Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas, Part 1 - Books and Music

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe - If you're a fan of the webcomic xkcd, you're probably familiar with its weekly feature "What If?", which rigorously and scientifically describes the consequences of a ludicrous, often-apocalyptic situation (examples include "What if everything was antimatter, EXCEPT Earth?,"If I shot an infinitely strong laser beam into the sky at a random point, how much damage would it do?," and "How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?"). This nice, hardcover book collects revised versions of the best "What If" articles, and adds quite a bit of new content to boot.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any middle-schooler interested in science or physics.

1989, Taylor Swift - The media saturation for this album (and all things Taylor Swift in general) were at a fever pitch a few weeks ago, what with a passel of glowing reviews, record-breaking sales, and Swift's split with streaming service Spotify. All hype aside, though, "1989" is easily Taylor Swift's most coherent and enjoyable work to date. If you skip the shallow "Welcome to New York," the front half is loaded with some of her strongest songs ("Blank Space," which plays with her media image as a boy-obsessed maneater; "Style," a "Miami Vice" groove made for cruising around in a convertible; "Out of the Woods," a Swift-ian tale of a fragile romance).

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who liked watching the Backstreet Boys on TRL in the '90s (Max Martin produced most of the songs on "1989").

5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast - I reviewed the Starter Set a few months ago, but the full D&D 5e books - Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide - have now been released, and they're all excellent. Each one is chock full of gorgeous artwork, easy-to-understand rules, and (gasp) usable formatting and indices(!). If you were put off by the MMO stylings of 4th Edition, or the clunkiness of 3/3.5e, you'll like this version of the game.

WHO IS IT FOR? The gamer in your life.

The Avenues, Lera Lynn - Mainstream country is a bit of a mess right now (endless songs about trucks, girls in tight jeans, and drinking beer), so if you want to hear pedal steel guitars, you're probably going to have to go indie. Lera Lynn's second album, "The Avenues," is an atmospheric antidote to all the party anthems on the airwaves. Lynn weaves notes of pop and jazz in melancholy melodies that seem to fill up whatever space you're in.

WHO IS IT FOR? Country fans who don't mind listening to songs that are genuinely somber.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson - This is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy novels set in "The Final Empire," a dark, ash-stained world that survived a major cataclysm. In the series, people called "Allomancers" have special powers gained from ingesting metals, such as super strength, influence over the emotions of others, and magnokinesis (think Magneto). The most powerful Allomancer is the despotic, immortal, nearly omnipotent Lord Ruler...and the characters in the book are trying to overthrow him.

WHO IS IT FOR? Fantasy fans who also love superhero comics. And superhero fans who like epic fantasy.

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn - The debut album of husband-and-wife banjo duo Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn is, in a word, outstanding. The contrast of banjo styles (Fleck is one of the world's greatest pickers, while Washburn is an excellent clawhammer player), the musicality brought by the pair to the songs (both have played in multiple other bands before cutting this record)...this is bluegrass at its best.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who play banjo. People who want to learn how to play banjo. And people in general.


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