August 31, 2012

Glamour in Glass

I previously raved about SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, Mary Robinette Kowal's novel that takes a Jane Austen-like story and injects a unique form of a magic into its world. The second book in the series, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, is just as wonderful, and it uses the same elements to tell a rather different sort of story.

SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY is mostly drawing rooms and courtship, though the story does involve a bit of action and danger. In GLAMOUR IN GLASS, the stakes get a lot higher, with characters risking their lives and some awful things happening. I think this is a good development for the series, because a second book with the same sort of premise would have been repetitive. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Kowal designed the second one to stand on its own, so you could start with this one if you'd prefer more action and intrigue.

This story takes the British characters from the first book over to France. Napoleon has just been forced to abdicate the throne, making it safe for them to travel to a small French town where they can study with a fellow glamourist. But when Napoleon escapes from exile, the situation becomes more and more dangerous, and they have to use all their skills in glamour to get back home.

If you've already read GLAMOUR IN GLASS and would like to know more about it, I recommend listening to the episode of Writing Excuses in which Kowal discusses the choices she made when writing the book. I know that she has at least two more books in the pipeline for this series, and I'm really looking forward to them.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Allison K. Gibson has an excellent analysis of a problem that contemporary writers must grapple with, The Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction: "It isn't hard to make a case against including technology in fiction. First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It's embarrassing, really. So I understand an author's impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak."

August 29, 2012

Cover Love

I love book covers. I'm fascinated by the concept of designing an image to represent hundreds of pages of fiction. I love the experience of being drawn to a book by a jacket that captures my attention, and I'm also interested by what covers turn me off.

Many of the links I select to feature in my Good Stuff Out There sections are about cover art, such as this investigation of how ebooks are affecting cover design and this review of ugly covers for great books. I tend to read everything on this topic that I come across. I was recently intrigued by the blog Talking Covers, which asks authors and artists to discuss the design process, and I appreciated this detailed analysis of young adult book covers that includes infographics.

The discussion at that last link points out that there are trends in cover art within genres. For example, many bloggers have noted the current proliferation of dead girls on YA book covers, and the latest fad in literary fiction seems to be cover art consisting mostly of handwriting. So I wasn't too surprised when I was in a bookstore with my mom this summer and saw a book with a dog's head peeking out from the bottom of the cover.

"That looks just like the cover of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN," I told my mom. "I guess that's the requirement now for books about dogs."

A few minutes later, another cover caught my eye. "That book has the same photo as a different book I read."

"Oh, another similar cover?" Mom said.

"No, I mean, it's the exact same photo. That's so weird." I filed this information away and wasn't sure what to do with it until I listened to a recent Books on the Nightstand episode about book covers. They discussed a blog, Caustic Cover Critic, that collects examples of cover art using the the same stock photos or images. Turns out this happens all the time, and there are often even more than two books based on the same source image. I submitted my own duplicate find to the collection.

While books with nearly identical covers are unfortunate, I do enjoy the serendipity when covers with similarities come into my life around the same time. Right now, I'm reading two amazing recent releases, SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer and THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker, and both books feature gorgeous blue, star-filled covers. If I want to extend my run of blue, star-filled covers, I can move on to another intriguing new novel, THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller. Maybe I'll read nothing but blue, starry books from now on.

My love of covers is probably my biggest hesitation about ebooks. I'm reading THE AGE OF MIRACLES on my Kindle, so I haven't been able to really enjoy its cover. The Kindle gives me just a grainy black-and-white cover image to look at, so it's only because of encountering the cover online that I knew of its starry blueness. I still get all the words, and that's the real point of a novel, but I do feel I'm missing out on something.

On that bookstore trip with my mom, I purchased A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers mainly because it has a textured, tactile cover that made me want to possess it in print form. You can see in this photo how the letters and patterns are carved into the thick cover. I don't know if the future of publishing will be more collectible editions like this one, or if it will bring the extinction of hardcover books.

At least I have no doubt that there will still be books in print whenever I manage to publish my own novel. One of my many recurring daydreams involves musing about what my cover will look like. I hope my book's cover looks okay in grainy black-and-white, and but mostly I'm looking forward to holding the real thing in my hand.

August 27, 2012


EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville is a fascinating work of science fiction with a lot going on. At times I felt like Miéville had perhaps thrown too many of his neat ideas into the mix, but overall the story works well and the concepts are thought-provoking.

Embassytown is where the story takes place. It's a small human enclave on a remote planet inhabited by aliens who speak in a language with characteristics unlike any other in the universe. The narrator of the story is a human woman from Embassytown named Avice. She's traveled all over the universe and encountered all sorts of aliens, but she's well aware that her hometown and its native population are unique in several ways.

I realize that description is all extremely vague. I'm reluctant to say more because I enjoyed how the circumstances of the story were revealed gradually, with details alluded to that aren't fully explained until later. This is something Miéville does well, and I don't want to spoil the wonderful reading experience for others.

I will say that the story revolves around language, so it will particularly appeal to anyone interested in that subject. Avice's time in Embassytown is long after its founding, but the story of first contact with the planet's inhabitants is included, and much of the plot concerns the evolving interspecies relationship and the problems of communication. It all leads to grave and engrossing conflicts.

Though I liked this book a lot, I didn't love it as much as one of Miéville's earlier novels, THE CITY AND THE CITY, which I read last year. That book blew my mind. I also think that one's more accessible, because while it does have one big not-of-our-world concept to wrap your brain around, the story is otherwise a standard police procedural. So, while I definitely recommend EMBASSYTOWN to interested readers, if it sounds too intimidating, check out THE CITY AND THE CITY instead.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A.J. Jacobs on writing blurbs for too many books: "I have blurbed memoirs, novels, comic books, children's books and a half-dozen book proposals. I accidentally used the exact same blurb on two different books." (Thanks, Bookrageous!)

August 24, 2012

It's Getting Better All The Time

The storyline that I'm currently revising (which, yes, is the third and final one, meaning that someday I'll actually be done with this revision pass) had some problems in the previous draft, obviously. I had planned out the changes I wanted to make, and I'm working on executing that plan.

What's amazed me since starting this storyline is just how many small and yet hugely significant improvements to the plan have surfaced in the process of writing. I've been injecting a lot of extra conflict into scenes, for example, and that seems to be working, because it's pretty much always more interesting when a story has more conflict, right?

The narrator of this storyline is the one I understood the least well, and readers of the previous draft had the most issues with him. I was intending to make him more likable, though I wasn't sure I could succeed. Instead, I think I'm making him less likable, but more interesting, and I hope that means readers will be eager to read about him even if they can't sympathize with the things he does. And I'm getting a much better handle on what makes him tick.

I could attribute this flood of brilliant ideas to various factors, but an important one is that I've now been writing for longer than I had when I started the previous storyline. Or the one before. The further I get through this revision, the more experienced I become as a writer. That's pretty cool.

That also creates a bit of an issue, which attentive readers may have already spotted. The chapters I revised at the beginning of this process are inevitably not going to be anywhere near as good as the last ones I work on. Yeah, I know. I've always known that problem would exist, and there's no real way around it.

I'll deal with that later. For now, I'm going to continue being pleased by how good this novel is getting.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Edan Lepucki offers advice on handling transitions in a story: "It's often these micro-level mechanics that slow a writer down, make her feel like she's oiling the rusty joints of robots rather than conjuring and exploring the lives of real people with meaningful problems."

August 22, 2012

Beat The Reaper

BEAT THE REAPER by Josh Bazell grabbed me from the opening sentence: "So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!" I love a strong narrative voice with a good sense of humor, and this book delivered that all the way through. I received the book as a gift from a friend (thanks, Alison!), and I'm hoping to pass the fantastic reading experience on to as many people as possible.

The narrator is Dr. Peter Brown, a first-year resident at a terrible hospital in New York City. It quickly becomes clear from the way he takes out his would-be mugger that Dr. Brown has skills not normally acquired in medical school. The story of his checkered and violent past is revealed in flashback chapters as he goes through his day at the hospital -- and today his past is finally catching up with him.

BEAT THE REAPER is an action-packed thriller that always kept me wondering what would happen next. It's full of weird medical details and intriguing (that is, horrific) information about the realities of health care. Dr. Brown has a talent for medicine, but his methods are often unusual, which is a real asset at a hospital with so few resources. The story has many disturbing parts, medical and otherwise, but the narrator delights in finding the absurdity of all of it, so the book is darkly hilarious even when he's talking about awful events.

Josh Bazell is a doctor himself, and he somehow found the time to write this novel during medical school and residency. As a result, the book is packed with insider knowledge. This is something I particularly love in books, when done well. I often despair over the fact that I have no extensive personal knowledge of anything that I could write a novel around. (The world has more than enough stories about writers writing.)

For example, here's one detail that really stuck with me because it sounds so authentic and also reveals a lot about the character. Dr. Brown is describing the process of scrubbing in to assist with a surgery: "Washing your hands, by the way,... is the best part of surgery.... You're supposed to do it for five minutes. You do it for three, which feels like a vacation." I love the way those simple sentences convey so much about the life of doctors in general and this one in particular. The whole book impressed me in that way, and it kept me turning pages and laughing out loud at the same time. That's a pretty admirable accomplishment for any author, let alone one in the process of completing a medical education.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lydia Sharp speaks out on the difficult topic of knowing when to let go of an unsuccessful manuscript: "Right now I'm working on my fifth completed novel, and I'd tried (and failed) to get the four others before it published.... The public admittance that I have that many unpublished novels is, in itself, a risky statement. Sure, other authors have publicly admitted that they wrote many, many manuscripts before getting one published. But have you ever noticed that they don't do so until they DO have a book deal?" (Thanks, Jennifer R. Hubbard!)

August 16, 2012

How About That Novel?

Well, now that I'm back from my travels and blogging again, I guess I should update you on my novel revision.

Yup. It's coming along.

Okay, next topic...

No, the truth is, revision is actually going pretty well this week. It was tough getting back into the writing groove after so much time away, and as always, I'm not making progress as quickly as I want. But this week I've written a bunch of strong scenes that went in unexpected directions, and I'd like to believe I wouldn't have hit upon those ideas without the time away from the story.

So the novel is good. I'm trying hard to embrace the idea that as long as I keep working, it doesn't matter when I finish. What's important to me is to produce the best manuscript I can, and that's what I'm writing toward.

And now, it's time to get back to work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times, Bruce Handy explains his Fabulous Boring Book Collection: "What I am after are books that are uniquely, exquisitely, profoundly boring -- books whose boringness intrigues, if that is not a contradiction in terms." (Thanks, Book Review Podcast!)

August 14, 2012

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

I heard about THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW by Shehan Karunatilaka when it was announced as a pick for the Bookrageous book club. I enjoyed the book and am glad it was selected, because I doubt that I would have considered reading it otherwise. Both the subject matter and the style are potentially off-putting, which makes this a tricky novel to describe and recommend.

THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW is ostensibly about the world of professional cricket. Specifically, the story concerns a retired Sri Lankan sportswriter searching for a cricket player -- possibly the best his country has ever produced -- who mysteriously vanished after a few incredible games. There's a ton of cricket talk in the book, including recaps of real matches and explanations of terminology. It's probably possible for a determined reader to learn quite a bit about cricket by paying close attention to the descriptions and hand-drawn diagrams, but the information didn't really stick in my mind, and I allowed myself to read on without understanding everything once I figured out that it didn't affect my comprehension of the plot.

You see, the book turns out to be at least as much about the narrator as about the cricket player he's trying to find. W.G. Karunasena was once an award-winning sportswriter, but alcoholism has destroyed his career, his health, and his relationship with his son. At the beginning of the book, his doctor says that if he keeps drinking, it's going to kill him. W.G. decides that with the time he has left, he wants to rescue cricketer Pradeep Mathew from obscurity, a goal that only his statistics-obsessed best friend can understand. In the rambling course of the search, W.G tells the reader about his own life and about Sri Lankan culture and politics, and he explores how all of these are tied up in cricket.

W.G. is a wonderful, complicated character. Sometimes it's fun and hilarious to spend time with him, and other times it's a painful experience. The book is full of other great, strange, and larger-than-life characters, including some real cricket personalities. I found W.G.'s story compelling, and I wanted to see him both turn his life around and succeed in his quest.

As a narrator, W.G. is disorganized, by his own admission. The story unfolds in many short sections, some that advance the plot (not always chronologically) and some with information about cricket. Overall, the book's style worked for me, but I imagine it would be irritating to some readers.

After reading, I enjoyed listening to the Bookrageous book club discussion, which includes spoilers.

Note that outside the United States, the book is published with the title CHINAMAN. As explained in the story, this is a cricket term referring to a bowling style, but the inappropriate ethnic designation is also part of the intended connotation. Racism plays a role in the book, and in Sri Lanka's history.

August 10, 2012

My New Reading Technologies

This summer, I've added two technological innovations to my reading life.

First, I received a hand-me-down Kindle. I've been reading ebooks on my phone for two years, and I was content enough with that system that I never bought myself a dedicated ereading device. But I sure wasn't going to say no to a free one!

I'm appreciating the Kindle's screen size, since a phone is a little smaller than I'd prefer for reading. The e-ink display is nice, but I don't find a backlit screen uncomfortable for my eyes, so that's not as significant a feature for me. Where the Kindle really outdoes the phone is in battery life, and that was especially important during my travels. If I know I'm going to be on the go all day and needing my phone for mapping and communication, I'm reluctant to use any of its battery on reading. With the Kindle, I can read for days without recharging.

I still don't see myself switching exclusively to ebooks anytime soon. I expect to continue in my habit of usually having (at least) one paper book and one ebook in progress. I'll probably get through ebooks faster now, though, if I'm not only reading on my phone during spare moments of waiting.

For my second reading life upgrade, I finally joined the book community site Goodreads after thinking about it for years (I really do everything at a glacial pace, huh?). I've been having fun organizing my virtual shelves and importing the reviews from this blog. I'll still post my book recommendations here, but look for me at Goodreads if you'd like to follow my reading progress in more excruciating detail.

I've added a Goodreads widget to the sidebar of my blog that displays the books I'm currently reading. I'm gradually adding more books to my Goodreads shelves. Eventually I'll have my whole to-read list in there, and we can see just how long it really is.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Patrick Somerville tells the strange and horrifying story of a bad review based on a serious misreading of his novel. His fictional character had to set the record straight.

August 7, 2012

Happy Release Day to Mark Hosack!

I met Mark Hosack at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2008. At the time, he was just another unpublished novelist (though he's also a screenwriter), but today Mark has a book out from Simon & Schuster.

IDENTITY is a thriller about the world of finance, dirty dealings, and mistaken identities. I've just started reading, and the story is pulling me right in.

The novel is being released initially as an ebook only, but it may have a print release if the ebook does well. It's available for only $1.99 for the next two weeks, so if you're interested, buy it now.

Congratulations to Mark on the big debut! I can't wait to keep reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Maria Konnikova writes in the Slate Book Review about the history of the search for The Great American Novel: "But though the GAN as such seems here to stay, the way we think about it has evolved significantly from its original conception to the present day. And that evolution is as inevitable as it is profound." (Thanks, The Millions!)

August 6, 2012

I'm Back!

Hello out there. Remember me?

If your memory stretches back far enough, you'll recall that in my last post, I announced my intention not to focus my attention on this blog over the summer.

"I still expect to post at random intervals," I wrote. "To be honest, you probably won't even notice a difference from my usual sporadic posting." Well, as it turned out, I haven't posted a thing in the last eight weeks. And many of you did notice and mention it to me, which I appreciate.

While I was away, I traveled to what felt like everywhere, even if it was really only a few U.S states. I had a whole lot of wonderful quality time with relatives from many branches of my big old family forest. I got to play for hours with my amazing little nephew and help put together his second birthday party.

I had adventures. I rode the Coast Starlight train down the California coast. I saw the northern lights from an airplane. I watched a lightning storm from a Manhattan high-rise. I learned to rewire a light switch, comprehend the Tour de France, and play the ukelele. I suffered through what seemed like more than my fair share of airline ticketing mishaps (though I didn't get stranded in an airport overnight again, happily).

While out of town, I didn't do any work on my novel, and I only managed a little writing in the gaps between the different trips. I definitely didn't spend any of my travel downtime on blog renovations and planning, the way I tried to convince myself I might. I did read a bunch of books, which I'll post about soon.

In short, I had a lovely summer vacation, and now it's lovely to be home. And I'm looking forward to getting back to blogging as a nice balance to the novel writing sessions I'm even more eager to resume.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sunny Chanel asked her six-year-old to guess what classic novels are about based on the covers: "It looks like a book for kids. I think it's about a donkey and a pig that do not like each other and they both live on a farm for animals. The same farm. It looks like it would be a funny book with a good really nice ending."

→ Gabe Habash at PWxyz does a roundup of Ugly Covers for Great Books: "I'm not sure Faulkner’s had a good cover printed since he was alive."