Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

November 6, 2019

October Reading Recap

Someday I'll return to blog content other than book reviews, but for now, here's another month of recommended reading:

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor's solitary life of routine and self-sufficiency is first thrown into disarray when she discovers the man she is determined to marry. Eleanor hopes this match will satisfy Mummy, a demanding figure who exerts a formidable influence even from a distance. Then, just as Eleanor starts learning everything she can about the object of her interest, progress is interrupted by a number of interactions that are decidedly unplanned. Eleanor is bystander to an elderly man's medical emergency, and through the interference of her irritating coworker Raymond, she ends up entangled with this stranger's loving family. She's forced into some difficult new situations and some pleasant ones. With Raymond's prompting, she begins to contemplate how she's arranged her life and consider that other options might be possible.

You can guess from the title of this book that Eleanor is not fine, but you probably wouldn't guess from the marketing that the reasons are profoundly dark and disturbing. While Eleanor's observations and misunderstandings are often quite funny, this is not the hilarious bit of whimsy suggested by many of the blurbs. It's a heartbreaking story about trauma and recovery, skillfully presented through a narrator who's uncertain about her own past. Honeyman writes Eleanor, Raymond, and the people around them with care and nuance, and I was glad to be invited into their lives through bad times and good. ELEANOR OLIPHANT is completely wonderful.

MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim: In an isolated Virginia town, the Yoo family runs Miracle Submarine, a private facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat chronic conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. A terrible chain of events leads to an explosive fire that kills and injures several. A year later, one of the people involved is on trial for arson and murder. Tense courtroom scenes and character recollections piece together the events of the tragic day and everything that led up to it, revealing that nobody's testimony is entirely truthful.

This is a fantastically written mystery in which every new perspective introduces details that plausibly undermine the previous explanations of what happened. The intricate plot does require more coincidences of bad timing than would occur in real life, but it's all so cleverly constructed that nothing seemed far-fetched. Beyond the mystery, the novel tells an emotional story of complicated characters who are suffering over their roles in the tragedy. I sympathized with all of them, even as they admitted to regrettable actions and thoughts. The novel explores difficult issues around parenting, disability, and immigration with sensitivity. I recommend this suspenseful debut and look forward to more from Kim.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz: Tess has always traveled through time with the goal of editing history in a more progressive direction. She and her fellow like-minded travelers have discovered a group working against their changes, men from the future who follow the 19th century moral crusader Anthony Comstock. These men are trying to edit the timeline to take away women's rights, then lock that version in place by permanently destroying the time machines, which are ancient and mysterious geological formations. As women from different eras join forces to defeat these men, Tess also attempts to edit a traumatic event from her personal history.

This is an exciting time travel story containing a great mix of real and imagined history from several eras. I didn't always connect with the characters due to sections that felt more didactic than natural, but I was very invested in the high stakes of their endeavors. I especially enjoyed reading about and pondering the book's unusual time travel mechanics: how it works physically, what the constraints are, how much or little it's understood at different times. I'm not convinced I followed all the tricky time travel logic depicted, but I loved seeing a world where time machines are generally known about (and even portrayed on a popular unrealistic TV show) but available to only a few because of practical limitations. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is full of fascinating ideas, cleverly woven into an imperfect yet compelling novel.

Don't miss the delightful music video by Grape Ape, a feminist punk band featured in the novel but sadly lost to our timeline.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Elison writes for Tor.com about The Hidden Layers of Every Novel: "Every book is the tip of an iceberg. Most of what an author knows, through research and through experience, is ballast to fiction. What is written and what is published are a tiny sliver of all that exists. Every writer you have ever read and loved is ninety percent unpublished underwater knowledge, and ten percent ghostly blue published prose." (Thanks, Andrea!)

October 4, 2019

September Reading Recap

Hey, it's a return to the classic single-month book review post! (At least for now!) I did some fun and sequel-icious reading in September:

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell is the second book of the Simon Snow series. In preparation for its release, I reread the first book, CARRY ON. The story of a Chosen One in his last year of magic school was just as clever and delightful on a second read. I may have even liked it more than I did the first time.

While CARRY ON tells the obligatory Chosen One story of saving the world, WAYWARD SON considers what the aftermath of that looks like. Simon and his friends survived serious trauma defeating the threats to the World of Mages, and they're each suffering as a result, in different ways. Rowell always writes well about relationship strains and mental health issues, and the depictions here are realistic and compassionate.

The characters are facing a more mature and mundane set of obstacles in this book, but they're also going on a new adventure: a road trip across America. Along the way, they discover that the World of Mages is a very British institution, and magic operates quite differently in the US. They make new friends, encounter dangerous new foes, and maybe sort of have to save the world again, but everyone's better emotionally equipped by then.

I loved how these wonderful characters grow and heal throughout this novel. The expansion of the magical world is smart and thoughtfully done, and the plot takes surprising turns. There will be at least one more book in this series, and I'll gladly follow the characters wherever they go next.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but what's distracting at first is that it's also sort of a sequel to the three existing seasons of the Hulu series, which extends past the events of the original novel. Early on, too much of my attention was on analyzing this relationship and considering what details do and don't line up with the show. Though it took me some time to get past that, I was able to immediately appreciate that Atwood is still a fantastic writer, great at narrative voice. This sequel presents compelling characters, an exciting plot, and a fascinating further look into the totalitarian regime of Gilead.

The story is billed as taking place 15 years after the end of the first book, but that's not entirely accurate, since there are also flashbacks reaching as far back as the rise of Gilead (some of the best and most horrifying sections). The three narrators are women and girls with different perspectives on Gilead society, and this allows Atwood to show new aspects of the world, along with more sharp observations tailored to each character. One oddness of the book-show situation is that these narrators will be quickly identifiable to viewers of the series, while readers only familiar with the first novel may be more surprised by connections that are revealed later on.

This book is more plot-focused than the first, sometimes to its detriment. Certain developments strain credulity, and toward the end, events come at such a fast clip that the story and characters lose their earlier nuance. I don't expect THE TESTAMENTS to become a classic like THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but I found it an engaging read.

CHARMED PARTICLES by Chrissy Kolaya: In 1972, Abhijat earns a job at a world-renowned particle accelerator lab located in a small Illinois town. He brings his new wife Sarala from Bombay to join him, and they each take their own approach to settling into their marriage and community. Elsewhere in town, Rose has returned from traveling the world with her explorer husband to raise their child in a place she knows, though it's changed with the arrival of the lab. The daughters from the two families grow up to become the best of friends. But when the government proposes building a much larger collider beneath the town, everyone takes sides in the debate, and tensions rise.

This story of two families and a town divided contains a lot of great interpersonal dynamics. I enjoyed getting to know all the characters, whose complicated and evolving feelings for one another are well-depicted. Where the novel fell short for me was plot: Kolaya sets up a variety of promising conflicts, but issues with balance and pacing made the story drag at times. Still, I'll remember these characters fondly, and I'll look out for Kolaya's next novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kimi Eisele, author of THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE, describes working on an apocalyptic novel for years as the world changed around her story: "When I started the novel, the U.S. was at war with Iraq, and peak oil warnings were sounding loudly, at least in alternative news outlets. Against that reality I began to imagine what it would really be like to lose not just light, but mobility, long-distance communication, instant information, central governance, bananas, and the kind of entitlement that an economic system built on exploitation and convenience seemed to enable."

September 5, 2019

July/August Reading Recap

Well, I've certainly done a lot of reading since I last posted! These are all the books that kept me busy this summer when I wasn't writing or having family fun:

THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell is a novel that contains multitudes, and to describe too much of the story would take away from the joy of discovery. The joy (and pain, and question) of discovery is how the story opens, in fact, with a chapter narrated by a British explorer who's one of the first white settlers to "discover" the wonders of Africa. With much personality and prejudice, he tells of his life in colonial Rhodesia, including a chance encounter that seems to link together the fates of three families for generations to come. These descendants are vivid, unusual characters, and as Serpell weaves their complicated story, she follows the history of Zambia from colonial rule through independence and into the future.

This is a big, juicy novel full of difficult family dynamics, strange repercussions, historical and cultural details, and narrative quirks. I read it slowly because there was a lot to absorb, and I enjoyed stopping to look up the many unfamiliar words and references. It was fascinating to realize that some of the characters are real figures. The one source I avoided consulting was the family tree at the front of the book, because I found it more fun to wait for the story to reveal the connections.

Serpell is a great writer at both the storytelling and sentence levels. She delights in languages and wordplay, making her prose a delight to read. While the characters in THE OLD DRIFT often experience tragic circumstances, what sticks with me is the sheer pleasure of reading it. If this sounds like your kind of book, I highly recommend it.

→ In BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE, Gretchen McCulloch chronicles how communication styles, slang, and other language elements have evolved with the changing internet. Her analysis is rigorous (but always entertaining!), grounded in historical dialect studies and a taxonomy of internet usage patterns laid out in a chapter called "Internet People". In that section, McCulloch explores the ways different groups experience the internet based on when and how thoroughly they came online, and how this relates to linguistic conventions such as punctuation usage.

I appreciated that McCulloch brings a deep understanding of the internet to her investigation of online language. Anecdotes about her own life as an Internet Person provide a personal touch, and comparisons to language developments from analog communication modes give weight to her arguments. McCulloch's insights are nuanced, clever, and frequently funny, whether she's charting the history of memes or explaining how emoji substitute for the gestures that occur face to face. This book is a perfect blend of informative and fun. I learned, I lol'd, and I learned how the meaning of "lol" has transformed.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes: Evvie is in the middle of packing up to leave her husband when he dies in a car accident. A year later, she's struggling with the isolation and shame of her non-grief, because she lives in a small Maine town where everyone knows her tragedy, and she's never told even her best friend that her marriage was terrible. Evvie can barely motivate herself to work, so to help pay the bills, she agrees to rent out part of her house to Dean, who's looking for a small town where he can hide from his problems. Dean used to be a star pitcher for the Yankees, but he was forced into early retirement after mysteriously losing his pitching ability. He moves in on the condition that he won't ask about Evvie's husband and she won't ask about baseball. But soon they're both breaking the deal and pushing each other to address their problems, help that is sometimes appreciated and sometimes a big obstacle to their growing attraction.

Evvie and Dean are great characters, and I was rooting for their relationship from the start. I appreciated both the lighter moments in the story, like the natural way the characters joke and make pop cultural references, and the heavier ones where they cope with depression and anger. The pacing is a bit uneven, and I was frustrated when some threads and characters were dropped for stretches. Overall, though, this is an engaging story, and I'm eager to read more from Holmes in the future.

July 26, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer/Fall 2019

I've got a good chunk of my reading for the rest of the year planned, with a bunch of books I've been awaiting for quite some time!

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead (July 16): I've read several of Whitehead's earlier novels, all masterfully written and highly inventive. His latest takes place in Florida in the early 1960s, where a young black boy is sent to a reform school and subjected to racist violence. The subject matter means this won't be an easy read, but I'm looking forward to another powerful, engaging story from a great writer.

BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE by Gretchen McCulloch (July 23): For years, I've enjoyed McCulloch's articles on internet linguistics, as well as the Lingthusiasm podcast she co-hosts. I've been impatient for the release of this book and can't wait to dive into chapters such as "Typographical Tone of Voice" and "Emoji and Other Internet Gestures". I'll be reading in print, but the audio version narrated by the author also sounds very entertaining.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood (September 10) is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, a novel I treasure and admire for its thoughtful, chilling narrative. I hope the sequel will live up to the original and stand with Atwood's generally excellent work, but I'm nervous. Part of my wariness about a continuation is that the TV series, which started strong, has become infuriating, but I don't think Atwood has much to do with that, and this will definitely be a different story, set 15 years later with three different narrators. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell (September 24) is also a sequel. It follows Rowell's previous novel, CARRY ON, which was itself based on the Harry Potter analog Rowell invented for her earlier book, FANGIRL. Still with me? I've read all Rowell's novels with great delight, and I'm expecting more clever fun and heartfelt emotion from the further adventures of these magic-wielding characters.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz (September 24): Newitz's first novel, AUTONOMOUS, was a wild ride through a world of pirated pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligences. I'm into the way Newitz thinks about science and science fiction, ideas she shares as co-host of the podcast Our Opinions are Correct. I'm excited about another book from her, and the time travel plot promises another thrilling tale.

THE DEEP by Rivers Solomon (November 5) has a cool origin story. Solomon took their inspiration from a gorgeous song produced by the group clipping. for an episode of This American Life. In the song, and now the novel, an underwater civilization has grown from the descendants of enslaved African people thrown overboard during the ocean crossing. It's an upsetting, empowering premise, like the one in Solomon's amazing first novel, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Jake Wolff explains his approach to integrating research into a story: "I heavily researched my debut novel, [THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER,] in which nearly every chapter is science-oriented, historical, or both. I'd like to share a method I used throughout the research and writing process to help deal with some of my questions. This method is not intended to become a constant fixture in your writing practice. But if you're looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply."

July 3, 2019

May/June Reading Recap

It's time to catch up on two months of great and varied reading:

RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston: Alex Claremont-Diaz is the son of the first female president, and he relishes the spotlight this places him in. As soon as Alex finishes his last year of college and sees his mom re-elected, he intends to channel his charm and popularity into a career in politics, like both his parents. If only the boring, stuck-up younger prince of England wasn't messing up Alex's plans! When Alex and Prince Henry have an altercation at the royal wedding, it creates an international incident that the White House and Crown publicity teams must scramble to spin. The rivals are forced into making joint appearances to convince the world they're actually great friends. As they spend time together, Alex discovers the real Henry behind the royal facade, and their pretend friendship becomes genuine. Then Alex discovers Henry's feelings for him are deeper than friendship, and he's shocked to realize the attraction is mutual. Now the two most eligible bachelors in the world have to somehow keep their relationship out of the spotlight and avoid a scandal that could topple the reigning families on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book is pure delight. Alex and Henry are both deeply lovable in all their complexities and flaws, and the characters around them are just as endearing. While the premise is unlikely, the story progresses in a very plausible way, with McQuiston anticipating the media reactions and political ramifications of every development. The gradually advancing romance is the core of the story, but there are also several well-depicted subplots about politics, family, and grief, some of which make the story quite serious at times. Most of it, though, is laugh-out-loud snappy dialogue, and/or steamy sex and longing.

You may not realize you need a politically optimistic gay love story in your life during these trying times, but you do. RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE has you covered.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang is another dazzling collection of stories from a wildly creative science fiction writer. I'm in awe of the way Chiang consistently comes up with incredibly clever ideas and then makes engaging stories out of them, a combination that's hard to achieve.

While Chiang's stories are all pretty different from each other, he does return to certain interests. I was delighted to read another story in his scifi subgenre that involves taking some religious belief as scientific fact and spinning out the world that results. In "Omphalos", an archaeologist explains how her field provides evidence of God's creation by digging up signs of the first plants and animals: trees with no rings at the center and bones that lack any signs of growth. In the world of this story, there's no question about the origin of life on Earth, but doubt enters from another angle.

Several stories explore fate and free will. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a page-turning time travel story with more stories nested inside it, charting how a variety of people cope with the opportunity to learn their own futures. In "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom", devices exist that can split off parallel timelines and allow limited communication between them. This story is long enough to play out the experiences of several characters as they cope with the psychological effects of seeing other possible versions of their lives.

About a third of the book is devoted to "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", an absorbing, emotional novella about developers at a company creating digital pets for users to raise inside virtual worlds. The story unfolds over years, plausibly presenting how the pets and their owners evolve and how the technology progresses and gets exploited.

I haven't even mentioned all my favorite stories (the title story is scientifically rigorous and also suspenseful!), because most of them qualify. I highly recommend this collection, along with the earlier STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane: At 40, May lives in her childhood home with her elderly father and the memories of her mother's difficult life and death. She works as a gardener at the university and is happy to interact more with plants than people. Though May has a couple of casual friends nearby, the friends she was once close to live far away, and they barely stay connected. When May is rewarded with extra time off from work, she decides to use it making a series of visits to the good friends from her past.

The novel's title, prologue, and marketing led me to expect the bulk of the story would focus on May's visits to her four friends, so I was surprised by how long the book spends with May at home, before and between the visits. Especially early on, when there was quite a bit of May describing her hometown and neighbors, I found the story slow, but as I got to know her better, I could appreciate those sections that were more musing than scenes. Kane writes beautifully and is a great observer of human details, so the individual pieces of the book were largely enjoyable to read. Still, I would have preferred a more strongly plotted version of this novel, with more narrative drive.

June 26, 2019

Weaving in Ends

It's been a while since I've posted a revision update (or anything at all). Some faithful readers may have been under the beautiful illusion that I was finished revising, but others may recall that my previous post about the novel referred to "getting back to work on cleaning up all these smaller issues." Yes, of course I'm revising again, because what else would I do with myself?

But allow me to explain in the form of a knitting metaphor. A large garment such as a sweater takes a long time to knit. It's made from many balls of yarn and often multiple pieces (front, back, sleeves) that get sewn together. When a sweater is finished and assembled, there might be a lot of loose yarn tails hanging from various edges and seams. The process of hiding and tidying up those tails is called "weaving in ends".

If I finish knitting a sweater and immediately put it on without weaving in the ends, it functions as a sweater, in that it fits on my body and keeps me warm. But all those tails hanging off don't look good. People can still admire the sweater's gorgeously complex pattern of color, but the glaring distraction of the loose ends catches their attention first, muting their appreciation. The year I put into knitting the sweater is undermined because I didn't spend the required hours weaving in the ends.

In knitting, I detest weaving in ends, and I don't think I do it very well. Happily, as I work through my manuscript again, tidying up ugly sentences and trimming away the irrelevant bits, I'm enjoying myself, and I'm feeling good about my editing abilities. It's highly satisfying to get each chapter into tip-top shape by removing the problems I don't want hanging loose. When I put this sweater on and wear it out into the world, it's going to look great.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Vox, Eliza Brooke investigates the practice of placing "A Novel" on book covers: "Books have used the 'XYZ: A Novel' format since the 17th century, when realistic fiction started getting popular. The term 'novel' was a way to distinguish these more down-to-earth stories from the fanciful 'romances' that came before..." (Thanks, The Millions!)

May 8, 2019

April Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of the remaining books from my winter anticipated reads and the first book from my spring batch:

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman: Ben falls in love with Kate in New York City in a 2000 that doesn't quite match our own. The intense happiness of their early relationship is only marred by the strange things Kate says about her dreams. In these dreams, Kate is a nobleman's mistress in Elizabethan England, leaving London for the countryside to avoid the plague. The dream world is as real as life, and Kate senses there's something important she must do there. Each time she wakes in 2000, the world she encounters seems less familiar, and Ben grows increasingly worried about Kate's mental state.

I loved this book. Every aspect of the mind-bending alternate timelines fascinated and delighted me. I was deeply invested in the main characters and their relationship, and distressed by the painful times they go through. I grew attached to the whole memorable cast of characters around them in 2000, and the historical figures in Kate's 1593 life sent me down some excellent research rabbitholes. This novel is full of both hope and despair, all shot through with humor and weirdness. It's not going to charm every reader, but it was just what I wanted.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami: Nora returns to her hometown in the Mojave after her father is killed in a hit-and-run. As she and her family grieve for Driss, Nora tries to uncover the truth of his death -- and his life. The narration shifts between numerous characters, including a childhood friend of Nora's who reenters her life, the detective investigating the accident, and a man who was present at the scene but fears speaking to the police because he's undocumented. Driss himself also tells his story of immigrating from Morocco and striving to maintain a small business as a Muslim in America.

The mystery of the hit-and-run propels the plot, but while the crime is solved, this is more a novel about life's complications than about precisely what happened. Lalami develops all the characters and their relationships beautifully. I enjoyed how each narrator reveals aspects of their lives and histories that those around them aren't aware of, so the layers of the story build up nicely. Some characters get more page time than others, which is fine, but I do wish some threads had been spun out further or better tied up at the end. This is a novel that might have benefitted from being longer, and I would have happily read more of Lalami's strong writing.

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison completes the post-apocalyptic Road to Nowhere trilogy that opens with excellent THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE. In this world diminished by disease, women remain far rarer than men in the generations that follow, and the scattered populations deal with this in various and frequently cruel ways. One thread of this novel picks up right after THE BOOK OF ETTA's exciting end. Another takes place much later in the life of Flora, as she reflects on all the grief and joy she's experienced and faces a terrifying new threat.

I was glad to return to the characters from the second book and learn their fates, as well as more about Flora's often painful past. Like the earlier installments, this one explores many ideas about gender, identity, and choice, and the characters encounter additional ways of life that emerge in the unbalanced world. At times, the ideas dominate the narrative to the point that it took me out of the story. This book didn't hang together for me as well as the other two, but it does provide a fairly satisfying conclusion to the series.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub presents some very relatable material in On Making Mary Berry's Fast Cakes And Not Writing: "The frosting semi-vanquished and the traybake in the oven, I decided . . . not to go back to writing. I know, I know, but the kitchen was already a mess, so I figured that rather than clean up only to destroy everything again, I'd go straight on to the Chocolate Cream Fingers. These were supposed to take 20 minutes to make, and they did! I felt vindicated and great at baking. Then I realized that I had only made the dough."

April 25, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2019

I've been organizing my to-read list and placing pre-orders, because it's time for a new season of anticipated books! Here's what I'm excited about reading this spring:

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison (April 23): I've already started reading this final book of the Road to Nowhere trilogy, and I'm fascinated by what's presented in just the first couple of chapters. Each book in this intense post-apocalyptic story has a different narrative style, and each focuses on the life of a different character in a plague-stricken future where women are rare. The premise leads to difficult, violent content, so these are not light reads, but I loved the first book especially. That first installment, THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, can be read as a standalone.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang (May 7): This is a new collection of stories by a wildly creative and clever science fiction writer. When I read his first collection, STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS, I was impressed by how dissimilar the stories are from each other, and from anything else I'd ever read. (The movie Arrival, which I liked pretty well, is adapted from one of those stories.) I'm looking forward to enjoying more of Chiang's work, including some stories that have been available online but that I never got around to reading.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane (May 14): I was enthralled by Kane's first novel, THE REPORT, which imagines the story behind a real-life disaster. I also admired her short story collection, THIS CLOSE, particularly for the subtle depictions of complicated relationships. I expect to find more great interpersonal dynamics in this new novel about friendship, which sounds fun and funny.

CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert (June 4): I've never been inclined to read any of Gilbert's inspirational nonfiction, but I adored her historical novel about a nineteenth-century woman of science, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. Her new novel is also historical, set in the 1940s New York theater world, and my curiosity is piqued.

THE TENTH MUSE by Catherine Chung (June 18): Roxane Gay's recommendation made me interested in this novel, and I've realized I also meant to read Chung's previous novel, FORGOTTEN COUNTRY, after a recommendation by Gay but never got to it. I'll definitely be picking up this new book, a story about math and family secrets.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes (June 25): This is the debut novel from a host of one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour. Holmes's media commentary is always smart and funny, and I'm thrilled that she's publishing a novel. The story is a romance between two people who are struggling with (I believe) mental health issues, and I'm happy to see the early reviews are as positive as I'd hoped!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On Tor.com, Vivian Shaw considers How Much Research Should You Do For Your Book?: "I recently wrote a novella about air crash investigation and practical necromancy, in which I had to learn a great deal about how air traffic control works, how flights are routed, how to read various types of chart, where various controls are located in the Boeing 737's cockpit, and so on--and then I had to not have my protagonist lecture the audience about any of these things, or bring them up in conversation with the other characters unnecessarily. Writing a particularly intense scene where I had to walk that thin line felt physically exhausting, like lifting weights with my brain, but it was also deeply satisfying to have done."

April 4, 2019

March Reading Recap

I had an outstanding reading month in March, and I fully endorse these three excellent books!

→ Mira Jacob starts GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS with her biracial son's questions about race, prompted by his love of Michael Jackson's music. At six years old, he understands that he's brown, like his mom, and that his dad is white, and that all of this matters somehow, but there's a lot he's still wondering. Throughout this beautiful graphic memoir, Mira tries to answer her son's questions while reflecting on the questions of her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents. She doesn't always have explanations, though, especially as Donald Trump's presidential campaign gains power and her husband's parents continue to support him.

Each conversation and event portrayed in GOOD TALK is packed with emotion, humor, and difficult truths. The artwork is a joy to gaze at, consisting of drawn characters and speech bubbles on top of photographs that set the scene. (You can view a long excerpt on the publisher's page -- click "Look Inside".) The book jumps back and forth effectively between two timelines: The story's backbone is the years 2014 to 2016, a time of many questions about Trump and racial relations. Alternating with these conversations and often commenting on them, Mira's life unfolds chronologically, beginning with confusing incidents from her own childhood and showing important events in her growing up, relationships, career, and family. All the parts of this book are incredible, and I recommend it to everyone.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie: The people of Iraden have an agreement with the Raven god: The god will protect the territory and citizens from attack by outsiders, and the Raven's Lease will serve as human ruler and care for the bird currently inhabited by the god. Whenever the bird reaches the end of his lifespan, so will the Lease, who must sacrifice himself to replenish the strength of the god. Mawat is heir to the Lease, and he returns from war expecting the imminent deaths of the Raven and his father, ready to serve as the new ruler of Iraden. Instead, Mawat discovers that his uncle has usurped his place, claiming his father fled without making the necessary sacrifice. Mawat is overcome with disbelief and anger, and it's up to his clever aide Eolo to investigate what's true and what's a twisty political conspiracy.

The full scope of the agreements in this book is far more intricate and fascinating than presented in this summary, involving numerous gods and the groups of people who worship them. Leckie has built the world of her first fantasy novel as skillfully and inventively as in her wonderful science fiction. The story and its unusual narration gripped me right away, and I remained engrossed as more was gradually revealed. The characters, both humans and gods, are fully conceived, flawed, and fun to spend time with. As always, Leckie excels at showing the complicated details of the dynamics between individuals and groups. If this sounds like your sort of novel, I strongly recommend it.

SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler: In 1890 San Francisco, Lizzie is a member of the wealthy class, though her choice to remain a spinster makes her vaguely suspect in fashionable society. Through her volunteer work at a home for women and children in need, Lizzie crosses paths with the mysterious Mary Ellen Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant asks the home to take in a small girl whose origins are also shrouded in rumor, and Lizzie grows curious about both of them. As Lizzie investigates, she keeps running up against strange events, disturbing questions, and the tiresome forces of so-called polite society.

Several characters in this novel are real figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, who gained prominence in early San Francisco while passing a white woman but later revealed herself to be black. Fowler embraces the wild, contradictory histories of Pleasant and the others, telling different versions throughout the novel in entertaining detail. Lizzie and the rest of the fictional characters are just as richly, delightfully drawn, with Fowler's wry humor frequently on display. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, and some exciting antics drive the plot forward, but much of the story focuses on the nuances of how people treat each other in the name of propriety. It might be accurate to call SISTER NOON a comedy of manners, and I'd definitely call it one of Fowler's best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura B. McGrath writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books about studying literary diversity by analyzing "the most important data that no one outside of publishing has ever heard of: Comp Titles": "Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors' decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values. It turns out the industry values whiteness."

March 15, 2019

FOGcon 2019 Report

I spent last weekend at the ninth iteration of FOGcon. I like the way I described this convention in 2013: "FOGcon is mainly about participating in and listening to in-depth discussions of stories, fictional worlds, and the things these lead us to consider about our own world." As I tend to repeat in my annual con reports (often while commenting that I tend to repeat myself every year), I always have a great time geeking out about speculative fiction for three days with other people who think that makes for a fun weekend.

This year's theme was Friendship, a topic well explored in the works of the two honored guests, Karen Joy Fowler and Becky Chambers. Both guests served as entertaining, insightful panel members, and both were generous with their time throughout the convention weekend. I was especially excited by the opportunity to hear more from Fowler, an incredible writer who has been heavily involved in the speculative fiction community, but whose own work often doesn't fit within the genre. Ever since I met her while at the Squaw Valley writing workshop, I've felt an affinity as another science fiction fan who writes largely realistic fiction.

Fowler participated in two fascinating sessions remembering authors who have recently died. Honored ghost Ursula K. Le Guin was a well-known figure, and a friend to some of those attending the discussion of her life and work, which was run as a group conversation. I took a turn speaking to recommend Le Guin's STEERING THE CRAFT, an excellent book of writing advice and exercises that my writing group worked through years ago. The panel in memory of Carol Emshwiller introduced me to an important feminist author I'd regrettably never even heard the name of. I'm eager to start reading her work.

A few other standout panels: Speculative Motherhood considered why mothers (and parents in general) are often absent from science fiction and fantasy and how they're portrayed when they do appear. Sense of Place offered strategies for developing settings and incorporating worldbuilding details into stories without info-dumping. "Friend" As Code Word was a nuanced, entertaining discussion about real and fictional cases where LGBTQ relationships get labeled as friendships for a variety of reasons. Life in Closed Systems pondered how to sustain life in generation ships, space stations, and other imaginary, current, and future closed spaces.

Next year's convention theme will be Turning Points, with exciting honored guests Mary Anne Mohanraj and Nisi Shawl. After dragging my feet for years, I've finally volunteered to help the group who does the work of putting together the con. So I will be especially invested in anticipating FOGcon's tenth year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jesslyn Shields reports on the Lunar Library, a backup of human knowledge headed to the moon: "Rest easy, because much of the entirety of human knowledge has been backed up, and is on its way to the moon on an Israeli spacecraft called the SpaceIL 'Beresheet' lunar lander. It will be among the solar system's first off-Earth libraries, and the only technology the aliens or post-apocalypse humans will need to access the data will be a rudimentary microscope -- something we've had knocking around our planet since the 1700s." (Thanks, Book Riot!)