Mar. 1st, 2017

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Brian's in Nashville this week and I've had very few commitments, so I've been cleaning house and hustling for more business and making all kinds of progress on my to-do an alternate universe. In this one, I've been spending an unhealthy amount of time reading social media and streaming shows. (Riverdale may well be my new guilty pleasure.) But I've also been doing a fair amount of reading:

What I've just finished reading

An Unseen Attraction, by K.J. Charles. One of her best works so far. It's devilishly tricky to write quiet, unassuming main characters who're also compelling, and Charles manages beautifully here. Plus, surprisingly for a romance, I loved the politics. Neither of the primary characters are political in the least, but (as with people in every era) political issues suffuse their everyday life: questions of gender roles, of racial identity, even of environmental pollution (these were the days of the London Particulars, after all). After reading any number of "Regency England" romances that hand-wave away the Napoleonic wars and the pervasive fears of revolution and numerous other aspects of the social zeitgeist, it's refreshing to see a period romance that's placed firmly within the tenor of the times.

The Lawrence Browne Affair, by Cat Sebastian. This was an Amazon recommendation algorithm impulse purchase, and initially I was afraid I'd wasted the $2. Especially coming after Charles' by-now-polished depiction of character and chemistry, the first act of this story felt rough at best; the broad strokes of the characters were promising (a con man who poses as a secretary to an agoraphobic earl and finds he's attracted to his mark) but there was a lot of tell-don't-show and the pacing of the building-attraction was frustratingly scattershot. That said, I'm not sorry I stuck with it; things smoothed out somewhat as the story proceeded, and the characters became endearing, even if their romance never quite reached its scorchingly-hot potential. Given how often the reverse happens and I wonder why I even bothered finishing a book, it was a pleasant surprise.

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. The behemoth audiobook (36 hours), surmounted at last! For all Chernow's exhaustive research, what really makes this book fascinating is his talent for finding the human drama behind what might (in the hands of a lesser historian) come across as dry sausage-making. Indeed, it's that very drama that I found both fascinating and oddly reassuring about this book. The many printed broadsides, pamphlets, registers and newspapers served as the period's social media, and thus have preserved a remarkable cross-section of the public chatter; as Chernow notes, it was not at all uncommon for private letters to be opened in transit and their contents sent to the presses. The rhetoric that surrounded the creation and early years of our country was no less violent, extreme, or ill-considered as that which has more recently surrounded the creation of the ACA, or the 2016 elections. Americans - even prominent politicians who theoretically should know better - have always denounced their enemies as illegitimate, slung mud at their opponents, threatened secession when things didn't go their way, and declared the moral and spiritual decline of the culture. After months of reading a social media feed full of similarly extreme rhetoric, it's surprisingly calming to realize that none of this is new, and that while the survival of our nation and its values is hardly guaranteed, we've certainly weathered similar storms in the past.

What I'm reading now

The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber. Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) for a series starring a female starship captain, there's something about the gender politics of the Honor Harrington series that doesn't quite sit right with me. I have yet to quite put my finger on it; certainly Harrington herself is a fine character, intelligent and proactive and ambitious. Still, there's something about how her various problems and weaknesses - an occasionally crippling lack of self-confidence, a near pathological fear of advanced math, an inability to make her first crew respect her, a youthful encounter with a would-be rapist which she didn't report because "no one would believe she was attractive enough" - are all problems we associate with femininity, while her strengths - supreme self-possession, keen intellect, ambitiousness, physical prowess (which she used to fight the aforementioned rapist off) - are traits we consider inherently masculine. It's an insidious bit of coding, especially in a series that one would hope would be a little more enlightened. Obviously I liked enough about it to give this second installment a go, but given that our intrepid Captain and her crew are headed toward a planet notorious for its backward gender politics, my hopes are not high - I expect we're going to see a lot of comparative "Look how enlightened the main characters are" with little examination of the author's problematic assumptions. But maybe this one will surprise me too!

What I plan to read next

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is the first of a series of three novellas set in the world of Chalion, a high fantasy world with a surprisingly complete and fascinating religious system. (I occasionally wonder if, were I an adherent, my soul would be taken up by the Mother of Summer or the Bastard. To all appearances my life favors healing and order, but I have just enough of a socially perverse streak to appreciate the chaos and destruction - and, thus, opportunities for improvement - that trickster gods bring. And frankly, I love the idea of a patron god of bastards, non-heteronormative lovers, and other social outsiders.) Bujold is one of my all-time favorite authors, and for all that the Vorkosigan series is probably my favorite, the nontraditional protagonists and subverted fantasy tropes of the Chalion series make it a close second.


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