September 10, 2018

July/August Reading Recap

I got a lot of good reading done this summer. Here's a recap of what I read in July and August:

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: Deming is eleven when his mother disappears. Polly has worked hard to build a life for the two of them in New York City since since immigrating from China, and she's always dreaming of more, so it's possible she's left him to take a job she talked about in Florida. Months pass in the crowded apartment where Deming lives with Polly's boyfriend's family, but his mother doesn't return, and nobody will tell him anything. Then one day Deming is taken upstate by a white couple who say they're his new parents. He's given an American name and grows up in a town where he's the only Asian kid, never quite sure where he belongs. Years later, he receives some information about what happened to his mother, and Polly's complicated story is revealed.

This novel is riveting from start to finish. It's not just the mystery of Polly's disappearance that kept me reading, but the carefully detailed portrayals that made these characters into real people I wanted to learn everything about. There's nothing easy or cliche in the unfolding plot. Deming and Polly go through a lot, sometimes because of events outside their control and sometimes as a result of their own choices. Ko brings every scene and setting to life with unexpected, often funny observations and incredible writing. This is an impressive debut, and I'll be eager to read more from her.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker: At the turn of the twentieth century, the Golem is brought to life on a steamship traveling from Prussia to America, but her master soon dies, leaving her without the purpose she was created for. In New York City's Little Syria, the Jinni is released from a flask after a thousand years of confinement and is horrified to discover he's now trapped in human form. Both the Golem and the Jinni are newcomers not only to bustling New York but to the odd world of humanity. They're each fortunate to find sympathetic humans willing to help conceal their supernatural identities, and they've started becoming part of the community in their own enclaves of the city by the time they meet each other.

I love this premise, and Wecker develops it marvelously. The Golem and the Jinni are wonderful, complicated protagonists faced with sympathetically human problems as well as unique issues arising from their situations and powers. Wecker uses her storytelling talents to also spin out fascinating backstories and conflicts for a surprising number of other characters, which adds more layers to the historical and cultural settings and enriches the plot. As the pieces of the story converge, the danger and suspense grows, and the way everything connects at the end is exciting and satisfying. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters in the sequel, expected next year.

STAY WITH ME by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: After years of marriage, Yejide has not become pregnant. Interfering family members decide the only solution is for her husband, Akin, to take a second wife, though the two of them agreed at the start of their relationship that they weren't interested in polygamy. Yejide turns to solutions of her own, seeking out a mystic who promises to work miracles. To her delight, she becomes pregnant immediately, but Akin isn't pleased to hear the news, and nobody else reacts as she expects, either. The road to a happy outcome is long and confusing, and there's far more sadness in store for Yejide and Akin as the years pass.

I found this novel very compelling, but it wasn't anything like I expected, which only made it more interesting. Though the introduction of a second wife sets the events in motion, a fairly small portion of the plot involves the two women dealing with each other. This is mainly Yejide and Akin's story, and it careens through surprising plot developments and shocking reveals. It's a horrifically sad story much of the time, though there is joy and humor mixed in with the tragedy. I felt great sympathy for these characters, who are also wonderfully frustrating people. I'm looking forward to more from Adébáyọ̀.

August 31, 2018

The Steady Plod

It's been ages since I posted a revision update (or since I posted much of anything beyond book reviews). The thing about getting a novel into really good shape is that it takes a long time, and the thing about long-term projects is that there's a lot of same old, same old. I can report I'm in a good stretch of sitting down to write and making progress every day, but there will be far more of that before I reach the finish line.

Writing, like most work, is a daily plod that involves doing more or less the same thing over and over again. Those are the ideal conditions, really. Aside from when I occasionally reach a noteworthy milestone, the writing days that look different are the ones where I struggle to eke out more than a paragraph or rage against the corner I've written myself into. I'm good with the more common state of plodding unremarkably forward.

Plodding along means I pass minor milestones all the time, and I pat myself on the back whenever I nail down a scene, get through a chapter, or just craft a particularly nice phrase. Sometimes I even feel like crowing publicly. The other day I tweeted my triumph over coming up with a little moment to insert that really tied a scene together. I no longer recall what detail I was talking about, but the satisfied feeling remains.

So, while it doesn't look like much from the outside, I'm still revising, I'm still happy with what I'm producing, and I'm still here, keeping my pace to a steady plod.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes at The Millions about the evolution of her author name: "Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn't think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel--many years later--was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I'd started publishing, I'd had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received."

July 11, 2018

June Reading Recap

Another month, another batch of books to report on!

→ The first chapter of THERE THERE by Tommy Orange introduces us to Tony, who's grown up riding his bike around Oakland, listening to his grandmother's stories of their Cheyenne history, and getting angry about people thinking he's stupid. Tony is recruited into a scheme to rob the Oakland powwow with 3-D printed guns, and that threat hangs over the rest of the novel as we meet other characters on a trajectory toward the powwow. Dene, a filmmaker, is applying for a grant to document the Urban Indian experience, with plans to set up a story booth at the big event. Opal, who was part of the Native occupation of Alcatraz as a child, is now raising the grandsons of her estranged sister and doesn't have time to talk to them about their heritage. The oldest grandson, Orvil, is secretly practicing to dance at the powwow and compete for the prize money that Tony and his associates plan to steal.

These are only a few of the dozen viewpoint characters whose lives entwine in THERE THERE, and Orange gives each of these lives a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages. I would happily have read many more chapters about every character, but Orange keeps the story tight, setting up all the players and pieces and building suspense about the approaching powwow. The final section of the novel is a breakneck, heartbreaking account of the inevitable violence that explodes at the point where the characters converge. While I wished for a conclusion that tied up more threads or followed them further, the book's ending was as emotionally effective as all that came before.

WHERE YOU'LL FIND ME: RISK, DECISIONS, AND THE LAST CLIMB OF KATE MATROSOVA by Ty Gagne is the gripping account of a solo mountaineering expedition that went fatally wrong. In February 2015, experienced climber Kate Matrosova activated her emergency beacon in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She'd started hiking before dawn, planning to summit several peaks before the end of the day, but she was unaware that a forecasted storm was hitting sooner than expected. The storm brought extreme wind and cold, notable even for the region, creating many obstacles for the search and rescue teams who responded to Matrosova's distress call and ultimately recovered her body.

Gagne, a risk management consultant and wilderness first responder, pieces together all available information to detail the whereabouts and actions of Matrosova and the rescuers throughout the ordeal. He tells the story in compelling prose that makes this a page-turning and even suspenseful read despite the known outcome. I found the discussion of decision-making and risk-assessment techniques a bit drier than the rest of the material, but it was interesting to have the events filtered through that very relevant perspective. This is a fascinating book, researched and written with care and compassion.

GIRLCHILD by Tupelo Hassman is a darker story than the jacket copy suggests. Rory lives in a trailer park outside Reno with her mother and grandmother, and while these two strong, protective women are distracted by their own problems, Rory is traumatized by ongoing sexual abuse. She's so terrified to speak of it that her narrative initially talks around the subject, and the book even includes some blacked-out pages before Rory's mother and grandmother finally realize what's happening. In time, with their help and some inspiration from the Girl Scout Handbook, Rory is able to move forward and imagine growing up and away from the hard life of the trailer park.

This novel is made up of short vignettes and documentation from Rory's life that jump around in topic and time. The fragmented format works pretty well to depict Rory's painful memories, but some of the more unusual pieces didn't do as much for me as her straightforward narration. Rory's voice and idiosyncratic observations are great, with a darkly humorous outlook that pulls her and the story out of the most difficult periods and makes this ultimately a hopeful book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund explains the problem with "Show, don't tell": "I'll gladly scrap 'Show, don't tell,' for another rule: Put the reader there. Whether you show or tell them something, the goal should be to make the reader feel what you're writing. Make them cry, laugh, or think."

June 8, 2018

May Reading Recap

I had a wonderful reading month in May, with these three excellent books:

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz: Jack is a pirate, using her bioengineering expertise to copy patented pharmaceuticals and roaming the Arctic Sea in her stealth submarine. She sells recreational drugs at a lower cost than the corporations to fund the distribution of life-saving medications. When one of her drugs starts producing lethal side effects, Jack fears she's made an error in the reverse engineering, but the problem is in the original, and the company behind it will do anything to cover this up. One of the agents chasing after Jack is Paladin, a military robot on his first assignment. Paladin is programmed with a desire to learn everything he can about the mission and to protect his human partner at all costs. The more he discovers about himself and humans, the more he becomes conscious of interests and desires that go beyond the scope of fulfilling his duties.

I had a great time following these main characters, as well as the secondary ones who gain prominence as the story progresses. I especially enjoyed being inside Paladin's head and experiencing how he processes the world and interacts with humans and other bots. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the future Newitz has created, both promising technological developments and alarming societal constructs. We meet humans and bots who are indentured to masters, working toward the hope of legal autonomy, and Newitz explores ideas of ownership and freedom as the plot and characters develop. This is a thrilling story, packed with danger, science, passion, and complicated relationships. I've been eagerly recommending it to everyone I talk to.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam: Rebecca gives birth to her first child and is helped through the difficult early days by Priscilla, a lactation consultant at the hospital. Rebecca feels a friendship growing and then hires Priscilla as a nanny, changing the dynamic of their developing relationship. Rebecca is white and Priscilla is black, and their differences in race, class, and life experience, along with Rebecca's many assumptions, further complicate the situation. After a tragedy strikes, the lives of Rebecca's and Priscilla's families become entwined permanently, though often uneasily. Rebecca has worried about falling short at parenting, and she finds herself in a position to prove to herself and the world that she's truly a good mother.

This novel gripped me from the start with its intimate narrative voice. Throughout, I appreciated how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of each interaction between his well-drawn characters. He pokes at all the uncomfortable spots in Rebecca's unexamined privilege, and while she does learn and grow with time, there's no easy transformation. The book covers so much ground that's fascinating to explore, from broad issues like transracial adoption to more specific ones like feeling strongly connected to someone while also not knowing much about them. Alam is a great writer and portrayer of characters, and this novel offers plenty to think about and discuss.

HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL by Alexander Chee is not a literal how-to guide, but in this collection of essays, Chee explores the how of his own evolution toward maturity, as a writer and as a person. He approaches every subject with impressive honesty and careful consideration, whether he's recounting his activism in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, describing the rose garden he cultivated in Brooklyn, or grappling with memories of sexual abuse. Chee is not only a compelling storyteller but a crafter of sharp and vivid sentences, a talent he reveals took him years to hone.

Writing is the main focus of several essays. In "The Writing Life", Chee reflects on the class he took with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan, and the essay encapsulates her lessons on writing. "The Autobiography of My Novel" details the long process of finding the structure and focus of his debut novel, EDINBURGH. More than one piece looks at the financial realities of writing, and Chee explains the periods when he had and didn't have money with the frankness he exhibits throughout the collection. I recommend this book to writers especially, but also to anyone who's been moved by a powerful personal essay.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles advice from 31 authors on whether you should write what you know: "[Ursula K. Le Guin]: I think it's a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it's my duty to testify about them."

May 31, 2018

New Bookcases

When we moved into our new house in December, we unpacked most boxes during the first few weeks, but one set lingered in the hallway, all labeled "Books". After considering numerous shelving options and then ignoring the problem for a while, we finally decided which bookcases to buy and where to put them. I spent part of the last week unboxing and arranging books, and I'm happy to have my collection available again (and those boxes gone).

The last time I did a major book reorganization was in 2010. I posted then about putting my collection in order and donating around 150 books. A couple of times since, when the shelves grew too crowded, I pulled out a bagful of books to donate to the library, but otherwise the book situation was pretty stable until the move.

I do the majority of my reading electronically these days, though I still read some print. I find both formats to have certain advantages over the other. (I have absolutely pressed my finger to a word on a printed page, expecting the definition to pop up.) My book buying is also more Kindle than print, so what's on my physical shelves only reflects a portion of what I've enjoyed since I started ereading (also in 2010). But the contents of my collection have never been a pristine snapshot of anything but what I happen to own, since I've always borrowed books from friends or the library, passed along books for the next reader to appreciate, and purchased books I never got around to reading.

I periodically tell myself I'm going to make a concerted effort to read some of the many books I own but haven't read. Now that my books are out of the boxes, on display right outside my office door, I will at the very least intend to make progress in that area. We'll see what happens.

Now how about a look at the new shelves?

The Ikea Hemnes bookcase is a step up from the unmatched, sagging particle board shelves we had before. They were pretty easy to assemble, and we got quite good at it by the third one. The three together fit beautifully into the empty space at the end of a hall, between two doorways.

May 9, 2018

March/April Reading Recap

Once again, my reading of books has gotten ahead of my writing about books. I finally stopped to catch up on the past two months of recommendations:

SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer is the second half of the story begun in TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING, a book that astounded me with its ambition and ingenious execution. I'm happy to report the second volume delighted me as much as the first, so I'm issuing an enthusiastic recommendation to anyone who loves intricate worldbuilding, complicated plots with many characters, and stories that explore big ideas. You'll need to read both books to reach a satisfying conclusion, and that ending still leaves the characters on the precipice of more story, which will continue into two further books, one published, one not expected until 2019.

Plotwise, these books are about politics more than anything else, and in SEVEN SURRENDERS, the world of 2454 is rocked by major revelations about world leaders that the reader gradually learned of in TLTL. Throughout this installment, Palmer introduces and peels back more layers of the fascinating characters we're following. We get new tantalizing details of twenty-fifth century life, as well as additional information about what happened between our age and Palmer's future. I was captivated by all of it.

Gender plays a significant and complex role in the worldbuilding and narration of this series. In hearing people discuss the books at this year's FOGcon, I discovered how polarizing the response has been to what Palmer is attempting. While I'm enjoying how the story wrestles with gender, I appreciate why not all readers have that reaction. Palmer wrote a series of posts for Queership that are worth reading if you're interested in the author's intent, whether you've tried the books or want more context before you do.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee: Miranda has always felt protective of her younger sister Lucia, and when Lucia gets married soon after their mother dies, it takes time for Miranda to decide whether she approves of her new brother-in-law. One day he calls her, alarmed, and Miranda realizes Lucia's mental illness has resurfaced and she hasn't told her husband anything about this part of her past. Dealing with Lucia's illness dominates the sisters' story for many years to come, affecting their connection to each other and every important relationship in both their lives.

The writing in this novel is fantastic, and Lee develops the characters through nuanced and unexpected details. I felt great affection for the sisters and the families they join and form, and the often heartbreaking events were deeply affecting. The story unfolds in a way that feels organic and lifelike, more driven by characters than plot, but it remains compelling throughout. This is a powerful look at family, mental illness, and cultures coming together.

HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister: On the day of a mass shooting at the high school where she teaches, Anna is at home, suspended following an angry outburst in the classroom. A news channel uncovers this and suggests she might be a co-conspirator with the student shooter, and Anna is taken into police custody. Though she's soon cleared by authorities, suspicion lingers as the town struggles to move forward in the aftermath. Anna's life wasn't great before this event, and she finds it increasingly difficult to keep a grip on the reality of a world where these things keep happening.

The prologue of the novel, from the point of view of the shooter, was published as a story in Sundog Lit back in 2014. While the rest of the novel is told through Anna's perspective, the story provides a good sense of the book's tone and style. McAllister gets deep into characters' heads, carefully dissects human and societal foibles, and wields a very dark sense of humor. The book is full of sentences and passages that are depressingly insightful. There's not a ton of plot after the first rush of events, and I wasn't sure what to make of Anna's more surreal ramblings, but there's plenty in this novel to like in the most uncomfortable way.

April 16, 2018

Traditional Observations

It's the middle of April, when it appears I traditionally make a post organized around the weather and/or my birthday. I do enjoy observing both the weather and my birthday, not to mention my many personal traditions, so here we go.

When I woke up this morning, it was so dark out that I doubted I was actually hearing my alarm, but it really was daytime, just raining heavily. I heard some truck activity outside that I later discovered was probably thunder, which we don't get around here too often. I was lazily starting my morning when another nonexistent truck knocked into our house, a sensation that I know by now to recognize as an earthquake. That brief but unmistakeable jolt woke me all the way up. I checked Twitter for quake tweets and learned about the thunder, plus hail in some places, a combo that left Silicon Valley expecting the apocalypse. Within an hour, the sun was aggressively shining. Now it's raining again. Happy spring!

Tomorrow I turn 43. I've already done some celebrating, with food and drink and baking and book-buying. I have more of the same scheduled for tomorrow, and I intend to continue the festivities for at least another week.

Life in our new house continues to be wonderful. I've mostly adjusted all my habits to living here, though I do sometimes still take the wrong exit when driving home. We've had lots of family and friends come to visit, with more on the horizon, and that's been great. It's a relief to be done with the most time-consuming and stressful aspects of house-buying and -selling so we can focus on more fun items, like finally picking out some bookshelves.

I can't end this update post without mentioning the novel. Traditionally when I mention the novel, I say that revision is coming along, though more slowly than I'd like. I certainly wouldn't want to break from tradition, so there we go.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I'm not entirely sure if Alanna Okun's essay, On The Fine Art Of Unraveling, is intended as a knitting/writing metaphor, but it's the best one I've read: "The first row you knit after the cast-on is always difficult. Maybe you started too tightly and have to force your needles through the stubborn stitches, or maybe too loose and now you have to tug each strand of yarn so you don't leave any holes. The beginning is a slog. But then, ten minutes or twenty or sometimes a week later, you look down and realize that what you have is a thing. Nothing yet identifiable as a hat or scarf, but no longer just the anemic start."

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!)