January 29, 2016

Making Use of Space

Creatively, I'm between things at the moment, mulling over ideas and contemplating what comes next. Since I don't have an all-engrossing project, I decided this would be a good opportunity to address the clutter that has been gradually taking over my writing space.

I'm fortunate to have a room of my own to work in, with a writing desk facing the window, a comfortable reading chair, and bookshelves. The room is large enough that there's also space for various household storage, but this area has gotten out of control, and we can't easily get to the stuff we need to access. Combined with my towering piles of paper and stacks of unshelved books, lately the empty floor space is mainly paths between the door and the two chairs.

So I've been sorting paperwork into folders, getting rid of unnecessary crap, and clearing off surfaces. Once everything is better arranged, I'll have more room to write and more room to store the things we actually need. While I spend this time organizing my space, I'm pondering how I might give some order to the story ideas bouncing around my head. Both are big tasks, and I'm trying not to rush either process.

I'm looking forward to having a writing space that isn't full of distracting clutter. And then I'm looking forward to being fully distracted by another writing project.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andy Browers of Book Riot charts his childhood Growing Up Alongside FoxTrot: "Maybe the pencil marks on your own literary doorway were measured against the March girls when you were yourself just a little woman or man. I'm sure there are lots of people whose annual cruise through the Harry Potter books have brought them through the ages and stages of development of every last Weasley. I was a literary late bloomer, and my reading habits were simple. I had the Foxes."

January 22, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2016

I keep browsing articles about intriguing books slated for publication in 2016 and making new additions to my to-read list, but these five novels are ones I've been eagerly anticipating for quite a while. They'll all be released in the upcoming months, and I expect to gobble them up as soon as they're out.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders (January 26): I've long been a fan of Anders's pop culture criticism and writing advice at io9, where she's editor-in-chief. Her Hugo-winning novelette "Six Months, Three Days" is a clever, emotional, and geeky love story featuring two people with the ability to see into the future. So of course I've been looking forward to the novel, which promises magic, apocalypse, geekery, and romance. It's great to see the book has been gathering glowing reviews. The opening chapters are available from Tor.

THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee (February 2): Chee was a guest at Book Riot Live in the fall, so I read his first novel, EDINBURGH, and was impressed by his gorgeous handling of difficult subject matter. His long-awaited second novel is a work of historical fiction about an opera singer, and the plot sounds twisty and fascinating. This book has also been gathering a lot of buzz.

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by Matt Ruff (February 16): I've written before about my longstanding Ruff fandom, and I've been getting excited about this novel for years. Each of Ruff's books are wildly different and wildly imaginative. This one mixes the real life horror of Jim Crow America with the supernatural horror of monsters and demons. It promises to be an incredible ride. The faux-aged pulp cover is also stunning.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson (March 22): In 2010, I read Simonson's debut, MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND, a charming romance about two wonderful widowed characters in a small English village where everyone makes their disapproval known. Incidentally, that was also my first ebook purchase and got me firmly on the ereading bandwagon. Since then, from time to time I've checked on Simonson to see if she had anything new, so I was pleased when news of a forthcoming second novel appeared. This story takes place in another small English town in 1914 and features a Latin teacher, so I'm on board again.

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (March 22): This debut has been getting a lot of attention, but I'm going to have to stake my claim for knowing about it first, because Sweeney was in my workshop group at Squaw Valley back in 2013. But in all seriousness, the excerpt of this novel she shared for critique was fantastic and made me eager to read more, so I'm thrilled the book is being published to such acclaim. The story involves a dysfunctional family, one of my favorite subjects, and LitHub has an excerpt.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathryn Schulz offers a year-end list for the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog of the best facts she learned from books in 2015: "Having read my share of Victorian novels, I was familiar with the phenomenon of London fog, but I was surprised to learn, from Lauren Redniss's "Thunder & Lightning," that the combination of atmospheric conditions, factory emissions, and coal fires sometimes made the city's air so impenetrable that visibility was reduced to just a few feet even indoors."

January 14, 2016

The Invention of Snow

In this installment of my childhood writing, we'll look at my eighth grade response to an assignment that I and many schoolkids experienced multiple times: the composition of an original myth.

I was well prepared for the task, since I'd produced a detailed report on Greek mythology a few years earlier. But in case I needed help getting into the right creative mindset, the worksheet for the assignment provided a whole backstory: "You are in an ancient Greek village. Several natural phenomena have occurred. These have frightened the villagers who want answers that will help them to understand the natural world around them and relieve their fears. You are the local oracle and storyteller. The villagers have come to you for answers."

This assignment was given in March, while I was presumably hoping to soon see the end of another long New England winter, so I expect the choice of natural phenomenon was simple, though my explanation is rather more convoluted.

The Invention of Snow

Long ago, before snow had been invented, winter's precipitation was simply frozen rain. Getting caught out in a storm was painful, and this falling ice did damage to buildings and trees. The gods, up on Mount Olympus, knew nothing of this, for it was never cold, and it never rained on their mountain.

One winter day, Athena was visiting the earth, disguised as an old woman. A kind farming couple, Phaelus and his wife, Pollus, fed her a humble but hearty supper. As they were eating the meal, Athena heard a crashing on the roof.

"What is that?" she exclaimed.

"What is what?" asked Pollus, puzzled.

"That noise outside," said Athena.

Phaelus gave his wife a strange look.

"It's only the rain, old mother," he comforted. "It's frozen, of course."

Athena quickly realized how conspicuous she was making herself.

"I am from a warm climate," she lied. "Our rain never freezes."

The farmers seemed satisfied with this answer, and they finished eating peacefully.

After supper, Athena thanked her hosts. She secretly blessed their fields with ever-prosperous crops, and then she was on her way.

When Athena stepped outside, she was pelted with drops of ice. Everywhere she looked, there were broken tree branches.

"Something must be done about this," she thought, hurrying back to Mt. Olympus.

When she reached the gods' palace, she went to see Zeus immediately. She told him about the frozen rain.

"We must invent something more practical and safe," she proposed.

"I agree completely," said Zeus. "I had no idea of the damage that the falling ice was causing. We should call Hephaestus to help us invent an alternative."

Zeus sent Hermes to fetch Hephaestus from his forge. Hephaestus arrived shortly. He brought Aphrodite along. Athena and Zeus explained the problem.

"The new rain should be beautiful," said Aphrodite. "Because the world looks so ugly and dead in the winter."

"And it must be lighter, so that it won't do so much damage," said Athena.

After a little more conferring, Hephaestus went back to his workshop. A few hours later, he returned.

"What do you think of this?" he asked, holding up a large piece of crystal, shaped like the snowflakes we have today.

"Oh, it's beautiful!" exclaimed Aphrodite.

Zeus and Athena admired Hephaestus' work. Suddenly Athena smacked her hand against her forehead.

"Oh, no," she exclaimed. "How could we have forgotten? The rain has to be able to melt!"

The others exchanged embarrassed glances, and Zeus hemmed and hawed.

"The shape is so beautiful," Aphrodite said after a minute.

"Athena, you should weave a star-shape like that out of frost," said Zeus.

Everyone agreed that that was a wonderful idea, so Athena went off to weave the star-shape.

She soon returned, holding the flake gently so it wouldn't melt. It was as big as a hand, and very complex.

The others decided that it was just right.

"But you will have to make so many," said Aphrodite. "Won't it be difficult?"

"We shall appoint someone to make them," decreed Zeus. "And these frost-stars will have to be less complicated."

"Make them small, so they don't have to be so intricate," suggested Hephaestus.

And so it was decided. Athena's daughter Desnowus, who was almost as talented at weaving as her mother, was made the goddess of these flakes. We get the name "snow" from the middle of "Desnowus".

As soon as it becomes cold enough for frost, Desnowus begins weaving snowflakes almost all day long. When she has enough, she glides across the sky, sprinkling them over the earth. That is how snow came to be.

January 8, 2016

2015 By The Books

As a final sendoff to 2015, I'm taking a look back at my year in reading and presenting some statistics and favorites. I wrote a post of this kind last year (though somewhat to my surprise, never before that), and it's interesting to see what did and didn't change in my reading life.

In 2015, I read 36 books, which is a huge decrease from 2014's tally of 66, but I'm okay with those numbers. 2014 was an outlier because I did very little writing, so I filled far more of my days with reading. I was happy to make writing my primary focus again in 2015, and producing a full revision and a new first draft left me just enough time to match my 2013 book count. I hope to continue reading 3 or maybe 4 books a month, but I'm not likely to get through more than that unless I enter another non-writing period, since I apparently read much slower than most bookish people. This is only a problem because there are just so many books I want to read!

I enjoy the challenge of writing a summary and review for every book, and I expect I'll stick with the monthly reading recap format that I returned to in 2015. I also post all my reviews to Goodreads, along with occasional status updates on books in progress, so you can follow me there.

Similar to the year before, my 2015 reading leaned heavily toward new and recent releases. I read 17 books published during the year, and I often managed to start new books during their first month or two, which made me feel trendy. Most of the rest of my reading was catching up on books from the past few years, so I only read 8 books published prior to 2010. The earliest of those is from 1960.

Unlike the previous two years, every book I read in 2015 is by a different author. The small qualifier is that I read Claudia Rankine's poetry book, CITIZEN (review), and also a book of essays she co-edited, THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: WRITERS ON RACE IN THE LIFE OF THE MIND (April reviews). As it happens, those are 2 of the only 4 books I read in 2015 that aren't novels. The other exceptions are the graphic memoir FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel (September) and the short story collection NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (March). All the departures from my novel reading tendencies are great, recommended books.

2015 saw the final installments of two series I adore. Both concluded with excellent books that are among my top picks of the year. ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie (October) ends the Imperial Radch trilogy, an epic yet intimate tale of an artificial intelligence who travels the galaxy seeking revenge on the dictator who destroyed her ship as she comes to terms with her new identity. OF NOBLE FAMILY by Mary Robinette Kowal (May) is the fifth chapter of the Glamourist Histories, the story of a Regency-era couple who are renowned experts at performing the magic of their world and get mixed up in a lot of adventures as a result. While these two series are quite different, both insightfully examine issues of gender, race, and class in the course of their stories, which is only one of the reasons I think they're both wonderful. Now that the series are done, you can safely get started reading (though both authors have indicated they may write new, different stories within these worlds).

My other 2015 favorites:

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng (June) takes a heartbreaking look at the secrets and misunderstandings that divide a family after the beloved middle child dies suddenly.

THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR by Sandra Newman (March) is my post-apocalyptic pick for the year. It's a captivating adventure set in a world without adults and narrated in an invented future dialect.

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson (June) presents a fascinatingly non-chronological narrative charting the life of a RAF bomber pilot and his family. The novel is a companion to Atkinson's 2013 LIFE AFTER LIFE, my favorite book of that year.

SAFEKEEPING by Jessamyn Hope (September) follows several troubled characters as their intriguing quests collide at a kibbutz on the verge of financial ruin.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert (July) is the unexpectedly gripping, historically and scientifically detailed account of a woman botanist in the 1800s.

MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS by Jennine CapĆ³ Crucet (September) tells the emotionally compelling story of a first-generation college student who finds herself out of her depth at school and no longer able to connect to her family back home.

Along with reading books in 2015, I had the good fortune to attend three big events celebrating books. I wrote all about the great times I had at FOGcon, the Bay Area Book Festival, and Book Riot Live. I already have plans to be at FOGcon again this March, and I'm hoping to also make it to the others in 2016!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dustin Illingworth at Literary Hub considers the origins of book titles: "a by no means complete listing of Bible-looted titles would have to include: East of Eden, The Violent Bear It Away, Song of Solomon, The Golden Bowl, The Wild Palms, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, All Rivers Run to the Sea, and literally hundreds of others. This practice brings to light a truth regarding many of our finest authors; namely, that they are often textual archaeologists (and literary cutpurses) of the highest caliber, secreting away turns of phrase and pocketing gorgeous fragments for future works of their own."

January 5, 2016

December Reading Recap

I'm back from a relaxing break that included a trip to the coast. As anticipated, I did little besides read, knit, and eat yummy food for a couple of weeks. Now I'm getting back into the swing of writing, starting with a final batch of 2015 book reviews:

PYM by Mat Johnson: Chris is a black literature professor who doesn't want to be shoehorned into only teaching Black Literature. For this sin, he's denied tenure and has to leave the historically white institution where he's been teaching, but a hefty settlement provides him the money and time to pursue a literary obsession. Chris is fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In this perplexing and racist story, presented as a true account shared with Poe, Pym travels to the Antarctic region, stops at an isolated island of black inhabitants, and upon reaching the Antarctic mainland, encounters an enormous white creature in the snow. When Chris finds evidence that suggests Arthur Pym and his journey might have really taken place, he joins an expedition to Antarctica. What he uncovers there is just as bizarre as Pym's adventures.

Johnson's novel is funny, clever, and wonderfully strange. I love the premise of tracking down the truth behind a 200-year-old tall tale, and this story executes the premise in fascinating and unexpected ways. The book is a madcap series of adventures with a cast of unusual characters. It's also an exploration of black-white relations and the very blurred lines between these groups. There are many more amazing things happening in PYM, but I don't want to spoil any surprises. If the description I've given interests you at all, you should read this book!

Previous knowledge of the Poe novel isn't expected, and all the relevant details are entertainingly explained by Professor Chris, along with his speculations on what it all means. The full text of Poe's story is readily available online, though, and I did enjoy comparing certain sections as I read PYM to find echoes.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff was one of the big literary titles of 2015, making many year-end lists, including President Obama's. I'm glad I read this engrossing, unusual story of a marriage that's told in expertly chosen moments and details. And I'm glad, but amazed, that a novel of that description found such wide appeal.

The story opens the day Lotto and Mathilde marry, a mere two weeks after meeting. He loves her deeply and obsessively, and he feels his whole young life has led to their union. The early years of marriage are full of love but disappointment, as Lotto fails to make it as an actor and the couple struggles to make ends meet in their tiny basement apartment. When Lotto discovers his talent as a playwright, Mathilde helps guide him into a successful career. While there are still creative struggles to contend with at times, Lotto is at home basking in the fame he always imagined for himself, with his loving wife at his side. Then we get to see the marriage from Mathilde's point of view.

The he-said-she-said structure is a big part of the marketing and discussion around the book, and that plus its popularity led me to expect a story like GONE GIRL, with shocking reversals and thriller plotting. FATES AND FURIES is about a marriage with secrets, yes, and its second half is full of startling revelations, for sure, but there's nothing so conventional as a mystery driving this story. I was struck repeatedly by how unexpected it all was, and not just because I didn't anticipate the twists and turns. The varied narrative style was a surprise, the plot developments were out of the ordinary, and I didn't even guess at the types of twists the novel had in store. All these elements are well executed, with beautiful writing throughout. I recommend this book, particularly to those interested in relationship dynamics or depictions of the creative process.

→ I was looking forward to PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler, who will be celebrated as the Honored Ghost at FOGcon this March. Many of my friends adore this novel, but alas, I wasn't a fan. I often found myself bored, and I wasn't interested in the aspects of the story that received the most focus.