Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

February 5, 2019

January Reading Recap

I started the year off right, spending January reading a bunch of great books!

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker is the suspenseful, beautifully written story of a town gripped by an epidemic, and I was relieved to find it handles the dreaming aspect of the story with a light and original touch.

In a dorm in the isolated college town of Santa Lora, California, a student falls into a sleep she can't be woken from. The mysterious affliction spreads to others in the dorm, and the doctors can't find any cause for the perpetual sleep. By the time the scale of the contagion is understood, many more cases have appeared throughout the town. Santa Lora is quarantined, and those still awake fear that sleep may descend at any time.

Walker recounts the Santa Lora epidemic with a well-crafted omniscient narration that spends time in the heads of about half a dozen major characters watching the disease unfold from different perspectives. The style works great for the story, and every character is a richly drawn person who I was pleased to see again and nervous about following further. The novel's disease has a fantastical nature, but Walker portrays it with the same detail and tension as found in real-life epidemics. Just as realistic are all the moments between characters that reveal their connections or distance. Pretty much everything about this book thrilled me, and I highly recommend it.

THE FATED SKY by Mary Robinette Kowal: A few years have passed since the events of THE CALCULATING STARS (my review), and the international effort to get humanity into space has established a small lunar colony. Elma works on the moon as a pilot for three-month stretches, and while she loves being an astronaut, she hates being away from her husband. When Elma is reassigned to join the first crew heading to Mars, it's a thrilling but terrifying prospect that she'll be away from Earth and Nathaniel for three years. Before the mission even launches, the crew has to contend with conflicts among themselves and pressures from a society grappling with both the civil rights movement and the effects of the meteor strike. The journey to Mars only introduces more, and more perilous, obstacles.

This book is an exciting, emotional ride. Kowal really puts her characters through the wringer, and while I wished these people I'd really grown to like weren't facing such harrowing situations, it made for a great story. As in THE CALCULATING STARS, there's lots of cool science and thoughtful character interactions. Both books would have benefited from some tightening to remove repetition, especially in the service of trusting readers to understand already established dynamics. I still definitely recommend them. I suggest reading the pair in quick succession as I did, because THE FATED SKY doesn't include much in the way of reminders about who anyone is or what's happening. Future installments, not yet published, are likely to catch readers up more. I look forward to Elma's further adventures.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh is the odd, absorbing story of a woman who's decided to sleep away her life for a year. Our narrator's problems, such as they are, involve lingering feelings for a jerk she dated and a scorn for the world that keeps her detached from everything and everyone. She believes a year of sleep will fix all that, and she has the financial means to stay in her Manhattan apartment and do nothing else, so she embarks on her project with a barrage of drugs prescribed by an absurdly terrible psychiatrist. Every day or so, she wakes for a few hours to eat a bit, watch movies, and endure visits from her one friend, who's just as discontented with life. Some months in, she starts doing things while drugged that she doesn't remember when she wakes up -- making purchases and appointments, chatting online with strangers -- and she struggles with how to keep the world at bay when her subconscious is so determined not to.

I was fascinated by the strange premise of this novel and delighted by how well Moshfegh pulls it off. From the opening pages, I felt sucked into the narrator's project by the strong voice and details both mundane and lurid. The experience was unpleasantly compelling. The dark humor of the story appealed to me, and some of the sessions with the psychiatrist made me laugh out loud. Not everyone is going to be drawn to this story, but if you're intrigued, I recommend reading it. Many critics considered it one of the best books of 2018.

AYITI by Roxane Gay is a collection of short fiction that was Gay's earliest book, recently republished and expanded. Many of the pieces are quite brief, more a depiction of a moment or idea than a story. Every piece sings with Gay's strong, vivid writing, but I preferred the longer, fuller stories that allow time to sink into the characters' lives.

The standout story in the collection for me is the longest one, "Sweet on the Tongue". I had time to become fully invested in the protagonist before the painful uncovering of her past, which turns out to be a kidnapping like that in Gay's powerful novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I also especially enjoyed the sexy "A Cool, Dry Place", about a young couple making plans to leave Haiti and making plenty of love. In general, I'd recommend the later collection DIFFICULT WOMEN over AYITI, but this small book is certainly worth reading as well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Jessica McCann shares experiences with novel research: "For my recent historical novel set in 1930s Kansas, I read no fewer than 25 nonfiction books and countless articles about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, farming, geology, auto mechanics, ecology, land surveying, food canning, quilting, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and so much more. I compiled many binders full of notes. And then I abandoned a lot of it."

January 23, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2019

It's time for the return of my anticipated book lists, because there are a ton of books being published this year that I'm already excited about. Most of these are from authors whose work I've loved before, and in some cases I've been eagerly awaiting these books since they were first mentioned years ago.

Here are the books I'm looking forward to reading in the next few months:

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker (January 15): I was a big admirer of Walker's debut, THE AGE OF MIRACLES, a coming-of-age story set during the gradual disaster of the earth's slowing rotation. The news of her publishing again delighted me, but I have to admit the new book's premise adds some trepidation to my anticipation. THE DREAMERS involves a town gripped by an epidemic (promising) that sends its victims into perpetual sleep (intriguing, but I've been disappointed by books with sleep-related epidemics in the past) and does something to dreams (a topic I usually find uninteresting in fiction). I haven't started reading yet, so I'm still hoping Walker will once again tell a story that exceeds my expectations.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders (February 12): Anders has produced a lot of work I enjoy: her first novel, ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, shorter fiction, and the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT takes place on a planet with a permanent day side and night side, has a plot containing revolutionaries and smugglers, and sounds like great fun.

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman (February 12): The two earlier books that made me a fan of Newman are THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel about an apocalypse in which nobody lives past adolescence, and HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL, a hilarious writing guide. THE HEAVENS is something different than either of those, a novel set in New York in 2000 and Elizabethan England, with maybe also some alternate history (yay) and definitely some dreams (hrm). My curiosity is certainly piqued.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie (February 26): I adored all of Leckie's previous novels: the trilogy starting with ANCILLARY JUSTICE and the standalone PROVENANCE. In THE RAVEN TOWER, Leckie moves from science fiction to fantasy, and I'm confident that the writing, characters, and story will be as wonderful as always.

GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March 26): Jacob wrote a lovely novel about a family, THE SLEEPWALKER'S GUIDE TO DANCING, and I've been following her career since reading it. A few years ago, she published a cartoon essay called 37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son and announced that it was part of a forthcoming graphic memoir. I'm eager to see more of these funny, tough, and visually striking conversations.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami (March 26): Lalami is the one author on this list I haven't read before, but the buzz around this novel has me ready to snap it up as soon as it's released. It's a story about a hit-and-run accident told from many points of view, promising a mystery, secrets, lies, and complicated family dynamics.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, Charlie Jane Anders advises focusing on your weaknesses as an author: "Writing is one of the few areas where the better you get at it, the harder it becomes. This is partly because 'getting good at writing' requires you to have more awareness of the weaknesses in your own work. But also, you can't get better after a certain point without going outside your comfort zone. And there are questions you don't even think to ask about your own work, until you've been forced to think about them."

January 11, 2019

2018 By The Books

This is my now-annual January(ish) post in which I pick my top recommendations from the books I read the year before. As I started putting it together, I was thinking about how consistent my reading habits have become and how much of what I want to say in introduction is the same as for previous yearly book wrap-ups. I began musing on how to write about this consistency, and then I realized that consistency also comes up in my year-end writing overview. So: 2018 was a very consistent year in my life (except in all the ways it wasn't).

For example, my general goal is to average three books a month, and I again hit pretty close to that target, reading 33 books in 2018. I continued gravitating toward recent releases, with the vast majority of books I read published in 2018 or 2017. As I found last year, about a third of what I read was truly outstanding, which leaves me quite pleased with my reading selections. I'm recommending those exceptional books again here, with a link to the monthly recap containing my original, fuller review.

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer (February and March/April) earn the top spot on this not entirely ordered list for sticking with me the most strongly. This pair of novels tells a unified story (which will continue in two more books, less closely tied) of the complicated events that rock the world of 2454. Palmer's future is ambitiously imagined, with a mind-boggling number of disparate pieces and players woven together into a gripping tale of political intrigue and so much more.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (July/August) is a family story that stands out for how solidly every element is crafted. Through carefully detailed character portrayals and a plot that's never predictable or easy, Ko unfolds the story of a boy from China whose mother disappears after she brings him to the United States.

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie (October/November) is especially notable for the excellent use of perspective shift to reveal its complicated layers. In this tense and tragic novel, the fates of two British-Pakistani families become entwined by love, politics, and questions of loyalty.

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling (September) takes the family story down to the micro level of recounting the daily tedium and anxiety of parenting. Few significant events occur for much of this novel about a mother hiding from the world with her toddler, but the strength and intimacy of the narrative voice kept me enthralled.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker (July/August) depicts immigrant life in the multicultural stew of early twentieth century New York City, with supernatural protagonists who are also newcomers to the human world. Wecker develops her inventive premise marvelously, and this novel was even richer and more layered than I anticipated.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE by Ijeoma Oluo (January) is a thorough, approachable guide to noticing and discussing racism, whether you want to or not. Oluo offers practical suggestions on talking and acting in various difficult situations, and I intend to return to this book again.

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz (May) depicts a future in which humans, robots, and intellectual property can all be owned or freed, whether legally or illicitly. A batch of pirated drugs with lethal side effects set humans and bots on both sides of the law on a thrilling chase, packed with science, danger, and a stealth submarine.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange (June) introduces a large cast, mostly Native Americans and mostly living in Oakland, and places them on a trajectory toward a powwow where a violent act is planned. Orange gives each character a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages, and I only wish there was more of this tight and suspenseful story.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee (March/April) focuses on two adult sisters and the way mental illness impacts their relationship with each other and with each of their partners over the years. Lee complicates every character with unexpected details, and the evolution of the plot feels organic.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam (May) brings together two families from different races and classes, bonding them through tragedy and adoption. What particularly sticks with me about this novel is how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of every interaction between the well-drawn characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood at The Guardian explores the world of miniature books: "Nomenclature is important here: according to the US-based Miniature Book Society, a miniature book 'is no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness', and while the London Library has some 350-odd 'small' books, of less than five inches, it has only 47 true miniatures. The library decided they were being overshadowed by their larger cousins, so now they are gathered together in a glass-fronted cabinet." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 4, 2019

December Reading Recap

Here's my final month of book reviews to close out 2018, and next week I'll look back at the year's reading highlights.

THE CALCULATING STARS by Mary Robinette Kowal: Early in the space race, Elma and her husband Nathaniel are vacationing in the mountains after a satellite launch they both worked on, when suddenly the world changes. A meteor strike near Washington, D.C. destroys everything and everyone in the vicinity of the capital, including Elma's family, her friends and colleagues, and most of the federal government. Elma and Nathaniel escape to safety thanks to their combined scientific knowledge and her skills as a pilot. They wind up at a military base, where Nathaniel is pulled into meetings and Elma isn't allowed to do anything useful that might distract her from grief and shock. At last she's given some data to analyze, and through her calculations, she discovers that the consequences of the meteor impact are going to become far worse than they already are. Though no humans have yet orbited Earth, it's now urgent to figure out how to get humanity off the planet.

This premise combines two subjects I love to read about, apocalyptic disasters and space travel, and Kowal explores both with well-considered and fascinating detail. The science is woven tightly into the many plot events, which means both that the story makes sense and that it moves along at a pretty fast pace. With mathematician and pilot Elma as our guide through the accelerated space race, we get to understand and witness every development, and also experience the constant fight to have women's accomplishments taken seriously. Along with portraying the sexism of the era, Kowal is thoughtful as always about how every character's identity interacts with the story, especially paying attention to how black people are treated in the disaster and in the space program.

As soon as I finished devouring THE CALCULATING STARS, I started the sequel, THE FATED SKY, which continues the quest to colonize other planets. These two books are closely tied and were released in quick sequence. More books in the series are planned for the future.

THE PERFECT NANNY by Leïla Slimani, translated from French by Sam Taylor: In the first pages of this novel, two small children are murdered by their nanny. The story then goes back to the previous year, when Parisian couple Myriam and Paul decide to hire a nanny so Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. They bring on Louise, who delights the children immediately and soon becomes an indispensable part of the family. Myriam is thrilled to be working again and to leave the concerns of children and home to Louise, but she struggles with guilt about this choice and anger at the society that judges it. Louise is thrilled to dedicate herself to taking care of everything the family needs, and her devotion to the work blocks out the empty despair of life away from their apartment.

This tense, unsettling novel is primarily a character study of Louise and Myriam. By delving into the complicated thoughts and emotions of each woman and the changing dynamics between them, Slimani charts how the situation goes so horrifically wrong. I read this short book quickly and eagerly, fascinated by the nuanced characters and always in suspense at how the inevitable end would arrive. I anticipated that there would be no clear, simple explanation of what drives Louise to murder, but what surprised and disappointed me was that we don't get to see the event from her point of view, despite how much time we otherwise spend in her head. I'd still recommend this to anyone intrigued by the premise, but prepare for an ending you may find unsatisfying.

THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez is narrated by a writer and teacher whose closest friend, another writer and teacher, dies by suicide. As she's contemplating his life and death, their past together, and his history with women, his wife (Wife Three) asks her to take in his dog. Apollo, an enormous and aging Great Dane, moves into her tiny apartment where dogs are forbidden, and they grieve together. Soon Apollo becomes such an important part of her life that she won't consider giving him up, despite the threat of eviction from a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment.

This novel won the National Book Award and much critical acclaim, but I'm in the camp of readers who only liked the parts about the dog. Apollo is great, and the relationship the narrator forms with him is emotionally satisfying. The dead friend, and the narrator herself, aren't especially compelling, nor are the majority of their musings about writing that make up much of the book. This is one of those novels composed of short scraps, in this case often presenting a thought or quote about writing, a fact or anecdote about death or dogs or both, or the summary of another book or movie. While I've read several books in this style, I'm not much of a fan, and in this case I felt the disparate pieces really didn't gel into a cohesive novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Diana M. Pho explains What Writing Fanfiction Taught Me as an Editor: "I spent hours studying a blend of British common law and JKR's hints about the Ministry of Magic to theorize how they passed legislation as reactionary response to Muggle history. I made calendar timelines to figure out whether the Animorphs went to high school in a term or semester system. Now, when I look at an author's manuscript, I take out my sledge-hammer and test out the sheetrock of their world. Is that a plot hole? Slam! Magical loopholes? Whump! How does a character's social or political identity affect their place in this world? Why can the cat talk? How do the airships fly?"

December 21, 2018

Another Year

The year is drawing to a close, as years always do. Often around this time I wrap up the year with a post in which I take stock. Last year I didn't write one because we were in the middle of moving into our new house -- and having that excuse was a bit of a relief, because except for the house, I didn't feel I'd accomplished much in 2017. This year, I debated whether to skip again, since 2018 also didn't involve any exciting completions or successes in my writing life.

Still, I like getting an overview of the year, even for myself, so I looked back at what I've done, and it's not nothing. This eternal revision isn't over, but the end is in sight. The steady plod continues, even on days when it feels like pointless misery to so much as look at this stupid manuscript, and that is an achievement worth reporting. I can't know for sure what's going to happen at the end of this revision, but I do know that by persisting, I've turned my stupid manuscript into a far better novel than what I thought was good enough before.

While looking back, I also reviewed December posts I've made in earlier years, and there's a consistency in my reflections on where I am or am not at the end of the year and what I imagine happening in the next one. That could be demoralizing, but I actually found it kind of comforting. As long as my good fortune continues, there's always another year, and that's the best cause for celebration.

May you find reasons to celebrate in 2019, and may your dark days brighten!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Panio Gianopoulos extols the virtues of trains as writing spaces: "Can you really get deep into a piece of writing, into anything creative, when you've only got 35 minutes? Isn't that just the warm-up? Strangely, to invert the truism, more is less. On weekends, once the children have been anesthetized with iPads and I've ducked up into our attic with my laptop, I find that somehow I get less writing done in two hours."

December 13, 2018

October/November Reading Recap

Time to catch up on reviews again! In the past two months, I read quite a variety of books:

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie: Isma put her education on hold to finish raising her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, after they were all orphaned. Now she's heading to a PhD program in the United States, leaving Aneeka behind in London. Parvaiz should be home with his twin, but instead he's gone away to do something so terrible that his sisters won't talk about it. In Massachusetts, Isma encounters another Brit, the son of a politician who has a fraught history with Isma's family. This MP distances himself at every opportunity from his Pakistani-Muslim heritage, to the disappointment of those who share his background like Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz. The fates of the two families soon become entwined by the consequences of Parvaiz's actions.

Shamsie develops this gripping story one layer at a time by giving each character a turn to claim the point of view and reveal or learn more about what's happening. I admired how well the perspective shifts work to show the unexpected sides of the characters and to build the tension and suspense that's constant throughout the novel. I found HOME FIRE even more intriguing knowing that Shamsie modeled it on the ancient tragedy of Antigone, which I reviewed before reading so I could spot the parallels. This is a powerful book that I recommend to readers interested in complicated situations and tolerant of gruesome material.

→ In ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS, Steven Pinker presents the data that shows life around the world is getting better in nearly every way. One by one, he considers aspects of the human condition -- health, inequality, civil rights, and so on -- and uses graphs and facts gleaned from scientific studies to chart the progress made in that area over the centuries and decades. Pinker demonstrates why this is the best time in history to be alive and why that's pretty much true no matter who or where you are. Even commonly perceived problems of the current era are mostly misjudged, overhyped, historically unlikely to persist, or within our power to fix.

I enjoyed this book overall, though I would have preferred a shorter version of it. The bulk of the text is the middle section analyzing the progress in each aspect of life, and I found most of that interesting and educational. The sections at the beginning and end are more abstract and philosophical, and I had trouble staying engaged at times. Pinker's use of the Enlightenment to frame this story of progress never really came into focus for me, so I may not have gotten everything I was supposed to from this book. I also wasn't quite his imagined reader because I came into the book already aware that we're lucky to live now, so some of his arguments aimed at pessimists missed the mark for me. However you're feeling about the state of the world, if you'd like concrete evidence that it's improving, I recommend this book, and I won't tell if you decide to skim some sections.

→ The stories collected in THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen feature vivid, complicated characters in difficult situations. Nguyen's superb writing makes every sentence and scene engaging. However, I was often underwhelmed at the ends of stories that felt like they stopped too soon or without enough conclusion.

A few favorites stood out and stayed with me: The sad, powerful "Black-Eyed Women" is narrated by a ghostwriter who encounters the ghost of her brother and has to remember the terrible circumstances of his death. "Someone Else Besides You" spends a few days with a divorced man and his challenging father, winding up with one of the more satisfying endings. I really enjoyed the hapless protagonist and unexpected turns in "The Transplant", the story most reminiscent of the darkly playful tone of Nguyen's excellent novel, THE SYMPATHIZER.

November 29, 2018

Restructuring a Chapter

I haven't written much for my blog this year because I've been trying to focus my creative energy and time on revision. But when Christopher Gronlund posted a before and after of a paragraph he'd recently improved, I felt inspired to share a rewrite example of my own. I knew I'd made posts of this type before, though I hadn't recalled until locating the two earlier entries that both specifically demonstrate how a passage gets shortened along with strengthened.

Before I could go further with the idea of presenting a section of revised text, I noticed how many big chunks I was moving and deleting in the chapter I was currently working on, and I wondered if I could show off that process instead. The concept got pushed aside while I finished actually wrangling the Frankenchapter into shape. Then some initial work on this post was interrupted by the demands of the next messy chapter. Also, as usual, real life happened in the meantime, including a trip for family celebrations and the first Thanksgiving in our new house.

I've finally set aside the brainspace to finish a visual representation of one chapter, before and after restructuring. Many thanks to my in-house graphic designers and consultants for helping me realize my visualization vision! You can click to view a larger image:

October 4, 2018

September Reading Recap

I'm enthusiastic about all three novels I read in September, two brand new and one older:

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling: Daphne is having a tough day at her university job, faced with responding to the death of a student abroad, when she decides to pack up and leave. Her life already contains as much stress as she can handle, because she's parenting her toddler solo after her husband's deportation to Turkey over unresolved green card issues. Daphne collects her daughter from day care and drives away from San Francisco to the high desert at the eastern edge of California. The double-wide that she inherited from her grandparents is sitting empty in a remote town with not enough wifi, so it's the perfect place to retreat and avoid the question of what's going to happen next.

I adored this novel, which manages to be enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics. Alone with her toddler on this unscheduled trip, Daphne ticks off the passing hours by picture books read, string cheeses distributed, and cigarettes snuck. Daphne's strong narrative voice fills this accounting with tension: her child isn't stimulated enough, string cheese makes up too much of her diet, a better mother would have quit smoking. The lack of major plot developments becomes the novel's conflict, as Daphne fails to act on her abandoned job responsibilities, respond to her husband's questions about her plans, or do anything besides remain stalled in the high desert. Eventually life gives Daphne the push she needs to get unstuck, which leads to something finally happening next.

SEVERANCE by Ling Ma: Before the apocalypse, Candace lives in New York City, dabbling in photography and working at a book production company, where she coordinates the printing of Bibles. Afterwards, when most of the population has succumbed to a strange fever, Candace joins up with a small band of survivors journeying toward a possible refuge in Chicago. The story switches between these timelines, chronicling Candace's increasingly isolated existence in New York as the end times descend and her increasingly uneasy assimilation into the survivor group.

Many reviews call this novel a satire, but I wouldn't describe it that way, though there's humor to Candace's shrewd observations of modern life. The details of work, culture, and post-apocalyptic survival struck me as realistic or plausible, never elevated to the ridiculous, and that authenticity is one of the things I liked best about the book. Candace herself is a full and complex character, even at points when she drifts along detached from what's happening around her. I was sorry the novel ended when it did, without following Candace a bit longer or answering a few more of the questions the story raises, but I was glad for the time I got to spend in Candace's before and after.

SARAH CANARY by Karen Joy Fowler: Chin and his fellow railway workers are on their way to another job in the Washington Territory in 1873 when a mysterious white woman emerges from the forest. Her babbling speech and odd behavior suggests she's wandered away from the nearby asylum, so Chin attempts to return her there, though he's half-hoping she's one of the ghost lovers from stories. The simple task becomes a harrowing adventure, and then another, with more people pulled into the orbit of the perpetually inscrutable woman known as Sarah Canary.

Everyone who gets tangled up with Sarah Canary is a fascinating character, wonderfully depicted, and I grew fond of them all, even the villain a bit. Fowler brings the historical setting to life with vivid detail, and occasional short passages about real period events provide fun and useful context. The story addresses the blatant racism, sexism, and other horrors of the time, but the narrative's deadpan humor keeps the story feeling like a wild romp even when events become dark. I enjoyed keeping up with these delightful characters as they chased each other through the exciting plot.

I've read a couple of Fowler's other novels (this was her first), and I always admire her writing. I intend to read more of her work in the upcoming months, because she's going to be an honored guest at the next Friends of the Genre Con in March. Fowler has published both speculative and realistic fiction. Readers can approach SARAH CANARY with that knowledge, but may want to save learning Fowler's intentions until after reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ M.R. Carey analyzes apocalyptic trends for Electric Literature and discusses how these stories reflect each era's fears: "Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What's remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise--what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe."

September 10, 2018

July/August Reading Recap

I got a lot of good reading done this summer. Here's a recap of what I read in July and August:

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: Deming is eleven when his mother disappears. Polly has worked hard to build a life for the two of them in New York City since since immigrating from China, and she's always dreaming of more, so it's possible she's left him to take a job she talked about in Florida. Months pass in the crowded apartment where Deming lives with Polly's boyfriend's family, but his mother doesn't return, and nobody will tell him anything. Then one day Deming is taken upstate by a white couple who say they're his new parents. He's given an American name and grows up in a town where he's the only Asian kid, never quite sure where he belongs. Years later, he receives some information about what happened to his mother, and Polly's complicated story is revealed.

This novel is riveting from start to finish. It's not just the mystery of Polly's disappearance that kept me reading, but the carefully detailed portrayals that made these characters into real people I wanted to learn everything about. There's nothing easy or cliche in the unfolding plot. Deming and Polly go through a lot, sometimes because of events outside their control and sometimes as a result of their own choices. Ko brings every scene and setting to life with unexpected, often funny observations and incredible writing. This is an impressive debut, and I'll be eager to read more from her.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker: At the turn of the twentieth century, the Golem is brought to life on a steamship traveling from Prussia to America, but her master soon dies, leaving her without the purpose she was created for. In New York City's Little Syria, the Jinni is released from a flask after a thousand years of confinement and is horrified to discover he's now trapped in human form. Both the Golem and the Jinni are newcomers not only to bustling New York but to the odd world of humanity. They're each fortunate to find sympathetic humans willing to help conceal their supernatural identities, and they've started becoming part of the community in their own enclaves of the city by the time they meet each other.

I love this premise, and Wecker develops it marvelously. The Golem and the Jinni are wonderful, complicated protagonists faced with sympathetically human problems as well as unique issues arising from their situations and powers. Wecker uses her storytelling talents to also spin out fascinating backstories and conflicts for a surprising number of other characters, which adds more layers to the historical and cultural settings and enriches the plot. As the pieces of the story converge, the danger and suspense grows, and the way everything connects at the end is exciting and satisfying. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters in the sequel, expected next year.

STAY WITH ME by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: After years of marriage, Yejide has not become pregnant. Interfering family members decide the only solution is for her husband, Akin, to take a second wife, though the two of them agreed at the start of their relationship that they weren't interested in polygamy. Yejide turns to solutions of her own, seeking out a mystic who promises to work miracles. To her delight, she becomes pregnant immediately, but Akin isn't pleased to hear the news, and nobody else reacts as she expects, either. The road to a happy outcome is long and confusing, and there's far more sadness in store for Yejide and Akin as the years pass.

I found this novel very compelling, but it wasn't anything like I expected, which only made it more interesting. Though the introduction of a second wife sets the events in motion, a fairly small portion of the plot involves the two women dealing with each other. This is mainly Yejide and Akin's story, and it careens through surprising plot developments and shocking reveals. It's a horrifically sad story much of the time, though there is joy and humor mixed in with the tragedy. I felt great sympathy for these characters, who are also wonderfully frustrating people. I'm looking forward to more from Adébáyọ̀.

August 31, 2018

The Steady Plod

It's been ages since I posted a revision update (or since I posted much of anything beyond book reviews). The thing about getting a novel into really good shape is that it takes a long time, and the thing about long-term projects is that there's a lot of same old, same old. I can report I'm in a good stretch of sitting down to write and making progress every day, but there will be far more of that before I reach the finish line.

Writing, like most work, is a daily plod that involves doing more or less the same thing over and over again. Those are the ideal conditions, really. Aside from when I occasionally reach a noteworthy milestone, the writing days that look different are the ones where I struggle to eke out more than a paragraph or rage against the corner I've written myself into. I'm good with the more common state of plodding unremarkably forward.

Plodding along means I pass minor milestones all the time, and I pat myself on the back whenever I nail down a scene, get through a chapter, or just craft a particularly nice phrase. Sometimes I even feel like crowing publicly. The other day I tweeted my triumph over coming up with a little moment to insert that really tied a scene together. I no longer recall what detail I was talking about, but the satisfied feeling remains.

So, while it doesn't look like much from the outside, I'm still revising, I'm still happy with what I'm producing, and I'm still here, keeping my pace to a steady plod.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes at The Millions about the evolution of her author name: "Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn't think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel--many years later--was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I'd started publishing, I'd had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received."