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Recent Reading

Games Wizards Play (Diane Duane) (2016): Nita, Kit, and Dairine mentor younger wizards in a wizardly science fair: Dairine's mentee presents a spell that can stop earthquakes... if she can work through a few issues with her large and wizardly connected family... while Nita and Kit struggle with a mentee whose personality is even more flamboyant and flawed than his ambitious solar spell.

"Games" is in the title, giving the reader a brief suggestion this might be a little like The Hunger Games, except that Duane doesn't really do dystopia, and "wizard science fair" is the sort of thing Duane would do anyway. And this is a lighter novel: the stakes are high in prestige, but most of the hazards are to egos or reputation, rather than life, limb or the heat-death of the universe. But the lower stakes are relative; the characters continue to act roughly their age, and when you're a teenager, ego and reputation can feel pretty life or death. Kit and Nita struggle to define their relationship in the wake of A Wizard of Mars; Nita struggles with her visionary gift, and her mentee's blatant sexism; Dairine continues to deal with her post-Ordeal power levels and her commitments on Wellakh.

One of the joys of the novel is the sprawling cast. Almost every recurring YW character gets a cameo or mention. Harold and Nelaid's surprise Team Dads friendship is charming. The denouncement is a little... it comes together, but I'm sort of torn between curiosity at how much of Penn's issues were his outrider issue, and how much were Penn. Sort of. I'd just as happily not see much of Penn in future novels. And this was not the novel I would have picked for Roshaun's first appearance since Wizard's Holiday. It wasn't easy, but... it was easy. I suspect there may be another shoe to drop for whatever plot Dairine and Roshaun are having.

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (David Talbot) (2012): Popular history of San Francisco from the Summer of Love through the HIV crisis. The focus is the welter of conflict that gripped the city through the '70s, culminating in the devastating two weeks of November 1978 when the Jonestown deaths rippled through the Bay area and Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Milk's fellow supervisor Dan White in city hall.

Talbot's uplifting redemptive finish is Feinstein's nine-year mayoralty. The HIV crisis is presented as San Francisco getting its act together, compared to what came before, which strikes me as a little off-base.

The Martian (Andy Weir) (2011): Fictional account of the survival of an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Meh? It's a first novel, self-published, uneven. As a writing device, "strand wisecracking astronaut on Mars, keep throwing crises at astronaut" is a great start. And you can see the writing chops grow and strengthen through the novel, which starts in diary format, opens up to multiperson PoV about a chapter after you've considered giving up from the tell-no-tell-more tedium, and eventually almost manages characterization. It reaches for Heinlein wisecracking hero, it reaches for nerdcore hard science. It doesn't convince me on either front. (I am, it is true, very tough to convince on the wisecracking space hero front. Yes, Han Solo and John Crichton and half the Firefly cast are high bars. Suck it up and jump.) In the progression of problem-solution-consequence, there's some clever twists, especially later in the novel as the narrative picks up speed. The novel isn't all that, but the progression suggests Weir has some writing talent he could develop with practice.

Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home (Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, 1990) (trans. Aliyu Kamal, 2012): a littattafai na soyayya</em> novel, one of the occasional series I think of as "NPR books", ie, books I read becuase NPR made it sound interesting. This is a story of virtue rewarded and misdeeds punished: the wife and mother Rabi is thrown out of her husband's home at the insistence of a new wife, and must support herself and her nine children in Kano, Nigeria. The bad behavior of spouses is the recurring theme of this novel, as Rabi's oldest daughter Saudatu catches the eye of a wealthy businessman and finds her virtue rewarded with a loving and wealthy husband, Abubakar. Alhaji Abubakar casts off his previous wives as their flaws come to light. Greed, selfishness, and irreligiosity play their roles in revealing who is moral and upstanding and who is not. Ultimately, Abdu's fortunes crumble and he is forced to take back the hardworking Rabi, though now Rabi is in charge. "She was the one who handed out the day's provisions, who distributed the detergent and soap. She was the one responsible for giving the house a lick of paint when needed, and deciding what should go where."

To say this is outside my usual reading is an understatement. And I love that! Sin is a bit of a soap opera and a bit of a romance and perhaps a bit chicklit, or at least the story of dense community. Rabi appeals to her siblings for support, her brother-in-law chastises her husband, her children pitch in, her neighbors are part of her support network. Saudatu is able to catch Abubakar's eye when she is visiting with an aunt. But it's also threaded through with profoundly Islamic and Nigerian ideas: routine polygamy, separate spaces for men and women - when Rabi begins selling food from her house, the novel casually mentions her sons helping to take food outside to adult male customers, since of course these men cannot step foot in her house, it would violate purdah - the routine Islamic prayers, woven into the fabric of the characters' lives. It's a short, fascinating look into someone else's culture.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Nathalia Holt) (2016): Pop sci history. The JPL computer department, founding to its transition from "computer" to "engineer".

This is a little more memoir than I like my pop sci. Rise of the Rocket girls is descriptive. It's subjective. It recounts women coming to JPL, their experiences in and outside the computer department. It doesn't go the extra step to correlate this to wider trends. It mentions that the JPL computers hired a black women, it doesn't explore the link that to a century of racial discrimination in the sciences. It passes over the the hiring of a first generation Chinese woman without thought. It mentions that the JPL computer department consciously and consistently hired only women for decades, from almost its inception until its dissolution, and treats this lightly, rather than turning it around from all its fascinating angles: is this a form of affirmative action? Is this a variation of reverse discrimination? Did this impact the payment, the structure, the labor assigned to computers at JPL, compared to mixed or male-only computer groups? There's recounting that women left to get married, left for their first child, came back because they missed working, came back and got divorced, left to salvage their marriages, and the creeping change from "babies end careers" to "single mother supporting her family" happens utterly unremarked, it's just another variation in anecdotes. JPL launched a rocket, so and so got hired, JPL proposed a space mission, so and so left right before the birth of her child, and so forth and so on. It doesn't put in the work to step from fluffy to significant. And that's a shame. This book about these women, and this moment in the history of space exploration, of women's involvement in the military-industrial complex, of women as computer programmers and engineers and mentors and advocates for their junior colleagues, is so slight it's going to slip right out from notice and take these stories with it. Rise suffers a lot from failing my hopes; it disappointing and frustrating that such an interesting topic is not assayed with more rigor and depth.

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