ARC Review: A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders (2021)

Genre: Nonfiction (Writing Craft)
Year Release: January 2021
Buy Links: Bookshop | | Unabridged Books

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read a NetGalley eARC

This is my first foray into nineteenth century Russian short stories and Saunders’ experience teaching them page-by-page shines through this craft book that is also a specific craft study. Saunders selected works by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol to explore how these stories work and the connections between readers and authors.

What really stuck out to me about this collection was the subjectivity of the analysis and the dispersal of advice. Saunders makes it abundantly clear that the reader is allowed to get out of this work what they will. Disagreement with his impressions is encouraged throughout, and he even used the page space to refer to his own evolving relationship with these works. The balance between analysis of each story and more zoomed-out writing advice and Saunders’ own insights play well together, and it kept me engaged from start to finish.

There are definitely bits that I am taking with me as far as the exercises go, and some of the adages of what makes great writing work. A recommended read for people who learn by example (like yours truly).

Manga Review: CHAINSAW MAN Vol. 1 by Tatsuki Fujimoto

Note: Starting in 2021, I’ll be reviewing the manga I’m reading. It takes up a bunch of my reading and totally counts. I definitely want to share my favorites.

Genre: Dark Fantasy Shonen
Year Release in English: 2020
Source: Viz Media Shonen Jump Subscription

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Content warnings: Blood, gore, monsters

Monster transformations in anime/manga have got to me my favorite things. This one is something that has come back on my radar with the MAPPA adaptation coming, so I wanted to dive into the source material.

With the hyperviolence and “killing things like yourself” of Toyko Ghoul and a humorous tome reminiscent of Kill la Kill, I am super on board for this journey of a young man who merges with his dog to fight the devils terrorizing the world.

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2021 Bookish Hype Train

2020 was trash, but brought us many, many gifts in terms of books that came out. Here are the presents coming to us in 2021 that I’m personally far too excited to read.

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My 2020 in Reading

I read 153 books this year in a 50/50 split between audiobooks and other formats. Being unemployed helped that along, didn’t do much for me in terms of my mental health. But there were so many good reads consumed and published this year, I had to make two lists. Enjoy!

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Review: RUSE (Want #2) by Cindy Pon (2019)

Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings
: gunshots, murder, knives

These books are such delightfully quick reads. Action-packed, multi-faceted, with a great group cast and corporate intrigue unraveled by brilliant teen rebels.

If you enjoyed Want, Ruse provides more of the same, with tight pacing, an intricate near-future but still cyberpunk-y setting, and a hopeful ending that leaves the reader like the kids will truly be all right, leaving the world a better place than the one they entered.

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My 2020 Game of the Year

Much of the media I’ve consumed has been in a subgenre of “going outside is bad, actually.” This partially extends to video games, except for when you consider I’ve played Death Stranding, Animal Crossing, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. But there has been one game which really helped me wrangle any sense of control in what I didn’t yet know was already a chaotic year of upheaval, changes, fear, and uncertainty.

That’s right, I’m talking about Frostpunk (available on PS4, XBox One, and Steam).

Logo by 11bit studios

What It’s About

The year is 1886 in an alternative history where the world turns to ice as a result of global volcanic cooling. In the years before, the U.S. and British governments built generators in the coal-rich North to serve as city centers in the events of such an apocalypse. You play as “the Captain” who is to shepherd a group and lead a city to survival, despite plunging temperatures, lack of resources, and incoming blizzards.

11bit Studios based in Poland created the game and it was released on PC in 2018, came out on consoles in 2019, but I didn’t really start plying until 2020. Since then, I have sunk well over 150 hours into this strategic survival game with varying levels of success per play time.

What is the Game Play Loop?

The gameplay loop centers on you providing for your people, acquiring resources, and passing laws. Generally, you start off with a group of new citizens with maybe some coal, wood, or steel. All but one scenario have a generator to maintain heat (temperatures start at -20C and don’t get much higher). Then, to win each scenario, it’s a matter of achieving its goals (or simply surviving for as long as possible in Endless Mode) while also ensuring the survival of as many people as possible.

This game is really freaking hard. The balance between Discontent and Hope is precarious. Too much Discontent or too low Hope (or both) for too long will guarantee a game over when you’re ousted. Almost every decision you make as Captain has consequences, intended or otherwise. Wanting to put children in shelters might affect your workforce. Electing to sustain life or introduce radical treatment for frost bite can affect recovery times. Resources also don’t just affect whether you can erect certain buildings. You have to do research to do things like activate coal mining because there are only so many coal piles available.

On top of that, each scenario presents its own challenges. There’s a moment in “A New Home” where Hope plummets and you get access to one of two sets of laws to maintain morale. In “The Refugees,” maintaining food infrastructure and keeping illness levels low means having impeccable food infrastructure and health care, while keeping in mind that more people arrive every day. The current bane of my existence is “The Last Autumn,” in which you need to build the generator while preventing strikes and fatal accidents (I keep running out of steel, help).

What is the Appeal Here?

There’s a certain cozy certainty to the nihilism which permeates the game from start to finish. But at the same time, you as the player have so much control. Project managing the apocalypse, especially with where I was at with my day job at the time and continuing into the pandemic, made me feel like things weren’t so bleak. What I also didn’t expect to be so charmed by was the fact that each person in your city has a name. It’s your responsibility to make sure they survive, and yes, it is heartbreaking when you forget to turn on your Generator and half of them die, but you know what you can do?

Learn from the mistake and try again.

Redoing the levels is part of the experience. The mechanics don’t change and the game doesn’t throw any unfair curve balls. Time after time, you can iterate your strategy, prioritize different research projects, decide when you want to start exploring, and so much more. I also enjoy the bit where you can do some urban planning to ensure heat distribution, but that might just be a me thing.

In short, if you love strategy games, hard choices, a moving soundtrack, and being responsible for the lives of others, definitely give this game a try.

Review: THE INCENDIARIES by R.O. Kwon (2018)

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction
Year Release: 2018
Source: Chirp Audiobooks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Trigger warning: rape, abortion, drug abuse, cults

I went into this novel having heard of it and subsequently posting it as a “pick my next audiobook” poll. I wish I could send everyone who voted on this one a thank you card because I listening to it in one sitting.

The prose in this work is tight and hypnotic, particular in its intentions and at times, incredibly heavy. None of the main characters are likable, but their journeys to the end of the narrative are simply fascinating.

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ARC Review: WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN (The Singing Hills Cycle #2) by Nghi Vo (2020)

Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: December 2020
Buy Links: Bookshop | | Unabridged Books

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read a NetGalley eARC

Cleric Chih is back at it again with their storytelling. This time, they find themself trapped with Si-Yu and her mammoth by a trio of shape-shifting tigers. To stall for time until the mammoths arrive and to appease the tigers’ desire for the truth, Chih unravels the full story of Ho Thi Thao and her lover, a scholar named Dieu.

Vo has such a knack for weaving otherwise epic storylines into so tight a space. Big emotions thread throughout, and what I found particularly intricate was the compare and contrast of how the tigers knew this epic love story versus how it was passed down among the clerics and throughout folklore. There are so many layers to this world Vo built, and the detail work is simply astounding and completely mesmerizing.

What particularly resonated with me was the violent presentation of Ho Thi Thao’s heartbreak during one segment of the story. It’s great to see a femme act out on page, and the way the narrative jumps back to the frame story to talk through how each character would deal with that specific grief. It worked really well for me, and provides a bit of indulgence that can’t be afforded if the story had strictly been told from either Ho Thi Thao’s or Dieu’s point of view.

Another epic distilled to its finest parts, I really enjoyed this return to the Empire of Ahn and can’t wait to read more of Vo’s work.

Review: EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo (2020)

Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Physical copy

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cleric Chih visits a lonely former handmaiden to the Empress of Salt of Fortune once her estate opens up to visit. The story that unfolds is epic in scope as a marriage of alliance turns into exile turns into conquest. But the presentation is so intimate and quiet, especially as chapters start with descriptions of objects found throughout the estate and Rabbit’s focus is primarily on her relationship with In-yo and the other servants who were at court alongside her.

There was a deep sense of melancholy, not so much regret, threaded throughout the elegant prose. But not so much regret, which I found fascinating. Rabbit’s retelling is filled with making sure she spoke her truth, but also ensuring that the listener, Chih and by extension, the reader, internalizes this fable-like history. The court intrigue is top-notch, but it serves as a background to the intensely relationship-driven narrative. The devotion Rabbit felt towards In-yo dripped off the page and it was compelling in a way that wasn’t entirely tragic. The strength of that relationship kept me wanting to know how the story ends. I really liked how Vo directed the storytelling in a way that assumes the reader knows the story of this empire already as told by history books in that world. The gentle but secure guidance made it obvious, but wow, did that ending land.

Epic, but pensive in a deeply personal way, a must-read for people looking for quieter fantasy novels.

Review: BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S.A. Cosby (2020)

Genre: Adult Thriller
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: gun violence, gore, drug abuse, arson, domestic abuse (mentioned, child neglect (mentioned)

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a family man who has fallen on dire financial straits. A diamond heist comes his way and it seems like the answer to most of this problems. But it goes horribly wrong, and Cosby leads us on a fast-paced journey with complex characters and an earnest depiction of one life in a southern American town.

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