March 16, 2018

FOGcon 2018 Report

I attended FOGcon last weekend, the eighth year of this speculative fiction convention and my eighth time participating. I had a great time, as I do every year. It's always a delightful mix of familiar and new experiences and people.

This year (like last year), both honored guests contributed to many of the high points of my weekend. In preparation for the con, I started reading the work of Ada Palmer -- I've raved about TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and am still in the midst of the second half of that story, SEVEN SURRENDERS. It was great to hear Palmer speak several times about her series and her areas of expertise. She gave a captivating presentation on the history of books and book censorship that demonstrated she's as skilled a storyteller in person as on the page. I also attended a fascinating panel Palmer wasn't involved in that focused on the gender aspects of her novels, and I really appreciated hearing critiques from a range of perspectives.

I didn't make enough time to read Andrea Hairston before the con, but now I can check out her work (maybe REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE) with her lively voice in mind. In addition to writing novels, Hairston is involved in theater as a playwright, director, and actor, and her performance skills were evident whenever I saw her this weekend. I was glad I didn't miss her dramatic reading of passages from her work, accompanied by music from Pan Morigan. Another attendee shared a brief video clip with the accurate word "mesmerizing".

I found the programming this year to be particularly strong, so I was happy to spend most of the weekend in conference rooms listening to people talk. Writing Sexual Assault was a thoughtful discussion of when and how sexual violence can be effective in fiction rather than a tired trope. The panelists for Acting Normal shared their experiences with disability and neurodiversity, whether they do or can try to act "normal", and the idea that normality is a myth. I was impressed in both panels by how well these difficult subjects were covered.

The panel on architecture in fiction was a lot of fun, with great examples of city and building design in Palmer's series and others. Playing And Writing The Alien, about how aliens are used in stories and how that relates to otherness, was another entertaining discussion that included Hairston's tales of imagining the body language for alien creatures in her plays.

I was excited to participate in a roundtable discussion called Whither Programming? that brainstormed possible ways to evolve the events at this con in the future. I'm looking forward to whatever the next FOGcon will bring!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Monica Byrne's talk for the Texas A&M Science Fiction Lecture Series, Instructions for the Age of Emergency, examines the future Byrne imagines for her next novel and how it stems from the present: "In 3012, there are no borders. There are no nations. There are no families, aside from the human family. We call every other person 'carnala,' a Mexican Spanish term meaning 'a blood relation.' The average life expectancy is 130 years. The world population is steady at one billion. We roam the earth as permanent nomads, and, by common agreement, only own as much as we can carry--this is why the system is called Laviaja, a feminized form of 'El Viaje,' Spanish for 'the journey.' Those of us who cannot move or walk are accommodated so radically by mutual aid, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality that the very concept of disability no longer exists. In fact, many of us choose to have what we think of as disabilities, and call them 'gifts,' because they are ways of creating community." (Thanks, Jennifer!)

March 7, 2018

February Reading Recap

I found time for a bunch of reading in February, including some preparation for FOGcon this coming weekend:

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING by Ada Palmer, one of this year's FOGcon Honored Guests: Before the narrative even begins, this book presents a baffling list of endorsements, such as "certified nonproselytory by the Four-Hive Commission on Religion in Literature". Then the narrator's introduction explains that eighteenth century literary styles will be used to recount these important historical events from the year 2454 ("You must forgive me my 'thee's and 'thou's and 'he's and 'she's") because the philosophies of the Enlightenment influenced the transformation that rocked the twenty-fifth century. Only then are we plunged into the action, where someone referred to as a Cousin and a sensayer, who's very much at home in this world the reader doesn't yet have the slightest handle on, shows up in a flying car at something called a bash'house and witnesses a scene they don't understand any better than we do.

I love a book that throws readers into the deep end, as long as there's a skilled writer keeping us afloat with well-placed bubbles of information and the promise of a solidly built floor underneath. Palmer succeeds admirably at this feat, which I found more and more impressive as the full complexity of the story and world became apparent. If there were half as many things going on in this book, it would still be great, and my mind is boggling over how many pieces Palmer imagined, developed, and wove together so effectively.

This novel contains multitudes, both in its large cast of memorable characters and in the many subjects it covers. The 2454 setting introduces us to new approaches to religion, family, citizenship, and gender, many of which are discussed in relation to Enlightenment-era philosophy. The narrative plays around with language and reliability. The intricate, suspenseful plot involves political intrigue, secrets, and murder. From start to finish, TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING delivers surprise after surprise, some delightful, some horrific.

Only one surprise was somewhat frustrating: This volume doesn't conclude the story, which continues into SEVEN SURRENDERS. I'll be happy to read on immediately, but I wasn't planning for it when I started this book. And that's just as well, because if I'd known it didn't stand alone, I might have skipped it, and then I would have missed out on one of my new favorite books!

TURF by Elizabeth Crane: I picked up this collection after reading an excerpt of the longest story, "Today in Post-Apocalyptic Problems", and needing to know what happened next. The rest of the story delivered just what I was hoping for, an exploration of family dynamics in a world that's fallen apart. I happily read the whole, delightfully odd collection.

Many of the stories feature some form of off-kilter reality. Some are wildly surreal, like "Star Babies", in which celebrities or babies of celebrities (the story isn't hung up on the exact details) somehow take over and become the entire population of the United States. Others are closer to the familiar: "Here Everything's Better" blends the mundane experiences of grocery shopping and vague discontent with the weirdness of discovering someone living in a store's bulk foods aisle.

Crane uses lists frequently within stories, or builds stories entirely around them. "Some Concerns" is a litany of fears that starts with "I am afraid that this shirt does not go with this sweater" and escalates from there. "Everywhere, Now" opens with a series of snapshots of what people around the world are doing, but then the narration loses the thread in a meditative and amusing way. Meta techniques like a narrator struggling to control the story also appear several times in the collection, most emotionally in the attempt to resolve parent issues in "Notes for a Dad Story". (Where possible, I've linked to online versions of stories, which sometimes differ from the versions appearing in the book.)

As with most collections, I connected more with some pieces than others, but the ones I liked best, I liked quite a lot. I recommend TURF to other readers drawn to stories that play around with styles and formats.

February 16, 2018

2017 By The Books

It's pretty far into 2018 to post about my favorite reads from 2017, but I didn't want to skip an opportunity to rave once more about the books I loved last year.

In reviewing my previous reading year recaps, I see it's tradition to begin by declaring how many books I read. In 2017, I read 31 books, a bit of a decrease from recent years. The decline can mostly be attributed to all things house-related consuming much of my reading and writing time, so my usual three books a month became two for a while. As I've said before, though I do sometimes get focused on the number of books as a statistic, it's less that I care about the number and more that I always wish I'd read more of the great books I heard about during the course of the year.

But happily, I did fit in quite a few great books. It turns out that the set of books I want to rave about includes at least a third of what I read in 2017, so I'm overall very pleased with my selections. I'm also enjoying the amount of variety in my top picks, with most of the books different in genre or style from anything else I read last year, or in some cases ever. The only commonality on this list is that almost all of these were new releases in 2017 (as was the bulk of my reading).

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid (recommended in my March recap) is one of the stories that isn't easily categorized, and also one of the year's biggest standouts for me. A young couple falls in love in a city on the brink of war, while around the world, mysterious doors begin appearing that transport people from one part of the globe to another. Hamid gorgeously balances the big and small stories, depicting both how the flow of instant migrants changes the world's cities, and how migration changes one couple's relationship.

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle (July) is a work of horror (a genre I don't often read), but it masquerades as a realistic family story (one of my preferred genres) until a third of the way through. Then the lives of two new parents and their baby take a very dark turn. I was impressed by how many unexpected directions the story went in, while continuing to portray the characters and their relationships with believable care and detail.

STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany (June) is the only book I read last year that wasn't published within the past decade. It's from 1984, but the progressive ideas and prescient technology make it age very well. The story involves two characters from very different planets who come together in unusual circumstances, and I won't say more, because I adored Delany's gradual presentation of the story and the intricately imagined worlds.

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin (August) and its two sequels form a gripping trilogy that also awed me with intricate worldbuilding. Earthquakes are a constant threat in the Broken Earth series, and people with the ability to quell the shakes are a necessary part of society, but feared and despised. Jemisin explores how these power dynamics play out as she puts her wonderful characters through harrowing and often heartbreaking experiences.

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay (January), a short story collection, is another work that depicts painful experiences with great thought. Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of her characters' difficult lives. Her powerfully honest memoir, HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY (June) also makes my list of best books of the year.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon (October/November) continues my unintentional theme of beautiful but dark books. On a generation ship with no clear destination, the population is sharply stratified by class and race, and those from the lower decks are subject to lives of slavery and abuse. The engrossing story follows a skilled lowdeck scientist who finds hope for herself and the entire ship in the engineering notes left by her mother.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September) provided a delicious slice of lighthearted fun, for a change. It's the entertaining, geeky tale of a robotics engineer who discovers a passion for baking and finds her way into the Bay Area food world. Sloan's writing is funny, clever, and deftly combines the familiar with the slightly improbable.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (October/November) tells an exciting, twisty story of family politics and interplanetary conflicts. The less-favored child of a powerful leader embarks on a wild scheme to change her fortunes, and it immmediately goes wrong, leaving her to return to her home planet with an even more far-fetched plan. The plot speeds along through tense exploits, long-held resentments, and cultural conflict, and Leckie portrays all of these with nuance and charm.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders (March) is stylistically unlike anything else I've read, and part of what I enjoyed so much about this novel was figuring out how it operated. The unusual narrative centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, a real event that happened near the beginning of the Civil War. With characteristic compassion and humor, Saunders presents a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters, mostly ghosts, to tell an emotionally effective story of grief, death, and life.

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal (May) is an excellent novel about people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. In Cleveland, two people who immigrated from India long ago have little else in common -- one appears to live the model immigrant life, the other is isolated by shameful secrets. When they befriend each other, their worlds shift and open up in messy and unexpected ways.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September) also explores what happens when carefully ordered lives spin out of control (and happens to also be set in the Cleveland area). A perfect family in the perfect planned community of Shaker Heights takes the generous step of welcoming in some newcomers, and the connection has a different and far-reaching impact on each member of the two families. Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other, and she packs tension, mystery, and emotion into every page.

I loved reflecting on these books again and remembering what a great reading year I had in 2017. My 2018 reads are already nicely continuing the trend. Happy reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Zachary Littrell of Book Riot does the math on cases when book critics and bookworms disagree: "For instance, while Goodreads users rated 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History at a healthy 4.03 stars, the majority of critics panned it. The average reader seemed to enjoy the sweeping tale of President Roosevelt learning about the truth about the Holocaust. Critics, meanwhile, were left unimpressed by the information, and annoyed by the size."

February 8, 2018

December/January Reading Recap

In becoming reacquainted with my regular life, I finally got to the point of catching up on a backlog of book reviews. Here's what I read during the past two hectic months of moving and settling in:

→ Early in SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, Ijeoma Oluo addresses the fact that you may not, in fact, want to talk about race: "...we have to talk about race. Race is everywhere and racial tension and animosity and pain is in almost everything we see and touch. Ignoring it does not make it go away. There is no shoving the four hundred years' racial oppression and violence toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube." Oluo is this clear and direct throughout the book about why there need to be more conversations about race and racism, particularly between (white) people who are often able to opt out of the discussion. This book is a great guide to understanding, recognizing, talking about, and acting on racial discrimination in all aspects of society.

Each chapter covers a different topic, such as intersectionality, affirmative action, and cultural appropriation, and starts with a personal story about a time or way the topic connected to Oluo's life. While many examples explore how a racist system impacted her as a black women, she's also upfront about situations where her own privilege or biases caused her to mistreat others. Everyone has more to learn when it comes to racism, and the rest of each chapter provides detailed information about the topic and suggestions on how to discuss and counteract it.

Part of this material was review for me, but that's only because of reading so much online writing by Oluo and other activists in recent years. I knew little about these topics and understood even less before I started putting effort into become more educated. The thorough, approachable SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE offers a lot of important knowledge all in one place. I read the book quickly, but I'm going to be absorbing it for a while.

THE STONE SKY by N.K. Jemisin is a strong conclusion to the intense, imaginative trilogy that opens with THE FIFTH SEASON. Essun has learned what she needs to do to save humanity from the extinction of an endless Season, but first she has to save the community and friends she's unexpectedly grown to care about. Along with the story of saving the world, this final installment presents the story of how things first went wrong thousands of years earlier.

As with the rest of the trilogy, this book is a harrowing, fascinating read. Many terrible things happen to the characters, all of whom I've become fond of, and there are numerous surprises and intriguing pieces of the puzzle filled in. I was glad to learn more about the stone eaters, who seemed somewhat disconnected from the rest of the worldbuilding in the earlier books. While I didn't get every answer I was hoping for, I found the ending emotionally satisfying.

The Broken Earth series is an impressive, compelling work. I'm not usually drawn to epic fantasies, so some elements of the story were less to my taste, but my overall feelings are positive. I definitely recommend this trilogy.

January 12, 2018

Happy New Everything

Happy new year, if it's not too far into January to express that, and welcome back to my blog posts. Please bear with me as I remember how to assemble words into paragraphs.

My life at the moment is all about navigating new things and restarting old habits so long neglected that they've acquired both the allure and awkwardness of new ones. At the end of 2017, we finally moved into our new house, and that's been wonderful and exhausting. A couple of hectic weeks were nothing but unpacking and dealing with challenges. Now we're settled enough that living here is beginning to feel natural.

It's a process, though. I'm more or less accustomed to assembling breakfast in the new kitchen, but our mugs are still in a temporary location. I've resumed my daily walks in our new neighborhood, but I haven't yet established a regular route. My new office is about three-quarters of the way toward being set up. Most of our books remain in boxes, awaiting new shelves. But every day, more things get put away somewhere and more house decisions are resolved, and it continues to be a thrill that we're in our new home at last.

Dealing with house tasks required most of my time in December, so I took a break from all my normal routines. It's no secret that I can be a little too eager to seize on excuses not to write, but I even went a week without reading somewhere in there, which is practically unprecedented. I dove back into reading as soon as I could, and I'll be catching up on various book-related posts soon.

I've been slower about the return to writing. Now that I've eased myself in with this post, it's really time to face the novel again. My hope is that the hiatus means I can approach the story with fresh eyes, new ideas, and renewed energy. Let me just unpack a couple more boxes first.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Daniela Blei considers the invention of index cards and how they cataloged the world: "Linnaeus may have drawn inspiration from playing cards. Until the mid-19th century, the backs of playing cards were left blank by manufacturers, offering 'a practical writing surface,' where scholars scribbled notes... In 1791, France's revolutionary government issued the world's first national cataloging code, calling for playing cards to be used for bibliographical records." (Thanks, Louise!)