29 Sep

Reading Challenge: September 2019

Slow month bookwise, but I made good choices with what scant free time time I had.

Cover of Shiva's Bow by Skyla Dawn CameronSHIVA’S BOW by Skyla Dawn Cameron: I have to start with a first-chapter spoiler that otherwise might make this traumatic and impossible for a lot of people to read. Livi’s not-quite-7-year-old daughter is examined for sexual abuse, but THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED. It’s a different medical issue. She’s safe.

In this fourth novel in the series (yes, you must read the novels in order to appreciate the relationships, though each adventure is self-contained; no, I still don’t believe the novellas are especially relevant to the books), Korean tiger shifter/secret agent Dale West hires supernatural artifact retrieval expert Livi Talbot to go on a mission to Nepal, where some earth-shaking force has knocked the side off a mountain, revealing a temple that has violently repelled everyone else who’s tried to get inside. Livi takes her usual organizational/tech/muscle squad, and West brings in a team of mostly strangers (including another woman who provokes irrational jealousy I could have lived without, but I can forgive it because it’s otherwise so good). They’re racing against a murderous baddie to get to the temple and retrieve a weapon presumed to be therein.

There’s a steady supply of external conflict courtesy of disasters natural (monsoons! leeches!) and supernatural (naga! yeti!) and human (assassins! betrayal!), but action-movie books aren’t exactly hard to find. It’s the relationships that elevate this series by several notches. Livi’s not some lone-wolf fantasy badass. Her “family” has grown exponentially since the start of the first book. She understands the value of bonding with new teammates when depending on each other to stay alive. And West… is a disaster unto himself, but damn if he doesn’t save Livi’s day often enough to make you want to ignore the field of red flags flapping in the breeze around him while he straight-up tells you he’s a bad dude you shouldn’t trust. It’s been a four-book slow, cautious burn that culminates here in… kissing. While this book dwells more on the advisability (or lack thereof) of the romantic entanglement than its predecessors, it wasn’t anywhere near the degree that would make me say, “Oh, these are romance novels now, bye.”

Something that I won’t spoil comes out in the epilogue that some readers might not like but I consider a narrative inevitability—not because it was specifically telegraphed in other books but because when a seemingly minor unsolved mystery comes up repeatedly, not with any particular urgency but just to remind you it’s there, it’s because a skillful writer intends to blow it up in your face. I’ve been pondering worst-case scenarios for this seemingly minor unsolved mystery since the first book, and this revelation was my disaster of choice. I expect the truth to be more complicated than what the revelation suggests, and I look forward to finding out what it is because I actually trust Cameron to do it justice. This is the longest I’ve stuck with a series in over a decade, and it’s because the author has come right up to the edge of several pits that would be deal breakers for me, said “pfft, no, that would suck,” and nimbly leapt to the other side, much to my shock and awe. If you’ve read any number of my crappy reviews, you know I spend a lot of time ranting “WHAT THEY SHOULD HAVE DONE IS…”, but I feel like I’m in good hands here and don’t have to mentally rewrite anything. I’m happy to just be along for the ride.

Then I was interrupted by a bunch of marketing books. Do you know the two pillars of marketing?

  1. Generate/exacerbate anxiety in the consumer.
  2. Lie about the product’s ability to cure that anxiety.

One synonym for a person who deliberately causes anxiety in a target is “abuser.” Trying to make you doubt your certainty that you can live quite contentedly without whatever’s being pitched checks most if not all of the boxes for gaslighting, another tactic favored by abusers! In summary, marketing is a field for bad people who should feel bad but won’t because they’re fucking sociopaths. Give me superpowers, and I will use them to save the world from the 24/7 barrage of such teeny tiny abuses you’re not even aware of the toll of being told thousands of times a day (4,000 to 10,000, according to Forbes!) you and your life are inferior and only giving Megabucks Corp your money will make you less of a loser. Seems like a silly use of superpowers, but the increased general contentment of the population in the absence of continuous stoking of anxiety about what you lack (often because you don’t want or need it before an abuser says you should) would have far-reaching positive effects on everything from individual demeanor to the environment. In this essay, I will—

Cover of Sourdough by Robin SloanSOURDOUGH (OR, LOIS AND HER ADVENTURES IN THE UNDERGROUND MARKET) by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary is a programmer from the Midwest who gets recruited to a San Francisco tech company, where she’s overworked and stressed out. Her only comfort is the “double spicy” soup and sandwich combo from a sketchy local kitchen run by two enthusiastic brothers. When the brothers encounter visa trouble and have to leave, they gift their best customer the jar of sourdough starter used to make their amazing bread. Lois is not at all a cook, but she buys a cookbook and all the supplies recommended therein and makes the same amazing bread. Sharing her accomplishment with neighbors and coworkers leads to winning a booth at a sketchy, actually-underground “farmer’s” market where all the offerings have some sort of science gimmick. In order to meet that requirement, Lois has to get a robot arm from her day job and train it to help in the kitchen.

Lois has a great combination of extreme competence in some areas and no clue what she’s doing in others, and she’s good-natured but not naive about exploring the unknown. The surrounding cast is distinctly characterized. My favorite minor interaction is her involvement with the local chapter of the Lois Club, a group of women who bond over the superficial initial connection of sharing a name. I had a lot of “I wanna go there, I wanna do that, I wanna live in this book” while reading.

I myself am a sourdough “mom.” I made a bubbling vat of rye and water with my own two hands, carefully feed it twice a day, and anxiously monitor its health, but I haven’t named it or any such sentimental nonsense (since I also EAT IT), so I was surprised how emotional I got about Lois’s batch. I gasped and cringed and had an urge to hug my starter when she found hers “smelled like nail polish remover.” The longer I avoid any undesirable byproducts in my starter, the more I fear developing undesirable byproducts in my starter. I had to stop reading and make sure that’s something you can actually recover from (yes, acetone production just means the starter needs to be fed more) because while you can always make a new starter, you will never be able to recreate a legacy starter, which would be a tragic since the one in this book is literally magical.

I’m not critiquing baking methods in the book because bread is so forgiving, there’s pretty much no way you can combine flour, water, salt, and some form of leavener and not end up with a result identifiable as bread. The fiddly parts of breadmaking are fine-tuning certain qualities one wishes to achieve in the finished loaf, but you can screw up a recipe almost entirely and not even know it because you still get edible bread—and then you keep making it that way for the rest of your life because as far as you’re concerned, your way works fine. That’s your unique and special bread, and I won’t even side-eye whatever methods you use to get it.

There is, however, a FACTUAL INACCURACY that bothered me throughout: Sourdough isn’t something you whip up when you get home from work. It doesn’t rise in an hour like dough you throw a yeast packet into. I even checked the internet for “same day sourdough” and was not surprised that every result would more aptly be described as “all day sourdough.” I’m sure there are methods that cut a couple of hours off the handling phase (don’t autolyse, skip the stretch-and-fold and take your chances with gluten development, maybe?), but the rise is still 8-12 hours—you do that overnight or while you’re at work, not while you set a timer and watch a little TV, as Lois does.

It also sings and lights up, so maybe rapid rise is another unique magical feature, but in that case, Lois should have questioned that her dough proofed in 1/12 the time suggested by every cookbook and online resource.

That nitpick aside, this story is charming and grimly amusing in a way that may only appeal to people who understand what a generally miserable life is like. I am solidly in the demographic to whom this is designed to appeal (misery AND bread!), and it did exactly that.

Cover of Reaper Man by Terry PratchettREAPER MAN by Terry Pratchett: Death is forced into retirement by cosmic Auditors who don’t approve of his job performance. He reinvents himself as Bill Door, farm hand, and proceeds to reap fields and make friends with the locals. Meanwhile, his dismissal creates a job vacancy that hasn’t been filled. In the absence of reaping, the dead aren’t going anywhere, and spirit energy overflows in mostly unpleasant forms, such as a sentient shopping mall. Newly undead wizard Windle Poons works with a group of dead rights advocates and a medium (who is more of a small) to determine the cause of the stranger-than-usual phenomena while his still-alive wizard pals bungle around doing the same.

When I read MORT in July, I wanted more Death and his developing humanity, and this book delivers that in a big way with Death’s conscience and compassion stirring as he spends more time among the living. Death’s a good egg.

Fluffy and fun, per Pratchett’s usual.

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