Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

May 6, 2021

April Reading Recap

I did a lot of fun, exciting reading last month:

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton: In 1971, a barely known musical duo shot to fame in the wake of a racist riot that left their drummer dead. Opal Jewel, a flamboyant Black singer from Detroit, and Nev Charles, a quirky white songwriter from Birmingham, England, had started collaborating the previous year. These mismatched misfits only released two albums together before going their separate ways, Nev to massive solo fame and Opal to a patchier career. Forty-five years later, a reunion concert is in the works, and perhaps a tour. Music journalist Sunny Curtis has risen to the top of her field, a rarity for a Black woman, while taking care never to reveal her connection to Opal & Nev as the daughter of the murdered drummer. In this oral history, Sunny charts the origins and rise of the duo, investigates the circumstances of that fateful night, and plays a role in the long aftermath.

This outstanding novel joined my list of favorites before I even reached the powerful, satisfying end. I love fiction that makes good use of unusual forms, and here Walton creates complete believability as well as a compelling story in the oral history format of transcribed interview excerpts with judiciously placed editor's notes. Every character's voice is unique and real (the full cast audiobook production gets great reviews). Bad behavior and decisions are rampant in the story, but they always make sense for the person and situation. Despite the many developments explained at the outset, the plot builds and twists in surprising ways as the book goes on. Music is at the heart of this novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, family, time, and loyalty. I've been recommending it to everyone!

MACHINEHOOD by S.B. Divya: Welga appreciates the reliable pay of her job protecting high-profile clients, and she enjoys the physicality of fighting off attackers. The pills she uses to enhance her job performance are standard for people in any field who want to keep up with bots and AIs that are faster and stronger but lack the nuanced abilities of humans. Lately, though, Welga's pills seem to be the cause of symptoms that are getting scarier, and she turns to her biogeneticist sister-in-law Nithya for help. Nithya is coping with bodily concerns of her own: an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Both women's problems become smaller and yet more urgent with the emergence of a terrorist group called the Machinehood, which demands all pill production cease. The global crisis caused by the Machinehood could be the work of the first truly sentient AI, or it might be a cover for the continued warfare of a secretive empire, but either way, Welga is determined to take the Machinehood down.

I was quickly caught up in the thrilling plot, the well-developed characters, and the fascinating world. The future Divya imagines is innovative but also follows logically from our present, and the developments are a complicated mix of positive and negative. The novel is heavy on ideas about topics like progress, religion, and right and wrong, and these interested me but occasionally bogged down the story. Divya skillfully manages many different story threads and characters in this exciting sci-fi debut.

LOCAL STAR by Aimee Ogden: Triz is content with her quiet life repairing starships on a station, and she has no desire to travel through space like her more adventurous partners. It's just as well her relationship with Kalo is over, because his death-defying fighter piloting puts him in more danger than Triz can stand. But she worries that her partner Casne, and her wife, only want Triz to join their marriage if Kalo is part of the package. With Casne and Kalo both back on the station after a military victory, it might be time to address some of these relationship questions. Before that can happen, though, Casne is arrested on unbelievable charges, and Triz finds herself in the middle of a mystery, then a dangerous adventure to save the station.

This novella is a fun romp that delivers both exciting action and romantic drama. It was satisfying to watch Triz reckon with her self-doubt and gain confidence in her abilities and her place in Casne's family. I enjoyed the loving portrayal of polyamory in a world where this is the norm, though I was sorry the short length meant the relationships weren't developed as fully as I wanted. In general, the characters and their dynamics could have used more nuance, but there's an entertaining story here for those seeking a quick sci-fi read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate suggests what writers can learn from The Phantom Tollbooth: "Procrastination isn't always your enemy. Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth when he was supposed to be writing a book about cities for children, a project for which he had received a grant. As a rule, the thing that you write for fun will always be better than whatever you think is more important, serious, or expected of you."

April 30, 2021

Coming Around Again

One year ago, I posted about celebrating my birthday under the strange new conditions of pandemic life. By then, it was apparent the situation wasn't as temporary as we might have believed at first, but it's just as well I couldn't imagine that life would be similarly constrained a year later.

I marked turning 46 the same way as 45, with delicious treats at home with my household. But I did also get my Santa Cruz afternoon, complete with ice cream by the ocean, a few weeks in advance. And the best early birthday present was that two days before, I received my first vaccine shot!

A year ago, the outlook was grim and so unknown. Now I'm embracing a growing sense of hope as more Americans get vaccinated and cases decline. However, grim uncertainty remains when I look beyond the US to places where the pandemic still rages, particularly the horrifying crisis in India. (Donate at GiveIndia.)

A lot of life, for those as lucky as I've been, involves navigating the balance between personal joys and awareness of other people's suffering. I'm another year older now, and after a year that made those contrasts especially stark, I recognize this even more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Catriona Silvey ponders the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop: "Why do we seek out narratives that not only repeat themselves, but feature repetition as an anchoring principle of their structure? As a linguist and novelist, I believe that the answer lies in the process by which readers construct meaning from texts. Time loops, it turns out, are perfect for hacking this process to deliver a hefty intellectual and emotional impact within a tight narrative framework."

April 7, 2021

March Reading Recap

I had plenty more reading variety last month, with two novels, a book of nonfiction, and a short story collection:

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen: After the events of THE SYMPATHIZER, the man of two minds finds himself a refugee in Paris in 1981. He arrives with his blood brother, a killer of communists who cannot learn that our antihero spent years secretly operating as a communist agent (though he now isn't sure where his loyalties lie). The two find work with a crime lord, and the protagonist ends up selling drugs to the intellectual friends of his aunt, who isn't really his aunt but in fact a connection from his spy days. He also ends up using at least his fair share of the drugs, getting beaten and tortured quite a bit, and musing a lot about his own history and that of Vietnam and other colonized entities.

This is a consistent sequel that delivers more of Nguyen's clever sentences and pointed observations in a story that mixes intense action with cerebral analysis. As with the first book, at times I found the philosophical sections slow going. It's possible this book is grimmer than the first, or weirder, but as I remember more about the first, I'm not sure that's true. The narrative voice of these novels is unique and confidently crafted, and the narrator still has a fascinating story to tell.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price argues that too much of the conversation about environmental crises focuses on individual consumer actions, when the problems can only be solved at a systemic level. In this opinionated, accessible book, Price calls for corporate accountability, a reframing of environmentalist movements, and a more thoughtful accumulation of stuff. It's a great introduction to concepts like environmental inequality and greenwashing, but even those familiar with the subjects will find new perspectives and ideas here.

The book makes a clear case for why the focus has to shift away from individual actions: "Why can't you find a 50 Simple Things You Can Do to End World Poverty handbook at your bookstore?—or 101 Ways You Can Help Stop Gun Violence (or Solve the Middle East Crisis) Before You're 12!" Still, it does end by offering the reader a list of Ways to Stop Saving the Planet, but—guess what?—they aren't simple, and they aren't solutions. Many of the suggestions revolve around educating yourself, and this book is a good place to start!

MEDIUM HERO: AND OTHER STORIES by Korby Lenker: The two dozen-plus stories in this collection range from brief, lighthearted musings to intense character reckonings. All are nicely written, with moments and details that are well observed, unexpected, and often amusing. Some of the pieces have the feel of anecdotes from life rather than crafted stories with complete arcs, and while I tended to prefer the latter, I enjoyed reading either way.

Among my favorite stories: In "Pro Wrestling," full of great details and tension, a couple at a crossroads attends a wrestling match gone wrong. The protagonist in "Manboy and the Mafia Table" finds himself playing a surprising role in a social situation. The title story starts off as an insightful portrayal of how difficult the smallest things can be when depressed, then goes to an even darker place before reaching a satisfyingly hopeful ending. I'm glad I was introduced to the work of this author, who is also a singer-songwriter.

INFINITE COUNTRY by Patricia Engel: Talia's life and family have been divided by immigration restrictions. She and her brother were born in the US after her parents and their oldest child overstayed their visas. When Talia was still a baby, her father was deported to Colombia with no way to return. Her overwhelmed mother sent Talia back as well, and she grew up in Bogotá under the care of her grandmother. Now Talia is fifteen, her grandmother has died, and she's sentenced to a prison school after committing a random act of violence. But Talia has a plane ticket to finally return to the US and rejoin the mother and older siblings she barely knows, so she escapes detention in hopes of making it back to Bogotá in time for her flight.

INFINITE COUNTRY is beautifully written and recounts many experiences faced by undocumented immigrants and mixed status families, but I didn't think the story worked particularly well. After a tense opening scene depicting Talia's escape, the narrative changes course by jumping back to cover years of her parents' lives in Colombia and then the US. That the novel turns out to be as much about Talia's parents as Talia herself is fine, but the initial hook and ticking clock of the fugitive journey becomes a background thread that isn't all that deeply explored. Nor is there an especially deep exploration of the novel's many other events, because most episodes pass in summary, with only brief pauses for detailed scenes and dialogue. The result is that my reaction to this book was a generalized sympathy for these characters as representatives of a range of traumatic immigration experiences, but little feeling for them as specifically drawn fictional people.

This novel exists within the context of a publishing landscape in which stories about marginalized characters are more often rewarded when they focus on trauma and can educate readers about important issues. Whether or not that context influenced the writing or style of this novel, it seems like a factor in some of the praise it's receiving. Certainly the book exposes many terrible realities, but for me it fell short as a work of fiction.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal considers the history and legacy of who is reviewed and how: "Note that language. It reappears in the reviews of the interlopers — the nonwhite writers, women writers and especially L.G.B.T.Q. writers. Their books are not written, they are not crafted — they are expelled, they are excreted, almost involuntarily.... Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity."

March 19, 2021

This Year

In the first week of March last year, I was on the convention committee running FOGcon, and we were watching the news trying to understand what it meant for our small local con, scheduled for March 6 to 8.

We decided not to cancel. That could have been a very, very bad call, but instead we were very, very lucky, and as far as we know, our convention wasn't responsible for any COVID spread. Some would-be attendees wisely stayed home. Those of us who were there made some nice memories to think of during the time ahead. Even a couple of days after the con, it began to seem horrifying that we had just gathered 150 people together in basement conference rooms. But while we were gathering, the average person didn't yet know we were dealing with an airborne virus that had already spread widely, often through asymptomatic carriers.

This past weekend, the FOGcon committee presented a small set of virtual events to let our community reconnect. Chatting in a Zoom breakout room was of course different than hanging out in the hospitality suite or lobby. But there was also a pleasant familiarity in sharing thoughts and catching up with a group of people I've known for years, but only in this limited, con-going way. It was a lot of fun, and I'm glad we were able to make it happen.

During this long year, and especially this longest winter, I have been among those with the most privilege in every possible way. I've been in a position to comfortably go nowhere since November, but I also haven't been stuck inside, because I've been able to get out for neighborhood walks almost every day of the mild California winter.

Things are starting to change for the better in the US, though global trends are troubling. My parents and other older relatives are vaccinated, and every day I hear about more friends getting their shots. It's not my turn yet, but I don't mind waiting. I'm venturing back into the world in a limited way for routine checkups next week, talking about meeting up with friends outside, having hopeful discussions about family travel possibilities later in the year.

This year-old pandemic is not over, and some of the uncertainty of last March still remains. My optimism is uncertain, too, but it's been growing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Lit, Rachel Mans McKenny considers Why New Fiction Is Making Mothers into Monsters: "What I appreciate about these literary works is that there is no enfant terrible, no possessed child. It is not the child's fault that society has gutted or failed to implement systems to help caretakers. It is not the child's fault that the default caretaker in a heterosexual relationship is presumed to be the mother. In these stories, the children are just children. The mothers are eely, and their characters reveal the holes that mothers are allowed to fall through: holes in mental health care and child care and sexual satisfaction. The system is untenable, and mothers cannot continue to live this way."

March 5, 2021

February Reading Recap

Last month's reading was mixed, both in styles and in my reactions:

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones: When Lewis and his friends were young men, they went out hunting elk, and everything went wrong. Ten years later, one friend is dead, two still live on the Blackfeet Reservation where they all grew up, and Lewis feels pretty good about the life he's made for himself by getting away. He's happily married, has a good post office job, and rents a nice house that might be... haunted? By an elk he shot ten years ago? As the strange things Lewis is seeing and thinking become increasingly disturbing, his life goes in a short span of time from pretty good to really, really bad.

Wow, this novel is incredible. It is also extremely grisly, with humans, elk, and dogs meeting horrible ends in graphic detail. That I liked the book so much despite the terrible images now in my brain is a testament to Jones's storytelling skills. All the characters were immediately brought to life by natural dialogue and lifelike observations that often provide moments of humor. The plot unfolds through a carefully developed structure and some surprising narrative shifts that all work well to keep up the tension and intrigue. The story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past. Jones has published many previous books, and I look forward to more of his work!

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori: Keiko works in a convenience store. She started at the store the day it opened, 18 years ago, and has never worked anywhere else. She's an excellent worker, devoted to the customers and attuned to the rhythms of the store even when she's away from it. At the convenience store, Keiko understands how to behave, thanks to the detailed worker manual. Anywhere else, she is constantly reminded that the world does not consider her normal and disapproves of an unmarried, childless woman in her thirties still content to work part-time at a convenience store.

Most of this short book focuses on the details of Keiko's thoughts and interactions in and out of the store. I enjoyed this at first and was looking forward to getting a deeper insight into Keiko's perspective, but I didn't find much new as the story went on. Eventually there's a plot development. While it was good to have some change in the story, this arrives pretty late and was mostly frustrating to read about. I liked parts of this novel, but by the end, I was underwhelmed.

THE BOOK OF ESSIE by Meghan MacLean Weir: Years before Essie was born, her father's popular televised church services evolved into a reality show documenting the lives of the pastor's growing family. Or at least, their lives as carefully curated and milked for maximum ratings by Essie's shrewd mother. If teen Essie's pregnancy were exposed, the wholesome family media empire would be destroyed. But Essie has a plan. The first step is manipulating Mother into believing it's her own plan, and the next is enlisting the cooperation of a boy at school she barely knows and a local journalist hungry for a scoop.

The book starts off enjoyably sensational, and a real page turner. But as I kept turning those pages, I grew increasingly frustrated at how long the characters' secrets were being withheld, and increasingly certain that the truth about Essie's pregnancy would put an end to any fun left in the story. Some readers will want to stay away from this book due to subject matter. Others should avoid it for the narrative contrivance of point-of-view characters who keep thinking about their traumas but not specifying them in order to delay the shocking reveals. There are interesting aspects to the novel, especially when it explores celebrity and public perception, but I didn't wind up a fan.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe embraces the risks of writing and deep water: "When I enter the ocean, I have to be present and alert to the dangers around me, and I have to trust in my ability to swim and hold myself afloat. Writing, I find, is similar."

February 24, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2021

The next few months are bringing many new books from authors I'm excited to read more from!

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 2): It did not occur to me to expect a sequel to THE SYMPATHIZER, but I was excited to learn one was coming. The excellent first novel follows a double agent from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War to a new life in Los Angeles, and the second takes him to Paris to deal with the many difficult events of his past. I look forward to more time with this fascinating protagonist, and to more of Nguyen's dark humor and clever sentences.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge (March 30): Greenidge's inventive debut, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, featured well-developed characters, complicated family dynamics, and a wide range of topics including sign language and the history of racist science. LIBERTIE promises to deliver more history and complexity with the story of a young Black woman during the Reconstruction who tries to find a life where she can truly be free.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (April 6): This novel expands a short story from Quade's great collection, NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS. All those stories did an impressive job rendering characters and relationships fully enough in a few pages to get me invested. I'm eager to see what Quade does with a whole novel to depict a family coming together in the face of a teen pregnancy.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (April 6): I adored Sweeney's debut, THE NEST, a standout in my beloved genre of dysfunctional family dramas. It was a particular delight to enjoy the book so much and see it succeed, because Sweeney and I were workshop-mates at the Community of Writers some years earlier. The new novel explores the truths behind a friendship and a marriage against the backdrop of theater and TV acting.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price (April 20): While I'm bragging about personal connections, I'll divulge that this author is one of my cousins, which is why I'm anticipating a book that's pretty far from my usual tastes. But I am genuinely looking forward to reading this, because I agree with the premise that most "save the planet" efforts do little to address the real problems of climate change and environmental inequity. Jenny is also an entertaining writer, and I recommend her previous book about human connections to nature, FLIGHT MAPS.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells (April 27): I read all the previous installments of The Murderbot Diaries last year and put the series at the top of my 2020 favorites. The title character, a cyborg security expert trying to find its place in human society, is an excellent, opinionated narrator, and I can't wait for its next adventure.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon (May 4): AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS and THE DEEP are both intense, beautiful stories about power and complicated relationships. SORROWLAND sounds like it will explore these as well, in the context of another intricately imagined world. I'm especially intrigued by this sentence from the description: "Here, monsters aren't just individuals, but entire nations."

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston (June 1): Since reading the delightful RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, the politically optimistic gay love story I didn't know I needed, I've been eagerly awaiting more from McQuiston. The new novel is a romance between two women, one of whom is displaced in time, and it sounds just as wonderful.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (June 8): This sequel to THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI has undergone changes to both title and release date since it was first announced, but it's really on the way now. I'm thrilled we'll be getting more to the richly developed story of two supernatural beings who met as immigrants to New York City and the world of humanity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Casey McQuiston writes at Goodreads about the importance of queer love stories: "I thought about what it would have meant to a teenager like me, stumbling around and grabbing onto anything that felt sturdy, to see a book like mine while loitering around the stacks. This pastel-colored confection, with a jacket copy describing a fantastical, frothy, happily-ever-after queer love story that sounded like so many of the rom-coms I loved. I think it would have helped her to know that stories like that could be prominently featured in her favorite place."

February 4, 2021

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off well!

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans is an impressively, consistently strong collection of stories. They're just so good! Each one puts well-drawn characters into nuanced conflicts, often with themselves.

Evans is particularly skilled at combining a bunch of seemingly unrelated elements so the story feels organic and lifelike, yet delivers a satisfying narrative arc. In "Happily Ever After," a woman works in the gift shop at a landlocked replica of the Titanic, she has a difficult health decision to make, and these threads and more weave together into a compelling whole. (An earlier, shorter version of the story appears online.) "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain" juxtaposes a potentially doomed wedding weekend with the disastrous circumstances in which a guest and the groom first met.

The situations in these stories are complicated. In "Boys Go To Jupiter," a college student goes viral for casual racism, and the story unfolds her tangled past. "Anything Could Disappear" presents a traveler with a series of choices that lead to an emotional journey through ethical gray areas.

The title novella has space for even more complexity in the plot and character relationships. The protagonist works at the Institute for Public History, a federal agency that combats misinformation by issuing corrections to plaques, public records, and so on. She's tasked with making a particularly knotty correction that puts her back into contact with an old frenemy and their longstanding rivalry. It's a fascinating end to an incredible collection!

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry: Danvers, Massachusetts, borders the more famous Salem, but it was part of Salem Village in 1692, when a group of teen girls discovered the power they could wield by accusing neighbors of witchcraft. The Danvers Falcons Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team have never come anywhere close to a successful season, but in the fall of 1989, their goalie turns to local lore for help. She makes a dark pledge that the rest of the team join by solemnly signing their names—to a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. With the magic of Emilio fueling them, the eleven team members discover their own power. They start scoring (both on and off the field), they grow into their truest selves, and they delight in wreaking havoc on their own terms.

I loved this quirky novel and found it wicked funny and at times quite moving. It didn't hurt that I was also a Massachusetts high school student in 1989, so every cultural reference charmed me. Barry does a great job managing an ensemble of eleven main characters, plus assorted classmates and adults, and I developed deep affection for everyone in the story. In the middle, I felt some sections dragged a bit, but in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd give up any part of the book. It's a lot of fun, it has a lot of heart, and all its weirdnesses lined up well with my own.

RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark: Maryse fights monsters that wear Ku Klux Klan robes. And they really are monsters: hideous creatures from who-knows-where that feed on racist hatred and take over the bodies of weak, despicable fools. Most people can't see the signs of the monsters lurking beneath the skin of the humans they've turned. Maryse and her friends have the sight, and they're part of a group using both magic and firepower to fight back against evil in 1922 Georgia.

This short book is packed with exciting action scenes and effectively disturbing body horror. I'm not the best audience for either of those, but I appreciated many parts of the story, including the opportunity to read about Black women wielding power in the Jim Crow South. I was intrigued by the premise and the connections made to historical events, and I would have enjoyed more worldbuilding about the origins and spread of the monsters. You can judge this book by the cover: The KKK robe and the mouths where they don't belong encapsulate the story's horrors, so use that to decide whether it's for you.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ruth Madievsky looks at the differences in reviews of women-centric and male-centric literary fiction on Goodreads: "In our publishing climate—where women authors (especially queer women and women of color) are often assumed to be writing autobiographically, are dismissed for writing work that is 'domestic' and characters who are 'unlikable,' and are reviewed significantly less than men in major media outlets—this ratings discrepancy doesn't feel benign."

→ Melissa Baron introduces Book Riot to the genre of ergodic fiction, a new term for me: "What that really amounts to is whether or not the text follows the conventional format of paragraphs, dialogue tags, standard margins, and all the things that make reading it easy."

January 15, 2021

2020 By The Books

It's my habit in January to look back at the books I read in the year just ended. In 2020, of course, everything was different, but reading was the one part of my life that didn't change all that much.

I read 46 books in 2020. While that looks like a notable increase from the previous year's 39, the number of novellas and other shorter works means I don't think I spent substantially more time reading. I've been fortunate not to have the sort of reading block many people have experienced during the pandemic, though my ability to focus on a story certainly fluctuated week by week and hour by hour. Often fiction was the only thing that could distract me from the news, and I might have ended up reading a whole lot more if I hadn't eventually started writing again.

My book selection patterns remained fairly stable in 2020. More than half my reading was brand new books, with almost all the rest from the past five years. I read my usual mix of realistic fiction, speculative, and stories that fall somewhere in between. As always, fiction dominated, but I also read a couple of books about writing, two other nonfiction works, and a book of poetry. The one type of book I wanted little to do with was my previously beloved apocalyptic genre (though I did make one exception). And a weird trend was that without meaning to, I happened into quite a few stories involving characters who see ghosts.

I read a lot of good books in 2020, which is perhaps the nicest thing I have to say about the year. Here's a rundown of the ones that impressed me most, each linked to the monthly recap with a full review:

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells brought me the most reading delight, though it has an unfair advantage as a series. I was hooked by ALL SYSTEMS RED (May), the first thrilling adventure of the Security Unit who's great at its job but not at interacting with humans. Three more novellas and a novel (so far) provide further action, intrigue, and space travel, while also developing an increasingly complex exploration of friendship, anxiety, and feelings. I love how Wells combines these elements, and I can't wait for more Murderbot this spring.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid (January) was one of my first reads of the year and remains one of my most frequent recommendations. This page-turner revolves around a babysitter and her employer when the mother decides to address the race and class differences between them. Good intentions and bad assumptions go wonderfully awry as the plot winds tighter, and Reid brings the story to life with fantastic dialogue and nuanced, compassionate character portrayals.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October) was the one apocalyptic scenario I was willing to read this year, because I was so intrigued by the combination of author and premise. Alam writes such strong, well-observed character interactions, and the story starts with a promisingly uncomfortable dynamic. A family on vacation at an Airbnb is surprised by the late-night arrival of a panicked couple who say they're the owners, and that something terrible is happening in New York City. Events outside the house grow more and more disturbing as the occupants try to cope with the awkwardness inside. This novel is profoundly unsettling, and so good.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata (February) is a novel set in the real world that's about and for lovers of science fiction. The mystery of a lost and found manuscript connects characters across generations in a tale that explores immigration, loss, and family. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, inventive novel about stories, journeys, and the rambling path both often take, and I was captivated all the way through.

January 8, 2021

December Reading Recap

I closed out last year with some great reading. Now that I've caught up on reviewing everything I read in 2020, I'll get to work on my list of favorites to share next week.

HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang: In 1862 California, two young siblings are left orphaned by the death of their father, a man hardened by poverty and failure. After a racist incident in town, the kids decide they must flee without taking time to bury their Ba. Sam packs a trunk with their belongings, and they load it onto a stolen horse. They travel for days before Lucy discovers that the trunk contains Ba's body. Sam is determined to find the right place for burial, and though Lucy is the older one, she's never been able to tell stubborn Sam what to do, so they continue their journey into unknown territory.

This is a powerful novel full of both beauty and ugliness. As you might guess from my summary of the opening events, it's not a story for the squeamish, and there's a wide range of difficult content as the story unfolds. That unfolding comes gradually, through shifts in time and perspective, and sometimes reluctantly. Lucy, Sam, and their parents hold close the secrets of their selves and pasts, so the suspense in this novel is not only about what will happen, but what has happened. Zhang wields perfect control over the narrative to make discoveries about this complicated family as rewarding as a glimpse of hidden gold.

Zhang's sentences are carefully honed, mixing tight dialogue with vivid imagery. I was constantly admiring the writing style, and I particularly appreciated every description of the hills: "From afar the wet hills shine smooth and bright as ingots—riches upon riches stacked to the Western horizon." I was blown away by this intense, absorbing novel, and I'm eager to see where Zhang will take readers next.

THE PULSE BETWEEN DIMENSIONS AND THE DESERT by Rios de la Luz: This collection of brief short stories covers a range of styles and genres. Some stories are brutally real, some involve time travel, others encompass both. What unites them all is beautiful, dreamy images and powerful emotions.

In "Lupe and Her Time Machine," a grandmother builds and carefully decorates a contraption in her garage. Maybe it's a time machine powered by rose petals, maybe she's simply remembering, but the difference between these isn't as important as the insights she finds. The protagonist of "Esmai" lives prepared for apocalyptic scenarios, but instead she encounters a version of herself from another dimension.

"Ear to the Ground" shifts from childhood innocence to shocking violence, with a pause at this magical interlude: "One night, on your way home, you passed the giant pecan tree in the middle of the neighborhood. A pecan landed on your head and when you cracked it open, there were rounded sprinkles inside. You opened more, one of them had honey inside and another had pomegranate seeds inside. The last pecan you picked up had confetti inside and a photograph. It was of you and Soledad. She made bunny ears behind your head."

If these descriptions intrigue you, you're definitely the right audience for this collection, and I encourage you to seek it out.

NETWORK EFFECT by Martha Wells: Murderbot is the private name of a cyborg known as SecUnit to its clients and friends. Having friends, and working with them as a security consultant out of choice, is a new experience for Murderbot, who until recently was owned by a company and treated (badly) as sophisticated rental equipment. Now it's not only made friends with a group of humans, but it's starting to form a life in their society outside the Corporation Rim. Murderbot has a lot of feelings about this, and it's not wild about feelings, or the way humans always want to talk about them. All of this becomes significantly more complicated when Murderbot's humans are attacked and kidnapped (again), possibly by someone who Murderbot thought was also a friend.

I have become a big Murderbot fan over the course of the four novellas that precede this novel-length installment, and everything about this book delighted me. I was thrilled by the return of some favorite characters and the introduction of excellent new ones. The longer form allows for a more complex plot, as well as space to slow down between action and planning scenes to delve into the nuances of character relationships. This book is a tense adventure, and it's also all about feelings, relationships, trauma, and how hard those are to process, even for someone with the capacity to monitor a dozen inputs while watching an episode of bad TV. I loved it.

NETWORK EFFECT could be read without prior knowledge, but I really recommend starting at the beginning of this great series for a fuller understanding of the characters. The next book will be out in April.

→ In THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James, a young governess takes a first job with strange conditions: She's instructed not to tell her employer anything that happens with the children under her care, and her predecessor has died. She's nervous, but when she arrives at the county estate, things start out well. She becomes fast friends with the housekeeper, and the two children are sweet and well-behaved. But soon she is disturbed by strangers around the house who nobody else acknowledges. These ghostly appearances make her question whether there's a sinister side to the children's perfect behavior.

I enjoyed the slowly building tension in the first half of this novel. Toward the middle, I started to wish things would build a bit less slowly, and I grew tired of James's convoluted sentences. I was eager for some reveal or shift that would pay off all the buildup, but when I reached the abrupt ending, I was utterly confused by how to interpret what had occurred. Then I learned that people have been arguing about the interpretation for the last century. After reading some analysis, I have more appreciation of what the story is doing, but I didn't really get it on my own, even while looking. This leaves me with a mixed reaction: I'm glad to have familiarized myself with the story and its ambiguities, and it was a frustrating read.

December 21, 2020

In Hindsight, 2020

So, this year happened. Reaching the end of it is a great relief, and a consequence of much privilege and luck. While next year will still be tough, I see reasons to believe in 2021 growing gradually better rather than gradually worse.

But I really shouldn't tempt fate by putting even that vague a prediction into the universe. I'm well aware that one of the prime forms of entertainment in these times is to find statements from the start of the year that have aged tragicomically badly.

On my own blog, I made the extremely ominous declaration in January that "Whatever else happens in 2020, it's set to be another great year for books." I regret the part I played in extending a dare to the year, but there is technically nothing untrue in this sentence. I was grateful all year to have wonderful books to read, and not to be afflicted with the widespread difficulty in focusing on text or stories. I'll post a roundup of my favorite books after I've wrapped up my reading year.

My year-end post for 2019 is also one to cringe over. A year ago, I was "extra optimistic" about making headway toward novel publication. Well, the global pandemic has put a lot of things on hold, and I have no updates on my own tiny little aspirations. I ended that post by wishing us all "progress in positive new directions." Commentary is left as an exercise for the reader.

Writing was hard this year, and I'm thrilled that I created any fiction at all. After a long stretch of floundering at writing anything, I spent much of June engrossed in a meandering story I never figured out how to finish. That got me back in the swing, and in August I wrote a rough story draft, beginning to end, in three days. It had promise, and over most of the rest of the year, I did a couple of revisions on this short story until it became something pretty good. Of course revision remains endless, and I'm planning to incorporate some great feedback into yet another draft, but that's a project for January.

In a normal year, right now I'd be enjoying a little getaway with family, but 2020 means no gathering and no change of scenery. I still hope to close out this year by reading, playing games, eating treats, and hanging out with family and friends thanks to the wonders of technology. I'll try not to speculate any further than that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Leslie Brody, author of a new biography of Louise Fitzhugh, describes a last-minute addition to one of the author's novels: "...in April 1973, Fitzhugh had been drafting a version of Nobody's Family Is Going to Change when she read on the front page of Sunday's New York Times that Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old Black child, had been shot in the back by a plainclothes police officer in Jamaica, Queens. Fitzhugh saw such incidents of unchecked police brutality as a nauseating throwback to the systemic racial violence of her youth in segregated Memphis, Tennessee. Born to a wealthy family in 1928, Fitzhugh would come to repudiate the white supremacist world of her childhood. By 1950, she’d settled in Greenwich Village. As a young lesbian artist, her first response to just about any assertion of supremacy—white, male, heterosexual, abstract expressionist, or just garden-variety pomposity—was typically to oppose it."