September was great – I finally found the time and energy to go back to reading. I finished Anathem, which kept me reading for a whole month in between attending and organising events. (That's why there was no blog post in August – “currently reading Anathem” didn't seem like enough content to go on).
This month was a good mix of a bunch of fiction that I loved (my first Jo Walton book, and getting back to Dorothy Sayers), non-fiction about emotions and about writing and software, and relatively few books I didn't enjoy. Also, some short stories that are available for free online.
Reading list length: 469
Books I liked
Anathem by Neal Stephenson kept me pretty busy. Between a bunch of conferences, the sufficient concentration was a bit hard to come by. What's worse: Now that I have read it, I can't tell you if it is a good book or not.
… because I enjoyed it too much. This book hit my sweet nerd spots one after another. Advanced future? Monasteries? Weird science? Conservancy? Quantum states in brains? Spaaaaaace? Yes, please. For me, this book is just fantastic, and I'll definitely return to it in the future. Plausible characters, fallible protagonist, and holy-shit-unpredictable plot. Wonderful worldbuilding, too. But, really, in many ways it's the scifi version of The Name of the Rose (complete with author pretentiousness). I love both, regardless of their, ahem, more objective qualities.
An honorable mention goes to the presence of plenty of strong and cool women in a book where it would have been easy to sell an all-male cast.
This Is How You Lose the Time War
This Is How You Lose the Time War was written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. They must be magic. They can't just write like this without magic. Trust me.
It's a love letter. No, really: It's a series of love letters.
It's a war story. No, really: It's a series of war stories.
It's a fairytale. It's a high-tech dystopia.
It's none of those. The breathless travel through the time war, seen from opposing agents on both sides, does not leave time for petty worldbuilding, and instead hands us poetical outlines that work far better than a thousand pages of in- depth worldbuilding could. (I want those thousand pages. But they wouldn't improve the book.) It's a book-long poem, or at least half the time it is. I can't do it justice here, but I read it in a day, and I liked it very much. Maybe you will, too.
100 Ways to Improve Your Writing
100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost is from 1985 and has aged remarkably well. It's a set of rules, short and to the point. Some advice is dated and not relevant any longer – a couple of hints on how to acquire information and in which format to submit your work, mostly. Apart from that, the book talks about how to prepare for writing, how to structure texts, and goes down to details of grammar and punctuation. All of these things are well- structured, to the point, and come with plenty of examples and as much entertaining writing as you can fit in a paragraph or two per topic. I enjoyed the short form and the sensible advice – some of which is very common, but especially the sections on editing contained new advice for me.
In an Absent Dream
As with every book by Seanan McGuire, In an Absent Dream is full of charm and wit and very real observations about how children work. As a part of the Wayward Children series, we follow yet another child into a Door to a place that fits them very well. This time it is Lundy, who gets to see the Goblin Market. I liked a lot of it, because the characters are real and charming as ever, with some character growth and some failings that are painful to see, yet relatable.
At the same time, I felt that figuring out the Goblin Market economics/mechanics was weird, and the explanations came in heavy-handed info dumps that you'd expect in middling scifi. Also, no matter how much sense it made within the story, repeatedly reading the sentence "The Market will take care of it" was jarring – and a bit besides the point. If this is actually intended to have a layer of economy criticism, it was neither well thought-out nor well executed, I think – and if it isn't intended to have that layer, it made a bad show of avoiding the allusions. (Still a good book, but sometimes little incongruous things can knock you out of a story, and this happened to me here.)
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown is a book on vulnerability, and touches on many emotional and structural concepts that influence how we can or cannot be vulnerable in our current societies, such as hero worship, scarcity culture, disengagement, perfectionism, and above everything else, guilt and shame.
The book includes a bunch of concepts that I think are valuable in building your model of yourself and human interactions. I found the passages on disengagement important, and I know others benefited from the discussion on guilt and shame. The passages on parenting towards the end were way more relevant to my interests than I would've thought, given that I have no interest in parenting in general. Her observations on how to deal with shame, and the consequences of the widespread feelings of shame and lack of vulnerability ring true to me, and I think in general reading this book would be beneficial to most people I know in some way – though different ways for everybody. It's not terribly long, either, so it's a good recommendation for people just dipping their toes in the ocean of books discussing emotions.
There were some parts of the book that didn't work well for me personally: Brown's writing style was annoying to me, for one, for reasons that felt like personal incompatibility – she's very genuine, though, and I got used to it after some time. Her observations of society are of course centered on the US, which is interesting to observe from a European point of view. Her generalisations hold, of course – we don't have different emotions, after all. But seeing an inside look on the structures over there still feels a bit like reading about an alien culture. There is a section in the book discussing mechanisms and how to deal with them, and I found it way less useful than it sounds. The descriptions of patterns were fine, if not terribly useful, but the advice for each of the patterns felt very hollow to me.
There were a bunch of things that I felt were missing in the book. Queer perspectives were not mentioned at all, which seems weird in a book that devotes at least a bit of time to discussion of gender roles. She mentions her research often, but any description of what this research entails is in an appendix, and this appendix isn't mentioned throughout the book, so I was left asking "your research? WHAT RESEARCH TELL ME MORE" for the whole book. I felt that a discussion of the merits of shame would've helped, but I think she would not agree that there are any upsides to discuss, so I'm chalking that one up to disagreement. I was also missing any mention of humour as a way of dealing with shame – because in my experience, this is an impressive tool.
That said, the discussion of guilt, shame, disengagement, and dealing with internalised patterns stemming from a culture of scarcity and distance were useful to read, so even while I wouldn't endorse this book wholeheartedly, I'd recommend it as a source of stimuli and ideas.
I read and re-read a lot of Dorothy L. Sayers in German when I was a kid, around age 10. I loved those books to bits, so I started wondering if they were as good as I remembered. I started my re-read in the beginning, with Whose Body?, and it turns out: yes. The books are as good as I remembered, or even better, now that I get to read them in English and have an Internet at my fingertips to look up all of the more and less obscure literary allusions – which there are many of. The writing style is charming, and has a very distinctive voice of its own, and lends very realistic, nearly audible voices to each and every character on cast.
Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, and this is one of them. Lord Peter is the younger brother of the Duke of Denver, and, having returned from WW1, he spends his time collecting first editions of rare books and solving mysteries. He does so with a charming, distracted air, pretending to be a babbling aristocratic idiot much of the time, which is more enjoyable than it has any right to be. He's followed around by his man/butler/ex- sergeant Bunter, who is smooth, clever, polite, a tremendous help, and will also stop Lord Peter from wearing unacceptable things – and takes care of him when the Shell Shock (PTSD) gets too much. Both of them are gems, as is Lord Peter's police inspector friend Charles Parker, a devout Christian who is into critical theology in his free time. This gives the book a good chance to look at class privilege and separation, which I'm happy to report it does.
The best character though is the Dowager Duchess, Lord Peter's mother. She can ramble for pages, just like him, in a delightfully distracted manner – but she's even sharper than her son, with the unfortunate habit of reading mystery books and knowing the solution by page 12 (or maybe 22, if it's a good author). She habitually provides relevant clues in her distracted manner, and is even more sarcastic than Lord Peter.
The mystery itself is somewhat besides the point. I'm not a huge reader of mysteries, so I won't even attempt to judge it. I enjoyed that the reader is kept up to date, and left to draw obvious solutions that won't be spelled out. The solution mirrors Sayers' ethical values without being obnoxious about it, which is a nice change from other Christian writers at the time (C.S. Lewis, I'm looking at you!). The victim was Jewish, which leaves space for a lot of anti- semitic commentary – which is always presented as saying something about the people commenting, and/or about society, not as spreading anti-semitic sentiment, at least to modern eyes. Still uncomfortable, and I'm not sure how accurate my well-intentioned assumptions of Dorothy Sayers are.
I think the most interesting part is how well-drawn the characters are, and how charming the sharp, play-acting, always- in-motion Lord Peter appears. He is very much Miles Vorkosigan, and I was happy to see that he is widely cited as an influence on Lois McMaster Bujold. I'm a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold's character writing, so please take this as an enthusiastic endorsement.
My Real Children
This review is biased. Of course, all my reviews are biased, what else are they there for? But this one feels more biased than most. My Real Children by Jo Walton came recommended by a friend who said “if you ever feel the need to bawl your eyes out”, when I mentioned that I had planned to read something by Jo Walton.
Turns out, being forewarned is absolutely not being forearmed.
My Real Children tells the story of Patricia. Or rather, the stories of Patricia. Patricia, aged 89, is old, and confused, and in a nursing home. She's confused about the usual things – where she put her glasses, the current date –, but also about more … unusual things, such as the names of her children. She remembers two lifetimes, separated by one simple choice she made when she was just over 20.
Telling two entire lifetimes in a bit over 300 pages is a challenge. You don't come to this book for its poetic or flowery language – everything is told very matter-of-fact, sometimes as dry as you'd expect from a report. But this dry style works, combined with the skillfulness Jo Walton uses to zoom in and out, to decide when to skip a bunch of years in a sentence, or to give us line-by-line dialogue. I think in the whole book there were only two or three places where her decision regarding the zoom level pulled me out of the flow. Even characters mentioned only a couple of time would be recognisable and memorable instantly – and I often struggle to remember a larger cast in books. And on the side, as if by accident, we also get to see alternate history is done right: With actual, logical deviations that have far-reaching consequences. Plus discussion of emancipation and queer rights issues (the protagonist was born in 1926, after all) in a very tactful and accurate manner.
When I was half way through the book, I liked it a lot, and I felt engaged – but I didn't love it, and I couldn't see myself be brought to tears over it. The book (again, driven by a very dry style) then proceeded to escalate emotionally to a degree where I had some serious discussions with it about which ways forward would be acceptable. (I didn't win all of them, and yes, tears may have been shed.) It's not an easy book to read, and it will take something out of you emotionally, probably, but if you're in a place to tolerate this, I'd absolutely recommend it.
Forge Your Future with Open Source
Forge Your Future with Open Source by VM Brasseur was a book I started with incorrect expectations: I thought I was the target group, and it would explain different things from its actual content. Bummer.
But regardless: This is an excellent book for people who want to start contributing to Open Source projects and haven't had anything to do with Open Source culture so far. It explains a bit of necessary history, and then has detailed advice on how to find a project to contribute to, set reasonable expectations, and how to actually contribute. The contents range from an explanation of licenses to how to produce a well-formed commit. I think the most helpful parts are all the scattered bits of explanations of Open Source project expectations, and the typical spectrum a newcomer will probably encounter. So if you want to get started with OS, or know somebody who does, this book should be very helpful – if you prefer learning from verbose instructions, that is. Obviously, this style is not for everybody. But if diving directly into a project with all its conventions and implicit assumptions doesn't sound appealing to you, this book is a good place to get started.
I had a couple of stressful weeks, with both positive and negative experiences with wonderful people. When I start losing my equilibrium (ok, no, when I have irrevocably lost my equilibrium), I sometimes go back and read The Manual, a very short, 50-pages-at-most read of the Stoic principles by Epictetus.
I don't agree with some parts of Stoic philosophy, mostly regarding the natural order of things and how people connect to one another, but boy are they ever good at reminding you that you have a sphere of influence, and attaching yourself too hard to things you can't control leads to suffering. The consequences can be disputed, but in any case this book is short, insightful, and can provide a calming influence in just a short evening read.
- It Was You Who Made My Blue Eyes Blue is a rationalist short story by Scott Alexander, exploring the impact of logic and colonisation on an island tribe. KIDDING! While technically correct, it is also false, and I can't tell you more than that without giving away the best part of the punch line. Go read it! It's not long, and a lot of fun, particularly the first half, before the smug rationalist author breaks through.
- Ars Longa, Vita Brevis is not one of Scott Alexander's best stories. Skippable, to me, because the content lost out against the style. (What is it with rationalist fiction and that stilted style? Can't people make an argument without sounding like badly written robot hybrids?)
- Asches to Asches is one of those witty stories by Scott Alexander. It illustrates precisely the source of my anxiety when reading non-fiction: I think I can be conned into believing anything if you just dress it up correctly. Good read, good ending.
- Black Box by Jennifer Egan is a neat experiment – a story that was tweeted out, back in the old days, when Twitter was still at 140 characters. I found the distinctive style and the rhythm of the tweet boundaries interesting, and the primary storytelling device if not brilliant, then at least refreshing.
- Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany is a short story that's won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards back in the day, and rightfully so. The story is a good example of why I seem to like every Delany book I come across: brilliant, lyrical and association heavy style. In Space. Very human and tongue-in-cheek.
Do not recommend
I finally read a book by Stephen Baxter! Anti-Ice seems like it should be very much down my road: Victorians! In space! Science! Alternate history!
… yeah, about that.
Spoilers up ahead.
Anti-Ice features a young ~anti-hero~ privileged idiot as protagonist. His character was one-dimensional, and served pretty well to tell the story, and also to invite info dumps. While the book wants you to believe that there was character development, there was none. He also falls in love with an obvious French saboteur after talking to her twice. Seriously. It's so obvious other characters comment on it. He never gets over it.
We also get the scientist with a conscience, the British patriot, the British butler, the French patriot, and we just about escaped having a Prussian cardboard cut-out.
Sadly, we don't get a plot. Well, except if you accept "Idiot goes to space by accident, discovers moon monsters, returns". Actually, that part of the story was fun, in a pulp-y sort of way. Like, there is no plot, but there are detailed descriptions of Victorians in space, which seems like a Jules Verne thing to do, and a lot of fun. Though Jules Verne would've been more realistic about things, seriously. Building a rocket that lives through both liftoff and re- entry? And air filtering, food, etc? Just like that, really? My suspension of disbelief took a big hit there, and I don't even know all that much about rockets.
Sadly, the book did not end there. We get another ~20% of info dumping on how the world developed after that. How the French and the Prussians concluded their war, how Europe evolved consequently. Sometimes characters go out of their way to explain how some Mr Dickens or Mr Disraeli are really not well-known because something derailed their career. Totally natural.
Anti-Ice itself is such a heavy-handed metaphor for nuclear power that it doesn't really bear mention. Includes all of methods of transport, missiles, destroying cities and armies, a cold war, etc. Pretty uninspired, I thought, because this has been done. In real life. Give me at least some "alternate" with my alternate history, please.
So, yeah. If you like steampunk, go ahead! Parts of it are really enjoyable! You won't get character development or a good plot, but the world-building is well done, so if you enjoy novels like that on occasion (I know I do, no judgement implied) – go ahead! I don't think I'll be returning to Baxter any time soon, though: My theory is that Victorians are somewhat tedious, and Baxter is a tedious writer, so they brought out the best in him.
The Wind Singer
The Wind Singer by William Nicholson is somewhere between Fantasy for kids and YA. As I'm not the target audience, my opinion can't serve as a good recommendation.
I found it a fairly ok fairytale, complete with good vs evil, strong patterns, but no strong character development; with a strong internal logic that didn't make sense when looking at it in any other light than that of a fairytale. Strong siblings vs the rest of the world, humanity vs bureaucratic dystopia, all very good patterns, and a decent-enough execution, but not something that felt particularly important to me. I can't say how I would've liked it as a kid, but I probably would've read it just like I read a ton of Fantasy: entertaining in the moment, then merging into a vague memory of all the other somewhat generic Fantasy arcs.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman is YA scifi, and as such I am not the target group. I read YA occasionally, though, so I am familiar with both good and bad examples. This one, to me, fell in the latter group. Shusterman built a utopia somehow founded on an all-knowing machine, which leads to humans being somewhat directionless immortals – who still go for jobs and make money. Imagine my raised eyebrows. Everything about this future is utterly boring – except, of course, the titular Scythes, which are more nonsensical than everything.
Scythes are the only humans who are permitted to kill other humans, to cull humanity's growth (because apparently we can do all-knowing AI, and immortality, but not space. Go figure). They have a lot of freedom, including the method of death. Our two young opposite-gender protagonists (who absolutely unsurprisingly fall in love with one another, no matter how little sense that makes) are selected to become Scythes, but only one of them yada yada. Turns out, not all Scythes are paragons of virtue, some are plain capital-E Evil, on a power trip, and delight in killing lots of people in painful ways. If only this could've been predicted.
Please excuse my snark, but a completely boring and nonsensical premise has shattered my suspension of disbelief, and the lazy character building, and sloppy writing and copy editing, did the rest. After I reached the first half, I skipped through the rest, with the end providing exactly the unsurprising reveal you'd have guessed. I think the cover might be thin thing I liked best about the book.
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