Sunday, June 26, 2016

Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook

Get the hard copy, not the digital. It's so much easier to peruse
craft books that way.
I suck at knitting. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to go beyond the absolute basics— straight knitting needles and square shapes. That isn't for lack of trying, or lack of being informed, though. After falling in love with Stitch 'N Bitch: The Happy Hooker, I was sure that Debbie Stoller's original knitting handbook would be the perfect way to teach myself to knit! I wasn't exactly wrong... But my increased knitting knowledge has not helped me complete complex projects. And why? Because if this book has taught me anything, it's that I need five times the tools and a blood sacrifice to achieve what I could with one crochet hook. But let's pretend for a minute that you're already a knitter and are used to these blood sacrifices.

I keep sheep for this express purpose!
I would keep sheep for the eventual yarn but if you want to play it biblical and keep them handy for blood sacrifices, that's cool too, I guess. You do you.

So, you're already a knitter: Jump into the deep end with 40 knitting projects of varying difficulty! They range from quick scarves and hats to marathon-style, focus-heavy sweaters and blankets. There is even a pattern for a cat bed in here. I find that one amusingly pointless, since my cat would prefer to sleep on a pile of clean clothes or on my face over her own bed any day.

Tools of the trade: Crochet hooks (top left), circular knitting needles
(top right), straight knitting needles, and resource book.
The only thing I found frustrating (and this has more to do with knitting as a craft than with the book) is that I wanted to make some of these hats and they required two or three different types of needles. That means I would need to have between five and seven needles for one project. Is that Debbie Stoller's fault? Or the fault of the designers featured in this book? Absolutely not! I appreciate that they let me know beforehand so I didn't waste my time starting a project that I'd never finish for lack of owning every damn knitting tool on the market. But we're pretending you're already a knitter, so maybe you own all that already. Congratulations! These are some cool-looking projects! My favorites are the different bags. As I was flipping through the book again today, I got the itch to make all of them: backpacks, purses, and totes. They look complex, but are fairly straightforward to make. All patterns contained herein include a briefing on necessary materials, the gauge you should be aiming for, finished size, and best yarns to use. All patterns were screened by a technical editor as well, so they're pretty much guaranteed to work. I certainly haven't found any technical problems with them yet.

What if I'm a complete beginner?
Fear not! This is still a fantastic, beginner-friendly resource book. The beginning half of the book is dedicated to teaching you knitting basics and some additional niceties. One of the things I love about the Stitch 'N Bitch series is how in-depth it goes. While some books will attempt to teach you as they go along with the pattern, Stoller does it all up-front so you can try tackling those tougher projects after some reading. Even if you've never held a pair of knitting needles and yarn, she explains the process in a clear and entertaining manner. You could, of course, just read the portion on how to start your project and jump into the patterns. You can use this book however you damn well please. But I think you'll have an easier time if you actually read some of it first.

You know what else is pretty cool about this? Stoller mentions several different resources within the book to further educate yourself on the subject of knitting! She mentions multiple books, magazines, and websites for additional reading. If you want to shop for fancy yarns at discount prices, she points out the best way to search for them. This book is full of handy tips and tricks for getting the most out of your knitting experience. If you're interested in the craft, I highly recommend checking this book out. It can only make your life— at least the knitting portion of it— easier. Good luck, and happy knitting!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Shenanigans Continued: Dragons of Winter Night

Would you just look at these goofballs? Two of them aren't even facing the right
direction to fight a dragon!
My research into the D&D world and lore continues with the second volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles! Last time, our reticent adventurers faced one dragon, summoned two and a half Deus ex Machinas, and seriously considered putting on their big boy/girl pants before getting to the business of saving the world.

Two and... one half? You hadn't mentioned this before!
Don't worry— the other half shows up in Dragons of Winter Night. I'm not certain what possessed authors Weiss and Hickman to go and kill three separate characters in their previous book, then immediately resurrect two of them. However, I can tell you that it was damn obvious the third one was either not dead or wouldn't stay dead long. And I was right— but this time I was pleased at the "resurrection." Fizban the wizard is a weird and sometimes bumbling character, but he's my favorite and I was happy to see him again— despite receiving ZERO explanation as to how or why he shows up again. One of the other characters literally just stumbles across him midway through the book— he was taking a nap in an out of the way corner of a dragon's lair— and they have this "moment."

Like a sweet and romantic moment?
Nope! It ran a little something like this:
Tas: F-Fizban!
Fizban: WHERE?! ...wait, isn't he dead?
Tas: That's what I thought! I saw you fall in a flurry of chicken feathers!
Fizban: Chicken feathers? How dreadful!
Tas: I wanted to go back and find your body, but was assured there was no point— but your memorial was beautiful!
Fizban: I didn't realize I'd kicked the bucket... Was there a twenty-one gun salute?
Tas: What's a gun?

It went on like that for a few pages. Yes, it made that much sense. What this series does unexpectedly well is ridiculously random little details of the "what the fuck?" variety. Those are the best parts of the story, and they are not the main ones. I believe these are the unplanned, role play portions of the book. A group of weirdos got together, had fun, and this series is the result.

So it still feels like a series of dice rolls gone right?
That feeling is drastically reduced in Dragons of Winter Night. The story flows considerably smoother, even though our heroes have been split up into two groups. Each group seeks the ultimate weapon to combat the oncoming dragon threat. At first, it seems that they all must get together and discover the truth behind the mythical dragonlances— the only weapon thought to be strong enough to penetrate a dragon's hide. But then we find out that those aren't the only or most important weapon.

What IS then?
Dragon balls. Our heroes spend nearly the entirety of the story searching for orbs made by the most powerful of wizards in previous ages. Any one of these dragon balls—so called because they've been imbued with the essence of dragons— will summon all dragonkin in the near vicinity because reasons. We are not privy to what these reasons are. The dragons cannot refuse the siren call of the orbs. This seems a terrible idea, given that the balls don't actually control the dragons; just call them over. Why not just get a dragon whistle? Or some dragon pheromones? No, instead they go through all the trouble to find these rare dragon balls that they can't even use without losing their minds.

Does that count as spoilers?
Have you learned nothing from my reviews? Nothing is sacred! Besides, I'm not revealing more than the chapter titles do. You can get a fair idea of what will happen in the story simply from reading the chapter titles. Each one gives you a "preview" of what happens therein. For example, in one chapter, an elf king named Lorac tries to use a dragon ball to save his land. "What will happen next?!" I wondered to myself. I didn't wonder long, for the first thing I read on the next page was, "Visions shared. The Death of Lorac." Weiss and Hickman: Scheherazade they are not.

Are you sure you're enjoying these books?
I am, I promise! They're only a little frustrating sometimes— when they slow down for their little romances or give away what's going to happen in the chapter title. The random banter between characters is entertaining, and the storytelling has smoothed. Overall, the experience is improved. So I can recommend Dragons of Winter Night more than the previous book! Go check it out!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Challenge Mode: ON

As you may recall from a previous post (if you're keeping track), I mentioned that I will be heading to StocktonCon on August 20th and 21st. Last year, I did very well at this convention, so I have high hopes of repeating that success this year! Of course, that'll never happen unless I set high goals, sooooo...

Behold: My goal!

It's a box...
Yes, an empty box! And, to be fair, it isn't even all that big. My goal is to fill this box twice before StocktonCon with all sorts of crochet goodies. I'm thinking an assortment of hats, gloves, and amigurumi ought to do it. I've already gotten started, but items will make it into the box as they are completed (all loose tails tucked in, faces made, ready to go home). I have project ADHD, hence why this box is still empty. I probably have five jellyfish amigurumi and multiple sets of gloves that are in "finishing stages" limbo.

Okay, given how long it takes to crochet some of these projects, I guess that's a challenge...
The bag of poly-fill is bigger than
the goal box...
Actually, that isn't the challenge. Seeing as how I've got two and a half months to work on this, filling the box only twice is a smart goal. The challenge is to make things using only my current, accessible stash of supplies. Because, you see, I have so many more supplies besides what is pictured, but some of them are currently in storage; and they will not come out until I've finished what I have on hand. So there lies my challenge: emptying out the bags and bins of yarn I can reach by convention-time in August. Expect more pictures of my progress as I fill up the box! I'll be sure to have some completed projects in there by next week! Oh, and if you have ideas on how to make this additionally challenging, or have requests— for toys, hats, or a particular style of gloves— that you'd like to see in there, let me know by leaving a comment!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Nerdgasms: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Five hours of mostly snap decision-making
ultimately yielded this weirdo. Artwork by
myself and Timothy James.
Last week I was drafted into a Dungeons and Dragons game for the first time in my life. Having never role-played in person, I wasn't sure what to expect or how things would progress. However, as I created my character— which was an arduous, five hour, brain-birthing process that resulted in a "tiefling bard" for anyone who's curious— I realized that to play in a fantasy world, it might help to immerse myself in a fantasy world first. Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, is the world I chose.

Seeking inspiration?
Actually, I vaguely recalled from the last time I read this book that it was set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. So this technically counts as research, or reading an entertaining history book. Who said research can't be entertaining, after all? The good news is that you don't need to know anything about— or be interested in— D&D to enjoy this book! Knowing a thing or two about tabletop role-playing games might explain a couple of minor points in the story, though. I will tell you about those in a minute!

The plot seems solid: a band of "unwilling" heroes find themselves thrust into a dangerous quest to save the world. I use the word "unwilling" loosely. Our heroes may play coy, but beneath their protestations, the whole group is getting off on putting their lives on the line. After five years of solo-questing, five friends return to their hometown to share their findings from around the world. Rumors of impending war abound, though no one wants to believe it. Their reunion is interrupted when two strangers— a barbarian couple— enter the bar. When the barbarian woman, Goldmoon, sings a song about how they arrived to town, one of the locals takes offense and insists that she and her companion be arrested. Then, Mayor Douche-nozzle—

Please tell me that's really his name.
Unfortunately not, but this does accurately describe that background character. As I was saying: Mayor Douche-nozzle, having already imbibed more alcohol than is generally recommended, trips and falls in the fireplace. His robes quickly catch on fire, and the man will thankfully die to his flailing and fanning of the fire. (Apparently no one ever told him about "stop, drop, and roll.") In an effort to put the fire out, Goldmoon swings her plain, wooden staff at him to knock him down. The staff, however, has other ideas. It glows blue, knocks the fire out, and heals the man. Instead of being grateful, the man accuses Goldmoon of witchcraft, and the barbarians must now escape with the help of the five adventuring friends. The friends resolve to help Goldmoon and her companion find out more about the staff she wields: where it came from, what it means, and why it is so important to the draconian armies that are springing up around the world.

The first page in the book introduces the cast as "an unlikely group of heroes." Calling a group of skilled fighters that range from "lawful Good" to "chaotic Good" an unlikely group of heroes in a fantasy book is tantamount to lying. Damnable lies, I tell you! That is the likeliest group of heroes you will find in any fantasy book. However, I can think of one potential reason for this blatant falsehood: Weis and Hickman came up with the plot before they developed the characters. Hickman started work at TSR Hobbies, Inc. as a game designer in 1983, and conceived of a world where dragons played an influential part of the story. The world he conceived became the Dragonlance campaign in the D&D game.

"Dragonlance," as in...?
Cover art in the style of "Conan the Barbarian"
clearly marks this as fiction of the '80s.
As in the Dragonlance Chronicles this book is a part of. So this story is an offshoot of the game, but I'm really curious if they actually played the game and this was the result. It would explain some characters acting contradictory to their backgrounds. Given that the idea of Dungeons and Dragons is to guide your own avatars through a world and its quests, it makes sense that they would come up with the general plot before they tossed their own characters in as a beta test. I would consider Raistlin— a magic-wielding human character— a prime example of this. Raistlin is described as highly intelligent, driven by his quest for power, but very frail in body. Therefore, I find it odd whenever he does anything that isn't magic-related quickly or forcefully. He is repeatedly represented as being helped around by his much stronger twin brother, walking slowly with a staff, and barely speaking above a whisper due to his "shattered" health. So when— three-quarters of the way through the book— Raistlin is suddenly helping to usher another, more able-bodied character around, I have to wonder how. They make him sound as though he's decrepit, but suddenly he can run faster, or pick someone else up? Why?

Because the plot calls for it?
Pretty much. And if the plot didn't call for it, then he must have rolled a very good number in game to help him achieve it. Let me briefly describe how this game works in case you're flabbergasted by that last statement... The premise is that different abilities have points assigned to them. You roll dice to see if your character can do a thing, based on the points in that ability. The fewer points you have in an ability, the better your dice roll has to be to compensate for it. In other words, if Raistlin is so weak that he can barely move himself around at anything better than a snail's pace, he has to roll a good number in order to use up more strength. We then might explain that randomly amazing dice roll as "a sudden surge of adrenaline" in-game (or in-plot).

And this is important because...?
The reason I bring this up is that just as someone could have amazing dice rolls, someone else might be rolling shit. Another of our heroes, a dwarf named Flint Fireforge, is described as being an older and experienced, adventuring fighter who regards his younger companions as "his children." Everyone else regards him as a generally competent friend and member of the party. So some of the things that he does or that happen to him I can only ascribe to really shitty dice rolls. As I mentioned earlier, you don't need to know or be interested in D&D to enjoy this book, but having that bit of background knowledge explains some of the unbalanced writing.

So the writing is unbalanced?
A bit. Don't get me wrong, I've read far worse. The writing is polished, fairly well-edited, and the story makes sense (most of the time). I think, partly, it suffers from being the first of a trilogy and therefore needing to set up many things for the sequel. Another thing that I found to be a little jarring were the romances in the story. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre. It doesn't really do anything for me. That's not saying that I can't appreciate some romance sprinkled into an adventuring story, though— as long as it's done well! But, as with the rest of the book, the romance is passable at best.

It really doesn't sound as though you enjoyed this book.
That's not it at all! Sure, I've spent most of this review telling you the story has its problems, but I still enjoyed it. I think there's a good chance you'll enjoy it too, if you forgive it some of its quirks! You may like this book if:

  • You like adventuring stories with a dash of romance.
  • You want a story with a dragon or two. (I suspect the sequel will have more dragons.)
  • You appreciate fantasy settings with heroes, magic, and various races.
  • You're curious about the sorts of shenanigans role-playing produces.
So give it a shot! You won't regret it!