world I was a teenager in, which I hope to God is less common nowadays, when high school was their society, adults did not give a fuck, and it didn’t make much of a difference that the majority of the teenagers were perfectly decent people, if self-centered in a developmentally appropriate way, because God help you if the bullies close their eyes, spin around, and come to a stop with their finger pointed at you. Tag, you’re it. Your life will now be hell for the next four years.

Sue Snell is a good person. So is her boyfriend. It almost saves the day. But, as in Cujo, there are other forces at work, though here it’s human factors rather than chance or fate. Bullies gonna bully, and Carrie is emotionally fragile, primed to snap by her abusive mother, and in an act of agency with truly bad timing, she’s been practicing her power. The kerosene was already pooling on the floor, but some assholes just had to toss in a match.

Finally, Carrie is not spectacularly but still quite nicely structured, partly in a way that King was later to make one of his trademarks (multiple plotlines coming together into a dramatic unified climax) and partly in one that I don’t think he ever did on that scale again, which was to construct the book largely out of “found materials,” like newspaper articles, court transcripts, interviews, etc. The latter is interesting but distancing, fine but not noticeably better than what a lot of competent writers could do. The present-day sequences are way more impressive and have King’s specific voice.

A lot of what makes King a great writer was there right from the start: the well-crafted structure, the storytelling, the memorable scenes and images, the way with character and place, the trainwreck you see coming, the sympathy with his characters even as you know that a lot of them are not going to make it, and the moral force.

Even more interestingly to me as a writer, it shows how he overall had the sense to build on his strengths rather than his weaknesses in subsequent books. The found materials? Only ever used again in small, judicious doses. But the idea that he could do odd things with structure and that he should feel free to experiment and write each book in the way he thought suited it? That stuck. And most of all, the willingness to just go there with whatever outrageous, taboo, gross, or “you can’t write that” image that popped into his mind. Forty years later, those girls throwing tampons at Carrie still feels dangerous. If he’d never written it and someone submitted it now, there’s an excellent chance they’d get the exact same “what the everlasting fuck am I reading?” reaction.

King wasn’t the writer who taught me the value of just going there (Harlan Ellison did that) but it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe the best. You don’t have to be gross or horrifying or shocking. You just have to be true to your self. We all have an inner voice and outer critics saying, “This is too revealing, too embarrassing, too weird, too risky; if I write it people will know the inside of my head looks like that.” But the insides of all of our heads are full of weird, embarrassing, scary stuff. It’s powerful stuff, too.

Maybe it’s tampons and a bucket of pig’s blood. Maybe it’s walking trees and a golden ring. Maybe it’s you and a gun and a man on your back. Whatever it is, it’s the real deal. Go there.

Barbara Ehrenreich rips toxic positivity a well-deserved new one in this much-needed but unfortunately poorly organized book surveying the origins, bizarre applications, and downside of the American obsession with positive thinking.

The first chapter is about how her diagnosis with breast cancer lands her in a strange new world of enforced positivity and a weird, mutant, and extremely pink version of feminist femininity.

She clearly traces the journey from breast cancer being an unspeakable and hidden doom to how genuinely needed efforts to get it more funding and make it seem less of a shameful death sentence went off-kilter in some very strange ways. For instance, support groups (needed; very helpful to many women) get so obsessed with the idea that positivity is essential to survival that they refuse to allow women to express any negative emotions, especially anger, for fear that they will literally kill them; one of Ehrenreich's ends up ostracizing a dying woman for being angry and depressed.

As Ehrenreich points out, actual research on the effect of positive thinking on illness outcomes is complicated at best. Just to start with, many studies don't actually say what people think they say, and "positive thinking" is extremely hard to measure. And then there's the whole issue of correlation vs. causation: the patients who were more positive might have felt more positive because their illness was less severe, they had better medical support, etc, while the more negative patients might have had worse symptoms, couldn't tolerate the treatment, etc. So it might not be that positive thinking causes better outcomes, but rather that people who were going to have better outcomes anyway are more likely to be positive. And so forth.

And even if positive thinking really does make it that fraction more likely that you'll live longer (even the best-crafted studies don't show large differences), can positivity be forced? If it works at all (it may not) does it work if it's forced, or does it have to be sincere? Does telling people they need to smile or they'll die produce the sincere happiness that's supposedly needed. Or is it more healthy to feel and express the emotions you sincerely feel, even if they're not positive?

And how come, out of all the illness-based positivity hammering, it comes down hardest on a disease primarily affecting women? Could it be that "smile, smile, smile, look on the bright side, use the opportunity to bond with your loved ones, and whatever you do, don't be angry" is a message that American women get anyway?

Ehrenreich's righteous fury burns through this chapter, fueling a killer takedown of bad science, not-actually-feminism, and cruelty disguised as kindness. It was brilliant and if she'd written the whole book on that, it would have been stunning. Also, there is definitely enough material for a book's worth.

The rest of the book unfortunately leaves the subject of breast cancer and, in most cases, illness behind to first explore a possible root cause of the whole positivity movement in the US, then devote a chapter each to various idiotic and rage-making applications. It was interesting but didn't live up to the beginning. Unless I missed it, the US is really overdue for a current version of something like Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
I attempted to roast some chestnuts. You will be unsurprised to hear that they exploded.

(Yes, I cut the little X into them.)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jan. 7th, 2017 07:22 am)
I read or re-read a lot of Stephen King this year. (Of the new-to-me ones that I have not yet reviewed, so far my favorite is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.) In some cases, the re-reads were of books I’d read once thirty years ago. Cujo was one of those. I hadn’t re-read it before partly because I’d vaguely classified it as a high-concept potboiler along the lines of Christine (“car/dog/lawnmower turns EVIL”), and partly because I remembered it as really emotionally brutal. But when I was sorting through King’s long backlist, I realized that those two recollections don’t mesh. So I re-read.

The latter is correct. Along with Pet Sematary, it might King’s most emotionally traumatizing novel. It’s surprisingly well-written and interestingly constructed, with way more going on than “rabid dog traps mom and son in car.” And I will probably not re-read it for another thirty years, so you’re getting the long analysis-for-posterity now.

King, of course, is a horror writer. But I’d like to separate out two worldviews that often get lumped together as “dark,” “grimdark,” or “horror,” but which are actually quite different.

One is “everything sucks.” Terrible things happen because most people are terrible, there is no God (or God is evil), and good people are either idiots for trying to do right or subconsciously not good at all, but merely deluded or self-righteous.

The other is “life isn’t fair.” Terrible things happen for a lot of reasons (bad people also have free will and may exercise it on you, nature can kill you, etc), God may or may not exist but either way is unlikely to personally reach down and save you, and while most people are not terrible (in this worldview, usually most people are neither angels nor monsters), neither altruism nor innocence is a shield of protection.

In general, King’s worldview is “life isn’t fair.” One of his main themes is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is one of those huge life questions that doesn’t have any easy answers, and if you read a lot of his books you see him tackling it in different ways and providing different possible answers.

In The Stand, an interventionist God exists, but can only save the world from the Devil at the cost both of a huge death toll of innocents and the willing sacrifice of good people; this brings up questions like is “Is it worth it?” and “Is that God worthy of worship?” In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, God probably exists but is not interventionist in large or obvious ways, though he/it may be in small and subtle ones; bad things happen because tiny errors can snowball and nature is an inhuman force that’s much more powerful than any given human, though that doesn’t mean the human doesn’t have a chance. Cujo reads like there is no God and no Devil, just people: some good, a few bad, most flawed but trying, in a universe that doesn’t even know they exist.

A lot of King’s books say, “Bad things happen because life is like that. Maybe you made a mistake or a bad choice, but we all do because we’re all human. You got caught and chewed up in the cogs of fate or chance, not because you did anything to deserve it, but because we live inside a big scary machine and sometimes it eats people. What happened to you could happen to any of us. And if along the way you were brave or good, even if it didn’t save you or anyone, even if no one but you will ever know, at least you tried. And that matters.”

There can be a bleak but real comfort in that worldview, and if you feel it, King is a good writer to read when you’re going through hard times. (Apart from the more obvious comfort of “My life sucks but at least I’m not imprisoned by a killer fan who addicted me to painkillers, cut off my foot, and is forcing me to write on a typewriter missing the letters r, n, and e.”)

Sometimes what you really need to hear isn’t “Everything will be okay.” Sometimes you need, “Maybe everything won’t be okay. But it’s not because you did something wrong. It has nothing to do with you at all. It’s just the way life is.”

(You may be thinking, “How the hell is that comforting?” Two reasons. One is that if things are going sufficiently badly, hearing nothing but “No they’re not! Stuff like that can’t happen!” is unhelpful at best, crazymaking at worst, and definitely makes you feel like people aren’t listening. The other is that the alternative possibility is that everything is your fault and if you can’t fix it, it’s because you personally are a failure and also suck.)

Cujo is the purest expression of the “Bad stuff happens because life is like that” view that I’ve read from King so far. A lot of its literary interest is how that theme is reflected in both content and structure. And in case you missed it, toward the end King states the theme explicitly:

It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.

Huge book spoilers from here out. Read more... )
Dear Chocolate Box Writer or Artist,

This is my first chocolate box! Thank you for writing or doing art for me. My likes, DNWs, and requested fandoms (The Magnificent Seven (2016), Dragonriders of Pern, Gentleman Bastards, and Nirvana in Fire are below the cut.)

If you haven't heard of Chocolate Box, it's a fic and/or art exchange, vaguely similar to Yuletide but lower pressure (300 word minimum), focused on relationships; you sign up with This Character & That Character for a non-sexual/romantic relationship, or This Character/That Character for a sexual or romantic one. Sign-ups are still open today and close some time tomorrow; Explanation and rules are here.

Read more... )
If you missed it, click on the Hamilton tag for the first part of this review.

“Wait For It “— Usher. I was excited to see this on the album, because it instantly struck me as an excellent match of song and singer, but was underwhelmed on actual listen. It’s fine but he doesn’t make it his; as a cover, it’s nice but nothing special. Sorry Usher, it clearly wasn’t just you because I had that exact issue with a lot of the covers.

“An Open Letter” (feat. Shockwave) [Interlude] — Watsky. A cut song, Hamilton’s outraged letter to John Adams. It’s fun (and a good performance) but you can see why it was cut; Hamilton screaming, “Sit down, John, you fat mother—” and being drowned out by a chorus of shrieks and sirens goes beyond fun and into Crowning Moment of Hilarious.

“Satisfied” (feat. Miguel & Queen Latifah) — Sia. A cover, with slight lyrical changes. The part that’s very prettily and expressively sung by Sia is one of the better of the cover songs, but it also contains one of the two best covers on the album, which is the verse rapped by Queen Latifah. Without any lyrical changes at all, she takes that verse and owns it and makes it hers. It’s terrific. I would love to hear Queen Latifah do more Hamilton - actually, I’d like to see her perform in an all-women version. I think she’d be an amazing Jefferson.

“Dear Theodosia” (feat. Ben Folds) — Regina Spektor. Another cover, minor lyrical changes. Very pretty, not all that memorable.

“Valley Forge” (Demo) — Lin-Manuel Miranda. A cut song, or more accurately a cannibalized song; the majority of it was used in the show with a different melody and in different contexts. Like the other demos, it’s mostly interesting to fans as a "making of" Easter egg rather than something you’d want to listen to on repeat. I really wish all the cut songs had been given full productions rather than demos, because if they had been, you probably would want to listen on repeat.

“It’s Quiet Uptown” — Kelly Clarkson. A cover with minor-ish rewrites that feel more substantial than they actually are, because the performance sounds so different and the reason for them – removing the play’s specifics to make it a more universal song about grief and forgiveness— makes a big difference. I liked this a lot. It and Queen Latifah’s “Satisfied” verse are my favorite of the covers. (I’m counting Dessa’s as a cut song, not a cover; if you count it as a cover, it’s also a favorite.) It’s beautifully sung and emotional. And, bonus for me, I can listen to it because it’s not specifically about Philip Hamilton. I can’t listen to “It’s Quiet Uptown” on the cast album because it’s just so damn sad. This is also sad, but for me a lot less of gut-punch, and in this case that’s a good thing.

“That Would Be Enough” — Alicia Keys. Cover. Nice, not that memorable.

”Immigrants (We Get the Job Done”
— K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, Residente. FUCKING BRILLIANT. Go listen if you haven’t already.

A stunner of a song in every way: lyrics, music, performance. I was not previously familiar with the performers on this, and they’re so good. (And also very musically appealing to me personally, which as you’ll see is not always the case just because someone is objectively good.) Snow Tha Product gets more feeling and rhythm out of a single “Uh!” than a lot of singers get on an entire album.

This song samples two key bits from Hamilton: Hamilton and Lafayette’s bring-down-the-house line, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” and (referring to slavery in context, but also to racism in general) “Does this mean freedom?” “Not yet.”

The lyrics tackle various aspects of immigration, from sharply observed personal details (“I got one job, two jobs, three when I need them/I got five roommates in this one studio but I never really see them” (because the roommates are always out working their three jobs)) to equally sharply observed politics (“We’re America’s ghostwriters”) to the inner experience (“You can be an immigrant without risking your lives […] All you got to do is see the world with new eyes”), in multiple languages and from multiple perspectives, different journeys and backgrounds contrasting and finding unexpected correspondences, all of which is, of course, the essence of the immigrant experience: all those people with all their different stories from all their different places, converging on a single destination.

The hypnotic refrain of “Look how far I come” has multiple meanings— literal travel from afar, success against the odds, “look at where we are/look at where we started,” give me some fucking credit for what I’ve accomplished instead of blaming me for existing, let me tell you about my struggle to get here and then survive here, look at me instead of pretending I don’t exist— and sounds like an incantation, a blessing, a prayer, the spoken expression of the act of faith and hope required to leave everything behind for a leap into the unknown.

Like the best protest songs (which it is, though it’s also more than that) I think people will be listening to this one fifty years from now, when the topical references are incomprehensible without research and all the details that are now current have changed. It won’t matter. The heart of the issue will be the same. And it’s just that good.

“You’ll Be Back” — Jimmy Fallon & The Roots. Cover. The best thing I can say about this is that it’s not as terrible as its own intro led me to expect. It’s still not good. Worst song on the album, hands down.

“Helpless” (feat. Ja Rule) — Ashanti. Cover with fairly substantial rewrites placing the song in the present day. This is pretty adorable. Ashanti’s singing is really nice, and Ja Rule’s brief but memorable section amusingly takes the exact opposite tack from LMM’s. LMM’s delivery admits to his humble origins, but emphasizes that he’s risen above them now. Ja Rule’s says he doesn’t need to rise above anything: he is what he is, what he is is fine, come on baby you know you want me just as I am.

“Take A Break (Interlude)” — !llmind. Little musical snippet.

“Say Yes To This” — Jill Scott. Cover, moderately rewritten. Scott definitely makes this hers, as an old-school sexy torch song. It’s very well done, but musically not really my thing. However, that’s a “it’s not the song, it’s me.”

“Congratulations” — Dessa. Cut song. “You have invented a new kind of stupid.” Angelica tells Hamilton how she really feels about the Reynolds Pamphlets. I can see why it was cut— Angelica’s verse that this song was transformed into says basically the same thing in a much shorter space— but it’s a really good song in its own right. Dessa’s take is excellent: sarcastic, funny, bitter, heartfelt, angry, sad. Great delivery, great range of feeling and singing, just really well-done all round.

“Burn” — Andra Day. Cover, no or very minor rewrites. It’s fine but not memorable.

“Stay Alive (Interlude)” — J.PERIOD & Stro Elliot. Another snippet. I vaguely recall liking this one – I think it’s the one with a techno sound. The interludes are all literally 30 seconds long and I don’t think any of them add much to the overall experience whether I liked them or not.

“Slavery Battle” (Demo) — Lin-Manuel Miranda. MAN I wish this had been done as a full production rather than a demo. As is, it’s mostly of fannish/writerly interest. As a full production, it would be much more re-listenable. The Cabinet Battles on the show are fantastic.

It's a good song but probably would have been better with more drafts, which I assume it would have gotten if it had stayed in. It’s about slavery, and I agree that keeping the song wouldn’t have added that much to the points on the subject that did get made during the show. You’re always making choices when you have a limited length of time, and I can see why this song ended up being less central to the story LMM chose to tell than it would have been if the play took slavery as a central focus.

"Washingtons By Your Side" — Wiz Khalifa. Really interesting original song, very good performance. This re-interprets “Washington” to mean money (his face on the bill), and a lot of stuff that comes along with money (or the lack of it), good and bad. It’s a complex song and I’m not sure I understand all of it, but I like it a lot. It definitely made me want to hear more from him. It’s also noticeably original, with a much more non-obvious take on its inspiration song than the other new songs.

"History Has Its Eyes On You" — John Legend. Gospel version. Similarly to "Say Yes to This," he makes it his own and it’s very well-done but it’s not really my thing, musically speaking; again, it’s not the song, it’s my personal taste.

"Who Tells Your Story" (feat. Common & Ingrid Michaelson) — The Roots. Original song inspired by and quoting that line from the show. Really fantastic song, great performance, my fourth-favorite song on the album, just a hair behind my three faves.

This takes the theme of “who tells your story” to talk about the lethal racism of America that makes a black man’s sense of his own mortality far more present than it should be, how immediate that makes the desire for a legacy, and how “who tells your story,” is both the racism that endangers black men and their urgency to tell their own story before they’re cut down. And beyond politics and the death of the body, the spiritual implications of death and life after death.

I really like how it begins with very concrete matters and then shifts to more intangible ones, its structure mirroring the way we we start with a body and, if you believe, end as a soul. Lyrically complex, very well-structured, beautiful production, just all-around excellent.

"Dear Theodosia (Reprise)" — Chance The Rapper & Francis and The Lights. Cover. The song selection was a good album closer in concept (passing the torch to the next generation) but once again, it’s a solid cover that doesn’t rise above that. “Who Tells Your Story” would have been better to end on, IMO.
The Hamilton Mixtape isn’t a good introduction to Hamilton; if you want that, listen to the show on Spotify. The Mixtape is an odd mix of three completely different types of songs: completely original songs which are inspired by Hamilton and sample or quote a specific song from it (all of these are good to phenomenal), cut tracks or demos that didn’t appear on the show or appeared in substantially different form (interesting to excellent, but definitely for people who are already fans of the show), and covers of Hamilton songs, some slightly to moderately rewritten (a few excellent, some meh, one outright bad. (Jimmy Fallon.)

So, those original songs? AMAZING. Worth the cost of the entire album. Here are my three favorites, My Shot, Wrote My Way Out and Immigrants (We Get the Job Done on YouTube. Go listen! Those are the ones where you don’t need prior exposure to Hamilton.

They’re very lyrically dense, so hard to take in completely on one listen, but also musically excellent, so I have listened to all three of my favorites a minimum of 20 times and have not even begun to get tired of them. “Immigrants” might be the most accessible/striking on first listen, “Wrote My Way Out” will speak a lot to writers, and “My Shot” is just a great political/personal song. They’re all very American and about specifically American political issues in addition to personal/universal ones, but I don’t think you have to be American to enjoy them. Probably half the references went over my head anyway and I still loved them.

I am not very musically knowledgeable, so please feel free to chime in on genre, influences I missed, etc. Also, I want to listen to more music by some of these artists, so would love recs that are for songs or albums by them that sound musically similar to their work here. I talk a lot about lyrics because 1) they’re great, 2) I can talk sensibly about words. But I only listen to music if I like it as music, so that’s way more important to me in reccing than lyrics. If I like the sound, I’ll enjoy it even if I don’t know the language it’s in; if I don’t like the sound, I won’t enjoy it no matter how great the lyrics are.

I would especially like recs for K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Wiz Kalifa, and the Roots, all of whom, er, I never even heard of before. Also Common – yes, I know who he is, I’ve head songs of his that were clearly good but they didn’t jump out at me as “Oh I have to buy his albums.” What the hell, Nas too, same reason.

“No John Trumbull (Intro)” — The Roots. Very short but very good intro, sets up the themes, concept, and style of the entire album in about 30 seconds.

My Shot
(feat. Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz & Nate Ruess) [Rise Up Remix] — The Roots. Brilliant, lyrically dense political/personal song about racism, the lack of opportunities and the determination to grab them anyway, some dazzling wordplay, and a whole lot more. I know it’s not exactly a surprise to say that Busta Rhymes’ verse has jaw-droppingly good rapping, but the bit where he storms from “Hamilton Hercules Mulligan” to “We in the guts again” is just SO GREAT. Again, I wish I could talk about music better, because though the lyrics are great this particular part is really striking because of the delivery. Also meta-cool because Hercules Mulligan’s style was inspired by Busta Rhymes.

Wrote My Way Out
— Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Aloe Blacc. Of my three favorites, I actually don’t think this one is objectively the best song (I give the edge to “Immigrants”) but it’s unsurprisingly the one that I love most. It’s based on and samples “Hurricane.” It’s got a quite complex structure, interweaving four distinct parts on a single theme: writing your way out. Nas, Dave East, and Miranda rap their stories of writing their ways into a better life and what writing means to them; Aloe Blacc sings a refrain on the same theme.

They're personal stories, but not told in isolation. All their inner struggles occur in a complex social context of racism, immigration, poverty, family, people who help them and people who stand in their way. They're not just struck from above by inspiration and hope and ways out, they reach out to snatch them. And then turn around to reach back. The very last line isn’t rapped, but spoken with power and sincerity: “I thought that I would represent for my neighborhood and tell their story, be their voice, in a way that nobody has done it.
 Tell the real story.”

Here's Aloe Blacc’s refrain that spoke the most to me:

I was born in the eye of the storm
No loving arms to keep me warm
This hurricane in my brain is the burden I bear
I can do without, I’m here. I’m here.
Cause I wrote my way out

Set against some of the aggressively clever lyrics of other parts of the song, it’s almost cliched, but sung and written with a lovely simplicity that points out that the flip side of cliché is traditional, classic: some themes get repeated a lot because they’re powerful and true and resonant.

You probably know Aloe Blacc as the vocalist on the Avicii remix of “Wake Me Up,” a really catchy song that got tons of radio play. When I first heard it, in a cab in New Orleans, I was so struck by his voice that I grabbed a pen and wrote down some lyrics so I could figure out who he was. The Avicii video is the one with the people with the triangle tattoos. I’ve linked to Blacc’s original Wake Me Up here. It’s more stripped-down, and the video is a beautifully done and heartbreaking protest about the crappy way America treats immigrants; the people in it are acting out their real stories.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's verse, again unsurprisingly, especially spoke to me. It’s about his high school years, when he got beaten up for reading and being too smart (me too!) and was told to defend himself and scolded for not being able to (I got scolded for defending myself, which sums up how boys and girls are socialized). You can hear that he isn’t as technically skilled a rapper as, to be honest, pretty much all the other rappers on this album, but his raw delivery really works in his context – when he screams “fucking yes I’m relentless,” it points up how the relentlessness is what matters. He doesn’t have to be Busta Rhymes – he “draws blood with this pen, hits an artery.”

A line that gets repeated several times in the song, always spoken like a proverb that's existed for a thousand years, is “I picked up the pen like Hamilton.” This obviously makes sense to listeners because it’s on the Hamilton Mixtape, but it's spoken like a metaphor that of course everyone will understand, something grown into the roots of the language. How much do I love that maybe from now on, if I say “I picked up the pen like Hamilton,” people might actually know what that means? The most crucial and singular and defining act of my life suddenly has a huge cultural context that it never did before. Of course the general idea of “I wrote my way out” has a very long history, but now it also has a catch-phrase that it never had before, attached to something extremely well-known. (“Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”)

Look. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nas made me a hat.
Despite difficult circumstances (the same thing that made me default last year, yes it’s still going on), I wrote five stories this Yuletide. The post where you can link to your own reveal post is here at the LJ comm. Please link if you made one, I for one love reading them and they're otherwise hard to find.

If you want to read my stories now, I'd suggest clicking the links first (or just reading my quickie "this is what you need to know about the canon" and then reading before you read my notes on them, because those may be spoilery. Spoilers for all stories are fine in comments here.

Feed Your Head. For Janie-tangerine. Wild Cards, a superhero anthology series edited by George R. R. Martin.

Summary: Times had changed. Paisley was out and polyester was in. Janis and Jimi and Tom Marion Douglas were dead. Country Joe had left the Fish and moved to a remote part of Canada, emerging from his shack only to issue strange broadsides advocating spelling reform. It seemed like everyone was tuning out, turning off, and dropping in. Or dropping dead.

But not here. Not now. Dylan was still singing, the Band was still playing, and the hippies had come for their counterculture communion.

Author’s notes: My assignment! Sort of. I actually matched on Dark Tower. But it's a pretty hard canon to write and since I coincidentally also knew Wild Cards, I did that instead after banging my head against a Dark Tower story for weeks without making much progress. I also really liked my recipient’s Wild Cards prompt.

Wild Cards is an alternate history where aliens released a virus that makes some people drop dead, some get hideously mutated ("jokers"), and some get superpowers ("aces.") The canon characters in my story are Jay Ackroyd, a cynical private eye who can teleport anything but himself, and Mark Meadows, a hippie with a really unusual ace power, which is that if he takes the right drugs, he turns into an alter ego with superpowers for one hour.

Several years previously to my story, Mark, then a brilliant young chemist, accidentally turned into "the Radical" while tripping balls at a "Tom Marion Douglas" concert (alt!Jim Morrison who is a totally literal Lizard King— he can turn into a reptile-headed ace). Ever since, Mark’s been trying to find the right drug combination to do it again, so far with no results other than becoming a total burnout.

My recipient said she liked the 70s-era setting and the music scene of Mark’s origin story. Snooping in her LJ revealed that she’s a huge music fan and we have a lot of favorite musicians in common, including Bruce Springsteen (not appearing in this story) and Bob Dylan, whose hilariously in-character reaction to his Nobel inspired me to give him the power to transport people into his songs. I had so much fun working in musical references and writing characters being stoned and characters annoyed at everyone else being stoned.

I knew writing this that it was pretty much a one-person fandom, so I was very happy that Janie-tangerine clearly enjoyed it and appreciated all the stalking I did to put in stuff I thought she’d like, from a stealth cameo by Croyd Crenson (her third requested character – it was a “any of these” request and I couldn’t work in her fourth) to a lot of riffs on '70s-with-superpowers and 60s/70s musical jokes (Country Joe's "Gimme an F! What's that spell?", Bob Dylan's possibly only funny to me inability to rhyme "You were always there when I need your help" with anything better than "the beach was deserted except for some kelp," etc.

Lovely In Her Fall. For Calenlily. Kushiel’s Dart, an alt!Renaissance France fantasy series by Jacqueline Carey.

Summary: A life told in visits to the Houses of the Night Court.

Author’s notes: All the characters in this are original. All you need to know to read this story is that in this world, sex work is consensual, respected, and sacred. The Night Court consists of thirteen very classy brothels, each with their own specialty, from the obvious (sadism, masochism, sexual healing) to the less so (mysticism, laughter, fragility (the last is really mono no aware). Naamah is the angel of sexual love, who had sex with strangers and the King of Persis in a myth emblematic to the Night Court; the epigraphs are from each House’s interpretation of what that was like for her.

Since the books explore the sadism and masochism Houses a lot, I skipped those to focus on what we see less or none of in canon. So there’s no painplay or hardcore BDSM, which the protagonist isn’t into. There’s some power games but they’re light.

Calenlily and I had written for each other for Yuletide before, so it was nice to do it again. I had a lot of fun with this story, though like all stories which inherently require a set number of scenes I had some “WILL THIS EVER END” moments. She had a very thought-provoking prompt, which was essentially that there had to be more to the House concepts than we saw in canon.

So I tried to both capture what would be sexy about the House concepts, and to go beyond the obvious (though I did that with some more than others.) The sexual healing the protagonist gets at Balm isn’t due to sexual trauma and the healing mostly involves something other than sex; at Bryony, the financial House, he does something that involves gambling but he’s actually getting off on something else entirely. I interpreted Gentian’s “mysticism” to mean “sacred” and “dealing directly with deep mysterious stuff like life and death.” And so forth.

The Heliotrope adept’s conversation about love was inspired by the issue in therapy (if you came here from the Yuletide comm: I’m a therapist) of having emotionally real relationships that often do involve very real but non-exclusive (NON-SEXUAL) love, but are time-and-place limited, for a specific purpose, and transactional. It’s obviously a totally different context and that is not literally what I’d ever say to a client. However, some of the points she makes, particularly the one about how certain types of intimacy inherently create love if you’re inclined that way, are true in my experience.

Structurally, the story is eleven sex scenes (or sex-related scenes) which tell the story of a man’s life in a specific context. But it’s also about why his life story can be told that way, why sex is so central to the Kushiel-verse, and why sex matters in ways that have nothing to do with reproduction.

To quote Madeleine L’Engle in a context that would probably make her hair curl, sex is part of “the joy without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.” A life without joy is no life at all, but most joy doesn’t derive from dramatic stuff like the birth of a child or falling in love. It comes from ordinary pleasures like eating and writing and reading and meeting friends and watching the sun set and doing Yuletide, or whatever it is that floats your boat.

And sex, of course. Not just having it, but fantasizing about it, reading about it, writing it, watching hot actors doing hot things onscreen, and sharing any of your pleasure in that with others. I don’t necessarily mean with others with whom you have any sort of sexual relationship, but simply as a shared enjoyment, if that makes sense. Sexuality is fun, from dick jokes to laughing in bed to writing kinks you never even thought of before because you know a specific person wants to read about them. Fandom has its issues with sexuality, but it also has a hell of a lot of fun with it.

While I was in grad school, a classmate friend mentioned that she was writing a paper about for our Jung class about the implications of women who may or may not identify as queer but who are definitely not in relationships with each other that they consider to be of a sexual nature, writing porn for each other.

“It definitely challenges how we usually define sexual activities and sexual orientation,” she said. “Maybe I should get more involved in fandom. I’d definitely like to get more in touch with my lesbian eros.” [Meaning women’s attraction to women, regardless of sexual behavior or how they label their sexual orientation.]

I said, “I don’t know if fandom is why, but I feel extremely in touch with my lesbian eros.”

She laughed. “We all know, Rachel!”

Which brings me to…

Delle Seyah’s Slave. For RunnerFive. Killjoys, a space opera TV show along the lines of Firefly.

Summary: Delle Seyah has information Dutch needs. The price? Being her slave for a night at the kinkiest lesbian sex party in the Quad.

Author’s Note: So, yeah. Porn, porn, nothing but porn. It’s dubcon, but of the “I hate this woman, why the fuck is she so hot, I should not be enjoying this, GODDAMMIT STOP ENJOYING IT RIGHT NOW” variety. (And also clearly could get out of it if she really wanted to.) All you need to know is that Dutch is a space bounty hunter and Delle Seyah is an amoral aristocrat, and canon interactions consist of stuff like Delle Seyah manipulating Dutch into lacing up her corset and Dutch saying, “I missed our hate-flirting.”

Infinite thanks to Egelantier, who not only screened me the entire series this story is based on, but literally stood over me and made me write the story. I was recovering from surgery at the time, among other things, and it was a lot more fun to contemplate Delle Seyah spanking Dutch than anything going on in my actual life. Sometimes when you write because you need it to survive you get the Federalist Papers, and sometimes you get a lesbian sex party.

I also want to thank my recipient, RunnerFive, whose letter was an absolute delight and inspiration. I got immense glee just from reading it, let alone writing for it. And she clearly enjoyed the hell out of it, so that was great too.

His Father’s Hall. For Joy_shines. The classic brother-sister incest ballad Sheath and Knife. Link goes to a great stark version by Ellie Bryan; the instrument is an Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer.

Summary: And they'll never go down to the broom any more.

Author’s notes: A short (400 word) riff on a song I love a lot.

Savage Lovecast Episode 69: Pounded in the Butt by Savage Lovecast Episode 69 [Transcript]


Dan Savage:
So you’re getting pounded in the butt by your own concept of linear time.

Caller: Right.

Dan Savage: What is that like?

Caller: Well, Dan, it’s kind of confusing. On the one hand, it’s fucking amazing hardcore gay action. On the other hand, last month I was double-teamed by the sociopolitical implications of Putin influencing the American Presidential election in order to install a tiny-handed fascist Cheeto in the White House, and by the historical precedents of Trump’s demagogic takeover of America for the purposes of personal profit and destroying all the best ideals of our nation.

Author’s Notes: Ha. Ha ha ha hahaha. Savage Love is a hilariously frank sex-and-relationship advice show hosted by Dan “DUMP THAT MOTHERFUCKER” Savage, who I was a fan of from when he just had a newspaper advice column, way before he got famous.

NaomiK, a friend of mine, requested Dan Savage advising people on sf/fantasy issues, like vampires or aliens exist and you kink on them. She also likes his top of the show political rants. And she likes crossovers. So I wrote her Dan Savage getting a call from a Chuck Tingle character, who needless to say has a problem that involves being pounded in the butt. Or maybe that’s not actually his problem…

I literally sat down and wrote this in an afternoon once I got the idea, taking breaks only to laugh hysterically. I only hope that it brought even a tenth as much hilarity to its readers as it did to me.
I still have SO MANY stories I haven't read yet, including most of the longer stories, so expect post-reveal rec posts. This Yuletide has had a lot of exceptionally good stories and I am looking forward to many more days of reading. But first, my last pre-reveal set of recs:

Don't Need To Know Canon

There were a number of good stories based on these iconic NASA's Mars Wants YOU posters, all of them essentially original science fiction.

Your Shadow at Evening, Rising to Meet You. Beautiful sense-of-wonder sf, starting lightly and building to a perfect conclusion.

The Green Cats of Desolation City. Inspired by a real-life project to figure out how to warn future generations - like, millennia in the future - about nuclear waste when society might have totally moved on and not speak any current language: creepy sculptures? folk songs? GLOWING GREEN CATS? Atmospheric post-apocalyptic sf with a parable-ish feel, very nicely written.

Flintlock Through the Heart, and You're to Blame. Okay, you do need to know canon, but it can be acquired in five minutes via the author's links at the top. It's a "Barrett's Privateer's"/"Hark! A Vagrant" crossover; you actually don't need to read the couple of online comic strips it's based on to get it (but you should) but you do need to listen to "Barrett's Privateers" (which you should anyway.) Pirate nemeses in love; a completely delightful short story, sweet and funny and ridiculous in the very best way.

Canon knowledge good but not essential

a song of their own. Dragonriders of Pern, but all original characters. I think you just need to know that dragons and riders are telepathically bonded for life so they can fight corrosive Thread that falls from the sky. Unusual take on canon - the life story of a dragon and her rider, from the dragon's POV, focusing on the intimacy and interdependency of their bond. Really nicely done, feels like a short novel. It's a life story, so bittersweet (but not at all grim).

However, I should probably warn for something that I didn't find grim/depressing in context (especially since it's a small part of an entire life), but it's usually a no-go for me, so rot13.com for spoilers: Va pnaba, qentbaf naq evqref bsgra pbzzvg fhvpvqr gbtrgure jura gurl srry gung gurl'ir ernpurq gur raq bs gurve yvirf naq jnag gb fxvc gur fybj cnvashy fyvqr qbja. Gur znva punenpgref qb guvf va byq ntr jura gur evqre vf qrirybcvat qrzragvn gb na rkgrag gung vg'f raqnatrevat gurve obaq. Va pbagrkg, vg'f zber ovggrefjrrg guna ubeevslvat - gurl yvirq n tbbq ybat yvsr, naq jrag bhg nf gurl pubfr.

A Tale For A Cold Summer Night. Bujold's Curse of Chalion. (All the Chalion stories are good this Yuletide, I'll rec more later. This one just seemed to be getting less attention than it deserved.) The origin story of the Bastard, one of the five Gods of the world. Beautifully written, with the polished but rhythmic voice of real oral folklore, and some cool extrapolations on what "out of season" might mean.

Need to Know Canon

Chenelo's Treasures. The Goblin Emperor. Absolutely beautiful story in which Maia re-connects with his mother through a box of unexpected mementos of her life, and with the people he loves now through those. The wold building details are marvelous, and it's full of the warmth and kindness and carefulness with other people's feelings that I loved so much in the book.

A Rabbit-Hole of Edwardian Pornography. Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London. P

Peter stumbles across some pre-war pornography in the Folly's reading room. He's not entirely sure how he gets from that to Nightingale pontificating about the quality of erotic writing in different languages, conversations about close and not always platonic bonds between wizards and their apprentices, and discovering a whole lot of things Peter hadn't been into before.
And he's been trying so hard not to think about how much he wants to sleep with his boss.

Exactly what it says on the tin, but also above and beyond that, at once a thoughtful exploration of modern and historical attitudes to sexuality, actually funny sex jokes, hot sex scenes, and a poignant look at Nightingale as an exile in time. I don't ship them but I liked this a lot anyway.

This is a link to an example website. Stephen King's The Stand. Flagg and Lloyd on their post-prison road trip to Vegas; nn understatedly unsettling missing scene that fits neatly into canon.

Blood in the Water. Robin McKinley's Chalice. Gorgeous and eerie. I always wondered about the Blood Chalice, who is just mentioned in the book. This short, sharp story is a great glimpse of who she might have been, and why.
The Yuletide archive is open! Browse! Enjoy! Comment! Rec! (There's a way to bookmark recs on AO3 but it's hard to browse; probably the best way is to rec on your own space, then link to your post at [community profile] yuletide.)

Perhaps due to the longer length of time we had to write this year, there seem to be more than usual longer stories, from 5K+ to quite a few at 10, 15, or even 20K+. I have not yet read most of those and cannot wait. The ones I've recced here are all short, mostly around 2-5K; several of the mermaid stories are from the Yuletide Madness collection, which allows shorter works, and are under 1K. They all pack a lot into a short space.

The Minnow and the Dragon. A beautiful, deceptively simple but very well-structured story set in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, capturing her prose and concerns to perfection. It could be an outtake from A Wizard of Earthsea, focusing on two of my favorite characters from that, Ged's friend Vetch and his sister Yarrow, some years later. Like the books, it's at once mythic and earthy, and in fact is about how the mythic is also earthy. Outstanding.

Selected Moments in Introductory Symbology. Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. Excellent post-canon story, one of my favorites of all the "What happens next?" fic in this fandom, with a clever structure based on the symbols and meanings of the alethiometer that perfectly echoes the story's plot and theme. If you loved the characters and world in the first book but found later entries too preachy or straying from the aspects you originally liked, this story is for you.

In canon, as the story goes on Lyra loses a lot of what made her such a memorable character early on. In this story, she's back to her spiky, impulsive, curious self, all the way down to the lying tongue and the fierce realness beneath; as she matures, she becomes more herself, not less. (Note to shippers: this Lyra loves Will and always will, but goes on to love others as well rather than pining alone forever.)

The Spirit of St Mary Mead. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Someone made the inspired prompt, "Miss Marple is sometimes associated with Nemesis; what if she literally was an immortal incarnation of justice, maybe a genius loci of St Mary Mead?" I really hoped someone would write this, and not only did someone, but they absolutely did it justice, tracing Miss/Mistress Marple's gently relentless pursuit of truth and the exoneration of the wrongly accused through English history.

It was a particularly ordinary grove, or so the commander of the nearby Roman camp thought, and was at a loss to explain the locals’ belief in it as a sacred place; the site where a genius loci might be found. Aerten, they said she was named, and his men in turn called her Atropos or Nemesis.

hands fall together. Killjoys. This reads so much like canon (a sf show vaguely along the lines of Firefly) that it might work as an entry to it. (So you don't need to know more than that Dutch and Johnny are space bounty hunters.) Dutch and Johnny have an adventure early in their partnership. Dutch knows that trust kills and Johnny has more than is healthy, but sometimes our points of vulnerability are what bind us together in the best of all possible ways. Dead-on dialogue and a neat use of both fairytale and video game motifs.

End in Fire. Clever and well-plotted crossover between Stephen King's Firestarter and Daryl Gregory's horror novella "We Are All Completely Fine." (If you only know one canon: the former is about Charlie McGee, a pyrokinetic girl who is captured by and escapes from an evil government agency, The Shop, and the latter is about survivors of various horror scenarios in group therapy, including Greta, who is also pyrokinetic.) Unexpectedly but plausibly characterized, with a memorable grown-up Charlie and a darkly comic and disconcertingly believable depiction of evil yet underfunded shady government agencies a la Men Who Stare At Goats.

Arse-chive of my Own: Pounded in the Butt By the Lack of Tingleverse Fics in Yuletide 2016. Hilariously absurdist Yuletide/Chuck Tingle metafiction crossover. I close my eyes as he shoves inch after inch of fic inside me. I knew how big he was but it feels even more incredible being his recipient. Just when I think he's all the way in, a few more pinch hits slide in at the last minute, increasing his girth even more.

(Does anyone not know Chuck Tingle, maestro of bizarre Amazon metafictional erotica in which hard buckaroos are pounded in the butt by personifications of creamed corn, fighter jets, the state of California, Chuck Tingle's Hugo Award nomination, and their own butts, all to prove that LOVE IS REAL? If not, meet Chuck Tingle: Slammed In The Butt By Domald Tromp's Attempt To Avoid Accusations Of Plagiarism By Removing All Facts Or Concrete Plans From His Republican National Convention Speech; Turned Gay By The Existential Dread That I May Actually Be A Character In A Chuck Tingle Book; Pounded In The Butt By The Sentient Physical Manifestation Of The Year 2016)

A gently bittersweet short story, ostensibly a Victorian paper on collecting mermaid songs but actually a story of lesbian longing, which you can read in full for free here (it's short and lovely, I recommend it), A Ladies' Guide to Collecting Mermaid Love Songs, produced a set of beautifully written short stories this Yuletide. I loved every single one I've read so far. If this is the sort of thing you like, read the original and then enjoy the riffs on it:

A Mermaid's Guide to Collecting Humans

Humans don’t know love, but they believe they do. That is their weakness.

When they hear our songs, they say,
here they sing of hope; here, they sing to lure us; here, they sing of despair.

They categorize and organize, and think it makes them safe. It is their weakness; it is also their blessing.

What they do not always understand is that every song we sing is a song of love.

Dreams in Glass

Last night, I dreamed that my bed was a boat. Its practical, dark sheets and thick blankets billowed out into sails. The mermaid songs surrounded me. Stars in the water. Stars in the sea. Miss Mori came to my bedside [the aft side], and clung to the bed frame, watching me. Her dark, wet hair draped against her shoulders. Her small fingers gripped tight against the wood. Her eyes, sad and searching. Her tail, unseen, unspoken, but beckoning nonetheless.
I ached to jump into the water with her. The ocean was created before man. The ocean will exist long after the last trumpet has sounded. I ached for its ancient embrace almost as much as I ached for Miss Mori's. I wanted a tail. A dark, glittery tail to twine against her silvery scales. We would twist together like the dark and light koi in my great aunt's Oriental etchings.

A Ladies' Guide to Recording Dances of Elves

Type 4, the Couple’s Dance

This final type of dance we encountered only once. It began as a Sway of Longing (Type 3), but unexpectedly, the yearning was answered by a mate. The little companions locked eyes and circled each other, dancing round and round, coming closer before again drifting apart. Sometimes, it seemed as if they had all but forgotten about the other, but as if connected and guided by invisible spider silk, they were gradually pulled closer and closer. And at long last, they clasped each other’s hands and danced and swirled around as one.

A lovely picture that we could only capture in our hearts, since all the photographic plates we had brought were exposed already. Miss Mori described the scene as similar to “blossoms blooming in spring or finding an unexpected letter from someone you adore.”
The Yuletide archive is open! Browse! Enjoy! Comment! Rec! (There's a way to bookmark recs on AO3 but it's hard to browse; probably the best way is to rec on your own space, then link to your post at [community profile] yuletide.)

I got AMAZING gift stories this Yuletide, in all three of the canons I requested! I think you need to know the books they're based on to read, but if you do, they are absolutely not to be missed.

I'm really moved and delighted not only by the quality of the stories, but how closely they were based on my prompts and how much thought went into writing something that I specifically would love.

Bird and Bear and Hare and Fish. Absolutely stunning story based in Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series.

“Roland, aside from giving us the heebie-jeebies about getting eaten by the giant painting we all have to sleep in front of, did that story have a point?

From prose to character to dialogue to themes to references, it's everything I love about the canon and reads just like it, plus some added cool bits that I don't want to spoil. (The story definitely is best read unspoiled.) It's an ensemble adventure in which the ka-tet finds their way blocked by a creepy painting, and that's all I'm going to say about it. Read for yourself and praise the author as they deserve.

Works of Mercy. Fantastic, beautifully plotted and characterized canon AU of Stephen King's The Stand, in which a single different choice spins out in unpredictable ways to create a whole new world. It's under 6K but feels epic. Like the "Dark Tower" story, every bit of it is pitch-perfect to canon, especially the focus on individual choice and the little moments that tell. Though it manages to work in a whole lot of characters for its length (all perfectly characterized), the focus is on Jenny Engstrom, Dayna Jurgens, and Nadine Cross; it's at once a thoughtful and detailed AU, an in-depth and believable character study of Jenny, and the believable sexy, in-character Jenny/Dayna romance I've always wanted.

with our way lit only by stars. From Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, a canon AU set post-Farthest Shore in which things go in a different direction than Tehanu, featuring Ged without powers but not yet done with doing, Tenar deciding to see more of the world than Gont, and a trip to see old friends. It's got a lovely delicate, peaceful atmosphere, lovely details of Earthsea with the exact canon blend of earthy and otherworldly, and shows that middle age doesn't mean the end of adventures or new sources of happiness and wonder. Vetch and Yarrow appear, older but still very much themselves; there's good food, tiny dragons, and joy in all things.
Via [profile] cofax, have an AMAZING selection of free (plus extremely low-priced) ebooks from Open Road Media.. It's weighted toward off from the 80s, which was a good time for sff in my opinion, and has some great stuff that should not be missed if you like that sort of thing, or want to have e-editions in addition to paper ones. Lots of stuff by both well-known and unfairly obscure writers, many women who ought to be better-known or have not published in a while.

I have no idea how long it will last, so grab what you want now. It's a long list and I mostly navigated by spotting books by authors I was interested in, then clicking on their names and sorting their author page by Kindle, then by price (low-high) to see if they had more freebies. Jane Yolen, Dave Duncan, Robert Silverberg, Nancy Springer, Patricia Wrede, R. A. MacAvoy (not her best books, sadly), and many more authors have multiple freebies. Weirdly, in a number of cases book two or three of a trilogy is free but book one is full-price; no idea what's up with that.

If there's anything on the list you'd like to rec, please do! Here's just a few of the many I rec:

People of the Sky, by Clare Bell. Interesting anthropological sf about a planet where people ride giant dragonflies. I have not read this in ages but recall enjoying it, so look forward to revisiting it. The Jaguar Princess, an Incan fantasy, is also free. Bell also wrote a series about intelligent prehistoric cats discovering fire; she is unusually good at carefully thought-out odd or non-human perspectives.

The Cursed, by Dave Duncan. Clever fantasy about a plague that brings quite original curse-or-blessing (mostly curse) superpowers to a medieval world. Heroine is a middle-aged innkeeper. I wish Duncan had written a sequel, but it's satisfying on its own.

I also picked up everything I have not yet read by Dave Duncan (I basically grabbed everything free of his - there's LOTS - Rose-Red City, Shadows, Strings, Hero, Wildcatter, Pook's World, Ill-Met in the Arena, Hero). He's a reliably enjoyable writer with consistently interesting, unusual settings and premises. Anyone read those or others?

The Ladies of Mandrigyn (The Sun Wolf and Starhawk), by Barbara Hambly. When the men of a township are kidnapped and enslaved, the women attempt to hire (and then kidnap) a mercenary to teach them to fight. Great (very realistic) martial arts and training sequences, large cast of well-drawn characters, thoughtful exploration of gender roles that goes beyond the obvious, and a super-dark magic system. I like this a lot and now I can take it everywhere I go.

Caught in Crystal (The Lyra Novels), by Patricia Wrede. A series of standalone novels in the same world; others are also free. This one is my favorite. It has a rickety plot but a charming cast of characters and a great world. Kayl was once a member of a sisterhood of adventurers, but retired to marry, have kids, settle down, and run an inn. After her husband's death, she's a middle-aged mom... until her past comes back to haunt her. Virtually the only fantasy novel I've ever read in which the parent is the hero and she takes her kids along because, come on, who ditches their kids? I got a fantastic Yuletide fic for this once, Echoes. It's backstory so it's not spoilery.

Cards of Grief / Jane Yolen. Really unusual sf novel about a planet whose culture centers around grieving rituals. As usual for Yolen, it's an odd combination of fantasy and sf (I would call it science fantasy) and explores the process by which events become myth.

Dragonfield And Other Stories, by Jane Yolen. Lovely collection of her short stories. ETA: Just saw that Tales of Wonder is also free. It's even better. Get both. Merlin's Booke too.

Yolen has lots for free. I'd say it's all good except her books with Robert Harris, which don't read much like her.

I also bought many I have not yet read, such as...

Watchtower (The Chronicles of Tornor Book 1) and others by Elizabeth Lynn (classic fantasy I never got around to reading, involves lesbians and martial arts I think/hope?)

Moon Called and Wheel of Stars by Andre Norton. I seem to have not read these. There's other freebies of hers which I already have.

Reefsong and others by Carol Severance. Polynesian fantasy and island-set sf.

I also snagged miscellaneous free books I have not read by Robert Silverberg, Greg Bear, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Nancy Springer, Cynthia Kadohata, Lisa Goldstein, Pat Murphy, Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Carroll, and Liz Williams. There's also quite a bit of free Piers Anthony. I mean. If you're curious.

Anything I missed?
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Dec. 17th, 2016 01:32 pm)
My fandom stocking is up!

If anyone would like to take a look, it's from a fandom holiday gift fest. I wrote about what sort of stuff I'd like to get as gifts, and you can comment with fic, links, or other nice things. Comments will be screened and invisible until the reveal. It's sort of like Yuletide minus the matching, with no minimum length for stories and also non-story stuff allowed.

Many other people also have browsable stockings, so spread the love!
Penric’s Shaman

A lovely novella about a young magician-priest in a world where Gods are real, the mostly-benevolent demon possessing him (actually, ten demons; it’s complicated), another priest who’s less uptight than he seems at first, a runaway shaman, several ghosts, and some very unusual dogs. It’s set in Bujold’s Curse of Chalion world, but you don’t need to have read those novels to read this. However, I would ideally read “Penric’s Demon” first for background.

This feels much more fresh, human, and heartfelt to me than recent Vorkosigan novels. The characters are well-drawn in a short space, with compelling predicaments both practical and moral/ethical. There are no real villains among the major characters, just people with different cultures, backgrounds, beliefs and duties. The climax was very touching. I love the way Bujold depicts the Gods. They are awe-invoking, worthy of worship without negating the value or meaning of human choice.

Penric's Mission

This one picks up ten years after the last. Penric is older but still his essential self, no less sweet for being a little more world-weary. I liked Shaman a little more but mostly because I was more intrigued by the magic and loved the climax of that one so much. Mission is also very good, just different.

Penric's mission, a bit of secret letter delivery, goes pear-shaped almost immediately, tossing him into a particularly nasty dungeon (and enabling an inventive escape). He then assigns himself a new mission involving some difficult medical magic (warning for graphic eye injury) and an understated romance.

If the magic has gone out of the Vorkosiverse, at least to my taste, it's very much alive in these stories. They're inventive, thoughtful, and heartfelt.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Nov. 14th, 2016 05:02 pm)
If you want to say something nice, you can here or there: http://kaberett.dreamwidth.org/548958.html?thread=6071902#cmt6071902

It's not that I need my self-esteem bolstered. I have pretty good self-esteem, I think I'm a good person and deserve nice things, etc. If anything, probably I have too much self-esteem. It's that my life sucks in a way that has nothing to do with me as a person and isn't my fault. It still sucks, and there's nothing I can do to make things better for myself. So if I've made your life better, that would be nice to hear.

(Please don't comment about things I might do in the future. It will be depressing for me because there is absolutely no guarantee that I will ever do literally anything in the future. Please stick to things I've already done.)
A beautifully written memoir about Macdonald training a goshawk after the sudden death of her beloved father, partly but not entirely as a distraction from her grief. The goshawk was not her first bird of prey; as a little girl she was obsessed with T. H. White’s (The Once and Future King) odd memoir The Goshawk, in which he tries to train a goshawk and does everything wrong. She becomes a falconer as a result, determined to do better. Not that that would be hard. White was a lot better a writing than falconry.

White and his book figure prominently in Macdonald’s book, as they were much on her mind as she trained her own goshawk. I thought this was well-integrated and interesting, but I’d already read The Goshawk, The Once and Future King is one of my two favorite King Arthur books and the first part, The Sword in the Stone, was a formative book of my childhood, and my favorite scene in it was the one where the young Arthur is transformed into a hawk – a merlin – by Merlyn. I’m not sure how it would come across to someone without any previous knowledge of or interest in White. On the other hand, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in memoirs, interactions with the natural world, nature writing, or grief regardless of their interest in falconry, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

The Goshawk is much more about White himself than it is about his hawk; H is for Hawk is also more about Macdonald than about her hawk, but she's more interested in her goshawk as an animal of a particular type, with its own personality, than White is. While his goshawk does come through as a personality, to White it's more a representation of ideas. He's trying to engage in an epic spiritual struggle, with the hawk variously as an opponent to be defeated, a object of desire to be seduced, etc. It's not really surprising that it didn't end well. He's using the training of his hawk as a way to go further inward, into himself. Macdonald is using it to go outward, away from herself (though she ends up facing herself whether she wants to or not), and that plus her pre-existing knowledge and experience means that her relationship with her bird is much less adversarial and more kind.

No harm comes to Macdonald’s goshawk, but she describes how White harmed his out of ignorance of how to train a falcon. He didn’t hit it or anything like that, but his training methods were damaging and may have led to its death – it escapes him, but probably did not survive long in the wild. Also, obviously the book contains hunting.

H Is for Hawk

The Goshawk: With a new foreword by Helen Macdonald

The Once and Future King by T. H. White
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Oct. 27th, 2016 01:15 pm)
Mary Roach’s schtick is breezy, quirky science/history of science nonfiction on odd, often gross subjects (corpses (Stiff), life after death (Spook), digestion (Gulp), in which her investigation is part of the story. Also one-word titles. Her best book, on space exploration (Packing for Mars) is the only one without a one-word title; it’s her funniest, especially the memorably gross chapters on bathing or rather not bathing (NASA’s experiment on exactly how long it takes for your underwear to rot off feels more sadistic than their chimp experiments), going to the bathroom (EWWW), and food (at one point, created by veterinarians until the astronauts rebelled at eating kibble.)

In general, her books are fun but suffer from a lack of depth; she frequently raises interesting questions and then either fails to explore or fails to write about the answers. This is most noticeable when you happen to know something about the subject, which is why Bonk, on the history of sex research, was particularly unmemorable to me.

Grunt is a mid-level Mary Roach book. I know something but not tons about the subject (the science of less-written aspects of war, such as uniforms, stink bombs, shark repellant and vehicular safety), so it was reasonably informative and generally engrossing. In contrast to NASA, which was hilariously uptight about its image and in a perpetual state of horror at Roach’s questions about zero-gravity sex and astronaut toilets, the US military was surprisingly enthusiastic about letting her write about the gross stuff. As a result, she got access to submarines, labs, hospitals, and all sorts of trainings. This part was much more interesting to me than the military history parts, which I generally already knew about.

But the issue of “go deeper” and “and then what?” remained. For example, she mentions that uniforms need to look cool because soldiers won’t wear critical items if they make them look like dweebs. She reports one unintended result of this, which is that the Navy got blue camouflage; when she finally found a Navy commander willing to comment on the purpose of this, he dryly remarked, “It’s so if anyone falls overboard we won’t be able to find them.” And that is the sum total of her reporting on that issue.

To me, this is a fascinating topic that could have been a chapter all by itself. Something she doesn’t mention but which I’ve read about elsewhere is that in a recent war US soldiers were getting a lot of eye injuries due to failure to wear eye protection. When asked, they said it made them look stupid. The Army called in Rayban to consult in designing cooler eyewear, and eye injuries went down.

How did Rayban define cool when designing military hardware? Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance? Did the dorky eyewear also have some more significant drawback, such as limiting vision? What would soldiers say if you got them in a real conversation over exactly what they’re thinking when they set aside their protective gear, the meaning and importance of coolness, the value of safety, and whether any of this relates to why they’re in the military at all?

The book doesn’t get into any of these questions, instead focusing, in the clothing chapter, on whether bomb-proof underwear exists (not really, but you can design undies to reduce infection in case of below-undie blast injuries) and how uniforms are safety-tested. Interesting stuff, but I’d have preferred more depth and detail. And that was my feeling about the entire book.

A book on war and specifically on the US military in a time of war has some implicit questions, namely “Is it all worth it?” and “What exactly is the point of all this?” Roach doesn’t address these questions explicitly, though the content of some chapters brings them to the reader’s mind, until the very last paragraph, where she does so with pointedness and grace. But it’s literally one paragraph. In Packing on Mars, those questions were central to the book and she asked them of a number of people she spoke to. They’re what gave that book the depth that’s missing from her others. Those are touchy issues in a military context, but they’re touchy at NASA too given that astronauts do die and the space program is constantly at risk of cancellation.

I doubt very much that Roach was banned from asking those questions while she researched this book. Maybe she thought they were too sensitive or people would shut down if she asked or she did ask but ended up deciding the answers would make her book too political for a science book. Who knows. But I wish the larger questions were more present. It might have taken the book from “worthwhile if the subject interests you” to “excellent nonfiction of general interest to anyone who can take the content.”

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War


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