Books of 2021

Book 2: Mouse Guard 3: The Black Axe by David Petersen

Yes, I’m counting graphic novels, and this was a fun one, sort of a gritty flashback prologue telling the backstory of a mysterious character from earlier in the series. Can’t wait till my son digs into these in a few years… Book 3: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

A purgative for the ridiculously high expectations creators use to cripple themselves. Worth it if 2020 put your creative energies through the wringer.

(@NMamatas recommended it someplace or other: thanks Nick!) Book 4: Twentieth-Century Harmony by Vincent Persichetti.

An extremely lucid, if slightly dry, treatment of modern (“conservatory”) musical theory. This is one to read a bit at a time, bit of a firehose all at once. The exercises look fun and also *very* challenging.Book 5: Kuunmong: The Cloud Dream of the Nine by Kim Manjung, trans. James S. Gale (1922). (@kurodahan’s reprint)

Buddhist dream-fable about being careful what you yearn for, because samsara means even getting it all leads to suffering and back to spiritual yearnings. Book 6: Thoreau’s Microscope by Michael Blumlein

… is mindbendingly wonderful and strange—everything I wished for after rereading The Brains of Rats years ago.

And there’s more since—All I Ever Dreamed (2018)! (Sadly we lost him in 2019.)

I forgot to mention that this was a reread: I’d read it a few years earlier, but picked it up again and just ended up being sucked in.

Book 7: The Fall of Delta Green by Kenneth Hite.

A big fat RPG book full of cool horrible stuff.I dug it and look forward to running it, even if bits were a little overwhelming!

 Book 8: an ARC of I’m Waiting For You by our friend Kim Bo-Young, (translation: Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu).

Cool collection of paired stories with lovely extras. Lovers separated by time dilation, Bangsian afterlife fantasy with a SFnal twist… Out in April!Book 9: “On a Bank by Moonlight” by Gareth Ryder Hanrahan

This is 1. Half of a Free RPG Day book and 2. a solid Fall of Delta Green scenario I’ll be stealing pieces from for something of my own in an upcoming game. (Bit of a cheat, but a crucially helpful read for me.)Book 10: Call of the Wild + Free by Ainsley Arment.

Very accessible book about the how of homeschooling, but especially the why. I found it compassionate, unusually respectful of kids as people, insightful. Not perfect, but a worthwhile read.

Which is not to say the book doesn’t have its issues. She insists homeschooling is possible for everyone, but there’s still a lot that *feels* suburban upper-middle class. (The mention of a family trip to London to visit the Globe Theater because Shakespeare comes to mind.)

Like, there are economic issues beyond the scope of the book, but… that’s because the scope of the book, and presumably the movement, choose not to recognize them front and center. Which helps keep homeschooling from really being for everyone.

I am not really that familiar with the movement being promoted in the book, mind you; and I still liked some of the ideas in the book. But… it felt “apolitical” in a way that was *not actually* apolitical at all. Maybe there’s more thought on this in their forums or whatever.

I also feel like the “Wild + Free mamas” terminology is more about building a brand identification (mostly white, mostly privileged moms) than celebrating insights of parents (women and men) in the thick of homeschooling instead of just the (yes, often male) “academic experts.”
 
But, you know, that’s a small point. It’s just, again: I’d think homeschooling would be a way to teach kids more sensible ideas about gender, and here the book kind of… entrenches some very conventional ideas about gender. Still worth a quick read, though.
 
 
Distance sort of clarified for me how the gendering of homeschooling instruction in fact entrenches specifically upper-middle class conventional ideas about gender… which almost certainly contributes to keeping this kind of aspirational alternative education model out of the reach of working-class and lower-middle class people, which… yeah, that sours my feelings about the book. 
 
I also felt more and more as if the author’s branding of a movement and book and all… I mean, it feels a bit like every other lifestyle brand out there.
 

I mean, not that people shouldn’t be able to make a living, but… The revolution will not be monetized.  

Book 11: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman.

Hillbilly fantasy short stories, with old-fashioned monsters and hoodoo greed and a skilled balladeer w/ a silver-strung guitar and a good heart to face ’em down. The earlier stories were stronger than the last few.

I’m not sure that last bit is true: I just think that the last Silver John stories probably aren’t weaker than the earlier ones, so much as they tread some of the same ground, and were published so far apart that when read individually, the consistency was experienced as a positive thing. 

Book 12: Owl Hoot Trail (RPG) by Clinton R. Nixon & Kevin Kulp.

D&D streamlined, comparable to Into the Odd, but different. It’s really good, despite the problematic Shee (Elves)-as-First Nations people thing. I’m not big on Westerns, but I’d use this to run something!

For example, I think one could probably run a great Owl Hoot Trail game set in Manchuria, inspired by this “Kimchi Western” [see trailer video below] with yokai (요괴), sanshin, alchemists, Boxers & bandit gangs, mudang, ghosts, magical trains, automata run amok, sanjeok… 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gONhGWAXjncBook 13: Molly Gloss’s Wild Life.

Took me a while to really get into it, but that was me, not the book. It’s a great novel about… bigfoot? hallucinations? writerly liberties? trauma? A lot of things. But it’s Molly Gloss, so of course it’s great.

I forgot to note that this was recommended by @JustinHowe

Book 14: My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offutt.

A wonderfully written memoir (exorcism?) of an unenviable childhood & exorcism of a very painful and weird father/son relationship. Loaner from @JustinHowe (thanks!)

(Offutt’s father was a writer known to me from his contributions to the Thieves’ World anthologies. I’d heard he’d also written porn. I hadn’t known it’d been the majority of what he’d written, or such a big part of his inner world.) 

I didn’t mention, but this also briefly provides a curious glimpse into the Science Fiction Fandom/Conference scene of the 70s and 80s. I’m… I guess I’d say I’m glad I was too young to be a part of it. It was… messy and the stories haven’t aged particularly well.   

Book 15: Black Butterflies by John Shirley.

Spatterpunk short stories rooted in dark sexuality bound up with death and violence. Got to be a bit much for me, though the story “Cram” was profoundly horrific and haunting.

I’m still not sure what I think of some of these stories. There are a lot of what we now call LGBTQ+ characters in these stories, but I felt uncomfortable with their depiction: they seemed, in these stories, to almost be magnets for the horrific. On the one hand, marginalized people do often attract negative attention: that’s how oppression works. But this text seems somehow to almost extend that oppression into the shadows and cosmic horrors of the universe. 

That said, another thing to consider is what’s going on in Shirley’s depiction of these marginalized people. I find their depiction humanizing, but that’s because on some level I feel like Shirley’s writing for a… reader who is maybe somewhat puritanical and horrified by how forcefully countercultural his characters are. Maybe that’s wrong, but it sure feels like Shirley’s trying to depict the victims in these stories as… monstrous in the eyes of whatever reader he seems to be imagining and writing for. 

Maybe it’s an element of the whole hyper-transgressive thing that was going on in horror at the time, I’m not sure. I am usually dubious about critiques of stories that hinge on the “unrelatability” of characters, but here I can’t escape the feeling that unrelatability is on some level Shirley’s intention… and I don’t excatly understand why. Maybe I’d need to know more about spatterpunk horror from the time. Maybe not. 

I do know I’m not the only person who didn’t know how to read this stuff, because it stuck with me enough that I looked at others’ reviews online, and found others either offended or puzzled. Book 16: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.

A book on trauma, how it works, its effects on people, as well as new forms of treatment and they the time’s come to take seriously what the author argues is an epidemic of trauma in modern societies.

With the passage of time, I have some enduring reservations about the author’s claims. For one thing, van der Kolk at one point mentions that the center he was running got shut down, presenting it as an example of how modern society doesn’t take trauma seriously. However, elsewhere I read that the trauma center closure was… well, a mess. Some (hostile) arguments have linked van der Kolk with false memory syndrome—the nonsense that was used to justify the Satanic Panic—and it’s understandable, since the author literally talks about repressed memories of serious trauma. However, he doesn’t present anything as outlandish as memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse, as far as I remember… and I’d have stopped reading the book if he had. 

That said, I still think van der Kolk’s essentially correct: some of the behaviour we see out in the world these days seem to indicate something is seriously wrong with a lot of people. An “epidemic of trauma” seems like a pretty believable element of it. (Though, you know… a lot of angry people lived in a world where cars spewed lead into the air for decades at a time. Even I clearly remember when buying unleaded gas was a matter of personal choice, so… it’s probably complex.) 

By the way, I read this not because of any notion of “trauma” related to the COVID pandemic. It was recommended to me for other reasons. Book 17: One of Us by Tim Deschene. 

An RPG zine about running D&D except it’s a postapocalyptic carnival. Very adaptable to a dustbowl, Carnivale-styled game with any system (not just DCC), and pairs well with Owl Hoot Trail).

(For a partial hack for ItO/EB, see here: https://www.gordsellar.com/2021/05/27/one-of-us-in-bastionland/)Book 18: Trash Planet Epsilon 5

Another RPG zine: a sci-fi hack of Electric Bastionland, set on an interstellar landfill—more an idea generator than an adventure, but a fun springboard for a weirdo space junktrawl game w/Electric Bastionland’s ruleset.

Get it here: https://olobosk.itch.io/trashplanetepsilon5

In the time since I posted this, I have come to appreciate the small-toolkit-hack approach to adapting EB/ItO to other settings and genres of game. Trash Planet Epsilon 5 is great!

 

Book 19: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Wild, flamboyant alt-history ride through a real, strange moment disturbingly relevant to the now, especially in how it interrogates what attracted (& attracts) people to fascism and powermongering tech assholes.

This book stands out as one of the highlights of the year for me. It felt really timely in an era where we saw rising support for authoritarian strongman type leaders and a growing gusto for overblown, grandiose jingoism. Not that Sterling engages in it, but he presents it, and the proto-fascist characters in his book manage to be charming enough to give even the sanest and most level-headed reader a little taste of why this sort of thing appeals to a certain kind of person.  

Book 20: On the Origin of Species and Other Stories by Bo-Young Kim

Nice to read work by a friend—though disclosure, we have a story in this. It’s now up for an award. We weren’t properly credited, by publisher/editor error, though. :/ Lots of post-human extinction tales here!Book 21: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Fun book arguing the Mongols weren’t that bad, but my enjoyment was tainted by a certain distrust of the author’s (seemingly uncritical) use of apocryphal/mythic text as a primary historical source.

(If D&D’s (via Tolkien’s) orcs are rooted in Renaissance European exaggerations of Mongols’ barbarity, Weatherford’s depiction would be a good inspiration for rehabbing D&D humanoids culturally: foreign, different, tough, maybe baffling, but with lessons to offer their world.)

(Not that we should model orcs on any one real ethnic group (!) but Weatherford’s text shows one way to unpack a maligned group as a long “misunderstood” and “misrepresented” group in-world, in order to move away from the frankly racist roots of the “evil orcs” fantasy trope.) 

I’m still not sure how much I buy Weatherford’s argument that the Mongols weren’t relatively more brutal than Europeans… and I’m not sure that the best way to respond is, “They weren’t worse than Europeans, so they were fine.” Like… isn’t the reality that everyone—the Mongols and their European critics alike—were pretty horrible? And doesn’t his argument that medieval European writers praised the Mongols kind of reinforce that the Europeans were probably just as bad? Anyway, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy trusting any author whose account gets celebrated by a government…

Book 22: Master of Space and Time by Rudy Rucker

A rollicking gallop through alternate worlds accessed via a silly gizmo… some bits maybe haven’t aged so gracefully (surprised it wasn’t edited for the republication in 2015), but it’s mostly a kooky tumbling adventure.Book 23: Tombs ed. Peter Crowther & Edward E. Kramer

A White Wolf fiction anthology from 1994. First time reading the whole thing. It’s a mixed bag, but a few stories stood out for me, especially: Ian Watson’s “Amber Room”; Kathleen Goonan’s “Butterfly Effect”; Lisa Tuttle’s “White Lady’s Grave”; Ian McDonald’s “The Time Garden”; “God’s Bright Little Engine” by Stephen Gallagher; “Land of the Reflected Ones” by Nancy Collins; & Storm Constantine’s “Blue Flame of a Candle.” 

I have a few more of these old White Wolf anthologies. I am hoping to get to one of them—either Blue Hotel, or The Earth Strikes Back—in 2022. 

 Book 24: The Searing by Peter Coyne

This 80s horror paperback starts with spontaneous orgasms, “magical autism” (), and—ta-da!—a dead baby. And it gets more ridiculous as it goes on. Not really my kind of thing, but it has to be read to be believed.

Which is not to say it had to be read at all! It’s… kooky nonsense followed by more kooky nonsense. But I guess whether it’s worth reading depends on whether you find this sort of thing so bad it’s good, or just so bad.  

Book 25: The House of War and Witness by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey.

A slow burn ghost story set in a haunted manor on the border between Prussia and Silesia in 1740. Lt. Klaes bored me, but Drozde made up for it. Took a while to get started but felt worth it in the end.

I think the book was a bit over-long, but it does things unconventional things with ghosts, and I appreciated that. 

Book 26-29 (cheating? eh): Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa Modules 5–8:

  • The Yuthlugathap Swamps (5),
  • Barrens of Carcosa (6),
  • Jungles of the K’naanothoa (7),
  • The Mountains of Dream (8)

Loaned from @ahimsakerp, who’s right: these give a somewhat clearer snapshot of Carcosa as adventuring site than I got from the hardback version of the setting book. I liked #5 and #8 best, and can see myself throwing locales from all of them into any weird exploration RPG. 

Increasingly, I’m sort of bored by the hexcrawl format. There are better ways to organize stuff for use at the table, and for organizing things in a way that can be grabbed and mashed into other games.

Not that I blame McKinney for using the hexcrawl format. It was pretty ubiquitous when these books were done, and there’s still a bit audience for it. It’s just not something that I like so much anymore. 

  Book 30: Crimson Blades Dark Fantasy RPG by Simon Washbourne

OSR retroclone w/interesting classes, neat powers to the Sorcerer (all-purpose spellcaster), and actually-workable cinematic (heroic PC-action-focused) mass combat rules. Can’t see myself running, but pilfering? Yes!Book 31: Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

Somewhat disappointing & tedious anti-hagiography. Gives every question about Mao the same answer: “He was a conniving sack of turds. Also, bad hygiene. #%@* that guy!” This one is why I read so few books this year.

(Not that I necessarily want “both-sides” “balance” re: Mao—he was awful—but this feels a bit simplistic and doesn’t explain systemic reasons why this sack of turds did so well for himself for so long. DNF. Maybe I just need another multi-year break from it.) 

It’s still here. I’ll probably come back to it. I’ll probably give up after a few hundred pages again, but… we’ll see.  

Book 32: Far North by Marcel Theroux.

A dark, meditative Western in a global-warming-ravaged future Russia, about people struggling to survive and/or rule. Bleak, but well-written and thoughtful. Less horrific than The Road, but more onscreen awfulness.

Thanks, @JustinHowe!

Like the Bruce Sterling book I read, this is one of the books that stayed with me most after I read it. The prose is beautiful and heartbreaking, but that matters more because it’s in service of a bleak-yet-touching story, one that doesn’t shy away from pain, death, and heartbreak… and yet finds a way back to hope and strength and life. 

Book 33: Year of the Nurse: A 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic Memoir by Cassandra Alexander.

Appropriately rage-filled, incandescent memoir of nursing during the pandemic. (And a damage assessment for nurses, hospitals, and America.)

I’ve recommended this book to a fair number of people since I read it—probably more than any other book from the year. The problem is that a lot of the people who need to read it absolutely won’t. They’ll learn about COVID and vaccines the hard way… and Alexander herself describes what that looks like. 

There’s some repetition in the book (which makes sense, since it’s built out of collected writings by the author in different media, but also because so much of the gauntlet health care workers have been running since early 2020 has been like that: repetitions, reiterations… and nobody listening.  Book 34: Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction by Daniel K. Gardner

Very much a bird’s eye view and history: I was looking for something a little more detailed but this still was interesting and useful snapshot of its development. Sympathetic but honest about the darker side.Book 35: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

While I’m baffled that anyone took this stuff seriously, it’s entertainingly pharma-grade nonsense.Tulpas, MIB, UFOs, garudas; this feels a lot like ground zero for 70s conspiracy theory nonsense’s injection into pop culture.

Much higher-grade lunacy than the grim-and-evangelical UFOlogy we got a decade later. (Especially Streiber, which I grew up reading.)

Was surprised to see how incredibly racist Keel’s description of the (“Mongoloid,” and “foreign faced” and “dark, not Negroid”) Men in Black was.

That MIB stood in for overtly racialized xenophobic anxiety seems to have been forgotten as MIB have become emblematic of Big Government or whatever, which is odd. 

I am starting to wonder whether Keel wasn’t somehow a sort of prophet conspiracy theory and loonery to come. The eponymous cryptid that this book is ostensibly about ends up being a single thread in an almost encyclopedic collection of weird ideas, kookery, fantasy, and conspiracy theory. 

I mean, there were traces of that in earlier UFOlogy, so maybe it’s nothing new, but I’ve been bewildered how much all weirdo ideas seem to converge. I watched Hellier a while back, and it ranges from Kentucky goblins to ghost-hunting techniques to UFOlogy (and overt Keel-styled conspiracy theory) to tarot cards and even a character from The Mothman Prophecies.

But it goes beyond that: America’s biggest conspiracy theory right now is about rich pseudo-vampires extracting pseudo-blood from children and Donald Trump being the hero to fight them, and somehow this stuff converges with the full gamut of right-wing mind-viruses: trutherism about 9-11 and Sandy Hook, conservative (hate-fueled) Christian extremism, gun-culture fantasies, anti-vaccine paranoia, anti-masker paranoia, white replacement theory panic, antisemitic nonsense.

Maybe Alex Jones was the dealer who injected this crap into the bloodstream of mainstream right-wing America, but… that convergence of different strains of nonsense seems very clearly expressed here, in a compelling way that I’m not sure I saw in earlier nonsense books. I dunno, though, I haven’t read enough of the previous stuff to say for sure. But the fact that Keel’s a major touchstone or inflection point in this literature is indisputable. Book 36: The Adventures of Samurai Cat by Mark E. Rogers.

A big fat greasy cheeseburger of a book, shlocky and weird, but I loved it in middle school and it was fun enough this time that I’m planning to read the rest of the series just for fun. The art is half the fun (or more).Book 37: More Adventures of Samurai Cat by Mark E. Rogers

Another Samurai Cat book. Actually a little better than the first? Samurai Cat visits warped versions of King Arthur’s Court, Barsoom, and the Star Wars universe.Book 38: The Manhattan Projects Volume 1: Science Bad by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra.

A loopy, dark alternate-history exploration of the intersection of weird science, the military, and personal insanity.

This was cool. I definitely plan to follow up by reading the rest of the books… eventually. 

 

Book 39: Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

Thoughtful, challenging, discomfiting, but worthwhile exploration of the mislabeling conflict as abuse and vice versa—and how both errors obscure truth, stifle our person and collective growth, *and* prevent us from recognizing/addressing real abuse. Not everything here worked for me, but enough did to make me rethink the tension between interpersonal idealism vs. cynicism I feel today. 

Saw in @ContraPoints’ (great) video on J.K. Rowling’s recent ugliness: 

I have more misgivings about this book at some distance. I’ve seen criticisms spanning from comments about Schulman’s handling of the dissolution of her personal relationships, to arguments that Schulman is trying to argue that abuse is not abuse.

This strikes me as unfair, even despite some problems in the book. Schulman’s account of the criminalization of HIV/AIDS in Canada is shocking, but there are points where her arguments did not impress me: at one point, she argues that unprotected sex happens for reasons, and risk has to do with it… but that is a separate issue from knowingly putting someone else’s life in danger, even if one agrees with her bigger point. (If not… are we supposed to think that brutally antisocial behavior like a COVID positive person spitting into the face of a masked person or an authority in the hope of infecting them (or scaring them with the possibility of infection) is something that… happens?) She also oddly asserts at one point that probably a lot of the men who claimed to have contracted HIV from women are probably lying about who they caught it from. (I mean… men can and do contract HIV from women, after all.)

Likewise, there are passages earlier on where Schulman describes experiences in her work. One—where she discovers a male student has feelings for her, and handles it with respect and compassion while still establishing boundaries, probably sparing him severe academic and career consequences—was impressive. The other was… uncomfortable: Schulman describes fantasizing sexually about someone giving a presentation during some kind of professional context. It’s a weird inclusion.

Schulman also argues that, in reality, no doesn’t always mean “no,” which… well, she’s speaking from her experience. There’s an extended thing about how one person might resist admitting mutual attraction to another because of their conflicted, troubling past, or experiences, or whatever. It’s all…  uncomfortable, which makes sense since Schulman has a career-long history of talking in uncomfortable ways about uncomfortable things that diverge from what she feels are the hypocritical things we’re supposed to think and say. 

Anyway, as I said: it’s an uncomfortable book, thoughtful and discomfiting and challenging. I found it much more challenging to read than many books in the past decade. And as Schulman herself says at the beginning—probably anticipating some of the backlash, but maybe also aware of some of the holes in her argument—the book isn’t intended to be a set-in-stone manifesto, so much as an extended meditation on the ways that mislabeling certain kinds of conflict as abuse—or vice-verse—lead to terrible outcomes in our world. She probably blames technology too much, she seems (to my mind) to have a few things folded inside out, but some of what she’s saying about the abuse of “abuse” as a category makes sense and seems to be true. Book 40: The Tale of the Incomparable Prince by Tshe Ring Dbang Rgyal, trans. Beth Newman.

Sadly, I was rather surprised how bored I was by this 17th century Tibetan novel that is sort of Ramayana/Buddhist Jataka/Mahabharata fanfic. Bits shone, but mostly I found it a slog.

It occurs to me that perhaps if I were more intimately familiar with the stuff that was being riffed on in this text, I might have ennoyed it more by noticing the differences. Or maybe too much is just lost in translation, I don’t know. 

Book 41: Sleepaway by Jay Dragon.

A “Belonging Outside Belonging”-styled RPG about camp counselors, work, identity, magic, and a horrible supernatural threat. It’s a pretty amazing design, with some actually moving poetics and mechanics. I’m impressed.

Get it here: https://possumcreekgames.itch.io/sleepaway

The (free) Stretch Goals have more playbooks and also a lovely recipe/game compilation by Jeeyon Shim, which is unusual in having recipes I actually want to try—a first for RPG recipe collections I’ve seen:

Get the stretch goals here: https://possumcreekgames.itch.io/wanderhome-stretch-goals

Jay Dragon’s great. Parts of this stuck with me, especially the way the game handles gender. We conventionally think of gender as this or that. Dragon doesn’t just widen that to include those categories that have started to come into broader use in society: no, gender in this book is evocatively poetic: “describe your gender” is answered with options ranging from “turtle” to “rusted sword” to “an ancient oak,” June apple” or “very early morning.” It got me thinking about how much gets collapsed into the few gender labels we conventionally use, and how much actual diversity is hidden by those labels.  

Book 42: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

A disturbing novel of, well… hunger. It’s kind of an eating disorder-as-allegory-for-existential dread, artistic struggle, hopelessness, loneliness, self-humiliation, (?) trauma, and how modernity sucks. About a writer who rarely writes—or eats.

The story hasn’t stuck with me, but somehow I see it as almost prefiguring the kinds of “miserable boy” narratives you see a lot of modern extremists now, when they explain how they became white nationalists or incels or whatever. Not that Hamsun’s narrator exhibits anything like that, aside from some overt (but probably common for the time) misogyny; it’s more like the emptiness Hamsun’s character experiences is now catered to by all kinds of twisted subcultures, where someone in the late 19th century didn’t have the same kinds of ways to network and connect with crazy, empty-inside people. 

All of that said, I can’t help but wonder what Hamsun is actually suggesting: there’s so little to indicate what led the narrator to this point, or later, he never does much beyond vaguely hinting at it, at least as far as I remember. 

Book 43: Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun.

Trippy modernist occult book full of startling imagery. Reminds me of other modernist occultists like HD, Pound, and eve Eliot, except Colquhoun’s using Hermetic magic and alchemy as mill-grist.

(Which is to say, I got the feeling I was missing a lot of references, in part because of the ones I managed to catch. There’s allegory based on the Magnus Clavis (“Great Work”) of alchemy, but I think there’s more I missed, too.

Thanks, @JustinHowe!) Book 44: External Containment Agency Bureau written by Eric Brunsell and Michael Elliot.

An odd-duck crowdfunded FitD game zine designed for playing games of paranormal investigation & bureaucracy. (Feels incomplete, has some odd rules.)

Get it here: https://mythicgazetteer.itch.io/external-containment-bureau

Unfortunately, my feelings didn’t really change: I think FitD could be adapted to run the kinds of game this is built to power, but ECB feels pretty incomplete to me, and… a bit like what I think I’d have come up with in a few hours. (And I spent quite a few more hours in 2021 trying to build something a little more thorough for the same purpose, so… I know a little of what I’m talking about.)

Book 45: The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo by J.E. de Becker.

This (v. late 19th century) book started out vaguely interesting with (fair) scoldings of hypocritical Western moralists, but soon descends into lists and lists and lists plus minutiae.

Again, thanks, @JustinHowe.Book 46: Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber.

Finally back to reading Fafhrd & Gray Mouser after many years. “The Cloud of Hate” makes it easy to see how Leiber inspired D&D, and “Adept’s Gambit” was interesting, but I best liked “Lean Times in Lankhmar.”

I am pretty sure I’m going to read the rest of the Lankhmar books this year. I rather regretted not following up on them after reading the first couple of them, years ago. 

Book 47: Scurry 3: The Shadow’s Curse by Mac Smith.

This was a solid conclusion to this postapocalyptic mouse adventure series, which ends with a promise of future adventures. I got it for my wife, who likes stories featuring small, cute creatures.Book 48: Into the Aether by Richard A. Lupoff

It’s a rollicking, absurdly creative proto-steampunk novel from 1974, written in what sounds like Mark Twain’s style. Unfortunately, immediate, overt racism of the characters and narrator made it almost unreadable (for me, anyway).

There was a complex discussion about to what degree steampunk literature refused to acknowledge the horrors of the Victorian world whose fashions and technologies the subgenre celebrates. One of the questions is to what degree steampunk should depict racism, sexism, imperialism as normalized in pseudo-Victorian cultures. (Depicting it is more honest, but can make it less enjoyable at the least, and can come off as endorsing it at worst.)

I think Lupoff’s book clearly demonstrates the latter risk, and I think that comes down to the narrator being just as racist as the (white) characters in the book. Book 49: The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time edited by Nate Pederson

This book is a great idea—the detailed catalogue from an auction of fictional Lovecraftian grimoires—but I’m enjoying it snippets, as suits the format.

One fascinating thing is that the authors’ identities are half-concealed. You can look up initials and see who wrote what, but it takes a page flip and some hunting. The result is interesting, and one I’d honestly like to see in more short story collections. Book 50: Hyperborea by Jason Bradley “Mockman” Thompson.

A great, short, vividly hallucinogenic single-issue comic book adapting a grim and nasty little Clark Ashton Smith tale.

(Also, hooray for the inspiration taken from Una Woodruff’s Inventorum Natura!)

I’m largely aphantastic, so I don’t see the art in it anymore, but the way it felt has stuck with me. It’s a wild, creepy ride and worth picking up.  

Book 51: Old School & Cool (An OSR Zine), Vol 2. by Ahimsa Kerp and Wind Lothamer (Knight Owl Publishing)

A fun postapocalyptic mashup toolkit zine: you got your Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, Gamma World, Car Wars… a fun grab bag for any wasteland game.Book 52: The Worm Witch: The Life and Death of Belinda Blood by Wind Lothamer & Ahimsa Kerp.

A weird, worm-centric OSR setting with a lot of icky fun and also some cool ideas and locales I can easily see worming their way into less-gonzo settings.Book 53: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The last volume of the trilogy offered some major surprises but also a great deal of sorrow and loss, and I found it a tough read given the “current unpleasantness” —all the sorrow and loss in the real world these days. Book 54: Paranoia: The Iceman Returneth by Sam Shirley

A module for Paranoia 2nd edition. It’s from late in the West End era, and was fine for what it is, but didn’t stick with me much. The more I look at pre-XP era Paranoia, the less I feel like keeping them in my collection.Book 55: Gari Ledyard’s The Korean Language Reform of 1446

A fairly dry book on the history of the Korean alphabet, aimed at clearing up some purported misconceptions common around the time it was published.

I’m sure a few with curious ideas about how creativity works were enraged by the idea, but personally, I think it’s cool that Hangeul might be a distant third-cousin of the ancient Phoenician alphabet (and a fifth(?)-cousin of the Roman alphabet). It’s a small world after all.

(Which is to say, yeah, it seems some Mongolian letters did get remixed into some Hangeul letters. But that’s only part of the story, of course.) Book 56: The Day After Ragnarok (Fate Edition) by Kenneth Hite with Leonard Balsera.

This is an over-the-top campaign toolkit for a crazy historical post-apocalyptic world ruined by Nazis summoning (and death) of the Midgard Serpent late in World War II.

I especially liked how Hite explicitly laid out a range of potential campaign concepts and types for the same setting. I feel like if you’re prepping a campaign toolkit, it’s a good model to study. :) Book 57: Jack Vance The Killing Machine (Demon Princes #2)
I realized the Demon Princes books are basically James Bond in space while reading this. It was fun and mousetrappy and very brisk, though very much a product of its time…(But the ending is telegraphed so hard that it’s difficult not to realize what’s coming quite a while before the big reveal.) Book 58: Jack Vance The Palace of Love (Demon Princes #3)
… and that holy crap Vance’s villains in Killing Machine and Palace of Love are basically intergalactic Manosphere proto-Incels. Creepy, nasty scenario, but well-written. You can see Vance developing here.I actually think a TV adaptation where Kirth Gersen is hunting incel/red pill-type influencers across the galaxy (and the evil worlds they end up ruling) might actually work pretty well. With a more diverse cast and more varied galactic culture, it could work! 

I summarized this series as sort of a James Bond on a revenge rampage in space. It’s a fairly accurate description, I think, but the whole “villain as former victim of childhood bullying” is quite interesting. 

Book 59: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories by Jason Bradley “Mockman” Thompson.

A wild, feverish graphic novel of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands novel along with “The White Ship,” “Celephais,” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.” Dizzying, ornate, and worth a read!

Yeah, this book was wonderful and I really enjoyed it. A lot of graphic novels, I’m starting to think, I’m just as happy reading on a tablet, but I’m glad I have this book in print. 

I got this (after a long wait unfortunately entirely my own fault) with the Dreamlands map, which is also lovely and will adorn a wall near me sometime, soon.

That’s probably it for the books (and zines and things) that I read in 2021. I read less than I’d hoped, and especially less fiction than I’d hoped, but… well, that’s what pandemic life does to my brain, it seems. I think I’m getting my groove back, though… maybe next year? 

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