Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

June 30, 2020

Finding a Path

At the end of April, which was both an eternity and a moment ago, I posted about managing to write a little that month. I was going to report that I wrote nothing at all in May, but I've just opened up a document and discovered that in fact I wrote several disjointed and instantly forgettable pages.

June has been somewhat more promising for my fictional endeavors, despite more important things in the world not moving in a promising direction. Early in the month, I started a story from a glimmer of an idea, and I liked the character and premise that began developing. As I kept going, I continued to not hate the thing, a big achievement for me. I've now worked on this story every weekday for the past three weeks, often for only 20 minutes or so, but I've stayed motivated about maintaining my streak.

When I embarked on the story, I had nothing more than the strange little detail I opened with, and most days when I came back to it, I didn't have a plan for where it was going next. I've moved ahead a whim at a time, developing a certain amount of momentum and approximating a short story shape. It's getting to the point where a conclusion should be coming, and I still don't have much idea for a reasonable endpoint.

I caught up on my friend Christopher Gronlund's blog recently and was amused to see his last post was about writing a story without knowing where it was going. He makes a nice comparison to walking in the dark without a flashlight: "In many ways, when your eyes adjust, you can see even more in the dark. Maybe not as clearly, but I always feel more aware of my surroundings without a light source because I'm not looking directly ahead at something unnaturally so bright. Sometimes when I have no idea where to go next in a story, or even what to write at all, I feel like I'm on a night hike: it's awkward at first, but I adjust to the darkness in time and find my way."

I'm hopeful that as I keep inching forward on this story, I'll find a path to a satisfying destination. But even if I don't and the story doesn't turn out to be worth further attention, it's a relief that I've figured out how to get writing again, even in the midst of so much darkness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Joseph Scapellato talks about story shape: "Here is my own understanding of shape: it is a structural container for a narrative. The most important practical quality of a shape—its most useful feature for a writer—is that it suggests 'natural' beginnings, middles, and endings. Any one narrative is going to be made out of many shapes at once, shapes that overlap and intersect and interrupt one another."

June 5, 2020

May Reading Recap

I have not been doing enough on most fronts, other than reading:

FIEBRE TROPICAL by Juliana Delgado Lopera: Fifteen-year-old Francisca has just moved with her family from Bogotá to Miami, and she is not impressed. She's especially uninterested in having anything to do with the evangelical church her mother's life now revolves around, but participation is not optional. Francisca is forced into distributing church flyers with the annoyingly pious Carmen, but the more time the two girls spend together, the more Francisca feels her heart opening to Jesus, or perhaps more accurately to Carmen.

What makes this queer coming-of-age story so great is the narrative voice that thrums with personality and attitude. As Francisca pours out her teenage opinions and emotions, she slips between humor and torment, English and Spanish, but always maintains a vivid rhythm: "Outside, the sky in all its fury released buckets of water that swayed with the palm trees. El cielo gris, oscuro. Talk about goth."

There's not much plot to the novel, but I didn't mind because the voice and characters are so strong. In the middle of her own story, Francisca pauses to expand on the lives of her mother and grandmother by relating their teen exploits in Colombia of the 1970s and 1950s, and those chapters provide a good contrast to the main storyline. I'm so glad I attended an online event that introduced me to Delgado Lopera, and I look forward to more of their work.

GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH by Kelly Robson takes place in a far future, after humanity has been driven underground by climate disaster and then learned to rehabilitate the environment and build cities at the surface again. Minh has spent her career restoring rivers. Her ecological remediation firm once did well at securing contracts and funding, but banks have had little interest in investing since time travel became the hot new technology. When the firm's young admin, Kiki, suggests they bid on a project to travel back to ancient Mesopotamia and study the Tigris and Euphrates, Minh is intrigued. But winning the contract won't be easy, especially since it will involve close collaboration with Kiki, who is unwaveringly eager and just may be as stubborn as Minh.

There is a lot packed into this short book. The world is impressively complex, the characters are nuanced and wonderful, and there are many fun science and project management details to geek over. When I read novellas, I'm often disappointed that they end so quickly, but this story had enough character and plot development to satisfy me, and it reaches a strong conclusion despite not tying up every thread. I recommend this to science fiction readers, and I'll be excited to read more from Robson (including, apparently, an eventual sequel to this book).

ALL SYSTEMS RED by Martha Wells: Murderbot is a Security Unit working for a group of humans performing a planetary survey that's just become dangerous. Because Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, it operates with a lot more freedom and interest in watching TV than other killing machines, but that doesn't make it any less awkward around human clients. After Murderbot saves some lives in the course of just doing its job, it's surprised and initially displeased that this weird group of humans starts treating it like a person. As Murderbot tries to cope with this new dynamic, the survey team discovers the situation on the planet is far more dire than they all thought.

I have been hearing praise for a while about the Murderbot Diaries novella series, and with the first full-length novel just released, it seemed time to finally check it out. I was immediately delighted by Murderbot's narration, and I greatly enjoyed this exciting first installment. The story moves quickly through a brief but satisfying episode that sets Murderbot on the path for future adventures. I'll be happily reading on.

THE PARIS HOURS by Alex George: In 1927 Paris, four characters struggle with secrets and losses as their lives brush up against the city's famous artists. A puppeteer who survived the Armenian genocide can't escape his grief, but he's soothed by the music of Maurice Ravel playing in the apartment downstairs. A painter hopes the patronage of Gertrude Stein will save him from debt-collecting thugs and keep him near the woman he watches. A journalist interviews Americans like Josephine Baker and longs to travel to their country, but a search binds him to Paris. The housekeeper and friend of the late Marcel Proust mourns her employer and the betrayals between them. Over the course of a single day, their four stories and backstories unfold and entwine.

I enjoyed the range of historical events and figures this novel encompasses. George writes strong sentences and descriptions, and the story moves along at a quick pace as it rotates between characters. It's not a light read, however, as the characters are all coping with pain in their pasts and presents. Unfortunately, I often had trouble connecting with their emotional reactions, so I found some of the plot developments melodramatic. Other readers have been more drawn in by the story than I was, so consider this book if you're a fan of historical fiction or curious about the era.

BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE by Anne Lamott: This book about writing is famous for discussing the importance of "shitty first drafts," which must be produced before revising one's way to a better draft. I'd probably read that chapter before, and reading this book all the way through for the first time, I was expecting many more useful instructions. The concept of breaking work into "short assignments" was a good reminder to focus on the next sentence or paragraph or detail rather than the intimidating entire story ahead. And there were a few other insightful ideas and sections.

Overall, though, I didn't get a lot out of this book. A large portion of the advice is geared toward mining experiences from one's own life, and that's not what I'm looking for guidance on. Lamott rambles and tells anecdotes that often rubbed me the wrong way, and her sense of humor didn't click with me at all. I am clearly in the minority, as BIRD BY BIRD is beloved by many writers, so your mileage may vary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bethany C. Morrow writes at Tor.com about America's differing responses to fictional and real resistance: "It had been nine months since Catching Fire came out, but as the second film in a series, its popularity had persisted, as had its publicity. Surely, that same overflow of support and recognition was going to rise up, I thought. Surely people were going to raise their hands in solidarity, and disallow history to repeat itself. It wasn't going to be mostly Black Americans decrying this most recent slaying by a police officer."

→ NPR's Code Switch interviews Alex S. Vitale, the author of THE END OF POLICING, about how much we need police: "What I'm talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them. And my feeling is that this encompasses actually the vast majority of what police do. We have better alternatives for them. Even if you take something like burglary — a huge amount of burglary activity is driven by drug use. And we need to completely rethink our approach to drugs so that property crime isn't the primary way that people access drugs. We don't have any part of this country that has high-quality medical drug treatment on demand. But we have policing on demand everywhere. And it's not working."

May 28, 2020

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2020

This is not going to be the summer anyone planned, but at least there will still be new books. These are the upcoming releases I'm most looking forward to:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (June 2): Bennett's first novel, THE MOTHERS, demonstrated her skill at depicting characters and the way their relationships change over time. This new book promises to draw on those talents again to tell the story of identical twin sisters who grow up to assume different racial identities, a fascinating premise.

THE LIGHTNESS by Emily Temple (June 16): This is a debut from a writer whose work I've read for years on the site Literary Hub. The story involves a teen girl at a strange summer program, and the description intriguingly notes that it "juxtaposes fairy tales with quantum physics, cognitive science with religious fervor, and the passions and obsessions of youth with all of these."

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (June 30): I read Moreno-Garcia's novella PRIME MERIDIAN and have been intending to pick up more of her work, which spans a range of genres. MEXICAN GOTHIC is, naturally, a gothic horror story, and I'm prepared to be creeped out by a spooky mansion and dark family secrets.

THE RELENTLESS MOON by Mary Robinette Kowal (July 14) is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series, in which a climate disaster in the 1950s accelerates the quest to colonize space. I largely enjoyed the first two books, despite some flaws, and I'm looking forward to switching to a different character's point of view for this installment.

BIG FRIENDSHIP: HOW WE KEEP EACH OTHER CLOSE by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman (July 14): Sow and Friedman host the excellent podcast Call Your Girlfriend, covering a variety of topics from a feminist perspective and sharing honest talk about their long-distance friendship and business partnership. I gather the book will be partly a memoir of their friendship and partly a look at friendships in general, and I'm excited to read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ronnie Scott writes for The Guardian about publishing a book right now: "Like every Australian novelist putting a book out this month, I'm publishing it into a different world than the one I wrote it in. The Adversary is a novel of manners, meaning it's a book where people hang out and socialise and not a lot actually goes on. There are two best friends. They're both gay men. They have to change their friendship. Along the way, they share cigarettes and touch each other's hair. They step over strangers to find the right spot at a shockingly populous pool, where they sweat liberally, sweat stickily and share meaningful bites of their food."

May 6, 2020

April Reading Recap

The three novels I read last month were all different from each other, and pretty different from any other books I've read:

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL by Rahul Kanakia: Nandan's friends are constantly giving him advice about wooing girls, so he's glad to be the voice of authority for a change with his more hapless classmate Dave. After an evening of partying on the Santa Cruz beach and strategizing over girls, Nandan is surprised but drunkenly pleased when he and Dave hook up. Nandan isn't sure how to label his sexuality, because he certainly hasn't stopped thinking about getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, but at least he's having fun figuring it out, except when he really isn't.

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL deals with the anguish of teenage uncertainty about attraction, friendship, and how to fit into the world. While the story is structurally simple, with nothing in the way of subplots, the thoughts Nandan is grappling with are complex and nuanced. His narrative voice reads as realistically adolescent to me, without feeling as emotionally overblown as YA sometimes is to my jaded adult self. Kanakia is a strong and careful writer, and I look forward to more of her work, particularly the adult novel she's revising now.

NEW WAVES by Kevin Nguyen: Margo and Lucas become good friends at a New York City tech company, where they both deal with the grind of daily racism. She's a rare black woman engineer, either ignored and told to assert herself, or warned to be less aggressive. He's Asian and always assumed to be an engineer, then looked down on for actually working in customer service. The two of them commiserate in bars after work, share conversations that are alternately deep and ridiculous, and drunkenly steal proprietary data one night after Margo is fired. And then Margo dies in an accident, and Lucas is left with the password to her laptop and the growing recognition that he didn't know his best friend very well at all.

This is an emotionally engaging novel about grief in the digital age and the difficulties of human connection. It's not, as the jacket copy suggests, a heist or a mystery, beyond the mystery of people trying to understand one another. The early part of the book led me to expect a more strongly plotted story, so I was disappointed that certain threads didn't wind up somewhere more significant, but I appreciated the cerebral and somewhat messy novel this turned out to be. Nguyen is very perceptive about how both people and technology work, and this story contains great depictions of tech culture, office life, and complicated friendship.

THE NIX by Nathan Hill: Samuel is a disillusioned English professor, a failed novelist, and a secret videogamer. His mother ran off when he was young, and her whereabouts have remained unknown, so he's stunned when Faye shows up in the news after attacking a conservative governor. Even stranger are the reports of her history as a political protestor, a part of her life Samuel knows nothing about. The story unfolds in multiple timelines to reveal the past events that brought Samuel and Faye to this point, and a variety of side characters also get their turns in the spotlight.

This novel was a lot of fun to read, with amusing lines, absurd incidents, and a fairly light tone despite upsetting material that includes compulsive behavior, betrayal, and police brutality. Samuel and Faye are sympathetically flawed, complex characters, and the people around them are an interesting mix of realistic, cartoonish, or both. Hill does a great job weaving together the collection of unusual plots so that the insights combine in a satisfying way. The story covers many fascinating topics and settings: the protest movements of several eras, massively multiplayer online games, Norwegian folk tales, and much more. The book is long and could have been shortened throughout with less description, but it rarely drags. Recommended if you want to spend some time in an intricate, odd, and often funny story world.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laurie Penny at Wired breaks down why This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For: "I was expecting Half-Life. I was expecting World War Z. I've been dressing like I'm in The Matrix since 2003. I was not expecting to be facing this sort of thing in snuggly socks and a dressing gown, thousands of miles from home, trying not to panic and craving a proper cup of tea. This apocalypse is less Danny Boyle and more Douglas Adams."

April 30, 2020

Sheltering in This Place

In the middle of April, I turned 45, which was of course one of the least noteworthy aspects of the month. My birthday celebrations were not so different from usual: I did some baking, I enjoyed delicious food and drink with the loved ones I live with, and I connected by videocall and phone with far-away family. In a non-pandemic version of my birthday, we might have driven to Santa Cruz to watch the ocean while eating ice cream, then had dinner at a favorite restaurant. But sitting on our own patio and drinking margaritas from our own blender was also a thoroughly delightful way to celebrate.

I live in Santa Clara County in California, where some of the earliest US coronavirus cases were detected, and where public health officials were quickest to act. My household has been incredibly fortunate, remaining healthy and financially secure. We have a comfortable house in a suburban neighborhood that provides plenty of space for safe outdoor exercise. Everyone else has tech jobs easily done at home, and I've always done my writing at home.

I haven't been writing much. I appreciate and agree with all the thoughtful stuff I've read about how this is not the time to expect creativity from ourselves, when our brains are mainly focused on fear and survival. Still, I'm lucky to be in a good place from a practical and usually psychological perspective. My mind is enjoying the distraction of books, and the podcasts I listen to while exercising and doing chores. I would love to be in the midst of a writing project that I could get further absorbed in.

If I had already been mid-project, I think I'd be working on it, not as well or as often as in the non-pandemic version of life, but I'd be getting somewhere. In this reality, though, not only are we living through a pandemic, but it struck right while I was trying to figure out what to write next. I can't say how my figuring out might have gone in the other timeline, but in this one, I'm still without a clear idea that I can sit down and add words to on a regular basis.

I did have about three days where I thought I had something semi-promising that might eventually turn into a novel. But writing out the few scenes in my head didn't create sufficient spark to give me any more to write beyond that. I may eventually work out how to continue this idea further, but at the moment, it feels like a dud.

However, I suppose what I should really say is that I wrote a little this month. It's not quite what I was hoping for, but nothing is right now, and any step in the right direction is worth celebrating. I'll probably write some next month, too, and that will be cool.

So that's where I'm at. I hope this finds you in a place of health, safety, and at least occasional delights.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emily Temple shares some early thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on future novels: "And just like 9/11 reverberated throughout American culture, changing the tenor even of media that did not directly address it, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to infect even those novels that skirt it with a mood—'post-pandemic fiction,' characterized by a distrust of capitalism and authority, and an acceptance of corruption, instability, and danger as a shimmering, distorted baseline."

→ Meanwhile, at The Millions, Edan Lepucki peers into the future and returns with summaries and covers of the bestselling coronavirus novels: "This is a sweeping and searing tapestry of a portrait of an infinity pool of a novel about humanity's vulnerability, penned by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers, where even the virus's spiky genome is given its own consciousness and rendered in luminous yet mischievous prose."

April 3, 2020

March Reading Recap

Since the month of March was several years long, and reading was about all I could focus on, I have a lot of books to recommend this time:

88 NAMES by Matt Ruff: John Chu works as an online sherpa, guiding gaming newbies through virtual reality adventure games. After a series of jobs gone wrong that might be the fault of a disgruntled ex-employee/girlfriend, John is approached by an anonymous wealthy client offering an outrageous sum, and making a set of outrageous demands. This is immediately followed by an even larger offer from another mysterious figure who wants John to take the first job but report everything that happens. When it starts to look like the first client might be someone high up in the North Korean government, things get even weirder.

Ruff has long been one of my favorite authors for the originality of his stories, the amount of thought he clearly puts into his worlds, and the moments of humor threaded through everything he writes. All these traits are visible in this novel, which dissects topics like racist RPG tropes and online gender dynamics while sending the characters on a fun and often funny adventure with unexpected twists. I enjoyed all the ideas the story explores, and the fast-paced plot kept me engrossed during a very distracting time.

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel opens with Vincent falling from a ship into the ocean and having a vision of her half-brother Paul, who she hasn't seen in a decade. The story then goes back even farther to the time when a younger Paul, fresh out of rehab, tries and fails to get his life back together. After his actions lead to the death of a man he barely knows, Paul flees Toronto to track down Vincent in Vancouver, accompanied by a ghost of the dead man. Later both siblings find work at the remote, luxurious Hotel Caiette, where their lives intersect with other characters and veer wildly apart.

This novel jumps around between time periods and vaguely connected characters in a similar way to Mandel's previous book, the post-pandemic STATION ELEVEN (and the two share a couple surprising points of connection). It's much harder to summarize this story, which has Vincent and Paul and the hotel at the core but spends long stretches away from these and eventually involves the 2008 financial crisis, shady investment funds, the shipping industry, and more ghosts lurking around. If there's a unifying theme, it's probably the way chance and coincidence bring people together and shape lives. I was drawn into the story immediately and remained hooked as it went off in different directions and introduced more excellent characters. This is a strange but strangely compelling novel that taught me some things about the subjects it contains and some things about writing.

SABRINA & CORINA by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: The short stories in this collection are all connected by the setting of Denver, Colorado, and characters who share a Latino and Indigenous heritage, and in some cases come from the same large family. There are other recurring elements: pairs of characters who end up on different life paths, pairs who form new bonds, and many sad outcomes. The writing is strong, and Fajardo-Anstine is great at depicting small but important character moments. All writers have repeated moves that become evident when stories are collected, and while I wasn't a fan of some here (too many dreams for my taste), I liked the common structure of a background thread that affects and comments on the main plot.

The first story, "Sugar Babies", blends several threads to good effect. As an archaeological dig takes place at the edge of her town, a thirteen-year-old is assigned the school project of caring for a sack of sugar like an infant at the same time her mother comes back into her life. "Galapago" follows an elderly woman dealing with life changes and has a hell of an opening sentence: "The day before Pearla Ortiz killed a man, she had lunch at home with her granddaughter Alana." In "All Her Names", while the main character wrestles with complicated emotions surrounding her husband and an old love, an episode involving graffiti art sends the story in an unusual direction. Fajardo-Anstine has indicated that she's working on a novel, and I look forward to reading it.

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple: After her mother vanishes two days before Christmas, eighth-grader Bee sets out to piece together email messages, private school memos, and other documents to understand what led up to Bernadette's disappearance. Bee has a wonderful relationship with her mother, who everyone else in their suburban Seattle (which is to say, Microsoft) community views as eccentric, aloof, or downright mean. Bernadette is all these things at times, especially when confronted by the other parents from Bee's school. She's also deeply fearful of the world, outsourcing all possible tasks to a virtual assistant in India and worrying about the overwhelming challenge of the family's upcoming Antarctica cruise. Most of all, Bernadette is unable to move beyond the failures in her past that caused her to flee to Seattle, a city she's come to loathe.

I enjoyed this unusual story about an unusual family. The writing is funny at times, in a savage way, but more often the tone swings from disturbing to absurd. While the level of detail in the emails, letters, and so on requires a suspension of disbelief, the epistolary format works well to present how a variety of characters view Bernadette in very different ways. She's not an easy person for anyone, but she also hasn't had an easy life, and I was fascinated by the story's reveals. I'm glad I finally got around to reading this.

→ In MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE: DESIGN AND PATTERN IN NARRATIVE, Jane Alison considers the ways stories can be shaped. While fiction is commonly mapped onto an arc, Alison describes other possibilities, such as oscillating wavelets, inward or outward spirals, and segmented cells. To demonstrate each pattern, she presents short excerpts from a few novels or short stories along with a careful analysis of how the shape plays out through the work.

I really like the concept of this book, and it's well executed, with clear explanations and illuminating examples. Still, I wished for more: more analysis of each shape, more examples, and especially more concrete ideas about how to bring these patterns into one's own writing. But this last wish is not necessarily Alison's goal or responsibility, and I did get certain sparks of inspiration from reading, even though the book wasn't all I hoped.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price teases apart the happiness inherent in writing, or having written: "Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in."

March 12, 2020

FOGcon 2020 Report

FOGcon 10 was last weekend, and it already seems like months ago in another era. During those last days before it became fully clear that large gatherings should be avoided, around 150 speculative literature fans came together to geek about books, other media, and the connections between imaginative stories and the real world.

There was much talk of COVID-19. (I sang "Come On Eileen" at karaoke in tribute.) We elbow-bumped and flashed the Vulcan salute instead of hugging hello. We washed our hands a lot. (The hotel staff reported they'd never had to replenish the soap and paper towels so frequently.) Despite the undercurrent of uncertainty, we had a great con.

A number of people had to make the decision not to attend due to health or travel situations, and that included one of our Honored Guests, Nisi Shawl. Happily, we were able to arrange some teleconferencing at short notice so Nisi could participate in their programming remotely. It was delightful to have them onscreen sharing their thoughts about writing and inspiration during an excellent roundtable with authors from the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop of Oakland.

Our other Honored Guest, Mary Anne Mohanraj, was present to participate in a number of panels, including one I moderated. I was very pleased by our lively discussion of societal defaults, cultural assumptions, and how genre fiction can challenge these. Mary Anne was also part of a fun panel about Food in Genre Fiction, and the topic of food made its way onto other panels, because food is great (and also Mary Anne has a new cookbook out). During her presentation on running genre nonprofits, I took copious notes on ideas that might help FOGcon grow into the future.

I attended a couple of standout panels about horror, a genre that tends to get less attention at the con than science fiction and fantasy, and one I'm gradually consuming more often. At the first of these panels, I enjoyed seeing film stills that illustrate the ways color is used in horror movies. At the other, I loved hearing the panelists analyze how horror books and films have commented on class.

As the real world takes on the qualities of various speculative genres and we hunker down at home, I'm glad I have another year of FOGcon memories to look back on and the usual long list of story recommendations to keep me distracted. I hope you all stay safe and well entertained!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Lit offers a list of books about pandemics "for people who find it oddly soothing to read about plagues." I'm in that camp, and I can heartily recommend about half these books.

March 4, 2020

February Reading Recap

With FOGcon nearly here, it's appropriate that the novels I'm recommending all take different approaches to speculative fiction:

EVERFAIR by Nisi Shawl: At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of black American Christian missionaries and white British Fabian socialists get together to purchase part of the Congo from the cruel King Leopold II of Belgium. The settlers name their new nation Everfair and attempt to provide a safe haven where the local population can escape Leopold's atrocities. As Everfair grows, the many differing goals of its founders come into conflict. The hereditary king of the territory once claimed by Belgium and now by Everfair also has plans and opinions about the new colonizers.

EVERFAIR is an impressive novel that covers thirty eventful years of alternate history, told through the well-differentiated perspectives of a dozen characters, in less than 400 pages. My summary didn't even mention the story's steampunk technology, including the fleet of aircanoes (similar to blimps) the characters use to wage war and travel in peacetime. A lot happens in this story, and it happens fast. Within the space constraints, Shawl draws the characters and their motivations very well, but I wished for more time to get to know them all. Despite that, I found much to admire and think about in this smart, exciting take on colonialism and utopianism.

MAZES OF POWER by Juliette Wade: In the underground cities of Varin, life operates according to a strict caste system and rigid cultural norms. Tagaret is from a powerful family in the noble class, and his cruel father would like to see him in line for the Eminence's throne. But Tagaret has no interest in politics, unlike his younger brother, who schemes constantly and imagines threats everywhere. When their city is thrown into turmoil by disease and a battle over succession, both brothers end up with crucial roles to play. So does their mother's new servant, who wants nothing more than to serve his lady faithfully, even when he discovers this entails more secrecy and danger than anticipated.

The world of this story is intricately, impressively developed. Wade does a good job conveying information within scenes, but there's a lot to absorb at the beginning, and it took me a little while to become fully invested in the world and characters. After a couple of chapters with each of the viewpoints, the story and its many conflicts pulled me in, and I developed a fondness for the three young men at the center, even the one who's a pretty horrible person. I did find it hard at times to understand characters' strong emotional reactions, and I wished for more to be revealed about the underground setting and its technology. But this is a promising first book in a series, and I look forward to more.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata: In 1916, Adana Moreau escapes the Dominican Republic during the American occupation and guerrilla insurgency. She makes her way to New Orleans with the help of a kind pirate who becomes her husband. When their curious son Maxwell learns to read, so does Adana, and she develops a great love for books, especially science fiction and horror. She writes a novel of her own, a post-apocalyptic adventure story with parallel universes. It's published to some success, but while Adana is writing the sequel, she grows fatally ill and burns the manuscript she won't live to finish. In 2004, Saul Drower's grandfather dies, leaving behind his science fiction collection, cassette tapes of oral history interviews, and a mysterious package addressed to a Maxwell Moreau.

This wonderful novel is full of book love. While it's not a work of science fiction, its characters view the world with sci-fi sensibilities: "The sea was deep blue and alien and as vast as the sky. She imagined that in the distant future the end of the world would have its origins there and for some unknown reason this put her at ease." "His grief was already traveling backward in time from Chicago to Tel Aviv. He was already meeting himself coming the other way, like a shitty space-time opera..."

The book revolves around the literary mystery that connects the two sets of characters, all of whom I felt such tenderness for. Even more that that, it revolves around stories and journeys and the rambling path both often take. Tangents and recollections break into the narrative frequently, and I found these digressions all just as gripping as the plot I was eagerly following. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, unusual tale, and I hope more people will find their way to it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Rachel Vorona Cote writes about Ramona Quimby and other beloved characters from my childhood: "In 1955, Ramona Quimby, a near American cousin of Pippi Longstocking, tumbled into the picture, all scraped knees and exuberant doodles. She and her creator, author Beverly Cleary, united with Pippi and Lindgren in literary confederation, bright beacons for little girls who have been variously told they are too much: too loud or pesky or hyperactive."

February 27, 2020

Ready for FOGcon and Beyond

It's one week until FOGcon, and I've been busy preparing for the tenth year of this awesome speculative fiction convention. This year, for the first time, I took on responsibility for the program book that contains information about the honored guests, the programming schedule, and so on. The book is professionally printed, with gorgeous cover art, so it serves as a nice souvenir of the con as well as being useful.

As program book coordinator, I collected all the different pieces that go into the book, edited everything, and did the layout. I had very little knowledge of layout or design going into this, so that part was a challenging but fun learning experience. I think it all turned out pretty well. You can see the PDF version on the FOGcon site.

Creating the program book was a big job for a couple of weeks, and the timing was good for me to handle it because I'm between things. Behind me is the completed novel revision, and I'm currently at a waiting stage with that manuscript. So now that I've taken time to recharge, caught up on other stuff, and finished this volunteer project, I'm ready to move ahead to... something.

If I'm honest, the program book timing also worked out well in that it provided a virtuous excuse to put off figuring out what comes next. I wish I had a solid novel idea that I could get started on drafting or outlining, but everything swirling around in my head is half-formed. I hope that if I settle my mind down to focusing on the possibilities, things will gel. But that requires convincing myself to get started, and I keep finding more reasons to delay. It's time to get back to writing. Definitely after FOGcon, anyway.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund considers inspiration: "There's a fine line between seeking out inspiration and working. When it's time to put in the effort, do the work -- don't look for inspiration because you'll likely find what little time you may have taken up by the literary equivalent of hollow calories."

February 5, 2020

January Reading Recap

I started off the year as I mean to go on -- with a lot of reading!

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid: Emira is out on a Saturday night when the family she babysits for calls and begs her to take their toddler away from the house while they deal with an emergency. As Emira skillfully entertains Briar in a fancy grocery store, another customer grows suspicious about the black woman with the little white girl. There's an incident with a security guard that Emira just wants to forget, but Briar's mother, Alix, considers it a sign that she needs to start taking a more active interest in her babysitter. While Alix enacts an agenda to improve Emira's life, Emira's actual life proceeds in directions that would surprise her. One development in particular threatens to make all the characters examine their own motives and assumptions -- or not, as the case may be.

This novel is a delight in so many ways. The dialogue is some of the best I've ever read, with each character speaking in exactly the way that sounds natural and alive for them, even the toddler. The well-crafted plot is tight and tense, with great use of dramatic irony to set up a situation that the reader, but none of the characters, knows is poised to explode. Through alternating points of view that are compassionate to both characters, Reid shows how Emira and Alix's experiences and priorities differ. SUCH A FUN AGE offers a nuanced commentary on class, race, and privilege, an insightful look at caregiving, and a page-turner of a story.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu: Willis Wu is Generic Asian Man, or sometimes Delivery Guy or Dead Asian Guy. His lifelong dream has been to attain the role of Kung Fu Guy, the highest rank available to an Asian actor. Willis, his aging parents, and all their Chinatown neighbors work at the Golden Palace restaurant, which serves as an interior on the cop show Black and White. In the world of this story, there is no reality beyond the show, or at least Willis can't conceive of any bigger dream than playing a stereotyped other in the dichotomy of Black and White.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN (or, INTERIOR: CHINATOWN) is another great, weird work of metaphorical metafiction from Yu. Since Willis exists inside a TV world, the novel is laid out in the font and format of a screenplay, with longer prose sections mixed in among the centered dialogue. Rather than becoming a tedious gimmick, the format grows even more clever as the story proceeds and Willis strains against the limitations of his life. This novel is funny and heart-wrenching by turns, and it's packed with sharp observations on race in America. I recommend it, and I guarantee you've never read anything quite like it.

HERE AND NOW AND THEN by Mike Chen: Eighteen years ago, Kin was on a Temporal Corruption Bureau mission when he became stranded in 1996. Unable to return to 2142 or even hold on to the memories of his life there, Kin built a new life. It's been a happy one, with a wife and now teenage daughter who know nothing about his past in the future. Then another TCB agent finally appears to whisk Kin back to 2142, just weeks after his departure. He's supposed to slide seamlessly into the life he can't quite remember, but he isn't about to forget the family he left behind.

It's a cool premise, and the plot is clever and fast-paced. At points, I did wonder, "Since they have time travel, couldn't they just...?", but I was willing to overlook those holes to enjoy the inventive story. Other flaws bothered me more, such as a flatness to the characters that meant the novel didn't deliver as much emotional impact as it was going for. In general, I wished for a richer, more nuanced version of this story, but this was a fun read with some touching moments. Chen just released a second novel, A BEGINNING AT THE END, and since it's set in a post-pandemic San Francisco, I may be picking it up.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt opens with our narrator, Richard, and his friends murdering one of their college classmates. Richard then goes back to the beginning to explain what took him from an unhappy upbringing in California to a small college in Vermont, where he enrolls in an immersive study of Greek and other classical topics. His classmates in this insulated course of study, the eventual murder co-conspirators and victim, are a tight group of friends who are reluctant to welcome an outsider. But as the months go on, Richard gains acceptance and finds happiness with his new friends, until he discovers the conflicts and secrets splintering the group.

I read THE SECRET HISTORY because for years I've encountered people talking about their love for this novel in ways and contexts that suggested I would also enjoy it. Sorry, friends, but not only did I not enjoy it, I'm baffled as to why this lengthy book is so popular. Sure, the writing is strong enough at the sentence and paragraph level, and the characters are entertaining, but it takes such a long time for anything to happen, and then most of it doesn't amount to anything.

The story slows down right after the intriguing prologue that establishes the murder, but eventually conflict starts to brew again, though unfortunately Richard learns about the most exciting events secondhand. For a while, I kept believing there was a solid plot at the core, despite the filler that constantly works against it. An example of this dilution is that Richard speaks of how he and the other students admire their charismatic professor, but the teacher is absent for such long stretches of the text that it's hard to accept his impact on most of what occurs. At the halfway point, the story arrives back at the murder, and I looked forward to exploring the uncharted territory ahead. Alas, the various tantalizing plot possibilities went nowhere. After another fairly pointless section, the final set of conflicts and turns lead to an underwhelming conclusion, and Richard's story fizzles out in an unsatisfying epilogue. For another perspective on how the novel unfolds, consult almost anyone else who's read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Electric Lit, Michael Zapata recounts the stories of books that were almost lost to history: "At some point, while both finishing the resulting novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and searching for my great-grandfather's poems, which my grandfather incredibly discovered on his 100th birthday, I began to wonder about the innumerable books condemned to the abyss by personal and historical ruptures of space and time, and all those books nearly lost to history which, through impossible odds, still reach us like shadows from other worlds."