Simpson Testimony and Steele Dossier

Oh, man! I’ve been on a kick of most excellent period-piece mysteries, but I had to interrupt it to focus on the latest, most crazy political controversy from the past couple weeks. After Senator Feinstein released the transcript of testimony from Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, I read two fascinating (and lengthy) twitter threads analyzing the transcript.

Elizabeth McLaughlin is a lawyer and CEO, and has a 60-tweet thread of her reading here: https://twitter.com/ECMcLaughlin/status/950884746082562048

Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and journalist, and his 200-tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/950800455797534720

The analyses are fascinating, and the quotes from both Simpson and Steele are completely bonkers! So, a quick rehash, which I’m going to put after a break, because it gets a bit involved. Continue reading

Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson

Blackmail_in_BelgraviaIf my previous review, Death Comes to the Village, didn’t quite live up to its comparisons to Georgette Heyer, Blackmail in Belgravia feels like it fits into her style completely, just without the overt racism and covert homophobia. If you have ever read any of Heyer’s novels, you will recognize Benson’s protagonist Freddy Pilkington-Soames from every Freddy that Heyer has ever written. It must be the go-to name for an affable but not super intelligent young man of leisure in the 20s.

Part of the upper-crust, but living beyond his means, this Freddy barely manages to hold down a job as a newspaper reporter, while spending most of his time out drinking with friends. When a friend of his mother’s dies while at a dinner party with her, Freddy is prodded into investigating by his delightfully manipulative mother.

The mystery itself is rather easily guessed, but the characters are just so entertaining that it didn’t bother me at all, watching them blunder around, overlooking the obvious culprit.

By contrast, the police are actually surprisingly competent, for this type of book, which was also refreshing. They stay just a step or two behind Freddy in the investigation throughout the book, and are clearly far more professional and skilled at this. Freddy is only able to solve it for them in the end because he has direct access to all the suspects, knowing them all socially.

I highly recommend this series (having read the first two novels), and the ebook is available on amazon for a dollar. I discovered later that the same author has another mystery series featuring a middle-aged female detective with a mysterious past, which I’d read previously and found mediocre. Apparently Freddy’s mother is a side character in some of the later books in that series.

Death Comes to the Village

By Catherine Lloyd

Death_Comes_to_the_VillageThe back cover of the book had blurbs comparing it to both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, which makes sense because it features very similar characters and setting. Lucy, is the oldest daughter of a rural rector, who comes from a respectable family (her uncle is an Earl!), but without much money. She is responsible for most of the village duties of her late mother, including visiting the sick in the neighborhood.

This, of course, includes handsome, wealthy, but tormented Major Kurland, who has returned from the Napoleonic Wars broken in body and spirit. The murder mystery is introduced through a bit of a “rear window” premise, where the bed-bound major sees suspicious activity out of his bedroom window at night, and must recruit Lucy to be his eyes and ears in the village.

It doesn’t have quite the wit of Austen or the charm of Heyer; both Lucy and the major often tip over from feisty to downright cranky, and I could see myself easily losing patience with both of them. Peripheral characters are somewhat broadly written, as well. What really made the book stand out for me, though, was that Lloyd gives it just a touch a harsh reality among the genteel manners.

Lucy is intelligent and independent, and feels trapped by circumstances, both as a stand-in mother for her siblings and her religious responsibilities. Her father, in particular, is unpleasantly controlling and manipulative. The major is of course the romantic figure, but also battling very real PTSD and substance dependency. The novel manages to find a nice balance between the light-hearted and the gritty to create a very engaging read.

Christmas stories

Hot Toy
by Jennifer Crusie
2015

This made me giggle wildly to myself while reading it on a plane. It’s ludicrous and hilarious and I just love the way Crusie writes her characters. The story is about Trudy’s search for the hot new toy that her nephew asked for from Santa (a soldier toy named Major MacGuffin. Hahahaha!) but that is, of course, impossible to find on Christmas Eve. Then there are the spies and the smuggling and the insane banter.

I’ve enjoyed books by this author before and the main character here, Trudy, reminds me a lot of the main character in her book Bet Me, Min, in the way she’s determined, quick witted, and has a massive chip on her shoulder that she is absolutely going to take out on the guy who can either take it or go away. It makes me happy.

I described it to Anna as similar to a Connie Willis story in the general ludicrous insanity of the plot and the banter, and she pointed out that there’s a fabulous Connie Willis Christmas story that I still hadn’t read yet:

Just Like The Ones We Used To Know
by Connie Willis
2003

This felt very much like the movie Love Actually, except good. It’s funny and sweet and skips around through a vast cast of characters who are each dealing with their own issues, but also dealing with the main premise of this story which is that it’s snowing on Christmas Eve. It’s snowing on Christmas Eve *everywhere*: Minnesota and New York is normal, Florida and Hawaii is not normal at all. But in this story, *everyone* is having a white Christmas Eve and it is wrecking havoc. And mostly that havoc is excellent and results in improved situations for everyone we like.

I’ve never read anything by this author that I disliked but I’m also careful with what I read from her because she ranges from side-splittingly hilarious to heart-breakingly depressing. This story is definitely on the funny side, but I don’t guarantee any of the other stories in an anthology.

fail, fail again, fail better by Pema Chödrön

failcoverfail, fail again, fail better
by Pema Chödrön
2015

This was an elegant short book with two main sections: the first is a transcript of a commencement address that the author, an American-born Buddhist nun, delivered to the 2014 graduating class at Naropa University, and the second is a transcript of a follow-up interview that delves further into the topic.

Both sections were good, although I enjoyed the first part better. The commencement address was more elegantly written and more beautifully laid out and had a feeling of something in between poetry and prose. The interview delved more into Chödrön’s person life experiences and how they effected and were effected by her thoughts on failure.

The thoughts really come down to:

  • Failure is always possible but do not allow fear of failure to stop you.
  • It is important to acknowledge that a failure is a failure rather than pretending it isn’t, to either yourself or others.
  • Examine each failure to determine why it happened and allow it to be a learning experience without focusing on blame: either of yourself or others.
  • Failures range from minor to devastating but they are always external actions: you can fail, but you cannot be a failure.

None of these thoughts are particularly unique or anything I haven’t run across before, but they’re important and well worth being reminded of on a semi-regular basis.

Small Press Expo

Rebecca and I look forward to the Small Press Expo all year, where independently published artists and writers sell their comic books and graphic novels. Each year, we assure each other that we are going to post a review on the blog about all of our excellent purchases, but each year, we get home exhausted, and stretch the reading out over several months, and never quite get around to putting together a cohesive review. But this year will be different!

…Okay, so SPX was a few weeks months ago, but we’ve still got a couple of great finds to share with you!

The Shadow Hero

By Gene Luen Yang (author) and Sonny Liew (artist)

Shadow_HeroI picked up this graphic novel almost immediately upon entering the floor, and it turned out to be my favorite purchase. The author and artist are both Asian Americans, who had discovered a very short run of what was likely the first Asian American superhero, the Green Turtle. They elaborate more on the source material in the back of the book, but the short version is that it was written by a Chinese American author during World War II, showing allied China defending American against Japanese agents. The Green Turtle himself is kept very mysterious in the original books, and is never given any sort of backstory, which Yang and Liew decide to correct in their update.

The update works brilliantly! The plot is very clever, characters are all so wonderful, and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. I was giggling through the whole thing, much to Rebecca’s amusement and exasperation. (When she read it, she laughed, too, but also said that it might hit her second-hand-embarrassment squick a bit much for her to fully enjoy.)

Innsmouth

By Megan James

InnsmouthInnsmouth was a close second, though only the first three issues were available (the fourth one has come out in the time it took me to actually post this review), of what will hopefully be a long-running series. (The only drawback to the independent publishing is, who knows how long there will be funding for any given project. If only I were a millionaire!)

It takes place in the fictional town of Innsmouth, MA, made famous by Lovecraft in his stories. In this narrative, Innsmouth is a fairly normal New England town, with a small university, and a religious cult that worships Cthulhu, which pretty much everyone tries to tolerate by ignoring.

You can read the first issue online, introducing Randolph Higgle, who is a junior acolyte of the cult, basically doing door-to-door evangelizing, until he is forced into more responsibility than he can handle and he goes to outside help for advice. The author comments that she always loved the Lovecraft stories, while pretty much despising the man himself, so it is her ambition to capture as much of a the gloomy fun as possible without any of the racism and other bigotry.

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

allrightsreservedAll Rights Reserved
by Gregory Scott Katsoulis
2017

This book is terrifying. It’s good and I recommend it, but like many such YA novels, it’s set in a dystopian future and it’s a particular dystopian future that I am deeply concerned with.

For some background:

US copyright law was first established in 1790, allowing authors to register their books for a seven-year monopoly on publication, to allow the authors that long to make as much profit as they could before they had to shift their focus to a new creation.

Ever since then, the copyright protections have been creeping to allow creators longer monopolies and pushing back any content going into the public domain to help and assist other creators or just be available to the public for free.

The Copyright Term Extension Act (colloquially known as the “Mickey Mouse protection act” because Disney was so scared of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain) was made law in 1998, and that degrees that all content is automatically copyrighted (no registration or even intent required) and content remains under copyright for 70 years after the original author has died. Great grandchildren can now hold monopolies of their ancestors’ creations… no need to make new content at all.

Meanwhile, what exactly copyright covers has also been expanding: originally it literally just covered the text itself. Translations were not infringing copyright because they were literally changing the language. Characters and settings were free to use. Now sequels and spinoffs are all infringements. Organization for Transformative Works is currently battling just to allow people to freely write fanfiction for purely recreational purposes.

The “fair use” exception was added to copyright law allowing some leeway for people to use excerpts except that one of the ramifications is that it shifts the burden of proof. Historically, a copyright holder had to show that someone had been infringing on their copyright, or they couldn’t sue: innocent until proven guilty. Now, the copyright holder can sue based on any use at all, and the person using it has to prove that their use fits the exception: guilty until proven innocent.

I know less about Patent and Trademark law (the other two main branches of law concerning intellectual property) than I do about Copyright law, but I expect they’ve gone through similar slow transformations.

And I’ve certainly become increasingly aware of how often my purchases aren’t actual purchases, but are legally “lease agreements”. You don’t buy Kindle books or iTunes songs or Microsoft software anymore: you lease the use of them, with restrictions in place. There are definitely rights reserved on those things.

Back to the book:

So in this novel, we’re presented by an America™ that has continued to change intellectual property laws to such a point that words and phrases and gestures are each individually copyrighted and royalties are due for any use of them.

Everyone is tracked and their words and actions monitored to ensure they are paid for. Going into debt means being taken away to work short lives as field labor or indentured indefinitely to anyone interested in buying that debt. Everyone makes some money by being sponsored by various companies to advertise for them. (Rich and/or pretty people get better sponsors.)

Our main character Speth Jime (her first name is a discount name that doesn’t cost too much to say, her last name was probably originally Jimenez except it was too expensive and shortened generations back) turns 15 at the beginning of the book, the last day on which she can speak freely. After that, when a friend commits suicide, she can’t even afford to scream. Rather than make her first speech as an adult (full of product advertisements) she goes completely silent.

The narration shows Speth’s thoughts, but she has no way to communicate with those around her, even as they talk to and at her.

Plot-wise, it feels a bit like The Hunger Games, really, as people try to either ally with her or take her down and giver her suggestions that she has to figure out whether or not to follow. There’s a happy ending (with more than enough loose ends to warrant a sequel), but it’s a nerve-wracking and heart-breaking trip. The cast of characters are interesting and well-developed and diverse in a variety of ways, and Speth is amazingly relatable in the way she’s just become this icon of rebellion that she never intended as anything other than a reaction to personal trauma. The book wouldn’t have held together without the characters being so relatable, but where the book truly shines is the world building. The dystopian world is terrifying as it shows how difficult systematic oppression is to fight, and how easily rights can be worn away and the lack of those rights then normalized.

So very good, and packs a serious punch.

It will definitely make you think the next time you mindlessly click “agree” on a terms of service contract.