Books read, January 2019

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Not even when it’s my second read-through in as many months.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Re-read, if I can call it that when I don’t think I’ve read this since I was twelve. I was trying to remember Scrooge’s dismissive description of Marley’s ghost, and wound up deciding to read the whole thing — starting before Christmas, but I got interrupted and didn’t finish until early January. I’m struck, as a recent article which I have now lost pointed out, by how non-religious the book is: yes, Christmas, and there are some passing references, but this is very much the Victorian “social gospel” rather than anything overtly Christian.

Deep Wizardry, Diane Duane. Second book in the Young Wizards series, and it’s been fun to see people’s expressions when I tell them the protagonists spend most of the book as whales. 😀 Beautifully-done observations of different whale types; I can’t judge the accuracy, because I don’t know enough to do so, but they stood out as very vivid. And oh, the shark. I told my sister, who adores sharks, that it’s the best shark character I’ve ever seen — not in the “cute and cuddly cartoon animal” way, but the cold and yet necessary killer.

By Fire Above, Robyn Bennis. Sequel to The Guns Above. Her airships continue to be flying deathtraps, and I wanted to rip my hair out when the characters have to follow absolutely moronic orders because that’s the way the military works. But after a slow-ish start involving social politics, we get insurrections in an occupied city, and clever aerial maneuvering winning the day, both of which are fabulous. This book gets pretty dark — some characters make horrifying yet necessary decisions, and some turn out to be kind of awful people — but not unrelentingly so; the plot drags you down and down but then back up again at the end. And there is also still quite a bit of humor.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North. The conceit of this book is that it purports to be a repair manual for a time travel machine, only the manual says “sorry, you can’t actually repair this, so instead we’ll tell you how to re-invent a lot of basic technologies so life can at least suck less in whatever time period you’ve been stranded in.” The tone is overall hilarious, in a voice that reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s blogging, though the puns that subtitle nearly every chapter started to wear thin after a while. It’s chock-full of interesting trivia (like every avocado you’ve ever eaten descending from a single tree with a backstory that genuinely makes you ask “are you sure time travelers weren’t involved?”), and makes it clear both how many technological advancements were more a matter of figuring out the relevant ideas rather than having the material capacity to create them, and how often things got invented and then either forgotten or not used for their real potential.

Having said that, although its explanations of how to build everything from a simple smelter to a battery using basic technology are remarkably concise, don’t try to hold this book to too high of a standard: yes, it sort of tells you how to build these things, but successfully building them would require a lot more instruction than this book provides, or else a lot of trial and error. Also, while I’m sure everybody who reads this has a list of technologies North didn’t include and should have, I’ve got to REALLY side-eye the lack of looms. He tells you how to build an efficient spinning wheel, then blithely says this will help you make “thread, which you can sew into clothing!” Uh, no, dude — there’s kind of a vital step in the middle there that you just waltzed straight past. That’s the one thing I truly feel he should have included, and didn’t.

Kingmaker: Stolen Land, Tim Hitchcock, and Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, Rob McCreary. Two modules in the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, which are pre-written materials for running an RPG campaign. I read these two because I wanted to know what a Pathfinder module actually provides to a GM, and since we already played through these two in a campaign, I wasn’t going to spoil myself for anything (I skipped the “campaign outline” in the first one) and could also compare it against my actual experience of it in play.

On the whole . . . eh? I admit I want more interconnectedness, instead of a main plotline and then a bunch of random side quests, but I also recognize that’s not what these set out to provide. Mainly I’m grateful to my GM for noping right out of the NPC backstory where the guy is in exile because his lover falsely accused him of rape when her husband found out about the affair, because that’s some straight-up bullshit. There’s more other bits of incidental sexism along the way that grated, too, like the “flirty” female NPC described in a single sidebar who offers a cloak of resistance +1 and a “kiss . . . or possibly more” in exchange for completing a quest. (Also one bit of stealth gay — a dead male bandit who told “his lover” about a cache of treasure, but said lover died in “his attempt” to retrieve it — for what little that’s worth.) But I straight-up loathed the fiction being told in installments across the modules. In the first installment, written by James L. Sutter, the protagonist is an arrogant and unlikeable asshole who evaluates the few female characters on their attractiveness and probability of him getting them into bed, and then the story goes out of its way to reinforce how fat and gross and disgusting the villain is. The second installment, written by Richard Pett, almost manages to be funny with its militant convent of Iomedae — with nuns holding titles like the Mistress of Improvised Combat Using Common Kitchen Utensils — except that a) they take a “sworn oath of chastity and violence toward men” and “horribly punish any man who dares touch them, think impure thoughts about them, or look at them. They don’t even have candles in the convent — too phallic,” b) they are insanely and pointlessly abusive toward their novices (including, of course, our cross-dressing male “heroes”), and c) at the end of the story it comes out that they’re too stupid to realize the male kobold they randomly decided is “the embodiment of purity and goodness” and is therefore allowed to stay in the convent is systematically robbing them blind. Plus half a dozen innocent people get murdered by assassins chasing the main characters, which I guess we’re supposed to think is funny? Because the idiot protagonist thinks they’re all dropping randomly dead of heart attacks?

If I wind up reading through the later modules in the path, I’m not even going to bother looking at the fiction.

High Wizardry, Diane Duane. Third in the series, and it turns out I’m not reading the updated versions, going by the DOS prompt on the Apple IIIc Dairine is using, which means I’ll probably want to pick up something other than the library ebook for A Wizard Alone — I believe that’s the one with the autistic character. I feel like I started to slightly lose the thread of what was going on metaphysically toward the end, probably because I was reading too fast; I’m also a little surprised Dairine didn’t take some harder lumps for her flaws and mistakes along the way. (I actually expected, based on early stuff, that the Lone Power would manage to temporarily fool or sway her, and Nita and Kit would have to give her a wake-up call.) But still: very good reading.

A Wizard Abroad, Diane Duane. Fourth in the series, and I see why people generally say this one is weaker. It gets off to a slow start, its exposition thuds down in somewhat less digestible blocks than usual, and in the end Nita and Kit are just kind of along for the ride; they’re not the linchpin of resolving the conflict, and the role Nita plays in facilitating that resolution isn’t all that compelling, because the buildup to it didn’t really hook me. (It felt like anybody else could have yelled “Do it!” and that would have been just as effective.) On the other hand, as somebody who’s actually familiar with the Lebor Gabála, I like seeing a story that doesn’t just deal with Irish mythology on a surface level but gets down into the guts of it, and I liked the overall feel of what Duane was doing with the Sidhe etc, and the Powers loving Ireland too much to leave it alone the way they did with other parts of the world.

Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, A. Zee. More research on Chinese food. Zee’s approach to talking about language kind of grated; I recognize that he’s trying to counteract the Anglophone “ermahgerd, Chinese is impossible to learn!” way of thinking, but I kept reading his “see how much you’ve already learned! It’s so easy!” comments in the kind of voice one uses towards a toddler. (Especially when he burbles happily about “see, if you know the water radical, you can tell these characters have something to do with water — isn’t this easy?” and then later on just kind of mutters “oh, ignore that water radical, it’s only there for phonetic purposes” and sweeps it under the rug.) But there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about food and folklore and culture, and I liked it best when it got away from trying to persuade me I could totes learn Chinese and instead dove into poems and drinking games and the like.

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