Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

September 11, 2017

August Reading Recap

These days I'm not reading as many books as before, but I'm pleased about continuing to experience an excellent variety of stories:

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin: The Stillness is a land that's never still, where communities are designed around the earth's constant trembling and the threat of a shake large enough to bring disaster. The disaster that's just occurred is cataclysmic. One survivor, Essun, is simultaneously suffering a personal disaster, the murder of her young son by his own father. The boy was killed for displaying his power, the ability to move and calm the earth, which he inherited from Essun. She's kept her identity as an orogene secret for years, because orogenes are hated and feared, despite the protection they can provide. The best an orogene can hope for is to be taken in by the Fulcrum, trained to channel their power, and forced into a life of service, keeping the Stillness a little bit stiller.

Jemisin has created a fascinating world, based on extensive research into geology and an imagined history that stretches back millennia. Like any skilled writer, she presents only as much of this background as is needed and interesting, and exposition about how the Stillness, the orogenes, and the Fulcrum operate doesn't get in the way of the story's tension. The characters are as thoroughly developed as the world, by turns endearing, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

This book grows more and more intriguing and clever as it goes along and presents new revelations and mysteries. The secrets are only beginning to unfold by the end, so this first installation of the Broken Earth trilogy doesn't form a complete story on its own. Happily, the whole trilogy is available as of last month, and also happily, I will be glad to spend two more books with Essun and the others, exploring the Stillness.

CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang follows the thoughts of a woman under pressure. She's a PhD student who worries she'll never match the accomplishments of her lab mates. She's the child of immigrants who fears she'll never live up to her parents' expectations. And she's overwhelmed by the marriage proposal from her boyfriend, who has completed his PhD, grew up with parents who praised him constantly, and doesn't understand what she has to be afraid of.

This short novel is composed of brief passages that detail a moment, a memory, an emotion, a scientific fact, or any blend of these. The first-person narrative is written with both humor and insight. Imagining her future, the narrator says, "I don't see myself having kids... If I had one, I would want to have two, and if I had two, I would want to have zero." Of her father, she muses, "Such progress he's made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon."

The combined pieces tell a story about a difficult period in the protagonist's life, but it's a relatively -- and realistically -- uneventful story, concerned far more with character than plot. While I prefer a more even balance between these in my reading, I found CHEMISTRY a well-crafted, appealing version of this type of book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Anna Solomon considers sexy backs, headless women, and evolving book cover trends: "Maybe the point isn't banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it's not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized--though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women's backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men's books in egregious disproportion to those by women... but by women ourselves."

August 30, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2017

Lately my reading time has diminished, because I've been trying to get as much writing as possible accomplished while I also have a lot of other things going on. This extra-busy state is likely to continue for a while, but I do intend to find time in the upcoming months for these books I've been anticipating!

GEORGE AND LIZZIE by Nancy Pearl (September 5): I'm a longtime fan of librarian, interviewer, and action figure Nancy Pearl, so I was excited to hear she's publishing her first novel. Even better, it's one about family relationships and secrets. Though early reviews are mixed, I'm curious to check this book out.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September 5): I wrote a glowing review of Sloan's debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, so this is one of those cases where I'm nervous about whether an author's second book can live up to my hopes. Happily, advance readers are enthusiastic about this new geeky adventure through the Bay Area tech world, which prominently features some of my favorite topics: food and bread.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September 12): Again, this is a second novel from an author with a debut I greatly admired, the powerful family story EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. Ng's new book involves two Ohio families whose lives become entwined, and it sounds like it's going to be another incredible read.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (September 26): If you're a science fiction reader and haven't tried Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy yet, consider this another reminder to pick up ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I loved that series! No need to read the trilogy before PROVENANCE, however, because this book introduces new characters in a different part of the Ancillaryverse. It's the story of a woman on a quest for power and lost artifacts, and it's sure to include richly developed people, cultures, and conflicts.

ARTEMIS by Andy Weir (November 14): Weir's first novel, THE MARTIAN, was a ton of fun, combining a thrilling survival story with fascinating space science. ARTEMIS promises to deliver more thrills and science, plus a heist plot, and it's set on a moon colony. I can't wait!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rosie Cima performs some excellent data analysis and visualization to measure the gender balance of The New York Times Best Seller list: "If we are looking for a single category to explain why women are better represented among best-selling authors today, the Literary/None category is our best candidate. Most best-selling books fall into this category, and its change over time closely matches the overall gender ratio, shifting from extreme bias in the 1980s to close to parity in the 2000s."

August 3, 2017

July Reading Recap

July was a busy month, writing and otherwise, so I haven't had time to post since my last batch of book reviews. I also didn't have quite as much time for reading, but I did enjoy two new novels:

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle reveals its core premise in the title, and if not for that hint, you might get quite far in before guessing that dark, supernatural forces are at work. While the book describes itself as a fairy tale in the opening sentence, the first third is the realistic story of a family in contemporary New York City. Apollo is raised by a hardworking mother and starts his own career at an early age, buying and selling used books. He meets Emma at a library book sale, and they fall in love. Their baby is born under some unusual circumstances, but their experience of parenting an infant is full of the normal joys and pressures, with too many photos shared on Facebook and not enough sleep.

When the novel takes a turn, it's a very, very dark one that will make it not suitable for all readers. Even then, the full nature of the horror isn't revealed for a while. The story shifts through several apparent realities before the end, and Apollo has to battle numerous types of evil. Throughout, the characters are portrayed with as much care and detail as when this started as an account of a family just trying to get through the day.

LaValle has crafted a stunningly disturbing story with a ton of emotional impact. It's a harrowing read, but it earned a place on my list of favorites.

MADE FOR LOVE by Alissa Nutting: Hazel decides it's time to leave her husband when he wants to implant a chip in her brain to connect the two of them wirelessly. Byron's the genius founder of Gogol, the tech megacompany built on collecting and analyzing everyone's data, so for him, it's the natural next step in human relationships. For Hazel, it's the final straw after a decade trapped in a controlling marriage. She flees Byron's compound, aware that his surveillance abilities are limitless and afraid that he may kill her if he can't get her back. She seeks refuge at her father's house, where she discovers Dad has just purchased and married a sex doll. After that, things get weirder.

All the events in this story are over-the-top and bizarre, which made for frequent laughs, constant surprises, and occasionally some trouble connecting to the characters. That said, Nutting does an admirable job creating layered characters with real emotions and anxieties in the midst of this somewhat alienating plot. I was always concerned about what was going to happen to Hazel and the others, and it was always more odd than anything I could have guessed. Nutting is imaginative, to say the least, with the skill to render her story worlds in vivid, compelling, hilarious detail.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charse Yun considers the complex issues involved in Deborah Smith's flawed translation of Han Kang's "The Vegetarian": "I can't emphasize enough how different Han Kang's writing style is in Korean. Han's sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a 'nineteenth-century ring' to it, reminiscent of Chekhov." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

July 7, 2017

June Reading Recap

I spent much of June simultaneously reading these three wildly different books:

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay is an intensely honest and powerful account of moving through the world as a very fat woman. The book mixes smart musings on weight, food, and other bodily topics with concise sections of chronological memoir. Gay writes about what was done to her body -- she was gang-raped at the age of 12 -- and what she did to her body in response -- she made herself as large as possible to avoid becoming a victim again. With frank insight, she examines the complex repercussions of these points in her life and all that followed.

The writing is uncomfortably raw at times, but that's not to say it's unpolished. As in all her books, Gay demonstrates great skill at both sentence and structural level. Short chapters and recurring refrains give the reader some sense of the effort and bravery required to write this memoir, as the text sometimes circles around and works its way up to revealing the most humiliating parts. It's an effective and beautiful technique.

Right after reading the book, I was lucky enough to get to attend one of Gay's tour events at Kepler's Books, where she had a deep and wide-ranging discussion with interviewer Angie Coiro. I recommend seeking out any recordings of Gay's previous interviews to hear her talk about her work, such as recent appearances on Fresh Air and Another Round.

→ In STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany, there are over 6,000 planets populated by humans and aliens. The story provides readers a sense of the vastness and variety of this inhabited universe, while focusing primarily on two humans originating from two quite different worlds. One of the main characters spends decades in an extremely limited existence, enslaved on a planet where there's little knowledge of other worlds. The second comes from a culture shaped by the close cohabitation of humans and the native species, and works as a diplomat engaged in frequent interstellar travel.

I'm keeping this explanation simple because the book's many complexities are best discovered through reading. The impressive, intricate worldbuilding is presented the way I love, with concepts referred to but not usually explained right away, if at all, so the reader has a chance to reflect, guess at what's going on, or just roll with it. The scope of Delany's setting is enormous, and characters frequently mention that even a single planet is "a big place" with many cultures, languages, climates, and so on. Most of the story, however, takes place at an intimate scale, revolving around personal concerns such as desire, family, gender, etiquette, and food. For me, it's the perfect combination for a science fiction novel.

Delany planned this story as the first half of a diptych, but his creative focus changed, and he never finished the second novel. As a result, this book ends with much unresolved, but with that caveat given, I highly recommend it to anyone excited about what I've described. It's brilliantly conceived and superbly written, and I'm eager to read more of Delany's work.

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari looks at the shifts in human development and culture from prehistoric times, when homo sapiens was "an animal of no significance", to the present day. Harari analyzes the major leaps forward in human history -- the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions -- and explains the contribution of factors such as the rise of monotheism and the idea that the future will be better than the past. He draws connections between different changes and at several points considers whether history might have gone another way.

I learned a lot from this book. I knew a small amount about some of these topics and found out many more fascinating facts, and I discovered whole aspects of history I'd barely thought about. The writing engaged me most of the time, though there were some dry passages and some points where I disagreed with Harari's arguments. This is an informative and mostly easy-to-read survey of the significant stages in human progress, and definitely a good way to learn about the subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura explores maps that reveal the hidden structures of Choose Your Own Adventure Books: "In just about every case, it can be surprising how a simple choice leads you down a complex path. In By Balloon to the Sahara, you're in a balloon and are presented with a choice on the very first page. Storm clouds are on the horizon. Choice 1: 'If you act now, you can release gas from the balloon and land before the storm overtakes you.' Choice 2: 'Perhaps the storm will pass quickly. Maybe you can ride it out.' That’s just the beginning, since this book has the most decision points -- 48 -- of the series."

June 28, 2017

Things In Progress

Right now my life is fairly pleasant but a bit scattered, with various things in progress:

→ The revision, still, forever, but it continues to go well. Lately I've been really putting my characters through the emotional wringer, which I guess is a good thing. I keep believing milestones are just within reach, and then I hit a slow patch or discover more details to work out or have to manage the logistics of a scene with five people talking, and those points recede farther into the distance. I'll get there.

→ Three books I'm in the middle of reading. Earlier this year I was mostly focusing on one book at a time, and then I resumed my two-at-once habit until it got out of control this month. The books are wildly different, so I have nice variety to choose from, but it's a bit impractical. Expect reviews next week.

→ A knitting project, after a long bout of knitter's block. I spent a few months on a cardigan that was giving me a lot of trouble, and when I put it down in frustration a while back, I didn't pick it up again and was reluctant to start anything new. I finally decided I can return to the sweater when I feel like it and seek out more enjoyable projects in the meantime. It's soothing to be knitting again.

→ A heat wave. To be fair, the serious heat has passed for the moment, with temperatures only in the low 80s this week. That's still too warm for my taste, but it's far more tolerable than last week's record-breaking highs. It was over 100 outside my house.

→ Real life fun with family and friends. We've had various visits and celebrations around here, with more planned, and that's been nice. I'm glad I'm not a character in someone's novel of dysfunction and angst, because gatherings not interrupted by dramatic revelations are a lot more relaxing!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black analyzes How Exposition Breaks Empathy: "It shifts the story into a mode in which the focus flips 180 degrees around, pointing out of the story rather than into it. That feels radically different. It yanks you out of the immersive reading experience by reminding you that you are in fact reading a story told by an author."

June 6, 2017

May Reading Recap

I read another batch of recently released novels in May, all with very different subject matters and styles:

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal: Harit lives an isolated life that's only become lonelier since the death of his sister. He spends his days selling men's accessories at a department store and his evenings in a ritual of wearing his sister's clothes to soothe his grieving mother. Though Harit's family immigrated to Cleveland from India a decade ago, he's found little friendship or community until his pushy coworker insists they go for a drink together. Elsewhere in Cleveland, Ranjana appears to have a model immigrant life Harit would envy: comfort with American culture and strong ties to the local Indian community, a lasting marriage, and a son starting at Princeton. But Ranjana's reality is that she fears her husband is having an affair and she struggles under the expectations of gossiping acquaintances. Ranjana is happiest when she's writing fiction, a passion she has to hide from her family and friends, especially since her genre is paranormal romance.

Harit and Ranjana, along with the other characters inhabiting this wonderful novel, are complete and complex people who I adored getting to know. By the time their stories merged, I was thrilled to watch my two new friends meet and befriend each other. While this novel is focused primarily on the characters' emotions and relationships, Satyal has also developed a strong plot for his characters to move through, full of events that constantly surprised me. The one piece of the story that engaged me less was the thread following Ranjana's son at college, which felt like it belonged in a different novel.

This is a fantastic story of people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. It does a beautiful job of exploring the messiness of real life through unexpected developments and characters who aren't what others imagined. I highly recommend this novel. I also recommend Satyal's Hamilton-themed book trailer, which is unrelated to the story's content but quite delightful.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Lady hires a live-in nanny for her toddler after separating from her husband. The new nanny, who goes by the name S, is eager to move into the backyard cottage to get away from her mom, and Lady sympathizes due to a difficult history with her own toxic mother. The childcare arrangement is supposed to give Lady time to work on her book, a memoir about raising her older son, an 18-year-old who has never spoken. While Lady sorts through memories of his early days, S works on a project of her own.

This novel revolves around the two women's secret motivations, so information about their pasts and presents is doled out gradually, and I won't give more away. It's not a mystery story, and there's no shocking twist, but certain elements borrow from that genre. I enjoyed how the narrative unfurled, and while I did feel some of the revelations fell short of their intended impact, I was always eager to keep reading.

These characters are intriguing from the start, driven by unpredictable fears and desires. Small details of their lives and interactions make the story real and frequently funny. I think this is the first novel I've read where the characters use Twitter, and Lepucki has done an excellent job of integrating it naturally into the story. There's a whole compelling, unsettling world inside WOMAN NO. 17, populated by people who are fascinating to visit, but I'm glad I don't have to live there.

SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar: Jakub Procházka is the first Czech astronaut, launched by his country's space program to study the cloud of cosmic dust that's formed between the Earth and Venus. During the first months of the eight-month solo journey, Jakub's weekly video calls with his wife break up the lonely days he spends reflecting on his childhood during the fall of Communism. When his wife refuses to show up for a call, Jakub loses focus on the mission, and perhaps his grasp on reality. He starts talking to the giant alien spider lurking around the spaceship, who wants to probe further into Jakub's memories of his life on earth.

The space portions of this novel shift from wacky alien hijinks to harrowing danger, all of which I found entertaining, especially when I didn't worry too much about the science. These adventures are broken up, sometimes frustratingly so, by flashbacks to Jakub's childhood and relationship with his wife. Jakub's past, and how it relates to his country's changing politics, is a compelling story on its own, and it greatly increased my knowledge of Czech history. The interaction between the two pieces of the novel was occasionally clunky, but I liked them both enough to appreciate the book as a whole.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at The New York Times investigates how The Martian got a classroom-friendly makeover: "Apart from the four-letter words, 'The Martian' is a science teacher's dream text. It's a gripping survival story that hinges on the hero's ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math, in order to stay alive on a hostile planet. (The Washington Post called the novel 'an advertisement for the importance of STEM education.') After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Mr. Weir, who describes himself as 'a lifelong space nerd,' asked his publisher, Crown, if they could release a cleaned-up edition of the book." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

May 19, 2017

A Writer's Search History, Revisited

Last month I noted on Twitter: "My search history suggests I have small children and a drug problem. Happily, neither is true." Writing leads to a lot of internet searches, sometimes weirdly specific, often on topics that are odd or disturbing either individually or in combination.

Four years ago, I put together a post highlighting some search queries that had featured in my recent research. When I looked back at that post -- once I finished suppressing my panic about how it's four years later and I'm again, still, working on same novel -- I was amused (mixed with an additional dash of panic) to see many similarities with searches from the past few months.

→ Previously on Lisa's search history, I was seeking concussion information, and just recently I looked up "concussion check" and variations. As it happens, a different character is the subject of concern this time. Within the plot, this all makes perfect sense, but maybe I need to examine why my novel has a motif of head injuries. Related searches: "head wound blood", "bleeding from chin".

→ Last time, I wanted to know about the smell of vodka, and I didn't end up using the information. A couple of months ago, I put something in a scene about the narrator smelling tequila, but I wasn't sure it made sense and ultimately took it out. It doesn't appear I did any searching this time around, so I must have done some real world investigation, meaning the research didn't all go to waste.

→ In the category of "of course you can find that on YouTube", I recently searched "sound of a baby burping" and watched numerous videos, all in the name of essential research. More baby queries: "how long does it take a baby to drink a bottle", "when can baby roll over", "older child sharing room with baby". Incidentally, the baby and older sibling I was writing about are part of a brand new family of secondary characters introduced to the novel in this draft, since I didn't have enough people to revise already.

→ My previous search post discussed my brief desire to explore motel curtains for some reason. This year, my decor needs were about "bathroom tile walls". I'm reminded of a long-ago commiseration with a writing buddy regarding first drafts overly focused on describing wall and floor coverings.

→ "election day 2026" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly consider that the part of my novel that takes place in the future also takes place in early November. Election Day will be before the novel starts, and of course it's a midterm, so there shouldn't be a glaring absence if the characters don't mention it. Most likely, I went through this same panic cycle years ago.

→ "california shrubbery" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly doubt that an extremely small detail is realistic. I'm imagining a row of bushes in front of a house, which I think of as a very common yard feature, but what I'm picturing is a childhood home in Massachusetts, so do houses have those here? Several times a week, I walk around my neighborhood, but I guess I immediately forgot about this query, because I still haven't paid any attention to the question while outside my (unshrubberied) house.

May 5, 2017

April Reading Recap

Last month I finished reading two recently published novels (and I have more new releases in store for next month's roundup):

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad: The Second American Civil War starts in 2074 when a group of Southern states secedes after the United States government outlaws fossil fuels. Sarat is a young girl living with her family in Louisiana, on a coast reshaped by rising oceans, until nearby combat forces them into a refugee camp. As Sarat grows up in the camp and her family suffers further trauma, she learns to hate the North and channel her anger toward the cause of resistance.

Sarat is an intriguing character, and not an easy one to follow, because the horrors she undergoes and her resulting zealotry are tough to read about. El Akkad uses his background as a journalist, reporting from conflicts around the world, to fill this novel with grisly authenticity. I was very caught up in this book, and it also often made me uncomfortable, so it succeeds at telling an effective story.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but excerpts from imagined historical sources appear between chapters, offering more context and explanation of the war. These were so well-developed that I was sorry we didn't get even more of the big picture. What's there, however, does an excellent job at providing a level of commentary on Sarat's actions, which the character is only able to see from the perspective of her singular goal. This is an inspired book in many ways, and I hope to read more from El Akkad.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein: Karen has an amazing six-year-old son, a successful career as a political campaign consultant, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In the time she has left with Jake, who she's parented alone, Karen is trying to create good memories and prepare him for life without her. She's arranged for her son to be adopted into her sister's family after her death, but these plans are disrupted when Jake asks Karen to find his father. From Karen's perspective, Dave gave up all parental rights when he ended their relationship upon hearing she was pregnant. But Dave is overjoyed to learn of his son's existence, and now Karen is terrified he's going to try to take her place in Jake's life when she's gone.

The premise sounds like a tearjerker, but I didn't personally cry while reading, I think because while Karen occasionally gives in to despair, the narration focuses more on her stubbornness, anger, and dark humor. This is a sad situation, sure, but it's also a complex one, and the story is mostly about the nuances of characters trying to do the right thing when they can't agree on what that is. I found all the characters real and sympathetic, and I was absorbed by their interactions. I also liked the glimpses into Karen's campaign work, which involves another set of fascinating interactions.

The narrative takes the form of a book Karen is writing for Jake to read when he grows up, and I think that frame detracted from the novel in more places than it improved it. I also felt the story could have used a stronger ending. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this engrossing read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub finds the living authors with the most film adaptations: "There are plenty of writers whose works have been made into many, many films--William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle being the high rollers that immediately spring to mind. But with contemporary--read, living--authors, the field is a little slimmer."

April 21, 2017

Spring Is in the Air

It's April, so the cherry blossoms have scattered to the winds, flowers are springing up all over my neighborhood, and sneezes are in full bloom. After years of not enough rain, California has probably finished a season of too much rain, and we're looking at a stretch of pleasant sunny days before my valley inevitably gets much too hot for my taste.

I'm another year older now. I've been celebrating my birthday primarily by eating lots of delicious treats. I also bought myself a few books, celebrated with friends, and have more festivities planned for this weekend. Once again, I find it's good to be the birthday girl.

Between birthday activities and unrelated commitments, I haven't done much writing this week, but in general I've been making steady if slow progress on the revision. As I mentioned before, some of the changes to this draft involve writing entirely new material rather than simply adjusting what's already there. Something I only recently articulated for myself is that I'm trying to write this new stuff not as a first draft but as a fifth/tenth/whatever-this-is draft so that it matches all the parts that have been through many rounds of polishing. That's not completely possible, but I'm getting at least partway there, and it's one reason things are moving slowly for now.

While I'm working from a detailed outline I developed in the fall, parts of the story have drifted away from the plan, as tends to happen. I hit a big plot snag about a month ago, but I eventually wrote my way out of it. Though I'm still winging it a bit more than I was hoping, I'm happy with how the new version of the story is developing. I do have concerns that too much of my novel revolves around chairs, sandwiches, and ice cream, but after all, those are a pretty good set of things.

I hope spring is bringing good things your way as well!

April 3, 2017

March Reading Recap

My March reading was excellent, with a great batch of novels from authors I've enjoyed in the past:

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid: In a city on the brink of war, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class about product branding. They begin to date as militants take over the city, and the uncertain times intensify their falling in love. Meanwhile, across the globe, doors are opening that transport people from one part of the world to another. When Nadia and Saeed get the opportunity to pass through one of these doors to a safer place, they make the difficult decision to leave the only city they've ever known. The couple joins the flow of migrants changing the structure of the world's cities, and migration changes the shape of their own relationship.

This is a brilliant novel that depicts both the minutiae of two intertwined lives and the societal impact of countless migrating bodies. From the opening pages, I was invested in Nadia and Saeed as characters and drawn into their day-to-day reality, where the banality of emailed marketing pitches mixes with the routine of car bombings and checkpoints. Despite the magical doors, which are introduced with little fuss, this story feels like it could be happening right now, thanks to Hamid's care with details.

While the workings of the doors aren't explored, their effect on migration numbers is thoroughly imagined. Existing inhabitants fight or embrace the refugees, new arrivals establish ways to organize themselves, systems adjust to accommodate growing populations. I was fascinated by the plausible infrastructure solutions Hamid developed for the novel, and I hope our own world will move to resemble those parts, not the ones where people fear and hate each other. I encourage everyone to read this timely and wonderful story.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders is based on a historical fact, the death of Abraham Lincoln's beloved young son Willie, which occurred just as it became clear how long and bloody the Civil War would be. It's also inspired by a rumor from the time, that after the funeral the grieving president visited the crypt where the boy was interred. Saunders combines historical record and speculation with the supernatural and fills the cemetery with ghosts who witness the events of that night and help Willie through the transition from life to death.

The premise is inventive, but the really unusual part of this novel is its narrative construction. I was a fan of Saunders from the collection TENTH OF DECEMBER, and while those stories are all wonderfully weird in content, they stick to pretty standard forms, so I wasn't expecting his first novel to be stylistically unlike anything else I've read. Understanding how the story operated was a thrilling and unsettling pleasure, so I'm not going to spoil anyone else's fun by explaining further. If you're uncertain about trying experimental prose and want to know more first, check out Ron Charles's Washington Post review for a fuller description.

Saunders does a lot of skillful work in this novel, from pulling off the format to crafting a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters. It's a moving story involving a good deal of grief and pain, which Saunders handles with his characteristic compassion, while also weaving in a bit of his characteristic humor. I really enjoyed this book as both an impressive writing feat and an emotionally engaging tale. It's not going to appeal to all readers, but if you're drawn to unconventional prose, I highly recommend it. And if you're into audiobooks, note that this one has a large cast of celebrity narrators -- I'm not normally an audiobook listener, but I'm considering experiencing the book again that way.

THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison: This is the second installment in a planned trilogy, after THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, which I adored last year. Since the first novel stood strongly on its own, I was a bit nervous about a sequel, but the new characters and developments in this story made for a compelling continuation. I expect most readers who enjoyed the first book will also appreciate this further exploration of Elison's post-apocalyptic world.

Generations after a plague wiped out most of humanity, killing women at far higher rates than men, the disease still lurks in the population, and women remain a small minority. Eddy was born to the fulfilling life of adventure on the road, where he raids for useful supplies in the ruins of the old world, trades with small towns, and rescues women and girls held by slavers. When he returns home between trips, he despises having to resume the role of Etta, daughter of a respected village mother who can't understand why Etta won't accept the biological necessity of becoming either a mother or a midwife.

Identity and gender are big topics in this novel, and the problem of an unbalanced world presents numerous complications. As Eddy travels between towns, he encounters many different arrangements between the men and the few women. Some are cruel, all are imperfect, and each adds something to the story and Eddy's perspective on the world. (The first book also explored various possibilities, but nothing here struck me as repetitive.) While reading, I was somewhat frustrated by information that was hinted at but went unrevealed for what felt too long, but mostly I stayed intrigued by the story. Toward the end, it gets especially intense and takes a number of quick turns before reaching a conclusion that wraps up major plotlines but also sets things up for the final book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen explores the approaches to cover design for 1984: "George Orwell's classic 1984 -- a staple of high school classrooms everywhere -- has been holding strong to the top of the bestsellers list for the last few months. I spent a little time looking at covers from previous eras, as well as foreign editions, and I found some interesting commonalities."

→ And Rebecca Romney collects covers for The Handmaid's Tale: "The color red, both an evocative design choice and a key aspect of the narrative, has dominated most cover designs since. Whether the designer goes for something abstract and almost digital in appearance (as in the 2016 Vintage Classics edition) or strews the space with flowers (as in the 2009 Bloomsbury edition), the flash of red is eye catching and ominous."