May 8, 2019

April Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of the remaining books from my winter anticipated reads and the first book from my spring batch:

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman: Ben falls in love with Kate in New York City in a 2000 that doesn't quite match our own. The intense happiness of their early relationship is only marred by the strange things Kate says about her dreams. In these dreams, Kate is a nobleman's mistress in Elizabethan England, leaving London for the countryside to avoid the plague. The dream world is as real as life, and Kate senses there's something important she must do there. Each time she wakes in 2000, the world she encounters seems less familiar, and Ben grows increasingly worried about Kate's mental state.

I loved this book. Every aspect of the mind-bending alternate timelines fascinated and delighted me. I was deeply invested in the main characters and their relationship, and distressed by the painful times they go through. I grew attached to the whole memorable cast of characters around them in 2000, and the historical figures in Kate's 1593 life sent me down some excellent research rabbitholes. This novel is full of both hope and despair, all shot through with humor and weirdness. It's not going to charm every reader, but it was just what I wanted.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami: Nora returns to her hometown in the Mojave after her father is killed in a hit-and-run. As she and her family grieve for Driss, Nora tries to uncover the truth of his death -- and his life. The narration shifts between numerous characters, including a childhood friend of Nora's who reenters her life, the detective investigating the accident, and a man who was present at the scene but fears speaking to the police because he's undocumented. Driss himself also tells his story of immigrating from Morocco and striving to maintain a small business as a Muslim in America.

The mystery of the hit-and-run propels the plot, but while the crime is solved, this is more a novel about life's complications than about precisely what happened. Lalami develops all the characters and their relationships beautifully. I enjoyed how each narrator reveals aspects of their lives and histories that those around them aren't aware of, so the layers of the story build up nicely. Some characters get more page time than others, which is fine, but I do wish some threads had been spun out further or better tied up at the end. This is a novel that might have benefitted from being longer, and I would have happily read more of Lalami's strong writing.

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison completes the post-apocalyptic Road to Nowhere trilogy that opens with excellent THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE. In this world diminished by disease, women remain far rarer than men in the generations that follow, and the scattered populations deal with this in various and frequently cruel ways. One thread of this novel picks up right after THE BOOK OF ETTA's exciting end. Another takes place much later in the life of Flora, as she reflects on all the grief and joy she's experienced and faces a terrifying new threat.

I was glad to return to the characters from the second book and learn their fates, as well as more about Flora's often painful past. Like the earlier installments, this one explores many ideas about gender, identity, and choice, and the characters encounter additional ways of life that emerge in the unbalanced world. At times, the ideas dominate the narrative to the point that it took me out of the story. This book didn't hang together for me as well as the other two, but it does provide a fairly satisfying conclusion to the series.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub presents some very relatable material in On Making Mary Berry's Fast Cakes And Not Writing: "The frosting semi-vanquished and the traybake in the oven, I decided . . . not to go back to writing. I know, I know, but the kitchen was already a mess, so I figured that rather than clean up only to destroy everything again, I'd go straight on to the Chocolate Cream Fingers. These were supposed to take 20 minutes to make, and they did! I felt vindicated and great at baking. Then I realized that I had only made the dough."

April 25, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2019

I've been organizing my to-read list and placing pre-orders, because it's time for a new season of anticipated books! Here's what I'm excited about reading this spring:

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison (April 23): I've already started reading this final book of the Road to Nowhere trilogy, and I'm fascinated by what's presented in just the first couple of chapters. Each book in this intense post-apocalyptic story has a different narrative style, and each focuses on the life of a different character in a plague-stricken future where women are rare. The premise leads to difficult, violent content, so these are not light reads, but I loved the first book especially. That first installment, THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, can be read as a standalone.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang (May 7): This is a new collection of stories by a wildly creative and clever science fiction writer. When I read his first collection, STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS, I was impressed by how dissimilar the stories are from each other, and from anything else I'd ever read. (The movie Arrival, which I liked pretty well, is adapted from one of those stories.) I'm looking forward to enjoying more of Chiang's work, including some stories that have been available online but that I never got around to reading.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane (May 14): I was enthralled by Kane's first novel, THE REPORT, which imagines the story behind a real-life disaster. I also admired her short story collection, THIS CLOSE, particularly for the subtle depictions of complicated relationships. I expect to find more great interpersonal dynamics in this new novel about friendship, which sounds fun and funny.

CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert (June 4): I've never been inclined to read any of Gilbert's inspirational nonfiction, but I adored her historical novel about a nineteenth-century woman of science, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. Her new novel is also historical, set in the 1940s New York theater world, and my curiosity is piqued.

THE TENTH MUSE by Catherine Chung (June 18): Roxane Gay's recommendation made me interested in this novel, and I've realized I also meant to read Chung's previous novel, FORGOTTEN COUNTRY, after a recommendation by Gay but never got to it. I'll definitely be picking up this new book, a story about math and family secrets.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes (June 25): This is the debut novel from a host of one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour. Holmes's media commentary is always smart and funny, and I'm thrilled that she's publishing a novel. The story is a romance between two people who are struggling with (I believe) mental health issues, and I'm happy to see the early reviews are as positive as I'd hoped!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On Tor.com, Vivian Shaw considers How Much Research Should You Do For Your Book?: "I recently wrote a novella about air crash investigation and practical necromancy, in which I had to learn a great deal about how air traffic control works, how flights are routed, how to read various types of chart, where various controls are located in the Boeing 737's cockpit, and so on--and then I had to not have my protagonist lecture the audience about any of these things, or bring them up in conversation with the other characters unnecessarily. Writing a particularly intense scene where I had to walk that thin line felt physically exhausting, like lifting weights with my brain, but it was also deeply satisfying to have done."

April 4, 2019

March Reading Recap

I had an outstanding reading month in March, and I fully endorse these three excellent books!

→ Mira Jacob starts GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS with her biracial son's questions about race, prompted by his love of Michael Jackson's music. At six years old, he understands that he's brown, like his mom, and that his dad is white, and that all of this matters somehow, but there's a lot he's still wondering. Throughout this beautiful graphic memoir, Mira tries to answer her son's questions while reflecting on the questions of her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents. She doesn't always have explanations, though, especially as Donald Trump's presidential campaign gains power and her husband's parents continue to support him.

Each conversation and event portrayed in GOOD TALK is packed with emotion, humor, and difficult truths. The artwork is a joy to gaze at, consisting of drawn characters and speech bubbles on top of photographs that set the scene. (You can view a long excerpt on the publisher's page -- click "Look Inside".) The book jumps back and forth effectively between two timelines: The story's backbone is the years 2014 to 2016, a time of many questions about Trump and racial relations. Alternating with these conversations and often commenting on them, Mira's life unfolds chronologically, beginning with confusing incidents from her own childhood and showing important events in her growing up, relationships, career, and family. All the parts of this book are incredible, and I recommend it to everyone.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie: The people of Iraden have an agreement with the Raven god: The god will protect the territory and citizens from attack by outsiders, and the Raven's Lease will serve as human ruler and care for the bird currently inhabited by the god. Whenever the bird reaches the end of his lifespan, so will the Lease, who must sacrifice himself to replenish the strength of the god. Mawat is heir to the Lease, and he returns from war expecting the imminent deaths of the Raven and his father, ready to serve as the new ruler of Iraden. Instead, Mawat discovers that his uncle has usurped his place, claiming his father fled without making the necessary sacrifice. Mawat is overcome with disbelief and anger, and it's up to his clever aide Eolo to investigate what's true and what's a twisty political conspiracy.

The full scope of the agreements in this book is far more intricate and fascinating than presented in this summary, involving numerous gods and the groups of people who worship them. Leckie has built the world of her first fantasy novel as skillfully and inventively as in her wonderful science fiction. The story and its unusual narration gripped me right away, and I remained engrossed as more was gradually revealed. The characters, both humans and gods, are fully conceived, flawed, and fun to spend time with. As always, Leckie excels at showing the complicated details of the dynamics between individuals and groups. If this sounds like your sort of novel, I strongly recommend it.

SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler: In 1890 San Francisco, Lizzie is a member of the wealthy class, though her choice to remain a spinster makes her vaguely suspect in fashionable society. Through her volunteer work at a home for women and children in need, Lizzie crosses paths with the mysterious Mary Ellen Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant asks the home to take in a small girl whose origins are also shrouded in rumor, and Lizzie grows curious about both of them. As Lizzie investigates, she keeps running up against strange events, disturbing questions, and the tiresome forces of so-called polite society.

Several characters in this novel are real figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, who gained prominence in early San Francisco while passing a white woman but later revealed herself to be black. Fowler embraces the wild, contradictory histories of Pleasant and the others, telling different versions throughout the novel in entertaining detail. Lizzie and the rest of the fictional characters are just as richly, delightfully drawn, with Fowler's wry humor frequently on display. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, and some exciting antics drive the plot forward, but much of the story focuses on the nuances of how people treat each other in the name of propriety. It might be accurate to call SISTER NOON a comedy of manners, and I'd definitely call it one of Fowler's best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura B. McGrath writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books about studying literary diversity by analyzing "the most important data that no one outside of publishing has ever heard of: Comp Titles": "Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors' decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values. It turns out the industry values whiteness."

March 15, 2019

FOGcon 2019 Report

I spent last weekend at the ninth iteration of FOGcon. I like the way I described this convention in 2013: "FOGcon is mainly about participating in and listening to in-depth discussions of stories, fictional worlds, and the things these lead us to consider about our own world." As I tend to repeat in my annual con reports (often while commenting that I tend to repeat myself every year), I always have a great time geeking out about speculative fiction for three days with other people who think that makes for a fun weekend.

This year's theme was Friendship, a topic well explored in the works of the two honored guests, Karen Joy Fowler and Becky Chambers. Both guests served as entertaining, insightful panel members, and both were generous with their time throughout the convention weekend. I was especially excited by the opportunity to hear more from Fowler, an incredible writer who has been heavily involved in the speculative fiction community, but whose own work often doesn't fit within the genre. Ever since I met her while at the Squaw Valley writing workshop, I've felt an affinity as another science fiction fan who writes largely realistic fiction.

Fowler participated in two fascinating sessions remembering authors who have recently died. Honored ghost Ursula K. Le Guin was a well-known figure, and a friend to some of those attending the discussion of her life and work, which was run as a group conversation. I took a turn speaking to recommend Le Guin's STEERING THE CRAFT, an excellent book of writing advice and exercises that my writing group worked through years ago. The panel in memory of Carol Emshwiller introduced me to an important feminist author I'd regrettably never even heard the name of. I'm eager to start reading her work.

A few other standout panels: Speculative Motherhood considered why mothers (and parents in general) are often absent from science fiction and fantasy and how they're portrayed when they do appear. Sense of Place offered strategies for developing settings and incorporating worldbuilding details into stories without info-dumping. "Friend" As Code Word was a nuanced, entertaining discussion about real and fictional cases where LGBTQ relationships get labeled as friendships for a variety of reasons. Life in Closed Systems pondered how to sustain life in generation ships, space stations, and other imaginary, current, and future closed spaces.

Next year's convention theme will be Turning Points, with exciting honored guests Mary Anne Mohanraj and Nisi Shawl. After dragging my feet for years, I've finally volunteered to help the group who does the work of putting together the con. So I will be especially invested in anticipating FOGcon's tenth year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jesslyn Shields reports on the Lunar Library, a backup of human knowledge headed to the moon: "Rest easy, because much of the entirety of human knowledge has been backed up, and is on its way to the moon on an Israeli spacecraft called the SpaceIL 'Beresheet' lunar lander. It will be among the solar system's first off-Earth libraries, and the only technology the aliens or post-apocalypse humans will need to access the data will be a rudimentary microscope -- something we've had knocking around our planet since the 1700s." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

March 6, 2019

February Reading Recap

February was a month of unusual, surprising stories, all with speculative elements:

LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon: City is one of the finalists in the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest, with the chance to demonstrate that a black boy from Mississippi can deliver more dynamic sentences than any other competitor. But when the event takes a racist turn, City either makes a fool of himself or stands up for himself, depending on who you ask. He finds some consolation by reading an odd, authorless book called LONG DIVISION, in which he's surprised to find a character named City living in Mississippi in 1985, who finds a tunnel that takes him to 2013...

This novel starts out strange and gets stranger, and the story pulled me in more and more. The two Citys are compelling characters, though often adolescently frustrating, and each has an intriguing, amusing group of friends and foes. There's a lot packed into this book about love and hate, the past and future, and words and actions. By the end of the mind-bending, intense plot, I wasn't sure if I understood everything I was supposed to, but this is a story that will stick with me.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders begins in a city located at the boundary between night and day, the only area habitable by humans on a planet where the same side always faces the sun. In Xiosphant, the principles of Circadianism are strictly enforced to maintain order in this environment where the sky never changes. Sophie, a student from the dark side of town, takes the fall for her friend's petty crime and is banished into the frigid night. This should be a death sentence, but Sophie is rescued by the feared native inhabitants of the planet, who she discovers are intelligent creatures with their own civilization and technology. With their help, Sophie survives to team up with smugglers and revolutionaries, eventually working through the many traumas she suffers along the way.

The worldbuilding in this novel is fascinating and original. Though humans came to this planet with sophisticated technology, the knowledge and materials were lost over generations and through wars, so the story takes place in a fairly low-tech era, with much cobbled together from old parts. Anders put a lot of thought into how people would manage life in the terminator of a tidally locked planet, with schedule-controlled Xiosphant as one extreme and a freewheeling city Sophie visits as the other. I enjoyed listening to Anders talk about developing her novel's rich backstory on a recent episode of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast (segment starts at 16:30).

Much about the story and characters kept me interested, but significant pieces didn't work for me. The plot is oddly paced at times, and as the characters face obstacles that require changing their goals, I sometimes felt earlier parts of the story were rendered unnecessary. Deep friendships and/or love between characters are central to the novel, but I was confused about the story's position on the nature and health of these relationships, or whether my confusion was the point. The aftereffect of trauma is another major story concern, but it might have been more powerful with a lighter touch, which is something I've noticed in other novels and struggled with handling in my own writing.

I think this is one of those books that different types of readers will have very different reactions to (the reviews already support that), so I don't want to warn readers away from this novel, but I wish I'd liked it better.

WHAT I DIDN'T SEE AND OTHER STORIES by Karen Joy Fowler: I've read several of Fowler's varied novels, so it was no surprise that the stories in this collection also range wildly in setting, genre, and focus. What they have in common is excellent writing, at least a dash of humor, and richly developed characters and worlds.

About half the stories depict specific historical eras and sometimes take inspiration from real events and people. Two revolve around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: "Booth's Ghost" tracks the careers of the Booth family of actors, focusing on one of the brothers of the infamous John Wilkes, and except for the mildly ghostly bit, it's all rooted in truth. "Standing Room Only" follows a young woman, daughter of co-conspirator Mary Surratt, who is in love with JW and completely unaware of what else is going on.

I'm impressed thinking about the amount of research that must have been required to write the 20-odd pages of a story like "The Dark", which starts with Yosemite disappearances in the 1950s and 60s, moves on to the history of pandemics, and then shifts to the work of soldiers who cleared tunnels during the Vietnam War. It shares a few elements with "What I Didn't See", narrated by a woman on a gorilla-hunting expedition in the 1920s, including that both stories aren't quite science fictional but also aren't quite grounded in reality.

I enjoyed the blurry genre lines throughout this collection, and the frequent feeling that I had no idea what sort of story I was reading or where things might be going. "The Last Worders" involves twin American sisters taking a trip to an odd European city, on an odd quest, and every development twists the story in another direction until it all comes to a strange and satisfying ending. In "Always", a young woman joins an immortality cult in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the story arcs nicely around the many questions raised by the premise.

Karen Joy Fowler will be one of the guests at FOGcon this weekend, and I can't wait to hear and talk more about her work!

February 28, 2019

Reading My Words

For a while now, most of my posts have been about reading and books. This one is, too, but what's different is that the book I just finished reading is my own novel.

I finally reached the stage of this endless revision when it was time to read the manuscript all at once and see how it is. I'm relieved to report that this novel is pretty decent. Some places need adjustment to line up with things I ended up changing later in the revision. There are scenes I want to shorten to get to the point faster. But mostly, the story reads smoothly, and many excellent moments or sentences I'd forgotten popped up as delightful surprises.

I left myself many comments during the readthrough that I now need to go through and resolve. While plenty of sentences are "awk" or "unclear", the good news is that hardly any left me wondering what parasites had taken over my brain. The most notable of these was a sentence starting "Ironically enough," where I had to leave the very disappointed comment "that is not ironic." Aside from that, I rarely cringed, which is a notable improvement over previous readings.

So now I'm getting back to work on cleaning up all these smaller issues. Once I have a tight, coherent draft, we'll see what happens next

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kim Liao reflects for Literary Hub about rejections and creative failure: "Rejection still hurts. My skin is not as thick as I thought it was, and becoming accustomed to something is not the same thing as enjoying it. Also, not all rejections are created equally. Tallying every rejection as 1 out of 100 doesn't account for the fact that some rejections barely even register, while others feel like the sky is collapsing."

February 5, 2019

January Reading Recap

I started the year off right, spending January reading a bunch of great books!

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker is the suspenseful, beautifully written story of a town gripped by an epidemic, and I was relieved to find it handles the dreaming aspect of the story with a light and original touch.

In a dorm in the isolated college town of Santa Lora, California, a student falls into a sleep she can't be woken from. The mysterious affliction spreads to others in the dorm, and the doctors can't find any cause for the perpetual sleep. By the time the scale of the contagion is understood, many more cases have appeared throughout the town. Santa Lora is quarantined, and those still awake fear that sleep may descend at any time.

Walker recounts the Santa Lora epidemic with a well-crafted omniscient narration that spends time in the heads of about half a dozen major characters watching the disease unfold from different perspectives. The style works great for the story, and every character is a richly drawn person who I was pleased to see again and nervous about following further. The novel's disease has a fantastical nature, but Walker portrays it with the same detail and tension as found in real-life epidemics. Just as realistic are all the moments between characters that reveal their connections or distance. Pretty much everything about this book thrilled me, and I highly recommend it.

THE FATED SKY by Mary Robinette Kowal: A few years have passed since the events of THE CALCULATING STARS (my review), and the international effort to get humanity into space has established a small lunar colony. Elma works on the moon as a pilot for three-month stretches, and while she loves being an astronaut, she hates being away from her husband. When Elma is reassigned to join the first crew heading to Mars, it's a thrilling but terrifying prospect that she'll be away from Earth and Nathaniel for three years. Before the mission even launches, the crew has to contend with conflicts among themselves and pressures from a society grappling with both the civil rights movement and the effects of the meteor strike. The journey to Mars only introduces more, and more perilous, obstacles.

This book is an exciting, emotional ride. Kowal really puts her characters through the wringer, and while I wished these people I'd really grown to like weren't facing such harrowing situations, it made for a great story. As in THE CALCULATING STARS, there's lots of cool science and thoughtful character interactions. Both books would have benefited from some tightening to remove repetition, especially in the service of trusting readers to understand already established dynamics. I still definitely recommend them. I suggest reading the pair in quick succession as I did, because THE FATED SKY doesn't include much in the way of reminders about who anyone is or what's happening. Future installments, not yet published, are likely to catch readers up more. I look forward to Elma's further adventures.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh is the odd, absorbing story of a woman who's decided to sleep away her life for a year. Our narrator's problems, such as they are, involve lingering feelings for a jerk she dated and a scorn for the world that keeps her detached from everything and everyone. She believes a year of sleep will fix all that, and she has the financial means to stay in her Manhattan apartment and do nothing else, so she embarks on her project with a barrage of drugs prescribed by an absurdly terrible psychiatrist. Every day or so, she wakes for a few hours to eat a bit, watch movies, and endure visits from her one friend, who's just as discontented with life. Some months in, she starts doing things while drugged that she doesn't remember when she wakes up -- making purchases and appointments, chatting online with strangers -- and she struggles with how to keep the world at bay when her subconscious is so determined not to.

I was fascinated by the strange premise of this novel and delighted by how well Moshfegh pulls it off. From the opening pages, I felt sucked into the narrator's project by the strong voice and details both mundane and lurid. The experience was unpleasantly compelling. The dark humor of the story appealed to me, and some of the sessions with the psychiatrist made me laugh out loud. Not everyone is going to be drawn to this story, but if you're intrigued, I recommend reading it. Many critics considered it one of the best books of 2018.

AYITI by Roxane Gay is a collection of short fiction that was Gay's earliest book, recently republished and expanded. Many of the pieces are quite brief, more a depiction of a moment or idea than a story. Every piece sings with Gay's strong, vivid writing, but I preferred the longer, fuller stories that allow time to sink into the characters' lives.

The standout story in the collection for me is the longest one, "Sweet on the Tongue". I had time to become fully invested in the protagonist before the painful uncovering of her past, which turns out to be a kidnapping like that in Gay's powerful novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I also especially enjoyed the sexy "A Cool, Dry Place", about a young couple making plans to leave Haiti and making plenty of love. In general, I'd recommend the later collection DIFFICULT WOMEN over AYITI, but this small book is certainly worth reading as well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Jessica McCann shares experiences with novel research: "For my recent historical novel set in 1930s Kansas, I read no fewer than 25 nonfiction books and countless articles about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, farming, geology, auto mechanics, ecology, land surveying, food canning, quilting, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and so much more. I compiled many binders full of notes. And then I abandoned a lot of it."

January 23, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2019

It's time for the return of my anticipated book lists, because there are a ton of books being published this year that I'm already excited about. Most of these are from authors whose work I've loved before, and in some cases I've been eagerly awaiting these books since they were first mentioned years ago.

Here are the books I'm looking forward to reading in the next few months:

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker (January 15): I was a big admirer of Walker's debut, THE AGE OF MIRACLES, a coming-of-age story set during the gradual disaster of the earth's slowing rotation. The news of her publishing again delighted me, but I have to admit the new book's premise adds some trepidation to my anticipation. THE DREAMERS involves a town gripped by an epidemic (promising) that sends its victims into perpetual sleep (intriguing, but I've been disappointed by books with sleep-related epidemics in the past) and does something to dreams (a topic I usually find uninteresting in fiction). I haven't started reading yet, so I'm still hoping Walker will once again tell a story that exceeds my expectations.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders (February 12): Anders has produced a lot of work I enjoy: her first novel, ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, shorter fiction, and the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT takes place on a planet with a permanent day side and night side, has a plot containing revolutionaries and smugglers, and sounds like great fun.

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman (February 12): The two earlier books that made me a fan of Newman are THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel about an apocalypse in which nobody lives past adolescence, and HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL, a hilarious writing guide. THE HEAVENS is something different than either of those, a novel set in New York in 2000 and Elizabethan England, with maybe also some alternate history (yay) and definitely some dreams (hrm). My curiosity is certainly piqued.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie (February 26): I adored all of Leckie's previous novels: the trilogy starting with ANCILLARY JUSTICE and the standalone PROVENANCE. In THE RAVEN TOWER, Leckie moves from science fiction to fantasy, and I'm confident that the writing, characters, and story will be as wonderful as always.

GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March 26): Jacob wrote a lovely novel about a family, THE SLEEPWALKER'S GUIDE TO DANCING, and I've been following her career since reading it. A few years ago, she published a cartoon essay called 37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son and announced that it was part of a forthcoming graphic memoir. I'm eager to see more of these funny, tough, and visually striking conversations.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami (March 26): Lalami is the one author on this list I haven't read before, but the buzz around this novel has me ready to snap it up as soon as it's released. It's a story about a hit-and-run accident told from many points of view, promising a mystery, secrets, lies, and complicated family dynamics.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, Charlie Jane Anders advises focusing on your weaknesses as an author: "Writing is one of the few areas where the better you get at it, the harder it becomes. This is partly because 'getting good at writing' requires you to have more awareness of the weaknesses in your own work. But also, you can't get better after a certain point without going outside your comfort zone. And there are questions you don't even think to ask about your own work, until you've been forced to think about them."

January 11, 2019

2018 By The Books

This is my now-annual January(ish) post in which I pick my top recommendations from the books I read the year before. As I started putting it together, I was thinking about how consistent my reading habits have become and how much of what I want to say in introduction is the same as for previous yearly book wrap-ups. I began musing on how to write about this consistency, and then I realized that consistency also comes up in my year-end writing overview. So: 2018 was a very consistent year in my life (except in all the ways it wasn't).

For example, my general goal is to average three books a month, and I again hit pretty close to that target, reading 33 books in 2018. I continued gravitating toward recent releases, with the vast majority of books I read published in 2018 or 2017. As I found last year, about a third of what I read was truly outstanding, which leaves me quite pleased with my reading selections. I'm recommending those exceptional books again here, with a link to the monthly recap containing my original, fuller review.

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer (February and March/April) earn the top spot on this not entirely ordered list for sticking with me the most strongly. This pair of novels tells a unified story (which will continue in two more books, less closely tied) of the complicated events that rock the world of 2454. Palmer's future is ambitiously imagined, with a mind-boggling number of disparate pieces and players woven together into a gripping tale of political intrigue and so much more.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (July/August) is a family story that stands out for how solidly every element is crafted. Through carefully detailed character portrayals and a plot that's never predictable or easy, Ko unfolds the story of a boy from China whose mother disappears after she brings him to the United States.

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie (October/November) is especially notable for the excellent use of perspective shift to reveal its complicated layers. In this tense and tragic novel, the fates of two British-Pakistani families become entwined by love, politics, and questions of loyalty.

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling (September) takes the family story down to the micro level of recounting the daily tedium and anxiety of parenting. Few significant events occur for much of this novel about a mother hiding from the world with her toddler, but the strength and intimacy of the narrative voice kept me enthralled.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker (July/August) depicts immigrant life in the multicultural stew of early twentieth century New York City, with supernatural protagonists who are also newcomers to the human world. Wecker develops her inventive premise marvelously, and this novel was even richer and more layered than I anticipated.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE by Ijeoma Oluo (January) is a thorough, approachable guide to noticing and discussing racism, whether you want to or not. Oluo offers practical suggestions on talking and acting in various difficult situations, and I intend to return to this book again.

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz (May) depicts a future in which humans, robots, and intellectual property can all be owned or freed, whether legally or illicitly. A batch of pirated drugs with lethal side effects set humans and bots on both sides of the law on a thrilling chase, packed with science, danger, and a stealth submarine.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange (June) introduces a large cast, mostly Native Americans and mostly living in Oakland, and places them on a trajectory toward a powwow where a violent act is planned. Orange gives each character a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages, and I only wish there was more of this tight and suspenseful story.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee (March/April) focuses on two adult sisters and the way mental illness impacts their relationship with each other and with each of their partners over the years. Lee complicates every character with unexpected details, and the evolution of the plot feels organic.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam (May) brings together two families from different races and classes, bonding them through tragedy and adoption. What particularly sticks with me about this novel is how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of every interaction between the well-drawn characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood at The Guardian explores the world of miniature books: "Nomenclature is important here: according to the US-based Miniature Book Society, a miniature book 'is no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness', and while the London Library has some 350-odd 'small' books, of less than five inches, it has only 47 true miniatures. The library decided they were being overshadowed by their larger cousins, so now they are gathered together in a glass-fronted cabinet." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 4, 2019

December Reading Recap

Here's my final month of book reviews to close out 2018, and next week I'll look back at the year's reading highlights.

THE CALCULATING STARS by Mary Robinette Kowal: Early in the space race, Elma and her husband Nathaniel are vacationing in the mountains after a satellite launch they both worked on, when suddenly the world changes. A meteor strike near Washington, D.C. destroys everything and everyone in the vicinity of the capital, including Elma's family, her friends and colleagues, and most of the federal government. Elma and Nathaniel escape to safety thanks to their combined scientific knowledge and her skills as a pilot. They wind up at a military base, where Nathaniel is pulled into meetings and Elma isn't allowed to do anything useful that might distract her from grief and shock. At last she's given some data to analyze, and through her calculations, she discovers that the consequences of the meteor impact are going to become far worse than they already are. Though no humans have yet orbited Earth, it's now urgent to figure out how to get humanity off the planet.

This premise combines two subjects I love to read about, apocalyptic disasters and space travel, and Kowal explores both with well-considered and fascinating detail. The science is woven tightly into the many plot events, which means both that the story makes sense and that it moves along at a pretty fast pace. With mathematician and pilot Elma as our guide through the accelerated space race, we get to understand and witness every development, and also experience the constant fight to have women's accomplishments taken seriously. Along with portraying the sexism of the era, Kowal is thoughtful as always about how every character's identity interacts with the story, especially paying attention to how black people are treated in the disaster and in the space program.

As soon as I finished devouring THE CALCULATING STARS, I started the sequel, THE FATED SKY, which continues the quest to colonize other planets. These two books are closely tied and were released in quick sequence. More books in the series are planned for the future.

THE PERFECT NANNY by Leïla Slimani, translated from French by Sam Taylor: In the first pages of this novel, two small children are murdered by their nanny. The story then goes back to the previous year, when Parisian couple Myriam and Paul decide to hire a nanny so Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. They bring on Louise, who delights the children immediately and soon becomes an indispensable part of the family. Myriam is thrilled to be working again and to leave the concerns of children and home to Louise, but she struggles with guilt about this choice and anger at the society that judges it. Louise is thrilled to dedicate herself to taking care of everything the family needs, and her devotion to the work blocks out the empty despair of life away from their apartment.

This tense, unsettling novel is primarily a character study of Louise and Myriam. By delving into the complicated thoughts and emotions of each woman and the changing dynamics between them, Slimani charts how the situation goes so horrifically wrong. I read this short book quickly and eagerly, fascinated by the nuanced characters and always in suspense at how the inevitable end would arrive. I anticipated that there would be no clear, simple explanation of what drives Louise to murder, but what surprised and disappointed me was that we don't get to see the event from her point of view, despite how much time we otherwise spend in her head. I'd still recommend this to anyone intrigued by the premise, but prepare for an ending you may find unsatisfying.

THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez is narrated by a writer and teacher whose closest friend, another writer and teacher, dies by suicide. As she's contemplating his life and death, their past together, and his history with women, his wife (Wife Three) asks her to take in his dog. Apollo, an enormous and aging Great Dane, moves into her tiny apartment where dogs are forbidden, and they grieve together. Soon Apollo becomes such an important part of her life that she won't consider giving him up, despite the threat of eviction from a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment.

This novel won the National Book Award and much critical acclaim, but I'm in the camp of readers who only liked the parts about the dog. Apollo is great, and the relationship the narrator forms with him is emotionally satisfying. The dead friend, and the narrator herself, aren't especially compelling, nor are the majority of their musings about writing that make up much of the book. This is one of those novels composed of short scraps, in this case often presenting a thought or quote about writing, a fact or anecdote about death or dogs or both, or the summary of another book or movie. While I've read several books in this style, I'm not much of a fan, and in this case I felt the disparate pieces really didn't gel into a cohesive novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Diana M. Pho explains What Writing Fanfiction Taught Me as an Editor: "I spent hours studying a blend of British common law and JKR's hints about the Ministry of Magic to theorize how they passed legislation as reactionary response to Muggle history. I made calendar timelines to figure out whether the Animorphs went to high school in a term or semester system. Now, when I look at an author's manuscript, I take out my sledge-hammer and test out the sheetrock of their world. Is that a plot hole? Slam! Magical loopholes? Whump! How does a character's social or political identity affect their place in this world? Why can the cat talk? How do the airships fly?"