The Other Books of 2023

The year still has a few weeks left, but here are a few short reviews of other books I’ve read in 2023.

Elder Race

This was a fun one. A story written from two perspectives. One, a noble woman from a medieval society, the other an anthropologist from a massively advanced technological civilization The prior viewing the later as a wizard, the later attempting to do his job while failing a Star Trek-ish Prime Directive to not interfere in primitive societies (while also dealing with depression). It’s a quick read. It’s fun flipping back and forth between the two perspectives, each chapter either fantasy or sci-fi. There’s one point towards the end of the book that is excellent payoff for the genre flipping.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot #2)

The sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. A monk and robot walking through the forest didn’t feel as charming the second time around. It seemed like Becky Chambers was trying a little too hard to be philosophical and introspective. Like she knew her book was supposed to say something deep, but she couldn’t quite figure out what that parting wisdom was. You could definitely argue the same for the first book. As I’ve read more of her books, she frequently wavers on this line. I think more often than not, she doesn’t quite make it.

Six of Crows

Heists in a dark fantasy setting. At first I couldn’t stand the book. It felt like the author was trying a little too hard to be edgy. This isn’t your normal YA book, this one’s dark. I enjoyed it enough by the end, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

The Fifth Season

I liked the book, but a good chunk of the third act felt out of place. Specifically the relationships that the book focuses on. They didn’t feel earned. It felt more like the author wanted to do something unique, and couldn’t find the right path towards that destination.

You could call this one grimdark. A lot of bad stuff happens… especially to kids. The world was mysterious and pulled me in. Won’t be re-reading this one, or the rest of the series.

Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion

The general ideas of this book were great. Men are fertile 100% of the time. Women are fertile for a couple days, unreliably, each month. A man could impregnate one woman every day for a year, while a woman can have a single child per year. The book continues on with the case that unwanted pregnancies are always blamed on women, when in reality, men are who cause all pregnancies. A woman can’t walk out on a pregnancy. As a society, we expect women to not just be responsible for their own body, but for men’s as well. Men should be the focus of stopping unwanted pregnancies. That’s all over simplified. The quality of the writing was varied. So were the points. Some really hit, while others felt out of place. Also, abortion access should be legally available everywhere.

The Man Who Died Twice (Thursday Murder Club, #2)

A pleasing sequel. It was fun to see Joyce, Elizabeth and the gang again. Didn’t feel as special as the first book, but still very enjoyable. Go read the first book. Heck, give it a listen. It has a wonderful narrator.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)

Feels very Firefly inspired. Especially the spunky engineer lady. Just replace her with Kaylee and I don’t think anyone would notice. Each chapter feels like an episode of a TV show. It’s a fun book with great characters in a universe that feels begging to be explored. I wrote more about it in my review of next book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4)

Before reading my first Becky Chambers book at the start of the year, I had heard this book was one of her best. I liked it fine. It’s better than the first book, but A Closed and Common Orbit remains my favorite of the series. This one is slice-of-life, but with aliens. It’s enjoyable, but not outstanding. One small irk, she mentions the “oh there’s not a word in your language for a thing in my culture” thing too many times. Like 5 time too many. She obviously has a lot of fun inventing these alien races, and they are fun to read about. I just didn’t love it. Thinking back on The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there was a lot I enjoyed about the book, but also a lot I didn’t like. Chambers has definitely grown as a writer, but for most of the books of hers that I’ve read, she re-treads a the same ground. Frequently.

The Splendid and the Vile

I’ve read a few Erik Larson books. In the Garden of the Beasts probably being my favorite. This one was a little too loose. Too many threads. I still enjoyed learning about what a weirdo Churchill was.

Mistborn: Secret History (Mistborn, #3.5)

Oof. Sometimes I’ll read a single book or two in a big ‘ol series and then just stop. I like what I’ve read, but I feel like the author will ruin that feeling by continuing on with the story in ways I don’t enjoy. For example, I’ve read Dune maybe three times, but never any of the rest of the series. Secret History definitely falls in that category. It dives into what was happening behind the scene through the original Mistborn series. In an age where every single third-tier side character get’s their own TV show and an every possible plot line and multiverse is explored, I really prefer when not all questions are answered.

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6)

I guess I missed this one last year? It’s another Murderbot book! What’s not to like? This time Murderbot is solving a murder on a space station. Enjoyable, though not my favorite in the series. If you haven’t read the Murderbot Diaries, I recommend giving them a try. Quick reads (novellas! They’re great!), fun character to follow.

Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall

The renaissance era was lousy with painters, we’re lousy with grifters. I have stubbornly refused to read/listen to anything crypto related. It’s always seemed like a scam. The financial crime investigative journalist, Zeke Faux, had a similar feeling. Instead of ignoring it he dove deep. Zeke spent a few years following the grifters, egos, and billionaires tied to crypto, from mansions to slave camps. His book feels almost too strange to be reality.

Fairy Tale

Surreal, non-spooky Stephen King.

Before Fairy Tale, I had read only two Stephen King books, On Writing and the first book in the Dark Tower series. On Writing is more autobiographical. The Gunslinger is… something else. Something I should probably revisit. My exposure to King has been minimal, and importantly, none of his spooky thriller stuff. From what I gather, there are generally two kinds of King books. The spooky books, and the surreal books. Fairy Tale falls into the later camp.

King takes his time. The opening chunk of the book isn’t in a hurry to get to anything seemingly related to the title. The leisurely pace is not a bad thing. He doesn’t overstay his welcome, describing a path for a few too many pages (looking at you, Ghost of Tolkien). King luxuriates in the telling of the story. Once I settled into his pace, it just felt right.

As the story progressed I couldn’t put the book down. It’s a considerably sized book as well (I gather this is pretty standard for King). I won’t describe the characters or plot, I recommend going in blind on this one. The book hangover was strong. It feels like a book I’ll revisit a few times over the years.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

A less urgent, more intimate Interstellar.

Last year I had never heard of Becky Chambers. Now, five books into her work, she has become a favorite author of mine. Her ability to write beautiful, rich and cozy human experience is a constant. All her books take place in scifi settings, but the setting, the technology are ambient. Her stories focus so much more on characters over the alien. More intimate inter-personal stories than action heavy plot. I guess you could say they tend to lean into the slice-of-life genre.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate lives up to what I have grown to expect from Becky Chambers, but with a more beautiful, somber, bitter-sweet execution. It stands apart from what I’ve read of the Wayfarer series, which started out a little too much in the vein of Firefly. Not quite as openly light-hearted philosophical as A Psalm for the Wild-Built. It’s a short novella that takes you on a journey with four people over a few decades. It’s not perfect. The ending might be devisive. I really enjoyed reading it.

This is How You Lose the Time War

Romeo and Juliet, but they’re terminators.

This is How You Lose the Time War is beautiful. It is also written in a way that took my brain a while to adjust to it. I had to meet the book where it stood. In places, it’s a bit too poetic, too abstract to follow, but that poetry is fitting. I haven’t read a book written like this before. There are wild sci-fi settings and concepts, but they’re all just bokehfied background. What is rendered in sharp clarity, is how the protagonists, Red and Blue, become entangled. After reading, I heard someone jokingly describe This is How You Lose the Time War as, “Romeo and Juliet, but they’re terminators”.

Maybe I’ve said too much, but go in blind. You’ll likely read it in a day or two.

Entangled Life

We are all lichens.

One of those deep-dive non-fiction books covering some everyday thing you had no idea was so integral to life as we know it. Fungus! Who knew it commands and shapes so much of the world as we know it?! I found this book approachable, wonder inducing, and sometimes terrifying. Fungus that links and networks trees and plants throughout a forrest. Lichen existing as a michrocosm of bacteria, fungus, and plant. Nervous system hijacking mycelium to propagate spores. Psilocybin’s ability to treat addiction, PTSD, and depression. I was so enthused by this book that I started growing some gourmet mushrooms of my own out of five gallon buckets.

A Closed and Common Orbit

My problem with this book is that it ended.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a sequel in name only. It’s book number two in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer searies, but it stands just fine on its own. The first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet, was a fun little story following a small Serenity-like crew across the universe. Each chapter felt like an episode of slice-of-life sci-fi television show. Overall the tone was positive, bad things might happen to the crew, but hope and empathy saturated the story. It was a pleasant read. This sequel focuses on one brief side character from the first book, off on their own. Going in, you don’t have to know much about their background, though it’s nice to have some contxt.

The non-spoilery pitch is that a ship’s AI has been transferred to a robotic replica of a human body, which is very illegal. In this diverse universe full of unique, sapient beings, Artificial Intelligences are viewed by most as tools to make life a little easier. While this is a topic as common as pepperoni on pizza, the book focuses on the AI’s experience trying to live in a body that doesn’t fit them. At her core, she is ment to occupy a space-faring ship, keeping her crew safe, with constant input from dozens sources. This body kit, is limiting. Being an individual with a purpose she can’t define is difficult. Through her stuggle she continues to refer to the body as “the kit”. Instead of saying that she picked up a glass, she says that she “made the kit pick up the glass”. She struggles figuring out just what she is, what she should be doing, how to be a person, how to manage friendships.

Alongside her journey, we see the life story of her friend and roommate; which could have been a book all on its own. Intertwining these two stories together, both about identity, purpose, and friendship results in a book that I couldn’t put down. I loved both characters. I loved seeing them struggle and grow. I’ve become quite the fan of Becky Chambers. The books of hers that I’ve read have felt comforting, like a heavy blanket on a rainy day. A review on Goodreads for the first book put it like this: “Feel-good science fiction. Bad things happen. Injustice exists. And yet, the world is a mostly beautiful and good place. Bad people exist, but people in general are mostly nice and almost always interesting. It’s a truly heart-warming novel.” That was true for book one, but A Closed and Common Orbit adds more sustenance. It feels more substantial, like a good heavy stew that sticks to your ribs. It’s a book I wish I could still be reading.

The Thursday Murder Club

And they would have gotten away with it too…

A lovable bunch of septuagenarians who like to sip wine and solve murders. Joyce, Elizabeth, Ibrahim, and Ron are such defined characters in my mind. Richard Osman was meticulous in crafting them. They’re people I’d love to spend time with, though I fear I wouldn’t live up to Elizabeth’s high expectations! I loved how these peppy pensioners would take advantage of humanity’s general underestimation of the old.

“After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children.”

Joyce

They struggle with being forgotten, with the loss of friends and family that always seems to be around the corner, with the fear of losing ability both physical and mental. They push on and have fun in spite of the looming night. This book was fun and kind. I appreciate reading characters from a demographic that I haven’t read before. Ones that don’t fill stereotypes. I will definitely be reading the sequel.

Dracula

Dracula Rules.

Castlevania Dracula is who I pictured while reading the book. He is cannon.

I went into Bram Stoker’s original 1897 book thinking I knew the story and characters purely through pop culture osmosis. Turns out I knew nothing except how to partially kill a vampire.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A monk and a robot take a walk through the woods.

This is my first introduction to author Becky Chambers, and I have the feeling I’m going to end up reading everything she writes. You could say not a lot happens in this book, and yes, this isn’t a wild, plot-driven, high-stakes read. What it does have is two great characters and vibes. This is the kind of book you just chill with. The warm, heavy blanket kind of book. I ended up brewing some tea every time I sat down to read A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Definitely because the protagonists is a tea monk, blending bespoke teas, but it was also demanded by that cozy blanket vibe.

Podcasts, but tapes

As I dabbled in making a podcast app over the years, one design element I always wanted to include was a tape deck UI. The inspiration of course came from Apple’s own Podcasts app, back from the skeuomorphic days of iOS.

Podcasts’ tape deck UI on the iPad

I loved that virtual replication of the tape deck. Watching the the spools spin, tape shrinking on the left and growing on the right. I remember being astounded when I noticed that tilting my iPod Touch would shift the reflection on the chrome knob of the volume slider. It was cool. I wanted to make something cool.

Graphic design being a skill I very much lack, I knew a skeuomorphic masterpiece like that would stretch beyond my ability. With realistic tape spools on the bench, I started looking into something more achievable. At first, I had the idea of using SpriteKit to make detailed, analogue representation of a podcast player in 2D pixel art. The user would browse through a cabinet of cassette tapes representing podcasts. Searching and subscribing would have a similar arcane and real-world analogue of an interface. Basically, a 16-bit game that was the interface to a podcast app. 😅 Obviously, this too was way beyond my skill. I finally came to my senses and decided to try something similar to the UI of Teenage Engineering’s OP-1. I loved the simplistic, striking line based interface of the little synthesizer and decided I would attempt to replicate it in my app.

OP-1 UI by Teenage Engineering

The minimal UI representation of a tape and meters seemed much more apporachable than the gradients and depth of skeuomorphism’s past. With my inspiration and goal set, I started watching Sketch tutorials and got to work.

OP-1 inspired prototypes

I replicated, and imitated, but I never quite ended up with something that was as cohesive and beautiful as the OP-1 interface. I was still happy with what I’d created. Though derivative, I learned how to use Sketch, I loved making the prototypes, I even got it working in Swift:

From Sketch to iOS!

A couple years later, when the word “neumorphism” first started popping up on Twitter, I decided to make another go at designing the the case tape. While I fondly remembered my first attempts, they were too simple an imitation of a great design. This time, I decided I would do my own thing, and lean a (tiny) bit more into the skeuomorphic design of the original Podcasts app.

The new tape was still extremely simple. Again, I am no artist. My ability withstanding, I loved them. I still do, a few year later. I’m not sure how or even if I’d ever include something like them in an app in the future. My opportunities to do so are pretty limited. They make me happy though. Remind me of that original app from Apple. I hope more apps let whimsy design take the the stage.