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So the thing is: I am not a blogger by nature. I love writing books. I love writing short stories. But when it comes down to blogging, I would rather spend my limited energy on fiction. I thought about writing quick reviews of books I’m reading (I do love reading), or movies I’m watching (I don’t like watching movies very much), or music I’m listening to, or recipes I’m trying, or pet shenanigans, or writing tips, or even my endless struggle with the mud pit that is my yard (this year I’m trying clover!) …. and honestly, it all starts to seem like noise. Just empty static. White noise.

I love social media, but oh my god there is so much of it! There’s so much of everything. It’s a constant hum in our minds–an endless source of distraction (some very delightful, some infuriating and worthy of rising to fight for) and honestly, if you’ve ever been in your house when all the power goes out… you know it’s an actual physical sound. The silence in a powerless house is remarkable.

There is so much noise. And in the end, I just don’t want to add to it without having something worth saying.

So primarily, this blog is a place-holder. If I have books to promote–mine or others–I’ll do it from here. If I have events I’m planning on attending, I will let people know here, as well as the inevitable twitter, facebook, and instagram.

Until then, peace and restful quiet to you all.

Photo by Josh Sorenson, courtesy of Pexels

Romance novels

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, have a non-exhaustive list of romances that I have read recently and really enjoyed. It always surprises me that I can come up with titles, because if you asked me if I read romances, my response would be: only rarely.

Yet, when I stop to think about it, that’s just not true. It’s simply that the romances I read are masked in some way—either they have a large fantasy element and I think of them as SF/F, or they’re in a format that slips by labeling.

So, recent reads that I recommend.

Freya Marske’s A Restless Truth. F/F

Romantic and funny, plus with a locked-room murder mystery of sorts, in that the heroine’s companion is murdered on a ship and there’s nowhere for the murderer to escape to. Maud and Voilet are great characters, well-drawn, and believably suited to each other. This is book 2 in The Last Binding Trilogy, and it’s even better than the first, A Marvellous Light.

A J Lancaster’s A Rake of His Own. M/M

This is book 5 of the Stariel series, and although it features a separate couple than the previous four books do, I would hesitate to call it stand-alone. There’s just too much water under the bridge and too much world-building. That’s okay. While I loved this book, I loved the previous books too. This whole series is very satisfying.  Watching the faerie prince and uptight Marius Valstar, the botanical scholar interact is a delight. Also there’s a murder. (I like fantasy murder mysteries!) The whole series is one of my comfort reads.

Lana Harper’s Payback’s a Witch, and Back in a Spell. F/F & M/F respectively.

These are books 1 & 3 of the Thistle Grove Witch series. (See what I mean about fantasy? But no murders here.) These are pretty much stand alone; the set up is not particularly complex. The fun of these is in the characters! With witchy powers as well.

And, of course, the Olivia Atwater Regency Faerie Tale Series. Half a Soul, Ten Thousand Stitches, and Longshadow. Half a Soul is one of those books that I recommend any chance I get and would have to have it pried from my hands before I would give it up. I’ve reread it at least twice. Just excellent; her take on faeries makes them very strange and odd, and I love it.

So when it comes to contemporary romance, this is where I really usually double down and think, no I don’t read romance. Again, I’m wrong. Some of my favorite novellas of the past year are contemporary romance. They’re just on Archive of Our Own.

Copperbadge is a fandom stalwart for a reason. He’s prolific and good! But last year, he’s been giving his readers the super entertaining Shivadhverse, which as far as I can tell, began with the hallmark inspired prompt of what happens if a chef meets a prince and they fall in love, and that chef is inspired by Guy Fieri. Delightful things happen. Eddie Rambler and Crown Prince Gregory are adorable and sensible, and I loved them immensely. Apparently their author did too, because we’ve gotten a series of excellent spin-off novellas involving other characters in the world. The series starts with Fête for a King.  

Relearning to cook

I used to be a solid cook. I could make decent, if not fancy, meals easily and for large quantities of people. I liked cooking.

Then I started having food allergies and food intolerances. Things I used to be able to eat and now can not: red meat, dairy (which includes CHEESE, the utter horror!), coconut, onions, anything cured or fermented… The list goes depressingly on and on. Losing red meat is sad, but cheese is devastating. I am the child who would not eat school lunches until the incredibly kind school cook just started making me a grilled cheese every single day. Then I would eat. I love cheese like crazy. Grilled cheese, mac and cheese, cheesy toast, cheese sticks, cheese and crackers, bagels and cream cheese…. Mmm an everything bagel, toasted just so, with a quick slather of tangy cream cheese….

A cheese board was my annual indulgence at thanksgiving: sure, you all go ahead and have turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes–I made a cheese board and I’m gonna eat it all up. Purple Haze goat cheese? Don’t mind if I do. (Seriously, this cheese is the best! I miss it, go eat some for me.)

What I’m saying is that cheese was my go-to meal starter, my default food.

So for the last couple of years, it’s been resentful cooking of bland chicken and random vegetables at best or meals that I knew would make me sick at worst. (I miss ice cream and why did Haagen Dazs discontinue their lemon sorbet!)

I have not tested the cheese alternatives; they’re a little too pricey to want to experiment with. If you have recommendations, I will gladly take them. (Oat milk chocolate is an abomination, just FYI. Texture is right; taste is … oatmeal.)

Recently, I’ve just accepted that I have to start over with my cooking. It has always been heavily slanted toward tex-mex and americana; now I need to branch out.

So far, it’s been Asian inspired foods. I am lucky enough to have a tasty poke restaurant in town, which has given me new ideas about how to make food appealing. Hard to feel deprived when you’re eating poke. I’m deliberately stepping away from the types of foods that might have dairy in them. I don’t want to play with substitutions which make me aware of what I’m missing. I want to be excited about ingredients. Things I love immoderately now: thai basil, sweet chili sauces, surimi (the texture!), and oh so many types of rice.

The other day I sat down and planned rice bowls. Sounds dumb, but it felt exciting–the same basic sort of foods, in so many interesting combinations! No dairy? Who cares? (I miss cheese, dammit.) But I miss it a lot less when I’m having poached salmon over a rice blend with gingered sweet potatoes or green beans on the side.

Trying to choose new foods as basic meals reminds me of being a teenager and being given free rein in the kitchen. It also reminds me how time-consuming preparing meals really can be when you have to learn new techniques and new recipes.

I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, wish patience for my poor roommate and friends who keep being handed small plates of random foods and told “Try this, any good? Should I keep this recipe or ditch it?

So far, what I have learned is that my small dog Ursula will commit any act of athleticism to get to a bowl of freshly made fried rice.

Two delightful things

Pretty much what it says on the tin: two pieces of entertainment that made me happy.

First, Ms Marvel. I started watching this with an increasing sense of irritation, because I kept thinking “I’ve seen this before. OMG, who did they borrow this from?” before I <headslap> realized, duh, they borrowed it FROM THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by G. Willow Wilson, which I had read. Then I went back and really enjoyed it. I loved the young actress’s enthusiasm for the character. Marvel usually does really well with casting and this show wasn’t an exception. I loved her friend Nakia, trying to make herself heard in the mosque. I even mostly liked Bruno, minus his moping crush on Kamala. But that’s me. I hate that trope. It’s like why can’t they honestly be friends, instead of one oblivious and one pining. Urgh.

There were lots of plot moments, especially toward the end, where I was left scratching my head, going, wait… How/what/why/Huh? but really, it didn’t matter much. This was a show about Kamala finding her place in her family, in the world, and in history. And those elements were all perfect. I really enjoyed it. So far, out of the marvel series on D+, my favorites are WandaVision, Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel is pretty formulaic–following the typical disney AND marvel arc–but you know, that didn’t mean it wasn’t really fun to watch.

The second piece of entertainment that I absolutely adored was Emily Henry’s Book Lovers which is a contemporary romance. I can really only talk about it in superlative fragments. The dialogue! The characterization! The humor! The good nature of it all! It’s all the things I love about romance novels, with none of the things I hate about them. There are no forced misunderstandings. There are no moments where the characters lash out and hurt each other for no good reason.

It’s really a clever book, self-aware of all the romance tropes, highlighting them, and inverting them. Sometimes subtly–her sister is NOT her source of support and the one she goes to for advice; sometimes overtly–Nora, the heroine tells the reader straight off that if life were a hallmark movie, she is the obstacle to true love, not the person who deserves it. Readers who like Jennifer Crusie should adore this. And it is so funny! I had the hardest time not reading sections aloud to my roommate. Considering it was her book that I had stolen from her To-Be-Read pile, it seemed like the least I could do. But oh, it was hard. I kept putting it down after chapters and laughing to myself, stretching out the reading.

Just… delightful! Both of these are really recommended.

Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

So, the first thing you should know is that I had zero intentions of watching this movie because Dr. Strange is just not my jam. He comes across as Magical Tony Stark without the heart (to me! If you love him, so be it! That’s great and I’m glad you do!) I am just saying, I found the first Dr. Strange movie a slog–though I did love the confrontation at the end that basically required the big bad to find Dr. Strange as irritating as I did.

I didn’t see No Way Home–I wasn’t doing theaters. I’m still not doing theaters since I live in a community that is happy to consider covid as something firmly in the rear view. But Dr. Strange MoM showed up on Disney plus and well, I decided I could always turn it off and walk away if it annoyed me too much.

Just so you know, from here on there are spoilers. I am usually the last person to see a movie, so I rarely worry about spoilers, but, if you have also been avoiding the theaters, etc…. Here is your spoiler warning.

As I started, I thought, oh goody a video game montage. This was not a propitious start. Selfish Strange, monsters, weird jumping setting, helpless damsel…. Then Strange woke up and I thought oh, yeah, I am not going to be able to watch this.

The thing about Dr. Strange is that he always strikes me on screen as utterly artificial, like a plastic Ken Doll. I don’t know if it’s because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent (which to be fair is good, yet…. not quite natural), or if it’s the silly white streaks in his hair (which just always looks like someone has painted already fake black hair with some chalk spray) or the whole… staginess of him. I suppose that is appropriate for a “sorcerer” to be stagey. Either way, it was late, I was inert, and there was a cat on my lap. I kept watching.

Hey, the tentacle blob monster! I liked that! Okay, I liked one specific thing about it. It reminded me of the ridiculously gross toy I had as a child–the Wacky Wall Walker. Those were the weirdest, gummiest, most distinctive toys ever, and the way they slobbered down walls, sticking and falling is embedded in my memory, and here was a giant one! So that was fun. And Wong! I love Wong. More Wong!

Then we get plot, yadda yadda, dead Stephen Strange, which… why don’t I like Benedict Cumberbatch in this role??? I just don’t. He should be funny, with his dry comments and snark, but he just sounds contemptuous all the time. So yeah, the “Kid” comments which I think are supposed to humanize him, just make him sound like he can’t be bothered to recall America’s name.

And then there was Wanda.

So this is the other GIANT GLARING REASON I didn’t want to see this movie. I love Wanda. She’s a complicated character, driven by grief and with enough power to try to “fix” things. WandaVision was the series I was least interested in seeing, yet it rapidly became my favorite. I don’t mind that she’s motivated by “motherhood”. What I minded was that this was going to be the same lesson that she learned in Westview all over again, which… either says the character is dumb and has to make the same mistake more than once, just with bigger consequences, or is designed to supplant the show I enjoyed. They seemed to try to split the difference which was a big ugh from me. Wanda’s villain arc here is completely based on the series; she and Strange even discuss that she learned better. Except she hasn’t. And then I wondered, why the hell she didn’t just magic up her kids again? Whatever.

The show writers tried their best, I think. Showing that other people have their own losses and grief and haven’t torn the universe apart trying to find what they had lost. But still…. Basically, any of the plot points that required me to think about Wanda’s motivations just got me irked. I do love Wanda and I did love her being the Big Bad–being reasonable–so as long as I didn’t think about it, I enjoyed her on the screen.

I did like all the multiverse shenanigans, surprisingly, though they also made it hard to feel that anything had real consequences. Sure, kill Captain Carter; she’ll be around in other universes. And Zombie Strange was a delight with his cape of angry souls. Go Zombie Strange!

America was… fine. The actress is engaging; the character had nothing to do. Since I’m not familiar with her from the comics, I don’t actually know how “useful” her power is as a superhero. Seems like they don’t want people messing with the multiverses so… she can’t use it much? I will wait to be wowed.

But Wanda…. JFC. It still makes me cranky. She is blamed (rightfully!) for Westview. She is villainous! Fine. Except superhero comics and movies are always so arbitrary about tagging someone a villain or a hero. (I am still extremely bitter about Karli Morgenthau and John Walker from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.) Other Strange destroyed one universe, and his own people had to kill him. Wanda killed a bunch of superheros and defenders of Kamar-Taj, then threatened another universe and had to die. (Die, ha! This is super-hero land.) Wanda uses the Darkhold to dreamwalk and that’s EVIL. Strange uses it and desecrates a corpse and that’s THE ONLY WAY. She calls him out for being a hypocrite and she’s right. She does bad things and self-immolates. Strange causes another incursion which threatens the lives of another entire universe and gets a cheeky wink from Charlize Theron and an invitation to help her fix it. Two different standards is all I’m saying.

Well, that, and these superheroes really need therapy.

The Haunting of Ashburn House

I just finished Darcy Coates’ The Haunting of Ashburn House and I have thoughts. This is the first book of hers that I have actually read. I have sampled several and each time sort of said, eh, not for me. I am picky.

This one sounded up my alley–sudden inheritance at a perfect time, deep, dark family secrets–and the protagonist Adrienne is sympathetic. I expected to love this book like crazy. In the end, though, not so much.

I loved so many elements here: her great-aunt Edith’s creepy messages to herself carved into the walls, the tables, even her bedframe. I loved that the locals were actually kind! Coates didn’t go for the easy “isolate the heroine by making everyone dislike or distrust her”. I think that worked really well, because it makes the horror feel more powerful if there are allies and they can’t actually help. Coates did a good job of explaining away the usual accoutrements of modern life: no car for Addy, no cell phone–she’s too broke to own them. And not just the usual novel-excuse broke: actual broke. $3.47 in her bank account and a $20 bill in her purse. She’s homeless except for Ashburn House.

My absolute favorite element kicked in early when as twilight descends, the entire forest around her house (because of course Ashburn House is isolated in a forest) goes eerily silent. What’s worse than a forest falling silent all around you? When it erupts with terror–all the wild animals shrieking, her house cat Wolfgang shrieking, her own panic rising. I loved it.

I think this wonderful element, which plays out over three nights, is actually the strongest, most creepy, aspect, and that’s why I didn’t love the rest. Sounds contradictory, but all this amazing terror and the natural world shrieking in panic and outrage, and then…. everything that comes after is just less for me. Oh, it’s an evil ghost/zombie thing. I’ve seen you before.

And once the evil revenant makes the scene, matters narrow down from this enormous world-shaking event to the usual story line of “will the heroine survive?”. At that point, all the carved words that Addy has been ignoring start to feel like an exercise in is this heroine too stupid to live?

A carved message in the kitchen table that says IS IT FRIDAY LIGHT THE CANDLE is understandably ignored when the ominous factor is some unseeable force in the woods. It’s a lot less so when there is an actual evil intruder trying to get inside. Have some common sense, Addy! But no.

There are a couple of issues that really sort of splatted the ending for me. First, that the haunting starts to get more scattershot. The forest erupting in panic is wonderful. The revenant is… horror movie creepy. But then we start getting bleeding paintings and ghosts in the mirrors and it all just sort of becomes horror movie 101. I kept sort of mentally comparing Coates to Kingfisher. I find T. Kingfisher’s horror novels more effective because she really keeps her focus on a specific horror and the way it affects her heroine/the world. There are no distractions from the main thrust of the horror.

The second issue that weakens the ending for me is that Addy–just after the climactic moment–finds the letter her great-aunt left her explaining every single thing in detail. The fact that she didn’t find the letter until late in the game makes sense, but it was just too much explaining all at once: history of the family, the revenant’s identity, the source of its powers, its weaknesses, and so forth. It’s like an entire short story of its own and I really would have loved to see more of it slipped in throughout the book. Coates has Addy research the house and her family, but hit nothing but dead ends. She survives through sheer grit and dumb luck.

So, while I enjoyed reading it; my interest started out stronger than it ended. I turned the pages more eagerly in the beginning than at the climax. Would I read another of her books? Yes. I have my eye on From Below.

Thinking Things

Pretty much what it says on the tin: things that I have been thinking about this week. All shallow things. Politics is not really “thinkable”; right now it’s mostly choppy angry emotions and distress.

But! It has been SOOOO LONG since I hit the blog that hey, it’s rolled out entirely new ways to make entries. I can’t remember when my last post was–I could look back and find out, but I don’t see the point. It was early pandemic or pre-pandemic or before I lost all sense of time and place because all I have done for the past couple of years is slowly reach burnout.

Spiders: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about spiders, because I have a resident jumping spider. Harmless, kind of cute, remarkably social and fearless for a creature the size of my pinky nail. It’s taken up residence in my upstairs bathroom, which, yeah, not ideal, but again…. harmless. It’s fascinating though to really contemplate because that spider tends to perambulate the entirety of the top floor daily. For me, it’s about fifteen steps (I have a small house), but for a spider? The damn thing is doing a marathon every single day and at speeds that would make humans weep if we calculated relative speed. Plus, I have to wonder, what does it think about us, the humans? We’re mountains that move. The size differential is so enormous I can’t even contemplate it. I’m like…200% bigger than it. Yet it comes out to greet me and wave its forelegs. The other day, I was walking past the bathroom, and it hitched a lift on my foot as I walked. Then happily hopped off once I reached the study. We’re… what? Moving mountains, weirdo giant transports? So very strange. Animals are weird enough all on their own and then you start thinking about them in interaction with other creatures and it’s a whole new ballgame of weird and wonderful.

Talking buttons for pets. Wow, I have been obsessing about these things. Do they work, do the dogs actually use them to communicate their basic thoughts or is it just a series of learned behaviors…. And while I’m contemplating that, my brain runs into the nightmare scenario of well, what if they do use them to communicate? What if we get sick of the “chatter” and just take the buttons away? I can’t…. that seems like a bad thing to do. Here you go, dog, learn to communicate in this way, but hey, the batteries are dead, or you’re talking too much, or I keep tripping over these buttons–let me just get rid of them? Maybe it’s because of politics, maybe it’s because of the book I am STILL revising, but taking away someone’s or something’s voice just strikes me as a moral atrocity. So… I’m not getting those buttons? But is that really any better? Or is it just dodging the issue?

Once I wrote an sf story about a woman whose brain was implanted into a dog (because of reasons) while she and her team members were exploring an alien planet. By the time she figured out how to process her new senses, and recognize a danger to them all (DOGI smells water!), they had gotten out of the habit of listening to her–primarily because her only method of communication was pretty much talking buttons. Nightmares.

World-building. I am at the danger point in the new book (not the book under revision) where the world-building starts to have contradictions. I kind of love this stage because to me, trying to figure out ways that these contradictory things can all be true makes the world feel more real to me, rather than a cut-out template where all magic is XYZ. I like a little mess in my magic, even if it slows the writing down.

Burnout! I ran away from my day jobs. I have given myself a carefully budgeted sabbatical. Naturally, the big cat promptly developed diabetes. Of course he did. But he’s doing better, and I’m doing better even if my sabbatical is not going to be the full three months I had originally intended. I wish that UBI was an actual thing in this country.

Saw a super sad bumper sticker the other day. Red truck with a tiny printed sticker that said, simply, I miss my dog. Nearly sent me into tears. Because yes, their lives are short and even though mine are healthy, I, too, at some point in the not-so-far future will miss my dog. There are dogs I still miss. And the damn pandemic has pretty much trained me to look forward and only see loss. I am working on that. Generally, the pandemic has made me goosey about making plans (why bother, they’re only going to get disrupted!) and about being hopeful (I’ll only be disappointed. Seriously, every single time I managed to be genuinely happy in the past two years, something rose up and smacked me down HARD.) or optimistic.

But in the meantime, there are good books to read. Good books to write! And adorable pets. Who are not dead yet.

More January Recommendations

January 2021’s being nice to me or I’ve just hit a lucky streak with enjoyable books. Last time, I talked about two good books; this week I’m going to talk about two even better good books.

So, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Naturally. I was a fan of her writing in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so of course I perked up when I heard she (finally) had a new book coming out. Then I heard the premise: strange amnesiac caught in a house/world/labyrinth and thought eh, maybe not. But I checked it out of the library (LOVE THE LIBRARY!) and started it with some trepidation, expecting to find the narrative voice of Piranesi hard-going.

It’s not. There’s a gazillion capitalized Nouns for Reasons, and tons of seemingly random fantasy descriptions, sure, but I just sort of fell into it. Piranesi’s voice is enjoyable because he’s just so good-hearted, so willing to find the good in the world of the House full of ocean. By the time it becomes clear that this is a book about academicians run amok (love those! Ever since Tartt’s The Secret History.) I was really hooked. I read this straight through.

What I really loved about it is the strange kindness of this book. The theme of being an appreciative part of the world around you. To say more would be moving into serious spoiler territory so I’m stopping here. But it was a delight to read. And it made me revisit Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings of ruined cities again. Beautiful art, which inspired a beautiful book.

My second “excellent” read of the week is all about the execution of the idea. Kate Alice Marshall’s YA novel Rules for Vanishing, has a premise that seems appropriate to any teen scream movie–a lost girl on a ghost road that only appears on certain nights at certain times, and is only traversable if you follow the rules. And even then, there are snares. It’s told as a series of transcripts, journal entries, texts, etc. Again, I can’t talk too much about it without spoilers, but Marshall has just constructed a really well-made horror novel (with a hopeful ending! thank you!).

Lots of nightmarish horror imagery but nothing that really squicked me. The characters are archetypes but still engaging, and the horrific core of the ghost road was really satisfying here. I am looking forward to her next release Our Last Echoes.

As a side note, I am apparently really slow when it comes to certain types of visuals–the face/vase illusion gets me all the time. And it took someone pointing it out to me that the cover of Rules for Vanishing had that type of illusion. Either a road surrounded by trees, or a girl’s figure in the trees. Yeah. Good job cover artist! Sorry it took me so long to appreciate it!

Girl?/Road? Can't be both;brain does not compute
Girl?/Road? Can’t be both;brain does not compute

Both Piranesi and Rules for Vanishing came from my local library, but I’m going to buy copies to add to my already groaning shelves.

January Recommendations

One book to recommend, and one author (and her books) to recommend.

I finally got around to reading Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material, and it is exactly as charming as all the reviews say. But it’s also got protagonists with genuine problems slowly working their way to bettering themselves. Luc is the proverbial train wreck, but he’s a self-aware train wreck which keeps him readable. And Oliver’s issues are slipped into the story so slowly that by the time he reveals how very not all right he actually is with his life, it’s devastating. But overall, it’s just a joy to read, balancing angst with ridiculous good humor. I particularly loved Luc’s co-workers, super-posh Alex Twaddle, and displaced Welshman Rhys. Alex fits right in with Wodehouse’s upper class, and he’s a delight on the page.

I also read Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater, then immediately turned around, bought, and read Ten Thousand Stitches, then pre-ordered Longshadow. (October 2021–so far away, are you kidding me?!?!? Wah!) These are nominally regencies, but in a very fantasy fairy-tale style. They’re romances, but sensible ones in the vein of the Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer Chocolate Pot series. What I particularly loved about them is the kindness and decency at their core. They’re really akin to Terry Pratchett in that way. In one of his books with the witches, Pratchett had a bit that went something like “Sin is treating other people like things.” which really spoke to me. And so far Atwater’s series is built around treating people with kindness and dignity and respect. The first book is a screed against the injustice of the regency era workhouses and the willful blindness of those people more concerned with pretty manners than with justice. It’s also got one of the most gleefully cinematic romantic ballroom scenes I’ve read in ages. The second book is concerned with classism, poverty, and justifiable anger as a virtue. It’s also got a feckless fairy lord who’s trying his best but doesn’t really understand humans at all even as he decides to “help” maid Euphemia Reeves win the heart of her employer’s handsome son.

The Tenth Girl – Not so slow read wrap up.

So The Tenth Girl.

The slow read part collapsed due to a combination of two factors: the book has to go back to the library and the middle just… dragged for me, which made it too easy to put down, but not so easy to pick up. I decided to blitz through the rest.

Some highlights of my reading experience from chapters 19 on…

What do you mean Sara left Mavi a note written in Old English?  I’m reasonably certain she did not!  Though if any language had the ability to write “you are all fucked” concisely, Old English (the language of Beowulf) would probably be it. But maybe gothic style lettering? It’s a head-scratcher. Oh wait, Faring says “old english lettering” so my bad. It’s calligraphy not language.

Yesi and Mavi realize that the Others are possessing the nice lamb-like teacher and using him to assault the girls while they sleep. Yesi wants to report him to Carmela, but Mavi doesn’t, because she recognizes possession when she sees it now.

Angel is driving Dom to contemplate suicide by leaping off his balcony. Dom is wasting away, drained by Angel’s possessions. Angel feels guilty but is absolved by realizing that oh wait, it’s another Other inside of Dom making him want to jump. And that this is probably what happened to the missing girl Luciana. Possessed and jumped.

Basically, at this point, anyone can be possessed and piloted by any Other and the building is falling apart around them. “Dom” confesses to Mavi and she decides after some guilty deliberation that she doesn’t care. She likes Angel.

Mavi attempts to leave but the storm drives her back to the dubious shelter of Vaccaro house. No one is leaving.

This whole segment starts to sluggishly degenerate along with the house. The building molds; the food rots; the walls seep; the girls sleep and get sicker.

It’s weird the thing that hooked me back into interest. I realized around chapter 24 or so that I’ve been anglo-centered this whole time. I assumed Angel was a girl’s nickname! Ha, dumbass me. It’s not like there are hundreds of cultures where Angel is a boy’s name. So yeah, Angel is a boy. And weirdly that caught my attention, because if I misread that, what else might I have missed?

So the building starts to not only degenerate but to rearrange itself. Things get worse.

And then we get all the revelations all at once. Some good, some bad, some pointless.

I didn’t like Carmela’s info-dump of her personal history, lined out and spat across the page. I really didn’t like it when that was followed by a two page wall o’ text about Morency’s life and history. These were really aggravating and that was BEFORE the big reveal.

Before Angel confesses to Mavi that this whole school, the whole world, all of the students and their lives and so forth is just… a video game.

Okay, so this is not my favorite reveal ever for a couple of reasons. 1) it makes all their lives seem valueless. 2) it makes the infodumps of Morency and Carmela’s history that much less interesting because none of it matters. They’re written the way they are; it doesn’t matter why. And a bonus 3) it’s kind of a familiar trope.

On the other hand, some things improve on learning that this is all a game: the Zapuche stereotype somehow seems more forgivable as a bad premise for a horror video game. It’s about the setting, not about reality.

Mavi’s earlier heel-turn on “Dom is Horrible!/I must follow him around like a dog” makes much more sense if her attraction to him is part of the program.

And most importantly, Faring does things with this reveal. It’s not just oh no, we’re all programs. She decides that if they’re learning AI personalities then maybe just maybe they can swap places with the Others and get out into the real world.

It’s not like the Others are a loss to humanity, she suggests, deliberately playing a game known for indulging sadism and pedophilia. Torturing people over and over again is still evil even if it’s digital.*

So I’m interested in the Great Escape.

Other reveals go better: I thought the revelation of Charon being Sharon, a sort of family “friend” worked. Not only was there the gender bias upset (again! I need to pay more attention): that this foul-mouthed gluttonous troll was a female programmer with painted toenails. But that Charon was in fact the Tenth Girl, the little ghost girl being her avatar in the game.

After Mavi goes through the somewhat standard “hey, let me self-mutilate to prove we’re not real and can’t die”, it was engaging to watch her and Yesi rally the troupe, in an attempt to save each other from this nasty little fate that they never quite remembered, but had to suffer through over and over.

I liked the “game reveals”: Yesi’s novel turning out to be a listing of player scores. And hey! That’s what Angel’s chapter numbers are about. Experience points! You can tell I’m not a gamer of any sort.

I liked that the number obsessed math teacher was mumbling digital passcodes for the players.

As expected, Angel’s Painful Past was disappointing. And kind of swept under the rug very quickly. Oh, Angel accidentally killed his beloved baby brother in a tragic event. Oh, his sister hates him for it, except a few heart-felt words and suddenly she’s on his side? What about the borderline abusive husband? It doesn’t seem to matter: everything is looking up for Angel.

*When it turns out that Angel’s mother and her business partner Sharon built this game… I have to wonder if she was as compassionate as Angel remembers her being. I know that the art is not the artist, especially in a collaborative work, but still. I side-eye Angel’s dead mother. Her building the game makes sense in that it’s a good reason for Angel to decide to play it—a last attempt at getting closer to her. But personality-wise, it felt off. I would have liked more here and less about Angel’s loop of grief/guilt. I think there’s enough cues to suggest that Angel’s mother came up with the game, showcasing pieces of her own Argentinian past, and had her ideas twisted by Sharon in the name of money. Since Angel’s mother was beset by medical bills that she would leave her kids… Sure, I’ll go with that.

I had some plausibility issues with the Code escaping the Game to possess the players, but it felt like satisfying turnabout in concept, so I ran with it. Though then I’m stuck wondering—how do all these teen girls feel now that they’ve been shoe-horned into the bodies of old, white pervert men? (Not Mavi though; she ended up in Sharon of the painted toe-nails.)

Anyway, in the end, I’m glad I pushed through. There was a lot of writing that I really loved in the book, and some fun, chewy concepts. I enjoyed Dollhouse (though I know many people did not for valid reasons), and some of this reminded me of that concept: the “toys” developing their own personalities even after being erased. The concept that experience goes to the core of someone, even if that someone, in this case, is bodiless.

I still miss the haunted house story I thought I was getting though.  Sigh.