Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

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!)

March 6, 2019

February Reading Recap

February was a month of unusual, surprising stories, all with speculative elements:

LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon: City is one of the finalists in the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest, with the chance to demonstrate that a black boy from Mississippi can deliver more dynamic sentences than any other competitor. But when the event takes a racist turn, City either makes a fool of himself or stands up for himself, depending on who you ask. He finds some consolation by reading an odd, authorless book called LONG DIVISION, in which he's surprised to find a character named City living in Mississippi in 1985, who finds a tunnel that takes him to 2013...

This novel starts out strange and gets stranger, and the story pulled me in more and more. The two Citys are compelling characters, though often adolescently frustrating, and each has an intriguing, amusing group of friends and foes. There's a lot packed into this book about love and hate, the past and future, and words and actions. By the end of the mind-bending, intense plot, I wasn't sure if I understood everything I was supposed to, but this is a story that will stick with me.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders begins in a city located at the boundary between night and day, the only area habitable by humans on a planet where the same side always faces the sun. In Xiosphant, the principles of Circadianism are strictly enforced to maintain order in this environment where the sky never changes. Sophie, a student from the dark side of town, takes the fall for her friend's petty crime and is banished into the frigid night. This should be a death sentence, but Sophie is rescued by the feared native inhabitants of the planet, who she discovers are intelligent creatures with their own civilization and technology. With their help, Sophie survives to team up with smugglers and revolutionaries, eventually working through the many traumas she suffers along the way.

The worldbuilding in this novel is fascinating and original. Though humans came to this planet with sophisticated technology, the knowledge and materials were lost over generations and through wars, so the story takes place in a fairly low-tech era, with much cobbled together from old parts. Anders put a lot of thought into how people would manage life in the terminator of a tidally locked planet, with schedule-controlled Xiosphant as one extreme and a freewheeling city Sophie visits as the other. I enjoyed listening to Anders talk about developing her novel's rich backstory on a recent episode of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast (segment starts at 16:30).

Much about the story and characters kept me interested, but significant pieces didn't work for me. The plot is oddly paced at times, and as the characters face obstacles that require changing their goals, I sometimes felt earlier parts of the story were rendered unnecessary. Deep friendships and/or love between characters are central to the novel, but I was confused about the story's position on the nature and health of these relationships, or whether my confusion was the point. The aftereffect of trauma is another major story concern, but it might have been more powerful with a lighter touch, which is something I've noticed in other novels and struggled with handling in my own writing.

I think this is one of those books that different types of readers will have very different reactions to (the reviews already support that), so I don't want to warn readers away from this novel, but I wish I'd liked it better.

WHAT I DIDN'T SEE AND OTHER STORIES by Karen Joy Fowler: I've read several of Fowler's varied novels, so it was no surprise that the stories in this collection also range wildly in setting, genre, and focus. What they have in common is excellent writing, at least a dash of humor, and richly developed characters and worlds.

About half the stories depict specific historical eras and sometimes take inspiration from real events and people. Two revolve around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: "Booth's Ghost" tracks the careers of the Booth family of actors, focusing on one of the brothers of the infamous John Wilkes, and except for the mildly ghostly bit, it's all rooted in truth. "Standing Room Only" follows a young woman, daughter of co-conspirator Mary Surratt, who is in love with JW and completely unaware of what else is going on.

I'm impressed thinking about the amount of research that must have been required to write the 20-odd pages of a story like "The Dark", which starts with Yosemite disappearances in the 1950s and 60s, moves on to the history of pandemics, and then shifts to the work of soldiers who cleared tunnels during the Vietnam War. It shares a few elements with "What I Didn't See", narrated by a woman on a gorilla-hunting expedition in the 1920s, including that both stories aren't quite science fictional but also aren't quite grounded in reality.

I enjoyed the blurry genre lines throughout this collection, and the frequent feeling that I had no idea what sort of story I was reading or where things might be going. "The Last Worders" involves twin American sisters taking a trip to an odd European city, on an odd quest, and every development twists the story in another direction until it all comes to a strange and satisfying ending. In "Always", a young woman joins an immortality cult in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the story arcs nicely around the many questions raised by the premise.

Karen Joy Fowler will be one of the guests at FOGcon this weekend, and I can't wait to hear and talk more about her work!

February 28, 2019

Reading My Words

For a while now, most of my posts have been about reading and books. This one is, too, but what's different is that the book I just finished reading is my own novel.

I finally reached the stage of this endless revision when it was time to read the manuscript all at once and see how it is. I'm relieved to report that this novel is pretty decent. Some places need adjustment to line up with things I ended up changing later in the revision. There are scenes I want to shorten to get to the point faster. But mostly, the story reads smoothly, and many excellent moments or sentences I'd forgotten popped up as delightful surprises.

I left myself many comments during the readthrough that I now need to go through and resolve. While plenty of sentences are "awk" or "unclear", the good news is that hardly any left me wondering what parasites had taken over my brain. The most notable of these was a sentence starting "Ironically enough," where I had to leave the very disappointed comment "that is not ironic." Aside from that, I rarely cringed, which is a notable improvement over previous readings.

So now I'm getting back to work on cleaning up all these smaller issues. Once I have a tight, coherent draft, we'll see what happens next

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kim Liao reflects for Literary Hub about rejections and creative failure: "Rejection still hurts. My skin is not as thick as I thought it was, and becoming accustomed to something is not the same thing as enjoying it. Also, not all rejections are created equally. Tallying every rejection as 1 out of 100 doesn't account for the fact that some rejections barely even register, while others feel like the sky is collapsing."

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.