Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

April 16, 2018

Traditional Observations

It's the middle of April, when it appears I traditionally make a post organized around the weather and/or my birthday. I do enjoy observing both the weather and my birthday, not to mention my many personal traditions, so here we go.

When I woke up this morning, it was so dark out that I doubted I was actually hearing my alarm, but it really was daytime, just raining heavily. I heard some truck activity outside that I later discovered was probably thunder, which we don't get around here too often. I was lazily starting my morning when another nonexistent truck knocked into our house, a sensation that I know by now to recognize as an earthquake. That brief but unmistakeable jolt woke me all the way up. I checked Twitter for quake tweets and learned about the thunder, plus hail in some places, a combo that left Silicon Valley expecting the apocalypse. Within an hour, the sun was aggressively shining. Now it's raining again. Happy spring!

Tomorrow I turn 43. I've already done some celebrating, with food and drink and baking and book-buying. I have more of the same scheduled for tomorrow, and I intend to continue the festivities for at least another week.

Life in our new house continues to be wonderful. I've mostly adjusted all my habits to living here, though I do sometimes still take the wrong exit when driving home. We've had lots of family and friends come to visit, with more on the horizon, and that's been great. It's a relief to be done with the most time-consuming and stressful aspects of house-buying and -selling so we can focus on more fun items, like finally picking out some bookshelves.

I can't end this update post without mentioning the novel. Traditionally when I mention the novel, I say that revision is coming along, though more slowly than I'd like. I certainly wouldn't want to break from tradition, so there we go.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I'm not entirely sure if Alanna Okun's essay, On The Fine Art Of Unraveling, is intended as a knitting/writing metaphor, but it's the best one I've read: "The first row you knit after the cast-on is always difficult. Maybe you started too tightly and have to force your needles through the stubborn stitches, or maybe too loose and now you have to tug each strand of yarn so you don't leave any holes. The beginning is a slog. But then, ten minutes or twenty or sometimes a week later, you look down and realize that what you have is a thing. Nothing yet identifiable as a hat or scarf, but no longer just the anemic start."

March 16, 2018

FOGcon 2018 Report

I attended FOGcon last weekend, the eighth year of this speculative fiction convention and my eighth time participating. I had a great time, as I do every year. It's always a delightful mix of familiar and new experiences and people.

This year (like last year), both honored guests contributed to many of the high points of my weekend. In preparation for the con, I started reading the work of Ada Palmer -- I've raved about TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and am still in the midst of the second half of that story, SEVEN SURRENDERS. It was great to hear Palmer speak several times about her series and her areas of expertise. She gave a captivating presentation on the history of books and book censorship that demonstrated she's as skilled a storyteller in person as on the page. I also attended a fascinating panel Palmer wasn't involved in that focused on the gender aspects of her novels, and I really appreciated hearing critiques from a range of perspectives.

I didn't make enough time to read Andrea Hairston before the con, but now I can check out her work (maybe REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE) with her lively voice in mind. In addition to writing novels, Hairston is involved in theater as a playwright, director, and actor, and her performance skills were evident whenever I saw her this weekend. I was glad I didn't miss her dramatic reading of passages from her work, accompanied by music from Pan Morigan. Another attendee shared a brief video clip with the accurate word "mesmerizing".

I found the programming this year to be particularly strong, so I was happy to spend most of the weekend in conference rooms listening to people talk. Writing Sexual Assault was a thoughtful discussion of when and how sexual violence can be effective in fiction rather than a tired trope. The panelists for Acting Normal shared their experiences with disability and neurodiversity, whether they do or can try to act "normal", and the idea that normality is a myth. I was impressed in both panels by how well these difficult subjects were covered.

The panel on architecture in fiction was a lot of fun, with great examples of city and building design in Palmer's series and others. Playing And Writing The Alien, about how aliens are used in stories and how that relates to otherness, was another entertaining discussion that included Hairston's tales of imagining the body language for alien creatures in her plays.

I was excited to participate in a roundtable discussion called Whither Programming? that brainstormed possible ways to evolve the events at this con in the future. I'm looking forward to whatever the next FOGcon will bring!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Monica Byrne's talk for the Texas A&M Science Fiction Lecture Series, Instructions for the Age of Emergency, examines the future Byrne imagines for her next novel and how it stems from the present: "In 3012, there are no borders. There are no nations. There are no families, aside from the human family. We call every other person 'carnala,' a Mexican Spanish term meaning 'a blood relation.' The average life expectancy is 130 years. The world population is steady at one billion. We roam the earth as permanent nomads, and, by common agreement, only own as much as we can carry--this is why the system is called Laviaja, a feminized form of 'El Viaje,' Spanish for 'the journey.' Those of us who cannot move or walk are accommodated so radically by mutual aid, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality that the very concept of disability no longer exists. In fact, many of us choose to have what we think of as disabilities, and call them 'gifts,' because they are ways of creating community." (Thanks, Jennifer!)

March 7, 2018

February Reading Recap

I found time for a bunch of reading in February, including some preparation for FOGcon this coming weekend:

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING by Ada Palmer, one of this year's FOGcon Honored Guests: Before the narrative even begins, this book presents a baffling list of endorsements, such as "certified nonproselytory by the Four-Hive Commission on Religion in Literature". Then the narrator's introduction explains that eighteenth century literary styles will be used to recount these important historical events from the year 2454 ("You must forgive me my 'thee's and 'thou's and 'he's and 'she's") because the philosophies of the Enlightenment influenced the transformation that rocked the twenty-fifth century. Only then are we plunged into the action, where someone referred to as a Cousin and a sensayer, who's very much at home in this world the reader doesn't yet have the slightest handle on, shows up in a flying car at something called a bash'house and witnesses a scene they don't understand any better than we do.

I love a book that throws readers into the deep end, as long as there's a skilled writer keeping us afloat with well-placed bubbles of information and the promise of a solidly built floor underneath. Palmer succeeds admirably at this feat, which I found more and more impressive as the full complexity of the story and world became apparent. If there were half as many things going on in this book, it would still be great, and my mind is boggling over how many pieces Palmer imagined, developed, and wove together so effectively.

This novel contains multitudes, both in its large cast of memorable characters and in the many subjects it covers. The 2454 setting introduces us to new approaches to religion, family, citizenship, and gender, many of which are discussed in relation to Enlightenment-era philosophy. The narrative plays around with language and reliability. The intricate, suspenseful plot involves political intrigue, secrets, and murder. From start to finish, TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING delivers surprise after surprise, some delightful, some horrific.

Only one surprise was somewhat frustrating: This volume doesn't conclude the story, which continues into SEVEN SURRENDERS. I'll be happy to read on immediately, but I wasn't planning for it when I started this book. And that's just as well, because if I'd known it didn't stand alone, I might have skipped it, and then I would have missed out on one of my new favorite books!

TURF by Elizabeth Crane: I picked up this collection after reading an excerpt of the longest story, "Today in Post-Apocalyptic Problems", and needing to know what happened next. The rest of the story delivered just what I was hoping for, an exploration of family dynamics in a world that's fallen apart. I happily read the whole, delightfully odd collection.

Many of the stories feature some form of off-kilter reality. Some are wildly surreal, like "Star Babies", in which celebrities or babies of celebrities (the story isn't hung up on the exact details) somehow take over and become the entire population of the United States. Others are closer to the familiar: "Here Everything's Better" blends the mundane experiences of grocery shopping and vague discontent with the weirdness of discovering someone living in a store's bulk foods aisle.

Crane uses lists frequently within stories, or builds stories entirely around them. "Some Concerns" is a litany of fears that starts with "I am afraid that this shirt does not go with this sweater" and escalates from there. "Everywhere, Now" opens with a series of snapshots of what people around the world are doing, but then the narration loses the thread in a meditative and amusing way. Meta techniques like a narrator struggling to control the story also appear several times in the collection, most emotionally in the attempt to resolve parent issues in "Notes for a Dad Story". (Where possible, I've linked to online versions of stories, which sometimes differ from the versions appearing in the book.)

As with most collections, I connected more with some pieces than others, but the ones I liked best, I liked quite a lot. I recommend TURF to other readers drawn to stories that play around with styles and formats.

February 16, 2018

2017 By The Books

It's pretty far into 2018 to post about my favorite reads from 2017, but I didn't want to skip an opportunity to rave once more about the books I loved last year.

In reviewing my previous reading year recaps, I see it's tradition to begin by declaring how many books I read. In 2017, I read 31 books, a bit of a decrease from recent years. The decline can mostly be attributed to all things house-related consuming much of my reading and writing time, so my usual three books a month became two for a while. As I've said before, though I do sometimes get focused on the number of books as a statistic, it's less that I care about the number and more that I always wish I'd read more of the great books I heard about during the course of the year.

But happily, I did fit in quite a few great books. It turns out that the set of books I want to rave about includes at least a third of what I read in 2017, so I'm overall very pleased with my selections. I'm also enjoying the amount of variety in my top picks, with most of the books different in genre or style from anything else I read last year, or in some cases ever. The only commonality on this list is that almost all of these were new releases in 2017 (as was the bulk of my reading).

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid (recommended in my March recap) is one of the stories that isn't easily categorized, and also one of the year's biggest standouts for me. A young couple falls in love in a city on the brink of war, while around the world, mysterious doors begin appearing that transport people from one part of the globe to another. Hamid gorgeously balances the big and small stories, depicting both how the flow of instant migrants changes the world's cities, and how migration changes one couple's relationship.

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle (July) is a work of horror (a genre I don't often read), but it masquerades as a realistic family story (one of my preferred genres) until a third of the way through. Then the lives of two new parents and their baby take a very dark turn. I was impressed by how many unexpected directions the story went in, while continuing to portray the characters and their relationships with believable care and detail.

STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany (June) is the only book I read last year that wasn't published within the past decade. It's from 1984, but the progressive ideas and prescient technology make it age very well. The story involves two characters from very different planets who come together in unusual circumstances, and I won't say more, because I adored Delany's gradual presentation of the story and the intricately imagined worlds.

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin (August) and its two sequels form a gripping trilogy that also awed me with intricate worldbuilding. Earthquakes are a constant threat in the Broken Earth series, and people with the ability to quell the shakes are a necessary part of society, but feared and despised. Jemisin explores how these power dynamics play out as she puts her wonderful characters through harrowing and often heartbreaking experiences.

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay (January), a short story collection, is another work that depicts painful experiences with great thought. Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of her characters' difficult lives. Her powerfully honest memoir, HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY (June) also makes my list of best books of the year.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon (October/November) continues my unintentional theme of beautiful but dark books. On a generation ship with no clear destination, the population is sharply stratified by class and race, and those from the lower decks are subject to lives of slavery and abuse. The engrossing story follows a skilled lowdeck scientist who finds hope for herself and the entire ship in the engineering notes left by her mother.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September) provided a delicious slice of lighthearted fun, for a change. It's the entertaining, geeky tale of a robotics engineer who discovers a passion for baking and finds her way into the Bay Area food world. Sloan's writing is funny, clever, and deftly combines the familiar with the slightly improbable.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (October/November) tells an exciting, twisty story of family politics and interplanetary conflicts. The less-favored child of a powerful leader embarks on a wild scheme to change her fortunes, and it immmediately goes wrong, leaving her to return to her home planet with an even more far-fetched plan. The plot speeds along through tense exploits, long-held resentments, and cultural conflict, and Leckie portrays all of these with nuance and charm.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders (March) is stylistically unlike anything else I've read, and part of what I enjoyed so much about this novel was figuring out how it operated. The unusual narrative centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, a real event that happened near the beginning of the Civil War. With characteristic compassion and humor, Saunders presents a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters, mostly ghosts, to tell an emotionally effective story of grief, death, and life.

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal (May) is an excellent novel about people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. In Cleveland, two people who immigrated from India long ago have little else in common -- one appears to live the model immigrant life, the other is isolated by shameful secrets. When they befriend each other, their worlds shift and open up in messy and unexpected ways.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September) also explores what happens when carefully ordered lives spin out of control (and happens to also be set in the Cleveland area). A perfect family in the perfect planned community of Shaker Heights takes the generous step of welcoming in some newcomers, and the connection has a different and far-reaching impact on each member of the two families. Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other, and she packs tension, mystery, and emotion into every page.

I loved reflecting on these books again and remembering what a great reading year I had in 2017. My 2018 reads are already nicely continuing the trend. Happy reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Zachary Littrell of Book Riot does the math on cases when book critics and bookworms disagree: "For instance, while Goodreads users rated 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History at a healthy 4.03 stars, the majority of critics panned it. The average reader seemed to enjoy the sweeping tale of President Roosevelt learning about the truth about the Holocaust. Critics, meanwhile, were left unimpressed by the information, and annoyed by the size."

February 8, 2018

December/January Reading Recap

In becoming reacquainted with my regular life, I finally got to the point of catching up on a backlog of book reviews. Here's what I read during the past two hectic months of moving and settling in:

→ Early in SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, Ijeoma Oluo addresses the fact that you may not, in fact, want to talk about race: "...we have to talk about race. Race is everywhere and racial tension and animosity and pain is in almost everything we see and touch. Ignoring it does not make it go away. There is no shoving the four hundred years' racial oppression and violence toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube." Oluo is this clear and direct throughout the book about why there need to be more conversations about race and racism, particularly between (white) people who are often able to opt out of the discussion. This book is a great guide to understanding, recognizing, talking about, and acting on racial discrimination in all aspects of society.

Each chapter covers a different topic, such as intersectionality, affirmative action, and cultural appropriation, and starts with a personal story about a time or way the topic connected to Oluo's life. While many examples explore how a racist system impacted her as a black women, she's also upfront about situations where her own privilege or biases caused her to mistreat others. Everyone has more to learn when it comes to racism, and the rest of each chapter provides detailed information about the topic and suggestions on how to discuss and counteract it.

Part of this material was review for me, but that's only because of reading so much online writing by Oluo and other activists in recent years. I knew little about these topics and understood even less before I started putting effort into become more educated. The thorough, approachable SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE offers a lot of important knowledge all in one place. I read the book quickly, but I'm going to be absorbing it for a while.

THE STONE SKY by N.K. Jemisin is a strong conclusion to the intense, imaginative trilogy that opens with THE FIFTH SEASON. Essun has learned what she needs to do to save humanity from the extinction of an endless Season, but first she has to save the community and friends she's unexpectedly grown to care about. Along with the story of saving the world, this final installment presents the story of how things first went wrong thousands of years earlier.

As with the rest of the trilogy, this book is a harrowing, fascinating read. Many terrible things happen to the characters, all of whom I've become fond of, and there are numerous surprises and intriguing pieces of the puzzle filled in. I was glad to learn more about the stone eaters, who seemed somewhat disconnected from the rest of the worldbuilding in the earlier books. While I didn't get every answer I was hoping for, I found the ending emotionally satisfying.

The Broken Earth series is an impressive, compelling work. I'm not usually drawn to epic fantasies, so some elements of the story were less to my taste, but my overall feelings are positive. I definitely recommend this trilogy.

January 12, 2018

Happy New Everything

Happy new year, if it's not too far into January to express that, and welcome back to my blog posts. Please bear with me as I remember how to assemble words into paragraphs.

My life at the moment is all about navigating new things and restarting old habits so long neglected that they've acquired both the allure and awkwardness of new ones. At the end of 2017, we finally moved into our new house, and that's been wonderful and exhausting. A couple of hectic weeks were nothing but unpacking and dealing with challenges. Now we're settled enough that living here is beginning to feel natural.

It's a process, though. I'm more or less accustomed to assembling breakfast in the new kitchen, but our mugs are still in a temporary location. I've resumed my daily walks in our new neighborhood, but I haven't yet established a regular route. My new office is about three-quarters of the way toward being set up. Most of our books remain in boxes, awaiting new shelves. But every day, more things get put away somewhere and more house decisions are resolved, and it continues to be a thrill that we're in our new home at last.

Dealing with house tasks required most of my time in December, so I took a break from all my normal routines. It's no secret that I can be a little too eager to seize on excuses not to write, but I even went a week without reading somewhere in there, which is practically unprecedented. I dove back into reading as soon as I could, and I'll be catching up on various book-related posts soon.

I've been slower about the return to writing. Now that I've eased myself in with this post, it's really time to face the novel again. My hope is that the hiatus means I can approach the story with fresh eyes, new ideas, and renewed energy. Let me just unpack a couple more boxes first.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Daniela Blei considers the invention of index cards and how they cataloged the world: "Linnaeus may have drawn inspiration from playing cards. Until the mid-19th century, the backs of playing cards were left blank by manufacturers, offering 'a practical writing surface,' where scholars scribbled notes... In 1791, France's revolutionary government issued the world's first national cataloging code, calling for playing cards to be used for bibliographical records." (Thanks, Louise!)

December 5, 2017

October/November Reading Recap

It's time to catch up with a double batch of reviews! Over the last two months, I read some excellent science fiction and fantasy, and also some other books.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon: Aster is a skilled healer and scientist from the lowdecks of the ship Matilda, which fled the Great Lifehouse 300 years ago and has traveled through space ever since. Life is never easy for lowdeckers, with imposed shifts on the field decks and frequent abuse from guards and overseers. Following a rash of unexplained blackouts, harsh energy rationing has made lowdeck conditions even worse, while the upperdeckers continue to enjoy their many comforts. For Aster, the blackouts also resurface questions about her mother, who committed suicide during the last series of ship-wide power outages, on the day Aster was born. When political events reveal information that appears connected to her mother, Aster begins searching for answers about her mother's life and death, and what she discovers has huge implications for Matilda.

I have been recommending AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS since I started reading, and my enthusiasm only increased as I got farther into the book. This engrossing, intense novel contains so many pieces that excite me. The world of the generation ship is intricate and often unexpected, and I only wish the story allowed room for Solomon to share even more of the tantalizing cultural elements they created. But the plot had to keep moving, and it's a great one, with secrets and power struggles and a mystery involving science. Every character is a complicated individual, and I cared deeply for Aster, her friends, and all the wonderful fierce inhabitants of the lowdecks.

Solomon's debut is ambitious and satisfying, and I look forward to their future novels!

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie: Ingray was adopted into a rich, politically powerful family, but she grew up knowing her brother was their mother's favorite and would be named heir. Still, she can't stop hoping to win favor, so she's traveled to a distant system and spent all her money on a wild plan that may impress her scheme-loving mother, or at least humiliate her obnoxious brother. When Ingray's plot immediately goes wrong, she's forced to return to her home planet with nothing besides a reluctant co-conspirator and an even more far-fetched scheme. It might have worked, too, if not for those meddling aliens -- plus some unanticipated police involvement and an interplanetary dispute over historical relics.

PROVENANCE is a exciting, twisty story, as gripping when the characters are undertaking tense exploits as when they're facing off over long-held resentments. I loved these nuanced, messy characters and their complex family dynamics and friendships. As always, Leckie has built a fascinating world where numerous cultures come into contact and don't understand each other, which is sometimes funny and sometimes thought-provoking. The story explores identity, social customs, power, justice, and gender, all in the course of a plot that speeds right along.

This novel takes place in the same universe as Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, and some political activity in the background is a result of events in the trilogy, but it's not necessary to know about (or remember) those to understand this standalone book.

THE OBELISK GATE by N.K. Jemisin picks up Essun's story where THE FIFTH SEASON leaves her, coping with the implications of the continent-shattering disaster that's destroyed the Stillness. There's a chance Essun can make the world right again, but first she's going to have to learn a lot more about her orogenic powers and discover the skills of others who may be able to help.

I was happy to return to the world of this trilogy (nice place to read about, wouldn't want to live there!), spend time with the characters I'd grown attached to, and meet new ones. This installment includes a lot of great, exciting developments, with a good mix of tense action and quiet character moments. Many of the story's mysteries start becoming clearer as Essun gains knowledge and power, but there's still much I'm eager to find out about, and I'm curious to see how tightly the various pieces will connect by the end of the final book.

November 22, 2017

Wait Till It Comes Around Again

Well, here we are much of the way through November, already into the hectic rush of the end of another year. I started the month with ambitious plans of drawing inspiration from the NaNoWriMo energy in the air and devoting bigger chunks of time to revision. That worked out for two or three days, and then there were some plot developments on the new house remodel that sucked up my attention. I never really managed the "NANOWRIMO AMOUNT OF FOCUS" that my all-caps to-do item called for this month, and writing progress has mostly trickled along. Our new home is proceeding more quickly, at least, and it will be ready for moving in next month. My manuscript will be ready next year, surely.

A year ago, November also began with high hopes. I was excitedly embarking on this revision that's still underway, and I wrote more or less the same thing about harnessing NaNoWriMo energy. Then the election happened, and focusing on writing got a lot harder for quite some time.

Of course, even under ideal conditions, I'm not super great at consistently putting hours of concentration into writing. Or maybe the issue is that conditions are so rarely ideal. Real life presents a constant distraction, which is a lovely thing as often as it's not. I knew I'd written about this issue before, and I found this post from many years ago on the topic, when naturally I was engaged in another revision of this same novel. Because let's not forget that I've been doing this over and over for a decade.

But hey, the tail end of the year is all about annual traditions, right? Some year it might be nice if my custom evolved to working on a different novel or revived making the most of NaNoWriMo. But I'm incredibly fortunate to get all this time for writing, and for that and so much else in my life, I'm truly thankful.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price explores the nature of both first- and third-person narratives in this Defense of Third Person: "We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it: who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it's worth taking it from them. In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people's minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness--their motives and feelings. The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator."

October 31, 2017

Horror Story

For Halloween, I present a list of scary facts about my novel:

→ It was ten (ten!) years ago that I wrote the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for NaNoWriMo 2007.

→ At that time, the 2026 portion of the story took place at the far reaches of the near future, while the late 1990s section drew on my recent memories. Today, the 90s are a historical setting, and by the time people can purchase my book, 2026 might be their credit card expiration date.

→ The first draft only took 30 days to write. Sure, it's 83,000 words of mediocre prose, the characters are simplistic, and the plot is a mere sketch of the story as it currently stands, but I got from start to end in a single month.

→ I'm now on the fourth major rewrite of the novel. Counting less extensive editing passes, this is at least the eleventh draft.

→ Despite all the research I've done over the past decade (decade!), there are still endless details in the manuscript that remain to be factchecked or rendered more accurately.

→ I've written or planned out several other novels in the years since beginning this one, and I'm still just as far away from finding a story that might eventually turn into something worth publishing.

These are the terrors that haunt me in the night. I wish you all a better sleep, a happy Halloween, and a successful NaNoWriMo!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Annalee Newitz explains for Slate How to Write a Novel Set More Than 125 Years in the Future: "Possibly the most difficult part of building a future was coming up with little details, like the euphemisms people use for slavery, or how they access the internet. Characters have to do things like eat, turn on the lights, and get wasted on a night off. These mundane details lead back to larger questions. What powers the lights? My novel is set after peak oil, so do the lights run on alternative energy? Batteries? Are the lights in fact just glowing bacteria living on the ceiling? Also, when would my character go out to a club? Do we still have the concept of weekends in the future? Do adults socialize mostly in the evening, or are work shifts so arbitrary that they might consider it normal to go to a raging party at 2 p.m.?" (Thanks, Jamie!)

October 10, 2017

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of a pair of second novels whose authors both managed the tricky feat of living up to the high expectations set by their excellent debuts:

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng: In the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, life is carefully ordered, and the ugly parts (garbage cans, racism) are kept out of sight. The Richardsons are the perfect Shaker Heights family: successful and well-off, generous to those less fortunate, blessed with three smart, popular children... and Izzy, the youngest, who never stops causing trouble. Izzy's rebellion reaches a shocking new level when she burns down the Richardson home at the end of a complicated year in which the arrival of an artist and her daughter affects each member of the family in a different way. And both families are impacted by their connections to a custody battle that disturbs the peaceful structure of Shaker Heights.

The novel charts the events of the complicated year by spending time with each character, and the reader gradually understands how everyone's actions are driven by experiences the other characters often don't know about. As in EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other. I liked how the full story of the past and present emerges, with interesting choices such as keeping Izzy ignored in the background (the way she is within the family) until fairly far into the book, despite her pivotal role.

There are so many fascinating, complex elements to LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. It's crammed with intriguing character details and nuanced interpersonal dynamics. The story delves into difficult topics of class and race and explores questions about who gets to raise a child. There's tension, mystery, and emotion on every page. Once again, I'm extremely impressed, and a bit envious, of what Ng has accomplished.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan serves up the same geeky fun as his debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but this time the wild quests and secretive societies revolve around food rather than books.

Lois has recently moved to San Francisco for a programming job at a robotics company striving to make work obsolete by overworking its employees. She's miserable in her new life, her stomach hurts constantly from stress, and she has no time away from the office to unwind or make friends. A small bright spot appears when she begins ordering dinner every night from a neighborhood restaurant run by two friendly brothers whose spicy soup and sourdough restore her body and soul. But soon the brothers' visas expire, and they move away, leaving Lois their sourdough starter and the responsibility of keeping it alive. Lois has never prepared food or even thought much about it, but she gives bread baking a try, and this sets her on the path to another new life, one that's far more exciting and delicious.

This novel is delightful and clever from beginning to end. The world of the story combines actual San Francisco and East Bay landmarks with locations that are wonderfully close to plausible, and then it mixes in a dash of the improbable. Lois remains an excellently real protagonist, however, and I sympathized with her hopes and frustrations. The writing made me laugh frequently, but the various plot threads eventually become quite suspenseful, and the satisfying way they tie up left me finishing the book with happy tears. SOURDOUGH is a warm and nourishing treat of a book!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Jennifer Kitses describes what trying to finish a crime novel taught her about writing: "A character might face multiple threats--he's being pursued by the Feds, and also by his partners in crime, and maybe his very survival depends on completing a job that is already hopelessly botched--but what sends him over the edge is worrying about his kids. In a domestic novel, the nature of the stakes and the source of danger might not involve a crime (though they surely can), but from the characters' points of view, the stresses they face at their jobs and in their homes feel no less urgent."