John Allison and Lissa Treiman — Giant Days, Volume 1 (comics)
(colors by Whitney Cogar, lettering by Jim Campbell)
As of volume 1, I think this series is still finding its feet, but it's still pretty good! A cute li'l comic about college kids being friends. Treiman's art is delish, all lanky and fulla sleepy flourishes and twirls. Shout-out also to Cogar's colors, which are Correct.
Each of Allison's Tackleford-universe series seems to have its own slightly different set of rules for what constitutes reality. This one is closest to Bobbins, with nothing particularly supernatural going on.
So far I prefer Bad Machinery, but it's new John Allison, obviously I'll read it.
Sofia Samatar — The Winged Histories
An obstinate, strange book. I loved it.
In a way, it's several books. One of them was almost like a more sympathetic (and thus more horrific) portrait of Vorbis from Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. Another one was a lover's quarrel, or a season's worth of quarrels digested into song. Every one of them holds things back, elides things, refuses.
You should probably read A Stranger in Olondria first, although I don't know that I can properly call this a sequel.
There's a certain family resemblance to Laurie J. Marks' Elemental Logic books, although I think they have different strategies for traversing the same desert.
Hey, what's your take: Did Siski have control over her own segment's narration? I thought she hadn't, and was troubled by it, but now I'm rethinking whether that dissociated voice could have been hers after all.
Yoon Ha Lee — Ninefox Gambit
Holy crow, this book was the best kind of bugfuck bonkers. A military space opera in a setting where state-of-the-art tech and weapons are based on "exotic effects" (read: anti-physics) derived from your society's calendar system? What??? Also, wild-ass premises aside, this is a real solid military siege thriller, with memorable characters and page-turning pacing.
Basically, this book has everything I read Yoon Ha Lee stories for, but with the amplitude cranked way up past the safety limits. I loved it. If you haven't been prepared by Lee's short fiction, hoo boy, you're in for a treat. >:]
OK, so that's 2016's book reviews in the bag. Let's take the count:
- 25 books by women (not counting ones I didn't finish).
- 9 books by men.
- 9 GNs by women.
- 2 GNs (or large webcomics) by men.
- 4 GNs by mixed-gender teams.
Huh, whaddaya know.
The next frontier is making that count a bit more multi-racial, because damn, this year's was white. I'm not going to break it down in detail because honestly it's just a lot more difficult to pin every author's identity down that way (and I've messed it up in the past), but really there were only two or three authors of color in there, which isn't enough. So I'll keep an eye on that this year.
Bonus Level: Heart Machine — Hyper Light Drifter
April or May 2016
OK, I'm gonna be honest here: I have no idea how I decide which video games go into the book review log. Like, for example, I also played The Last of Us and Uncharted 1 and 3 last year, but those didn't seem like they should go in. Why?! Well, I guess that's what I originally meant by that "Bonus Level" tag: I'm random about this, not rigorous.
But I AM more inclined to write about games where I spent a lot of time thinking and reconsidering after the end, and I spent quite a while chewing on HLD's spare, oblique story.
One thing I really couldn't let go of: what was the ✨fuckin deal✨ with the ominous dog-angel? Is it some kind of guardian or failsafe from the previous era? A personification of nature?
It didn't occur to me until way later that it means the same thing a spectral black dog always means: your personal doom, beckoning you onward to certain death. Duh.
Anyway, you should definitely play this game. It's one of my favorites of the year, possibly at the top of the list. Incredibly lush and active environments (all done up in Mana Fortress neon, with that "hi-bit" style that's all the rage these days), refined and precise gameplay, a really satisfying difficulty level (plus an easy mode if you prefer), and music and sound design that's just to die for. What a fucking delicious video game.
Anne Fadiman — The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Holy shit, this is a really good book and I'll recommend it to literally everyone.
I don't know how to tell you what this book is about, because the real answer is "basically everything." In that sense, its thesis statement is the "fish soup" anecdote from chapter 2, in which a student's French class assignment on a soup recipe leafs out into a history of fishing practices, the seasonal habits of particular fish, and a branching flowchart of tackle and bait.
More narrowly, though, it's about cultural conflict and confusion. It's... I don't know. The author's afterword to this decade's edition is careful to emphasize that it's "a book written in the '90s about the '80s," but reading it today, it still seemed important and relevant. The situation for Hmong in America has changed a lot, but the most threatening questions, lurking behind every encounter in the book — how can we communicate usefully across radically different cultures? What makes a doctor (or anyone) good or bad at their work? — didn't go away.
Kathryn and Stuart Immonen — Moving Pictures (comics)
I liked this, but I'm still not sure what to think about it. An exercise in sympathy for unsympathetic characters.
Kathryn and Stuart Immonen — Russian Olive to Red King (comics)
A grim story about endings that trail off like no ending at all.
And something in there about... not fragile masculinity, but about masculine fragility. The empty, lonely unresilience hiding behind the brittle crust of American manhood.
I really liked all the broken parallels in here, how everything refused to match up. Like, Red is going into this tailspin of grief and thinking about nothing but Olive, but Olive, for what's left of her life, doesn't seem to think about Red at all; not because she doesn't care, but because there's just no room for anything but trying to survive and stay maybe 1/8 to 1/4 sane. And then that big art installation section at the end, and how that breaks the symmetry of the whole thing.
I dunno, this was a real lingerer of a comic. I'm still gnawing on it.
I was looking through this year's Garbage Book, and I ran into this! It's a post I meant to post but never got around to, for whatever reason. From before all the Everything, when the year was actually going pretty great.
IDK if I'll do a Good Things from 2016 post, so this might end up standing in for it. (And besides, my real new year happens in March anyway.)
Another thing that's up: Ruth's giving me swim lessons! Okay, yes: I can sort of swim. I managed to flounder my way to Eagle Scout, so I must have passed a few swimming exams in there somewhere. But I am Real Shit at it, and it's been a low-key embarrassment for decades.
For a while there in my 20s, I decided to just accept it. I was a natural sinker, and that's just how it was. But more recently, I've been thinking: maybe fuck that? Because last time I tried learning to swim, I was weak, uncoordinated, and just generally not at home in my own body. And now I'm Quite Strong, much more coordinated (partially ambidextrous, even), and better at learning to boot. (My brain might not be as plastic, but I'm much better at driving it.) Maybe, just maybe, I can actually get good at it this time.
It's going pretty well so far. :)
Well, that was an incredibly rough year for me. Probably the grimmest of my life to date.
Most of the badness was concentrated in the second half of 2016, and woo boy was it concentrated. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and underwent two major surgeries and some chemo, and my grandmother and my aunt both sickened and died with very little warning. (Grandma had some pneumonia that seemed to be getting better until suddenly it wasn't, and she was gone by the next day. That's my last grandparent gone, btw. Aunt Shellie got a pancreatic cancer diagnosis with a prediction of three to six months, which turned out to be an overestimate; she lasted about one.) We still don't know how Mom's disease is going to go; this is the sort of thing where they talk about 50% average 5-year survival rates. I know that nobody's "average," but the point is anything could happen. We got good-ish news from the pathology report after the liver resection. I don't know.
And then there's all the nazis.
To be honest, I'm not sure what else to say here. It was incredibly hard and the future looks very dark. I'm going to be seeking therapy, because I kind have to assume something in my brain has been strained past its normal operating condition by all this. I feel a little... I don't know, thinned-out, let's say. Stretched and translucent.
Not busted, though. I'm still going. More resilient than I thought I'd probably be.
There was some good this year, too, but I kind of don't even want to talk about it in the same breath as all this other stuff? There's no personal scale of fortune that balances (or partway-balances) out; the good things happened at full volume and the bad things happened at full volume too, and nothing mitigates anything.
Well, I'll guess I'll say this: I've had some hard years before, and they were almost always hard for internal reasons: wrestling with depression and loneliness, unhappy with my job, unhappy with the distance between the person I was and the person I wanted to be. This year was brutal for external reasons, but I felt secure in who I was, I felt like I generally understood the correct thing to do when shit came up, and I mostly felt strong enough to do it. A better Nick in a worse world. So there's that.
TBH I've been forgetting that my stuff even goes there in the first place. But a post about their recent full server move to Russia reminded me, and I think it's about time to finish up. I think Ryan is the only person who sees my posts over there anymore, and we're Twitter buds anyway.
(I don't think the Russian move has a direct political effect on me, but I support the people who will be directly harmed by it, and there's probably a lot of them.)
Okay, I realize I just posted some reviews last night, but shut up, listen: for the first time in LITERALLY YEARS, I have no pending reviews that still need to be written. My shit is CAUGHT. UP. I couldn't resist the temptation to empty the entire queue.
Bonus Level: Firewatch
A story game in the "walking simulator" genre.
This was immaculately produced and very elegant, but I didn't really emotionally connect with it.
Well. Until the very end. It turns out there WAS a story in here that I cared about... it's just that the two main characters had very little to do with it.
Anyway, for all that this left me two-thirds cold, it did some really cool stuff. The way you get to choose Henry's backstory at the beginning is clever, even though it still didn't result in a character I was invested in. The radio controls were VERY clever, pretty much the only time a dialogue system has let me walk and chew gum at the same time. I liked the tactile map and compass system, and the feel of navigating the world was very good. (I love the way Henry grabs the platform as he swings down the stairs.) And... it's a first-person walker where I can see my character's feet??? Unprecedented. :O
Worth a play if you see it on sale, but I didn't quite love it.
Bonus Level: Journey
I liked this a lot. It's really abstract, and kind of on the border between a bunch of genres — not quite a puzzler, not quite a walking simulator, not quite an action game. But it's a beautiful experience. It reminds me a bit of Monument Valley or Sword & Sworcery EP — I guess I'm into spare, strange journeys of atonement and sacrifice, or something.
Martha Wells — The Cloud Roads (reread)
I was having kind of a rough fall, so I was in the mood to re-read an old favorite.
Martha Wells — The Edge of Worlds
And then I remembered that there was a new novel in the series that I hadn't read yet! Score!!! Too bad it ends on a cliffhanger. 😫
These books rule, but I don't know that I've done a good job at selling people on them in the past. And the pretty-but-more-than-a-little-furry-ish cover art might raise some doubts about whether these are for you.
So here's what's up with these books: they're masterpieces of incredibly tense action plotting, with really satisfying character writing. Wells does romance really well, and here's one of the things about a significant romance in a story that's not primarily a romance novel: you can bring it to a satisfying resolution and then continue to follow those characters and show them working as a team and continuing to grow. IDK, is it just me or is that actually as rare as I think it is? Harriet and Lord Peter are the only pair coming immediately to mind here. Oh, and also the main pairing in this series is a somewhat open relationship and the protagonist is bi? And the gender power dynamics are really odd and interesting, for societal and biological reasons?
Also, the setting is the best kind of bonkers. This world has what seems like hundreds of mostly unrelated sentient species, crowded together and jostling for resources. The place is positively littered with the wreckage of past civilizations, and the current ones are all kind of hanging on by their teeth. A lot of effort is devoted to avoiding predators, and the main villains of the series are a particularly nasty breed of city-killers. There doesn't seem to be a definitive explanation for why things are like this, but the world has a LOT of weird shit in its past, and it's a magic-rich environment, so it's kind of a toss-up as to whether the development of intelligence was juiced somehow for forgotten reasons, or whether it's just an out-of-control natural arms race. A big part of the series's thematic interest is in the boundaries between people, animals, and monsters, and how those boundaries shift and squirm.
All right, I think that's about two thirds of what I dig about these. Hopefully you have a better idea of whether you'll be into this than you got from the cover art.
Bob Altemeyer — The Authoritarians
I heard about this book back in the '00s and always meant to get to it; the recent election made it a little more urgent.
Bob Altemeyer is a professor of psychology who's spent his career studying authoritarian followers, and this is a layperson's overview of what that career has turned up: how authoritarian-following can be measured, how someone becomes a follower, and what specific behaviors and attitudes are highly correlated with high follower scores. (Spoiler: a bunch of Bad Shit.)
Another spoiler: this isn't a very complete explanation for what the fuck just happened to our country. (I'm pretty positive that the recent election included a lot of average people lining up to do exactly the wrong thing — it wasn't just textbook high-RWA behaviors.) But it's pretty important nonetheless. Most notably, it offers some explanations for that bizarre core population of right wingers who just... don't seem to make sense. And it backs those explanations up with easy-to-understand descriptions of the relevant experiments.
I don't quite know what to do with this information, but I'm glad I have it.
E.K. Weaver — The Less Than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal (comics)
Readable online, but I read the all-in-one book version.
An excellent road-trip/romance story. Brilliantly observed art, great dialogue, 👌🏼.
A thing I really liked about this was its embrace of uncertainty: the way it avoids both Happily Ever After and the Camp Sweetheart reset plot. It's taking place in this liminal Camp-like space, on this road trip where both people are separated from their normal support structures, but... the stakes feel very real and more recognizable to me. A modern romance, not an antique one set in the present day.
Meredeth Gran — Octopus Pie, vols. 1-4 (comics, re-read)
This is my favorite ongoing comic. You should definitely be reading it, and these new editions from Image are the best way to start.
Octopus Pie is one of those comics where, if you just say the premise, it sounds pointlessly generic. "Young people in Brooklyn struggling with life, work, and adulthood." Yeah, I'll clear my calendar immediately. So what I've been telling people lately is that it's a more formally and visually ambitious successor to Dykes to Watch Out For or the classic run of For Better or For Worse — a comfortably slow burn that builds up drama from layer after layer of small events, whose characters grow, backslide, and grow in what feels like real-time. Which is kind of the promise of all ongoing contemporary slice-of-life strips, but god, it's so rare to see it fulfilled in a way that feels at all real or dangerous. I've bailed out of so many strips like this because they wouldn't fucking go anywhere, but OP goes all kinds of places.
Volume 4 ends with "The Witch Lives," which was the arc where OP went from "a favorite" to "my actual favorite." It's one of the best stories I've read about the slow, grinding shittiness of heartbreak and resentment, and the way it uses and abuses the twice-weekly serial comics format is so mercilessly perfect. Best breakup album since Interbabe Concern.
Have I mentioned it's funny? It's also really goddamn funny.
Liz Suburbia — Sacred Heart (comics)
TBH, I can't tell if this story is over or not. The ending was sudden and shocking, and resolved nothing... but that might be thematically on-point?! But the author's website implies this is part one of four... but the website is pretty outdated? Oh wait, no, here we go. Yeah.
ANYWAY. Suburbia's art is DELICIOUS, and the atmosphere is shimmeringly, gruesomely apocalyptic. This book is weird and dark and sad and joyous and cool.
Maggie Stiefvater — The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves
Finished Boys July 7; decided to not finish Dream Thieves on Sep 11.
Ruth and several of her friends read and enjoyed this whole four-book series, and I was really interested! Alas, I hated it and gave up before book three.
Remember how I called Fangirl "a li'l book about being young and sucking?" This is a series about teens being Totally Rad in ways I found false and aggravating. The setting and characters felt thin and incomplete, and the plotting felt random. The lore had potential, and there were some really clever situations (Ronan's family), but everything built up around them was dissatisfying.
Once I'd extracted some useful pointers about what makes a promising story stop working, I was done. Anyway, your mileage may vary; like I said, some people whose taste I respect thought these were fine.
Lydia Millet — The Fires Beneath the Sea
Stopped reading Nov. 13
This was some perfectly good middle-grade modern fantasy family adventure, sharing quite a few genes with A Wrinkle in Time. The prose and dialogue were clunky, but not bad enough to make me stop reading, and the setup, setting, and characters were quite good.
But I just was not really in the mood for a middle-grade Wrinkle-ish thing, so I bailed out. No harm, no foul, would totally recommend this if you ARE in the mood for that. Sounds like book 3 of 3 comes out in January or something?
Andrew Hussie and Various — Homestuck (comics... sort of)
Good gracious, what to even say about Homestuck.
I started reading this comic in 2009 when it started (I was still working at the yarn shop!), and it's been a hell of a ride. It did things I have never seen before in webcomics or in any other medium, and those formal innovations were backed up by an incredible density of in-jokes and internal references, carefully timed plot twists, wild improvisation, touching character writing, and a whole lot of strange shit that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Delivered in unpredictable bursts of serialization, it had an addictive quality that kept a grip on me for years.
It went on a year-plus hiatus near the end, at a point where the story felt like it had gone off the rails a bit, and I tuned out and almost didn't notice when the final update came out. So this summer, I went back and re-read the whole thing.
Hussie has said on multiple occasions that he was writing the story with binge reading in mind, rather than the serialized pace at which I originally followed it. I think I don't believe him! Or at least, I think he mis-estimated both the strengths and the weaknesses of his storytelling techniques, as well as the effects of his erratic burst-update schedule on the experience. There are large chunks of the story that suffer at binge pace; while we were fine with reading two walls of chat log filler in-between whatever else we were doing on the internet that day, reading seven walls of filler in a row can get a little wearing, and I found myself skimming some of what I would have perused. The update schedule flattered the video updates, too: the short "FMV" sections are incredibly dense and intricate, and they rewarded multiple re-watches over the course of two days while you waited for the next post. Binge readers generally won't do that, and the resulting experience is less, I think.
Also, the heavily improvisational writing style made the text feel immediate and sly and gregarious as it was coming out, but not all the references aged at the same speed, and some of the original effect is now gone or mutated. AND technology has moved on a lot in seven years (Homestuck predates the iPad), and the heavy use of Flash means you kind of have to plan ahead for a reading session now! (At home, plugins enabled, laptop battery fully charged.) So all that considered: the true Homestuck experience was reading it as it came out, between 09 and 14, obsessively refreshing the page twice a day. Reading the whole thing today is a slightly watered-down experience.
UGH, I hate being a "binge reading is killing the novel" hipster, but I've really thought hard about this, and I think it's a bizarre special case! Anyway.
With that out of the way: should you read/watch/play Homestuck?
Yes. Hell yes. It's uneven as all get-out, but it's exciting and funny. It's also important. I think its effect on the next decade of video games, comics, and other media is being underestimated.
I liked the ending. I'm gonna miss those kids and their flailing, shitty, brave attempts to survive the gonzo creation myth they got dropped into.
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria
Jevick of Tyom has always seen the Empire of Olondria as a paradise, rich in everything he spent his childhood starving for. Olondria sees Jevick (and his recently acquired ghost problem) as a political football in its long-simmering religious conflict over who controls history and knowledge.
This book is about a lot of things, but the most troubling of the bunch were the ways your culture can fail you, and the ways you can fail your culture.
It is also a ghost story, and a story about stories. It's deliciously gothic, and the prose was lush in a way that reminded me vaguely of Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down.
I enjoyed this immensely. I am SUPER HYPED for The Winged Histories, but I don't know when I'll be in a mental state to withstand it.
Zan Romanoff — A Song to Take the World Apart
A story about a teenage siren who Makes Some Mistakes.
I liked this. It's overheated and bombastic in the way a story about dumbass teenage first love kind of has to be, but it has an admirable... hmm, I might need a word other than "restraint," here. "Economy," maybe — it's un-redundant, and resists the temptation to waste your time.
Here's my review: I wasn't really in the mood for this kind of book when I read it, but it was so well done that I loved it anyway.
Elizabeth Hand — Available Dark and Hard Light
June 17 and June... 24?
I read Generation Loss ages ago and liked it a lot, or at least liked most of it a lot. I had no idea there were sequels until rushthatspeaks wrote this glowing endorsement of them.
The thing I snagged on in Generation Loss was... well, it's a spoiler, but Cass does something legitimately unforgivable. Hardboiled detective fic has a solid tradition of dark (even murderous) acts, but this seemed to break some unstated rule of the genre.
These two sequels lean into that break. On the surface level, they're really entertaining page-turner mystery novels, but on the level under that, they're maybe defying the genre's whole raison d'être?
I think maybe these aren't human detective novels. They're detective novels that presuppose the moral priorities of Something Entirely Else. Cass IS following the rules of her role and receiving its dubious rewards, but it's not the same role that detectives like Philip Marlowe play. She serves an alien moral framework. Like, the ending of Hard Light doesn't even really make sense if you try to treat it like a normal mystery.
I dunno. Read Rush's review. I enjoyed these a lot, but I'm still not entirely sure what to make of them.
Bonus Level — Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong
The near-universal consensus on these games seems to be as follows:
- The first Shadowrun Returns (which I haven't played) shows potential but is basically skippable.
- Dragonfall and Hong Kong are both good; you'll love one of them but merely like the other.
Anyway, turns out I'm a Dragonfall partisan. I think it has a better harmony between setting, character, and gameplay!
Hong Kong has some significant gameplay improvements (especially in the Matrix), and more variety in the missions. (There's an honest-to-god murder mystery/trial! That's neat! And the broader Yama Kings investigation subplot was cool, although the sleep requirement was arbitrary and opaque.) It's worth playing! But I REALLY liked how Dragonfall dropped you into a pre-established group of characters with their own relationships and loyalties. I appreciate what Hong Kong was trying to do with making the relationship with your character's brother central, but I think it wasn't a good fit with the type of game this was; the squad-based structure of the game demands a more balanced ensemble cast. Dragonfall's scenario was a nearly perfect fit, and so I love it more.
Dan Harris — 10% Happier
Mostly fuck this book. I started meditating recently (again, sorta kinda), a little bit on most days, largely inspired by this excellent short video narrated by this book's author. Go ahead and go watch that, and you've already got 80% to 90% of what the book has to offer. That last smidgen of useful info is thinly smeared across what feels like acres of obnoxious memoir.
Like, I see what he's doing, and I guess I don't really fault him for it. He believes mindfulness-based meditation is going to have the most dramatic effect for people who, like himself, sort of default to being assholes, and so he set out to write The Asshole's Case for Mindfulness. It might even be pretty good at that.
But while I won't claim to have not dabbled in being a fucker, I will say that the format is mostly useless for someone who:
- Already realizes their mind is a network of disparate competing systems.
- Is already interested in improving their self-directed mind control skills.
- Just wants some practical help with that, and possibly some interesting updates from whatever the current frontline of research happens to be.
When I find that book, I'll let you know.
Jack Kornfield — Meditation for Beginners
Well, that was fast. It looks like this is the meditation book to go for! Shout-out to Suzanne at work for the rec.
I have a few tiny quibbles with it, mostly about the anecdotes he sometimes uses to illustrate a point. (They seem slightly random, and also my eyebrow always goes up when someone mentions Carlos Castenada with a straight face.) But those are rare (maybe one or two a chapter) and brief, and aside from them, this is a really remarkable amount of useful, practical information packed into the minimum space.
What's up with my sudden interest in meditation? Well, I've been idly interested for a while, because getting better control over the default thought patterns of my brain has never seemed like a bad idea. But recent events (even before the election) have moved that from "nice to have" to "urgently important." (Yes, I am also looking into therapy. Yes, I probably could have used both of those things at other points in my life, like '13 or '06.)
It's already helping a bit, although it's hard to describe exactly how. Proving to yourself that thoughts are just thoughts really is a pretty big deal.
Sidebar about meditation
The yoga classes I took in college had some meditation, but it didn't take. You wanna know what really made me care about and get mindfulness for the first time, back in '08 or '09? Motorcycles. When you're riding and your face starts to itch, turns out you have to Get Over It, and stop caring about non-useful sensations and emotions. Like, go ahead and feel them! But disidentify and draw a line between things that matter and things that don't matter.
That, combined with the notice/decide/respond/notice loop that necessarily takes up your whole brain at 70 mph, made riding a kind of rolling meditative practice that has at times anchored me and helped me deal with overwhelming shit that was happening in the rest of my life. Death machine serenity, go figure.
There's also that occasional sudden craving for a cigarette I get, which I noticed several years ago will go completely away if I just stand there and look at it for a minute; I feel like that taught me a bit about the transitory nature of consciousness, too.
Anyway, that stuff was really valuable, but a little disorganized. It eventually occurred to me that I could probably adopt a more coherent practice and get some more consistent benefit.
I just today noticed that Kai Ashante Wilson's new thing came out while I wasn't looking, so I finally wrapped up this review of his last one.
Kai Ashante Wilson — Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Feb 7, 2016
Believe the hype; this novella is both good and important. I mean, I hated the ending (everyone hates the ending [it's bullshit]), but still, this is a must-read if you're watching what's new in fantasy. Scrounge up $3 and a few hours for it.
This is shaped like an old-school sword and sorcery short (with subgenre-appropriate dudeliness values), but the whole thing is built in variations on modern AAVE (plus some flashes of global Black Englishes, per the internationality of the supporting cast of mercenaries).
Plus it's pretty gay. Plus it's taking place on the outskirts of an impressively bonkers techno-deistic mythos that seems like it might be in dialogue with some books I haven't read yet. But I think the language of it is the most bracing and exciting part, the part that seems to be the biggest deal. Not that building SF worlds in Black Englishes is new per se, insert shoutout to Midnight Robber here. But there's something going on here with secondary-world fantasy and the hidden conceit of translation that felt surprising and transformative.
So... there are various philosophical approaches you can take when doing secondary-world fantasy, but the founding text for most modern secondary-world fantasy in English is Lord of the Rings, and LOTR had an explicit conceit of translation. As in, all events took place in some other language, then were translated into modern English by a specific translator with strong opinions about who their readership was, what cultural parallels they could take advantage of, which literary predecessors would be invoked by particular diction choices, etc. (Cf. the appendices, where he talks about changing characters' names because their "real" ones had the wrong gender connotations in English's sound system.)
The translator was just as much a character as the characters, in other words. But the results got more attention than the process, and so Tolkien-derived fantasy has a major translator reuse problem, which carries over into a presumed-readership reuse problem.
Anyway, what happens to classically-inclined secondary-world fantasy when your default readership ISN'T British white people with an early 20th century worldview? When the references that constitute the translation are not their references? How does this new fantasy mutate and evolve? What can it do better than it ever used to be able to do?
I liked this book a lot.
One of my long-term aspirations is getting better at realizing when I need to ask for help, and I feel like this was at least a step in the right direction even though it took me two damn months to get the clue. Long story short, I fucked up my hip area on my right side back in August, when Ruth was teaching me to swim. (Which I meant to post about but can't remember if I ever did.) Pro-tip, don't try to kick full force the first time you use flippers, the resistance/acceleration curve is completely different and you might wreck your dumb ass.
Anyway, ever since then, I've had dull, aching pain in that right hip and thigh when I move them in formerly totally normal ways, and it's been dampening my enthusiasm for walking, running, and biking. I finally accepted on Tuesday that it wasn't going to go away on its own or with amateur trigger point massage, and remembered I had solid testimonials from multiple friends (who have my same insurance) for Pedal PT down on Clinton.
They got me in today, and I already feel a ton better. Turns out half of my pelvis was rotated forward. Guess that was a heck of a flipper kick.
It's been a minute. Hey y'all, let's bookpost.
G. Bruce Boyer — True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear
For whatever reason, I thought this was going to be a structured and comprehensive overview, but instead it's a wandering and loosely connected essay collection. But it was entertaining and mildly enlightening, so it's probably a better book than the one I was expecting.
Insert something here about the complications of coming to some kind of arrangement with "menswear" when one does not in any way consider oneself a “““man.””” I've needed to buy a respectable suit for years now, and I'm having a bastard of a time orienting myself. Most of the practical writing on the subject is coming from such a distant place that it's almost impossible for me to make use of it?? IDK, I'm at multiple disadvantages here and it's frustrating. My parents and relatives don't know how to dress, so I couldn't learn any of this from them, and since I'm an inconvenient size/shape (have literally never encountered a correctly fitting long-sleeve woven shirt), I'm gonna have to get something custom, which is a staggering expense and a ridiculously steep learning curve. If I'm going to invest all that money and effort, the result had better be something that I 💖fucking love,💖 and my Grumpiness About Masculinity is going to make that standard rather tougher to meet. BLEAH.
Good thing I live on the west coast and work in tech, huh? My habitat's aggressive informality gives me a bit of extra time to figure this all out. But I can already feel the next wedding or funeral breathing down my neck.
...This isn't really a book review, is it? I guess they never are.
Tamora Pierce — Protector of the Small: First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady Knight
Mar 20 (book 1) through Apr. 22 (book 4)
It turns out that Ruth and I both grew up with Tamora Pierce novels! But since she's a bit younger than me, she had a wider selection at that age when they're the best thing ever. So I read and loved the original Lioness quartet and The Immortals, but by the time this series came out, I was in high school and it was Very Important to not be reading books about 11-year-olds. You know the drill.
Anyway, I liked these a lot as an adult, and if I'd had them as a preteen I'd have been fucking apeshit over them. They're great! Ruth was right about them being much better than the prior two series; those were important and wonderful, but this is just a lot better crafted and more cohesive. An excellent heroic coming-of-age tale.
Raina Telgemeier — Smile (comics)
I've had a copy of this since forever, but never got around to reading it. It's good! It was Telgemeier's first major project, so it lacks some of the confidence and poise of her later work, but her voice and her art are already unmistakable.
Also, I'd almost forgotten this, but I'd read about half of this book before, when it was serialized in black and white on Girlamatic. What a weird time in comics history! And now, this week, Telgemeier is (checks) seven out of ten slots on the NYT paperback graphic books bestsellers. Good job, RT. (And also, as someone who attended a rural public school district, lemme take this chance to remind everyone to never underestimate the Scholastic book fair.)
Eh, what the heck. Smoke em if you got em, right?
Paul Bowles - The Sheltering Sky
This had some definite moments, most notably the part where the guy died of typhus (I've had fevers that sort of qualitatively resembled that, minus the threat to my life), but wow, the orientalist rape-a-palooza of that final section of the book can go to hell. (It was so unnecessary??? I think this would have been a favorable review if the book had just ended with Kit fleeing the city and nothing resolved.)
I can't remember what Max said when he loaned this to me, but we hung out a few weeks after I finished it and he filled in a bit of context about Bowles. The upshot is that this is a weird book written by a weird dude at a weird time, and it later had weird echoes through literary history (most notably having some kind of formative influence on the Beats).
Another fragment: Once I got my feet under me, I was reading this as a very very dark comedy. But thinking back, now I'm wondering whether that has anything to do with what Bowles' meant to write. Did Port read like a doomed clown in 1949? I... I think maybe he didn't?! But I really don't know. Lemme know if you have any insight.
Megan Whalen Turner - A Conspiracy of Kings
I didn't read this last year because Ruth packed all her books away for six months, but I remembered it right before a big backpacking trip and it was just what I wanted.
I mentioned before that these books are surprising. Have I mentioned yet how amazingly well constructed they are? The most appropriate word I can think of is "precise." Lots of little pieces in exactly the right spots.
They also have a very detailed world that's rendered with admirable restraint, which is an ethos I can always get down with in a tense sorta-fantasy novel. (Reminiscent of the economy and control of world-reveals in Sabriel.)
Brandon Graham - King City (comics)
This comic is completely outrageous. It is bananas. Graham is fusing '70s French SF comic bonkersness with '90s manga bonkersness, and the result is, like... basically any given page has something that can make you ask what the hell you're even looking at.
It has its flaws, most notably that the dudegaze quotient is higher than I usually prefer. And the characters are often a bit flat. But I still really enjoyed it. The art is a wonderfully satisfying combination of tossed-off panache and obsessive fiddly detail. The setting is, as I think I already said, utterly bananas. The dialogue is mostly serviceable but will sometimes surprise with an elegantly lazy kickflip. And the amount of visual imagination on display is just astounding. This is a very comicsy comic, in the best way.
Kelly Link - Get in Trouble (short stories)
There's some excellent stuff in here, but after chewing for a bit, I think I have to say this isn't Link's best collection. (That's still Magic for Beginners.)
But I DO still highly recommend it. For one thing, it's got possibly her best story so far, "Valley of the Girls." (I'm serious, this story is mandatory.) For another, even Link's weaker stories are good.
It's also her most unified collection, in a way that's hard to pinpoint. Something about a commitment to characters always making the wrong decision. A persistent turn towards... not evil, but badness. Heroes you feel driven to root against.
Anyway, I'll re-read most of these on some rainy day. Probably starting with The Demon Lover as Halloween gets closer.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - Saga vol. 1 (comics)
Yeah, okay!! This is about as good as everyone says it is. I kind of find myself holding it at arms-length a bit; something about it encourages a bit of emotional distance, signals you to not let the characters get too close. But it's a heck of a ride, it spends twenty-dollar ideas where anyone else would spend a fiver, and the art is really honest-to-god first rate.
Aimee Bender - The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
This was great.
I'd forgotten Aimee Bender completely, and then remembered her suddenly when I was trying to figure out what to say about Uptalk. So I checked in at the library, and she'd put out another story collection and this novel while I hadn't been looking.
It's been almost exactly ten years since I read An Invisible Sign of My Own (I found a brief comment in my journal about it: November '06, which was before I started keeping this book log!) and I can only remember so much of it, but the impression I'm digging up is of an intriguing but wildly off-center novel that threatened to fly apart off its axis at any moment. This is more controlled and much improved, but it retains that sweet intensity of dissatisfaction and magic and discomfort and yearning. I'm glad I remembered Aimee Bender.
Carla Speed McNeil — Finder: Third World (comics)
February? January? I forgot to write this down b/c I was at my parents' house or something.
This went some really strange places, and I don't have anything useful to say about it now. Finder's great, you should read Finder!
Bonus level: Severed
This was on sale for its recent iOS release, and I loved Drinkbox's last game (Guacamelee), so I went for it.
The narrative is extremely spare; so spare that I'm kind of reconsidering putting it in the didread list (which I usually only do for story-focused games). But I still find myself thinking about it from time to time, so.
As for gameplay: Housemate saw me playing it for a few minutes and said "So... it's Wizardry meets Fruit Ninja?" Not wrong! It starts really simply, and in the first area I found myself wondering if there was actually a game here. But once the difficulty ramps up and you have to juggle three or four aggressive enemy timers at once, it's kind of a blast.
Not a lot of replay value, but a solid experience the first time through.
Kate Wilhelm - Storyteller
An occasionally interesting memoir of running the Clarion writers' workshop. I needed an undemanding nonfiction read, and this fit the bill.
There're some fragments of useful stuff in here about the practice of writing and workshopping fiction, but most of the focus is on anecdotes and institutional history.
Okay, so first off, why are you bringing Bundy family fanfic into my home.
Where did you get that. Why is that even a thing. God dammit.