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I think this is an appropriate post in which to record last night's experience for future reference: Long Island iced tea is evil.

I've had some other things on my mind, so this is late, but January's mostly ready to go, so I'll have the backlog cleared out Real Soon Now (hah).

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson): There is a reason this got a Hugo was nominated for a Hugo (thank you, [livejournal.com profile] rwl). The main plot is about, oh, venture capitalism in Southeast Asia, WWII cryptography, and Nipponese gold, but it's also a two-generation geek romantic comedy of love and manners. Also, there is an EMP gun. This will never stop amusing me. The novel is literally about a thousand pages long, so I'm behooved to say, yes, it's worth it. It's definitely bloated in places (Enoch Root is a pompous ass, in my humble opinion) but the one character I dislike is outweighed by the many characters, plot points, one line bon mots and EMP gun I adored.

2006 book stats: 23 total (!), 17 fiction, 5 nonfiction. Also the Hugo shorts, a novella, and sundry essays on Lord of the Rings. I think I read more words than shown here, but for reasons that don't need explaining at this time (oh, wait: graduating from college, maybe?) they weren't reflected in the lit/nonfiction totals.

I must honor Molecular Biology of the Cell (Bruce Alberts et al), my favorite textbook ever, with which I spent many hours in 2005 and 2006. I will resell this book over my dead body. I must also put in a word for The Organic Chemistry of Biological Pathways (John McMurry and Tadhg Begley), which only does one thing, but it does that one thing superbly. Biology students: if you are taking a biochemistry couse that deals with the common pathways (glycolysis, citric acid cycle, pentose phosphate pathway, Calvin cycle, etc), look into this book. It only covers mechanisms, but it does so in exquisite detail.

In 2007, I plan to read more actual books. We'll see how well that resolution holds up.
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Remember that, "if I go home, I'll get nothing done!" post yesterday?

I went home, I opened the Amazon box, and I said, "I'll read a little bit of the new Bujold."

Three hundred-odd pages later, I realized I'd screwed my sleep schedule for the rest of the week. Whoops!

Initial reactions: yep, it's a romance. Look at all those references to eye color and how fragrant people smell! I'm very glad I had the conversation with [livejournal.com profile] tessfawcett about tropes and entering into genre assumptions before I read this. Bujold's written a very likeable book, but not a very deep one. On the other hand, she found a natural break in the narrative, rather than ending on a gigantic cliffhanger, which I really appreciate. People more familiar with romance tropes than I: please discuss how tSK conforms to and/or subverts reader expectations in comments, or on your own space. Also, if someone who hasn't read the book yet could keep a running tally of how many times "beguiled", "beguiling", or an alternatively conjugated form of the word is used in the novel, I'd appreciate it.

Prediction for the conclusion of second book: spoiler-phobes, cover your eyes! )

Spoiler-phobes, you may now peek between your fingers. I've said my piece. Edit: However, there are now Beguilement spoilers in comments, so you may not want to peek too long, or at all.
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Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned (Judd Winick): Comics artist and Real World contestant reflects on relationship with HIV-positive roommate Pedro Zamora in words and pictures. Fluffy; probably more meaningful if you're 1.) more into comics than I am or 2.) more familiar with pre-1996 Real World seasons than I am.

Shirahime-Syo (CLAMP): Noted manga collaborators do a collection of stories drawing on myths of the Snow Princess. Very pretty artwork, which is wasted on my manga-illiterate self. The theme of the collection is snowfall as the Snow Princess crying, but this gets turned on its head in spoilerland. ) I don't know what it means, but it looked really cool.

This and other forays into manga are an attempt to ride the phenomenon; suggestions for good intro manga encouraged, especially from my age cohorts. Some kind of "idiot's guide to manga" primer would be even more awesome; I'm pretty sure I'm missing genre markers left and right.

James Tiptree, Jr. : The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips): Biography of the SF writer. I've read one of Tiptree's novels plus one or two of her short stories, and was underwhelmed, but Sheldon/Tiptree's actual life is fascinating. She did an amazing variety of stuff during her life: as a child, her parents took her to Africa, and her mother used her illustrations for a children's book on the experience; she eloped shortly after her coming-out party; she joined the Women's Army Corps during WWII; her second husband was significantly older than her; she ran a chicken farm; she was a depressed drug-addicted McLean housewife. And she wrote science fiction under two pseudonyms.

"...she is surely speaking for the many people who were passing in that decade: gays pretending to be straight, geniuses working as housewives, token women acting and thinking like men."

Philips gets in some pithy prose that speaks deeply to my issues: identity, self-esteems, parents. Science. One of my hardest classes this semester has about fourteen people in it, and three of us are not men.

I think I'm going to be terribly unbiased and just say that it was a fascinating biography, with a light hand on the feminist jargon. I'm not sure it was good for me, but I encourage everyone else to go read it so I have someone to talk to.

Random quotes:

Tiptree on life: " ' The puzzle of seeing those same hands grasping a pencil here, that grasped a horse's mane - was it a week ago or a century ago that one was fourteen? And yet that same crooked thumbnail continues, my same round shadow of a nose goes before me in the scene. ' " (p196)

What did Le Guin put on her letters to Tiptree? "...drawings of jellyfish and squid (because they hide in clouds of ink)" p267.

Pat Murphy & Karen Joy Fowler start the Tiptree award: "Because most science fiction writers can't live from their work, they decided their award should have a cash prize. Where would the money come from? From bake sales at science fiction conventions, ha-ha. What to call it? They named it after their favorite literary prankster. . . in making their decision, the judges often hold long discussions about what constitutes reenvisioning gender, a debate that in turn raises more questions about what science fiction is and can do." I feel the need to include this after this summer's Tiptree tempest in a teapot.

Notes that I never got around to expanding: "...questions about what science fiction is and can do." Well, sometimes; sometimes it starts blogfights. Turnabout: letter-writing => LJ; Tiptree as sockpuppet? SF - fiction as dialog (LMB quote). And now I'm having visions of [livejournal.com profile] j_tiptree_jr writing fan fiction.
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Only two, because I'm a flake, and also because I read one-third of a Neal Stevenson novel.

What Just Happened (James Gleick): Collection of Gleick's tech-y articles through the '90s into the 21st C. I thought it was going to be a more in-depth look at the internet explosion, so I was pretty disappointed. The best parts were the earliest articles: the more things change, the more we stand on the cusp of the Utopian Tech Future (Some Assembly Required). If we could just figure out how to debug Microsoft's "features", we could conquer the world. Some things have improved - an early article on user vs. MS Word battles proves that beyond a doubt - but some problems, like privacy advocacy, remain with us.

Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle #1 (Neal Stephenson): Noted SF writer does historical fiction; readers scratch their heads, frantically seeking the alternate universe branch-points. (Hint: stop while you're ahead.) This is part of a bigger work, and it shows in painful ways: the plot's extremely leisurely, and is - so far - mostly double-framed. Quicksilver opens with Enoch the Red, alchemist, seeing Daniel Waterhouse, natural philosopher, in Puritan Massachusetts. The narrative switches to Daniel's point of view, then spends 300 pages developing substantial flashbacks to England, circa mid-17th century. The characters are reasonably well-drawn, and fiction about the dawn of the Royal Philosophical Society hits my happy science-geek nerve in the same way that Kim Stanley Robinson does, but the novel's positively Russian in scope and ambition, and I'm not sure I'm up for that. Bizarrely, Quicksilver and recent bio lectures make me want to go read Cryptonomicon; I blame my introduction to pseudo-random number generation for this.

For people hopelessly confused about how the series should be read (like me!), I offer the wiki page, which explains what goes where. I'm not even going to try; my series/novel/book/volume vocabulary breaks down when the HC and pb publications diverge radically.
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Climbing Mount Improbable (Richard Dawkins): Dawkins on natural selection as the power behind life and evolution. A number of interesting case studies showing the gradual accumulation of "irreducible" complexity. Unfortunately, the book didn't really gel for me, or engage my intellect at the level which The Selfish Gene did. Some that may be the timing; this was published in 1997, and uses a lot of computer modeling that was hot stuff in the mid-90's.[1] Today, we have spiffier software. But Dawkins' ability to turn a phrase doesn't utterly desert him. Take a look at this paragraph from the chapter on figs and fig wasps, for example:

Much of the deciphering of the wasp-pollination story would simply have involved slicing figs open and looking inside. But 'looking' gives too laid-back an impression. It wasn't a passive gawping but a carefully planned recording session yielding numbers to be fed into calculations. Don't just pluck figs and slice them. Systemically sample figs from a large number of trees, from particular heights, and at particular seasons of the year. Don't just stare at the wasps wriggling inside: identify them, photograph them, accurately draw them, count them and measure them. Classify them by species, sex, age and location in the fig. Send specimens to museums for identification by detailed comparison with internationally recognized standards. But don't make measurements and counts indiscriminately just for the sake of it. Make them in the service of testing stated hypotheses. And when you look to see if your counts and measurements fit the expectations of your hypothesis, be aware, in calculated detail, how likely it is that your results could have been obtained by chance and mean nothing.


Now, imagine doing a great deal of that outside. In the heat and humidity. That's science. And I am so glad my specialization doesn't require field work.

[1]I remember the '90s. I remember when the CD-R drive was the Hot New Thing on our computer, and when we got the ten gig hard drive, and how we wondered how anyone could fill it up. As I write this, I have forty gigs of data clogging my laptop hard drive. Five gigs of that's just program files. The WINDOWS folder gets 2.75 gigs all to itself. And let us not even start on the music folders.

Star Wars: Outbound Flight (Timothy Zahn): The Outbound Flight project gets off the ground and shot out of the sky. Whoops.

The narrative uses umpteen PoVs to cover the umpteen sides dancing on the head of a pin. I thought this was pretty fun, but then, I was getting a kick out of all these people from other Zahn novels showing up. Zahn's done a fairly unobtrusive information control job on the facts of the OF in the past (right up until Survivor's Quest, where people needed to be beaten with an "ask questions, fools!" stick), so the climatic destruction didn't feel like a retread. Recurring characters felt younger, crazy Jedi masters proved that bad cloning merely exaggerates pre-existing megalomania, Obi-Wan and Anakin had an extended cameo that didn't really affect the plot. Was this deep? No. Was this fun? Yes. Thrawn was a bit of an over-manipulative supergenius, but that's his role in the series. I really was hoping Car'das would hijack one of Thrawn's plans for his on purposes, but no joy. On the other hand, there were smugglers, but no Bothans. Cheers!

There's also a thing to be said about how this means I've been reading fanfiction since I was, like, ten, and didn't notice. Not that I was tempted to describe any part of the OF plot as crack. Okay, maybe I am. See also "strategic supergenius who reads alien psyches through their art."

Fifth Business (Robertson Davies): I have no idea how to classify this. I think it might be genuine, plain fiction. And I have no idea how to discuss this. There are a ton of pithy quotes, but I have no idea how to approach what the book is "about". It seems to be Dunstable Ramsay's account of the interlinked fates of himself, Paul Dempster, and Percy Boyd Staunton. But that's speaking to the bones of the novel, not the spirit and heart of the story. This may be a case of the theme whooshing over my head, and it makes me want to hash the book out with people.

The Art of Detection (Laurie R. King): A mild collision of series when Kate Martinelli must solve the mysterious murder of a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan.

I'm most tempted to compare this to A Letter of Mary, where a manuscript of sorts also acts as the McGuffin, but I'm also compelled to note that there's a 100 page Holmes pastiche wedged in the middle of the book. It was an entertaining pastiche, mind, but it does break up the story a bit.

Randomly: internal evidence dates the book's conclusion to mid-February 2004. Which end was very schmoopy, and pretty cute, but felt a little tacked-on. Discuss in comments.

The Vitru (Sarah Monette/[livejournal.com profile] truepenny): Felix isn't crazy. Pity, that; we liked him better when we was.

Felix is Justin Warrick. Why am I still talking about this? )

This suffered from bad packaging: for the full effect, it should be read back-to-back with Melusine. I lost a few character names and biographies between volumes, and I still feel like there's some unresolved stuff going on; it should come as no surprise that Monette's writing two more books in the same series.

Monette's written some engaging characters, and some fairly intricate worldbuilding (contrast the city of Melusine to Lankhmar or Tai-Tastigon), but the things the characters make me roll my eyes and want to throw popcorn. I've read enough of her LJ that I can't believe it's accidental the characters are behave in such a compellingly human fashion, but that isn't helping me suppress the urge to hand out love-taps with a clue-by-four. I think I'm skipping Monette's next book, unless someone vets it for me and tells me it's awesome in all the ways the first two books weren't.

Also read sundry essays from Understanding The Lord of the Rings (Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs, editors): "The Dethronement of Power" (C. S. Lewis) - a classic "my friend wrote a book and it's really cool, you should all read it!" only in Oxford Don English - "Men, Halflings and Hero Worship" (Marion Zimmer Bradley) which I read twice because I'd forgotten I'd already been through it once, "Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of Hero" (Verlyn Flieger) academic and dry-ish, "Another Road to Middle-earth: Jackson's Movie Trilogy" (Tom Shippey) academic and entertaining. Also picked up Meditations on Middle-Earth (Ed. Karen Haber), essentially a collection of authors discussing some aspect of their own reactions or analysis of LotR. "A Changeling Returns" (Michael Swanwick), "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings "(Ursula K. Le Guin), "The Longest Sunday" (Diane Duane). I power-skimmed the Card essay; Ender's Game may be a classic, but I really can't get into Card's oevre. I keep trying to find something Card's written that doesn't turn me off, but he is my anti-author with shocking consistency.
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If there's a theme this month, it's, "but your meta is so good! Why is your book not so good?"

Self-Made Man (Norah Vincent): Woman decides to cross-dress to explore that age-old question, "but how does it feel to be a man?" Yes, I did read this for the titilation factor. Two things strike me: the temptation to check off central themes bandied about in women's studies courses, and how joyless and relatively humorless the author makes the entire process seem. If you're going to transgress social norms, you may as well have fun, no? The author had a breakdown at the end of the book, about a year and a half into her exploration into masculinity, which may have something to do with the tone. Her experiences are interesting, but every chapter leaves me thinking, "you know, you make it sound like life as a man is a terrible thing, an emotional wasteland - except I'm pretty sure it's a little more complicated than that." Also, I think Vincent failed to fully acknowledge the impact of class and race on her personal experiences with masculinity. For example, door-to-door sales (one job she tried) are soul-destroying regardless of gender. A cushy internship at dad's law office is something else. For men or women.

Conclusions? Flawed, but thought-provoking. Gentlemen, pipe up: do you feel like you're living in an emotional wasteland? Discuss.

Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton/[livejournal.com profile] papersky): Self-described Victorian novel with dragons. I appreciated the elegance and artifice of the many plot threads concluding happily, but suspect I'd get a lot more out of this if Pride and Prejudice had inspired me to read more regencies.

"A Gift of Wings" (Sarah Monette/[livejournal.com profile] truepenny): Monette keeps doing cool meta in her lj, but her actual fiction does nothing for me. "A Gift of Wings" is a romance, which means the narrative tension should derive from the lovers overcoming obstacles to be together, but in this case, the primary obstacle seems to be the traumatized wizard and the battle-hardened mercenary not talking to each other. For months. When the narrative voice reflects that "he made it plain without so much as a word that they were lovers no longer" I tend to gag a bit.

Digression on romance, by way of quests. )

The characters are adequately crafted (if love-struck fools), the setting nicely evoked, and - to me - the plot a complete turnoff. Even the smutty bits do nothing for me. YMMV, especially if you like romances.

On the other hand, a traumatized wizard and a battle-hardened mercenary woman must solve a murder they are accused of committing. Together, they fight crime!

("A Gift of Wings" was published in The Queen in Winter, a collection of romances written by Claire Delacroix, Lynn Kurland, Sharon Shinn and Sarah Monette. Had I realized what I was getting into, I would have totally not ILL'd this. Not a romantic!)

Black Powder War (Naomi Novik/[livejournal.com profile] naominovik): Look! It's an overland Asia trip with dragons, and then it's a Napoleonic land battle with dragons! Mild book 3 spoilers, comment on book 4 chapter 1 preview. )

And there I go, getting gleeful about horrible deaths. Like I said, I'm here for the worldbuilding; plot and characterization are a little secondary. Though I may get attached to Iskierka, pluckiness and all.

July previews: I'm 30 pages from the end of Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, which involves a lot of circa early '90s computer modeling, and generally isn't as cool as The Selfish Gene. But I'll at least have some nonfiction finished this month. Also, Fifth Business is kicking around my room, so I'll probably knock that off Real Soon Now.
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Combining these because it's a fairly short list, other than the Hugo shorts abuse. I'm also letting the comments made under the influence stand, because I can.

April Books

I read Hugo nominees, how cool am I? Well, not very, because I just finished the shorts and they were *terrible*. )

I think a more interesting discussion might be consideration of why the short story nominees were so lacking this year (tentative hypothesis: since only 278 ballots were sent in, according to the LACon Hugo nominees list, a writer with a good publicity plan could totally swing the vote), and/or suggestions of short stories that should have been nominated, but weren't.

Actual books

A Short History of World War II, James L. Stokesbury: If ever there were a title that begged to be poked fun at, this is it. Surprisingly, Stokesbury almost manages to live up to it: 389 pages (hardcover) is a brief review of some really complex maneuvering. The narrative moves along at a reasonably brisk clip, laying out the broad movements of the war in clean academic prose punctuated by the occasional dry bon mot. I have absolutely no background to judge the book by, but I liked it. It's 20 years old, which is absolutely ancient by bio standards, but it's not like WW2 is on the move, so this is probably a reasonable book to recommend to people. My major complaints are two: first, it is academic, so it's fairly heavy reading by default, and second, my geographic knowledge is appallingly bad, so more maps would have been nice. I was constantly flipping to the available maps as it was.

Personal reactions: there is something riveting in all catastrophes. But after reading the casualty counts, the territory lost and won, you're left wondering what it was all for. War is still the triumph of stupidity over good sense.

* * *

May Books

Throne of Jade (Naomi Novik/[livejournal.com profile] naominovik): Second book in a series of adventures about William Laurence, aviator, and his dragon Temeraire. In this episode, the pair are shipped to China to appease Imperial sensibilities. For some reason, I found this more cohesive and entertaining than the first (Temeraire or His Majesty's Dragon, depending which side of the Atlantic you ordered it from). The set-pieces were about the same, but felt more firmly knit together by the intervening material. My big question at this point is how deliberately Novik's going about her B-plot: it looks like she's setting Temeraire to set off the English Dragon Revolution, but I don't know if that's where she's planning to take the series. The sea serpent thing was an interesting touch, but for which side of the argument I don't know.
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Three things to be doing, and no desire to do any of them. Must be book review time. Only I finished one book last month, and am making my way through A Short History of World War 2 two pages at a time.

Temeraire (Naomi Novik/[livejournal.com profile] naominovik): Published as His Majesty's Dragon in the US, but I read the UK HC, so it's going down with the English title. Captain William Laurence sort of accidentally harnesses a dragon, dumping him out of the familiar confines of His Majesty's Navy and into His Majesty's Aerial Corps (of wilder repute) as Napoleon's strategies unroll toward invasion.

Huge spoilers. )

Spoiler-free summary: if you like that age of sail gig, you'll like this; if you're me, you're waiting on the second book, because the gossip is good, and poking around the reviews suggests that your lack of historical knowledge means you're missing setup stuff.

Something else that might be interesting to consider are the intersections of blogging/LJ, writing, getting three books out in one year, and sales numbers. There's been a fair amount of buzz in the end of the blogosphere I'm familiar with - the mad internet fangirls, who are sarcastic and get a little feminist and literary in their interpretations of canon - but it's going to be interesting to see how the sales numbers fall out. Rapid release of new material is a good way to raise a writer's profile, and yes, I'm trying to The ratio of books read because [person] on LJ wrote it vs. books read this year is getting alarming.
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To my infinite shame, I didn't finish a single non-school reading in February. This may be because I now know way to much about Stargate: Atlantis fandom. Let this entry stand as a testament to my disappointment in my reading choices, and my inability to understand that crack is a drug, and not a fanfic genre. Also, as far as SGA goes, het is the new slash. Sally forth and write some smokin' [male character]/[female character], people. By which I do not mean gender screwiness. Also, gen still trumps all shippyness.

Fortunately, I've already finished one real novel this month, so March will be at least a little better than February. If you consider Napoleonic Wars, Now With Dragons, to be an improvement.
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Short, because I read lots and lots of guy-on-guy smut written by women fan fiction instead. Done now.

Melusine (Sarah Monette/[livejournal.com profile] truepenny): The Virtu has guarded the ancient city of Melusine from its worst excesses for centuries. Pity it got busted. And really pity this isn't about the Virtu at all, it's about the two PoV characters: the angstful aristocrat Felix, who spends most of the book insane and angsting, and Mildmay the Fox, cat burglar with history. Mildmay gets to be snarky. Felix gets to be Justin Warrick.

I seem to recall hearing someone defining genre as "a group of books talking to each other" (paraphrased, and totally forgot who said, sorry), and I think Melusine is very genre, by that definition. It's obviously fantasy - it's got magic, and is clearly set in a place not here - but if you comb through [livejournal.com profile] truepenny's livejournal, there's some other stuff going on, too. There's an LJ midlist SF/F conversation that is happening in the internet zone around the [livejournal.com profile] truepenny, [livejournal.com profile] matociquala, and [livejournal.com profile] papersky friend lists that I suspect contributed a lot to the book. Not in specifics, but in aims and messing-with-tropes choices: in genre, if you will. I think that, if the book is read with this in mind, it may be very interesting, but I'm not really part of that conversation, so I think I read a very different novel than the conversant.

From that perspective, there were two serious problems with the novel: madmen make terrible narrators, and as Mildmay says at one point, "there ain't much to be said about walking across Kekropia aside from the boredom of it." Monette does a good job of keeping the story moving during the traveling-bit, at least. Maybe Felix will be more likable in the next book, when he's not stark raving mad or on the edge of it. Also, the novel manages to smack one of my narrative hot buttons in the first twenty pages. I am deeply pissed that I haven't yet learned that "lush" is code for "abusive sex, explicitly described. Put down the nice novel and walk away." It gets better eventually, but it takes a really long time.

Tentative thematic summation:
"Don't what? Treat you like a person instead of an object? Don't acknowledge that you have been shamefully misused and betrayed?"
"Please." My face felt like it was on fire. "It doesn't matter." (Melusine p.421 HC)


This is two guys talking. About feelings. See why I have issues?

I have to reserve full judgment until June, when the second half (The Virtu) is published, but at the moment I'm mostly reading it to see what happens to Mildmay.

The Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart): Merlin, pre-Arthur. First book of a trilogy. Kept me amused while I was reading, but I'm in no rush to read the other two books. Considering this was a novel about Merlin, there was remarkably little of the mystic or numinous about it, a consideration that may cut negatively and positively, depending on how long it's been since your last high fantasy binge. Also, dramatic irony of conclusion not as riveting as author might have hoped.

This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall! and The Zucchini Warriors (Gordon Korman, Bruno and Boots series): Canadian boarding school duo wreaks havoc in 100 pages or less. Introduction by way of "fan fiction that radically revised our childhood reading memories." Written when the author was in his teens, and at boarding school, and it shows. On here for completion; nothing important to say about them.
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Other than my mother, that is. In two days, I've gone from being extremely exasperated by how little I like Mélusine to being extremely exasperated that the sequel/second half, The Virtu, won't be out until June. For some reason I'd thought it would be published in February. I still think the beginning of Mélusine is hideously florid, and a number of secondary characters act fantastically thick, but I want to know what happens to Mildmay the Fox.

Aha. Emerson. Of course. Though I like the slightly less complete version for its anonymous annotation: "Emerson does not explain the difference between foolish and wise consistency."

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