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I read this book tonight, so with this I am entirely caught up. Yay! Also, I have been doing this for more than a hundred days now, whoa. Remind me to write up how I feel about that at some point.

I am never sure how I feel about the word 'twee'. I can't tell a lot of the time what people mean by it, and even when I stumble across something I'm pretty sure is genuinely twee, such as Tanith Lee's terrifying cotton-candy first novel from earlier in the year, I can't tell exactly what I think is wrong with it, except that it hurts to read because something-or-other is too much of a muchness.

This book has helped me define that, because it is pretty damn twee and that's the only thing that's wrong with it. A book is twee if the entire world of it, not just any given character, is an author Mary Sue. Let me unpack that. The characters in this book are not Mary Sues; they have flaws and can be wrong and their flaws are significant to the plot. But the reason they have flaws is that they are flaws the author thinks are just adorable. His eleven-year-old heroine hates her sisters and does horrible things to them (although of course deep down she loves them really), but they are horrible things the author thinks are cute and funny and wants you to think are cute and funny. "Oh, of course," you are meant to say to yourself fondly, "people in this sort of situation just don't have much emotional intelligence. How dear of them." He is, for a long stretch, too enamored of his world to give it any teeth, to put in anything he thinks is unpleasant (as opposed to what he thinks you the reader will find unpleasant, and I should like to point out that what I actually find unpleasant is the author beaming at me mistily from the background going See I Remembered The Horrors Of These People's Past Traumas).

If you suspect that the entire worldbuilding and plot of a book could be described to you by the author as 'things I thought were precious', the book has a problem with twee.

Which is a shame, because there's a real book under there, best described as a valiant attempt to rewrite I Capture the Castle as actually Miss Marple, with elements of that other Castle book (We Have Always Lived In The, I mean). The eleven-year-old heroine is too clever and idiosyncratic to be remotely realistic, but she is enjoyable, and everything plotwise ticks along, and there are occasional moments where it is almost but not quite Cold Comfort Farm, which is a perfectly reasonable ambition for a book to have in its life. There is vitally important philatelism and clambering around unsafely on the tops of buildings and bicycling while singing at the top of one's lungs. It's clever and fun and funny and different.

It's just not half so clever and fun and funny and different as it thinks it is, and would have been more of all of those if it hadn't known itself to be a witty book. The trick of one particular kind of humor is the audience can't tell you know you're funny.

Ah well. The twee gets much less prevalent as the book goes on. I may even try the sequel. I have a pretty high cute tolerance, mostly.

Edited to clarify confusing sentence. This is why I shouldn't write at four a.m.
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Back, home, rested, backlogged. Oh, so backlogged. I have been faithfully reading a book every day, but lo, there was traveling. So the first review here is for the book I read on Thanksgiving Day, yeesh. And the next batch of reviews are probably going to be fairly short until I catch the heck up.

Swan for the Money is the eleventh of the Donna Andrews mystery series I've been reading, not that it matters as I have read three of them, out of sequence, and while there is chronological progression it doesn't make much difference. It is true, as various people have suggested to me, that the ones not set at a reenactment fair or a con are not remotely as fun. This one is set at a rose show, which, you will note, is neither a reenactment fair nor a con. It's not that it wasn't a fun book, but it didn't have either the thing where I recognized exactly what was going on as a perfect parody of exactly what would be going on or the thing where it felt like a fresh new place to set a mystery-- I mean, Hercule Poirot went to rose shows; they're exactly the sort of thing you get in Ye Olde-Schoole Country House Plot. It is possible that if I were a person who goes to rose shows, this would be a good parody, but as I am not I would have liked the book to be a good takeoff on the sort of mystery novel set at rose shows, and it may have been trying to be that but if so it was not succeeding. I got through it on a sort of general affability and the usual wittiness. I am going to track down and buy the two I really liked and probably read the rest of this series whenever I am in the mood for something pleasantly harmless. Will let you all know if any of the rest turn out to be brilliant.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I read Growing Fruits, which is a guide put out by the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. We have in our garden lemon trees, pomegranates, figs, persimmons, a nice new olive tree, and hypothetical future grapes, so I was actively looking for pointers. I concluded that the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is not located in Zone 8b, which I suppose I should have known going in, only everything else on Ruth's aunt's shelf of books from the same source said All-Region Guide, and this one (which was of course the one that might have been relevant) did not. I did however learn things about growing fruits somewhere else! The book covers many of the most common varieties of fruit-- apple, pear, stone fruits, various berries-- and discusses planting, pruning, harvesting, common diseases, how to select a specific varietal of your fruit, and so on. They have handy little charts saying whether the kind of apple you want will work in your zone (no), and a chapter on rarer fruits which covers things like pawpaw and lady-apple and jujube and anything else that totally is not on the list of Things In Our Garden, seriously, it was like they'd seen the list, how rare is it to try to grow lemons really. I discovered that I am officially terrified of pruning as their recommended method appears to remove half the tree and caused me to start whimpering about how our figs are only so high anyway. Also, we are apparently in an area where grapes standardly get some weird disease, which I remember hearing vaguely about from other sources and which means we should resign ourselves to possible failure or else get the disease-resistant kind that don't taste as good. Okay then. At any rate, if you live anywhere near or at least in the same latitude as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, this is a thorough, readable, illustrated, friendly book I could totally see using as your fruit bible. Although I am probably not pruning the pomegranates to their recommendation because honestly we mostly have them for the foliage. And it is not worth trying to get the olive to bear, really, because no one wants to take the time to soak the fruit in salt water and beat it with a stick so we can eat it. At least, no one here, if you want to we can talk about that.

On the day after that I read Around the World in Eighty Days, by Michael Palin, a present from [personal profile] sovay, who is one of those persons beyond price who consistently gets me books I wouldn't have thought of and find interesting. This was great, this was the sort of book that makes you devoutly hope the author has gone out and written about seventy-three more, which I see via Google that he has in fact done. Palin did a BBC TV series in which he did actually go around the world in eighty days with no air travel, not quite staying entirely in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg but starting from the door of the same club in London (and he calls his attendant filming staff, en masse, Passepartout). I can't better his words about why he did it and I'm not going to try:

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognized psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I'm glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet, but it's a less fashionable journey now than in Jules Verne's day. Part of the reason is that you can do it by air in 36 hours (a technological feat that Verne would have greatly appreciated). But air travel shrink-wraps the world by leaving it small, odourless, tidy and usually out of sight.

There are container vessels which will take you round in 63 days, but you will see only water on 58 of those. The reason why Phileas Fogg's 80-day journey retains its appeal is that it is still the minimum needed to go round the world and notice it.

His modes of travel include container ship, dhow, train, car across the entire Arabian peninsula, dogsled and hot-air balloon, the last two included solely because at that point he was aiming for the gratuitous. He describes being attacked by a parrot in Hong Kong (he informed the parrot it had mistaken him for John Cleese), being forced through a truly ridiculously embarrassing crossing-the-line ceremony at the International Date Line, and getting into his compartment on India Rail to discover that there were already two people in there who insisted their names were Michael Palin, one of whom was female (he sat in the corridor). He is mistaken for Michael Caine, Michael Jackson, and, in fact, John Cleese. His prose is consistently witty but reaches touching without straining itself, and he has a gift with an incisive lyrical description in about three words. Also, this is a really fascinating document of the way the world was in 1989-- there are long stretches of this when he was out of touch with the rest of the world in a way that I think would simply not happen now that there are cell phones, and I also suspect that one can no longer drive a film crew across the Arabian peninsula on no notice at all. And Hong Kong was still British and he speculates about what might happen at the handover (and basically gets it right). Highly, highly recommended.

If I keep up reviews at three a day, I'll be caught up on... Friday. Well, better then than never. We'll see how it goes.
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I'll be traveling for Thanksgiving starting tomorrow, and am not sure of the internet situation, so, as with last time I went somewhere, I'll be reading a book every day and putting up the reviews when I get back (a week from Wednesday).

This is the second one I've read of Donna Andrews' Meg Langslow mysteries, and I have no idea where it is in the series order, nor do I care. I'm sure they have an internal chronology, but I don't think it actually matters.

I found this just as charming and delightful as Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos, and it also made me very happy by taking place entirely at a con. The previous mystery I'd read set at a con was Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun, which is a horrible mean-spirited book that I hated and have been trying to forget ever since. This is an antidote to that. It's a media-fandom con, so it's a little different from any of the flavors of con I've been to, but it was intensely recognizable anyway. Good books set at cons are rare.

There was a scene in which the principal actors from the TV show sat around in the green room doing a dramatic reading of some of the worst slash fic they could find about their characters. Apparently I had secretly been wanting that scene in a novel for years now.

There is also swordfighting both stage and otherwise, actual parrots (and monkeys, and tiger), crucial information provided through fan trivia contest, and a set of running gags about how bad the show actually is that were really impressive. The show sounds kind of like Xena crossed with Conan the Barbarian and the HBO miniseries about the Tudors and would in real life obviously be very popular while being completely appalling on every level.

No blacksmithery in this installment, but I didn't really miss it. If these books keep being lovely witty fluffy confections that never cause me to want to throw them across the room I am going to have to buy them all, because I can't imagine better comfort reading. Humor that works for me is rarer than I'd like.
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Yesterday's review. Wrists still bad, but bracing and heat helped. Many thanks to [personal profile] 17catherines and [personal profile] jinian for the recommendation, as this is really, really not something I would ever have picked up without a rec, and I enjoyed it.

This is I think the third? in its series, but it was a perfectly reasonable starting point that did not appear to depend heavily on the previous. The protagonist is a blacksmith who makes her living at craft fairs, which got its attention by myself, because I enjoy blacksmithery. The awesome one of my two fathers-in-law is a blacksmith, and this book got the preoccupations right, although the protagonist is slightly less obsessed with making her own tools to do things to iron than my father-in-law is. (He says that when you buy a forge, you fill a bowl with marbles, and then every time you forge yourself a new tool you remove a marble from the bowl, and when you've lost all your marbles you're a master blacksmith. He hit that point years ago.) But some of the speeches she makes about various metal-related things could have come out of his mouth, so I approve.

Also, this book took place entirely at a reenactment of the Battle of Yorktown, and I recognized that too. One of the funnier things in the book is that the protagonist's boyfriend's mother is, for those of you who read Connie Willis, essentially Lady Schrapnell by way of the Anachronism Police-- there will be no cell phones here on her watch!-- and it is consistently well-timed and well-implemented screwball comedy in the old sense.

Honestly, that's most of what I have to say about this: consistently well-done old-style character-based comedy which manages not to annoy me about gender or race, which neither has the book break under the weight of the nastiness of having a corpse turn up nor has everyone be all right with a corpse turning up to a psychologically unrealistic extent, and which is not intending to be deep in any sense and is therefore profoundly relaxing. It is exactly what I was looking for for a tired reading day, and is better than it had to be. These go in the mental slot labeled 'ideal beach reading'.

Cut for an excerpt by way of example. )
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Recommended and made available to me by B. and consequently while the internet tells me that there was probably a U.S. edition, and I am certain of a British edition, this copy is from Peshawar. B. suggested this book strongly enough that I tried to find a U.S. copy and had no luck. Just to mention that at the start.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22 (oh dear, sorry, wrong book, ahem:) Mohammed Hanif's first and so far only novel is a fictionalized version of events surrounding the (entirely real) plane crash which killed the then President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, and several generals in August 1988. B. described it as a mystery novel, the blurb is by John le Carré, the back calls it a black comedy and biting satire and I could add several other genres to that list except that even to mention several of them would critically spoil the plot.

One thread of the novel is on the level of international affairs: looks inside the head of Zia, his bodyguard, his generals, his wife. This thread is comedy so black it occasionally comes around the other side and starts being funny because it's so insistently not funny at all; the problem is that much of it is quite believable and if the world actually works this way we are probably all doomed, which is what makes the book genuinely hilarious. You laugh that you may not hurt your head from face-palming. It's kind of amazing that twenty years is sufficient statute of limitations for a satire this vicious, except that from everything I've heard somebody had to do it.

The other thread follows Ali Shigri, a young officer in the Pakistani Air Force whose much more illustrious military father's suicide was recently staged by upper government officials. Shigri is in no particular order competent, intelligent, bitter, cynical, funny, about six times as naive as he thinks he is, desperately in love, obsessively grieving, and in entirely over his head. His first person narration gives the book its heart and is almost noirish, except with more being beaten up and thrown into prison by one's superior officers than usual. He provides the focus for the ridiculous number of plots swirling about, as of course the question is not whether anyone staged the plane crash, but who it might have been. And what they were thinking, and whether any of this was remotely intentional. Shigri is that rare thing in a noir or a satire, a hero who can rise to actual tragedy; his hatred of God is the most optimistic thing about the book and every time we see it it is genuinely cheering.

If looked at objectively, this ought to be the most depressing book I've read all year, but I mean it when I say it is funny-- laugh-out-loud funny, on multiple occasions-- and it's just too good to be depressing. The plotting's too good, the characters are too good, the ironies of history and the ironies of fate and the ironies that are the author smiling at you from behind his meta and saying now, really, what were you expecting? and proceeding with, if there is such a thing, the opposite of eucatastrophe, one truly, truly epic fuck-up. This book is a child of Heller and Orwell, by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and though I will not claim greatness for it, it has learned some lessons from its parents. Among which is to be genuinely enjoyable, so that the audience doesn't run away immediately. And I like it better than Catch-22, which is sometimes gratuitously nasty, whereas this one is never gratuitous.

This has the feel of an authorial one-off, one of those books where the writer may well have said (fully and successfully) what he had to say. But if Hanif writes another novel I will be very interested, and I recommend this one, to those who have an extremely high tolerance for cynicism.
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Recommended by [profile] domficfan. This is the third of the Erast Fandorin series of mystery novels, and the library has not as yet consented to cough up the first two, so I decided to start here, and indeed it is quite possible to start with this book.

So the awesome things about this are twofold: Erast Fandorin, our detective; and the setting. The setting is Bulgaria in 1877, in the middle of the Russo-Turkish War. Erast Fandorin is an occasional policeman, occasional soldier, occasional diplomat, and one of those quietly understatedly competent people who actually run things. Amazingly enough, he isn't annoying, either. And I cannot overemphasize the interest of the setting. It's not a war I know much about, but it's a fascinating mixture of medieval and modern tech, everyone getting everywhere on trains but still fighting occasional bandits in the backcountry, discussing people one generation back who were kidnapped by pirates in parts of the Mediterranean, getting all the Paris papers every morning off the telegraph.

The mystery plot, on the other hand, might literally have been written by Agatha Christie. It's exactly the way she thinks. It's a perfectly competent mystery plot, with the usual high treason and murder, and it lends an odd air of cognitive dissonance because this was not, necessarily, where one was expecting to see it. I think it works. Maybe? Serious cognitive dissonance! It's like Agatha Christie started writing Dorothy Dunnett and it takes a bit of work to get my head around. Actually, the previous sentence summarizes fairly well both what I liked and what I didn't about this book.

I am also decidedly unsure about the young female narrator who is clearly a character specific to this particular novel, as there are ways in which she is very young and ways in which she is very culture-bound; and this means I cannot actually tell whether I am annoyed about how Akunin portrays women as I must go find another woman portrayed by Akunin to see whether that one is any different. At any rate, there is only one woman in this book, though, given the setting, that makes some sense. And she doesn't do that much, but she is also clearly one of those people designed, by their own basic natures, not to do that much. I need a larger sample size. I shall probably go back and try to find one of the first two books, as in fact one does not find out much about them from this-- things I think must have been in there are alluded to, but not described in detail. This works as a stand-alone despite being the third in a thirteen-book series.

The translation, by Andrew Bromfield, is perfectly workmanlike.

I note also that there have been Russian films of the first three books and an English-language film of the first due anytime now, and I may have to hunt those down whether I decide I really like these or not, as I cannot imagine a book more suited to make a very interesting movie. It is entirely possible I'd like a movie better than the book. It would rather depend on who played Erast Fandorin.


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