December 17, 2021

Here Again

Here we are near the end of another year, the time to look back and cringe over whatever forecasts and hubris may have been expressed a year ago. Last December I had enough sense to keep a damper on my expectations, though I did still declare my belief in 2021 "growing gradually better." Progress has been a lot more forward and back, up and down than most of us might have imagined. I am grateful for the ways science made 2021 less frightening than 2020, and sorrowful that disease and human factors produced another year of tragedy nonetheless. I will predict nothing about what's ahead for the world. though my hopes are for the best, or at least the not-worst.

I remained extremely fortunate this year, staying healthy and safe, with many opportunities for joy even in the difficult times. Writing came easier than last year, and I was focused on fiction projects during more months than not. In 2021, I revised a short story to completion and began submitting it, and I built a solid foundation for a novel idea I intend to keep working on.

The short story was one I wrote in three days during August 2020 and did two more drafts of (well, maybe four, depending on how you count) before the end of the year. I spent much of the first half of this year on a slow, careful revision to address weaknesses pointed out by early readers and get the story into the shape I wanted. Then there was one more fast, intense, deadline-driven edit to make it as good as I possibly could, and I sent it out into the world. I received a polite rejection from the first publication I tried, and more from the next ones, because this is a competitive market, and there are so many good stories out there. I'll keep trying with this story, as well as mulling over some other ideas that might become short stories.

Getting started on developing a new novel idea was my biggest creative accomplishment of the year, even though I'm still a long way from having a solid draft. I'd been feeling a lot of angst about a lack of new ideas, so it was a relief to hit on a concept that has promise. I spent October on worldbuilding and preparation for writing, and November doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in many years. I successfully wrote 50,000 words that will form the basis for the large amount of planning, outlining, and drafting I have ahead. Go, me!

Also in 2021, I was active early in the year with FOGcon's virtual events committee. It was fun and rewarding to help create online gatherings for our usual con attendees, as well as welcoming far-flung speculative fiction fans who would never have made it to our small local con in person. Since the summer, I've been less involved in organizing, but others have continued to put on a series of great events that will extend into next year.

This was another year where simply getting through was achievement enough, and I am pleased and fortunate that I have so much else to report. As this year of uncertainty winds down with more uncertainty, I hope you have something to celebrate. I'm wishing everyone the best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For The Millions, Mark Cecil talks to other authors about the emotional payoffs of stories: "If you're going to end high, you have to start low. If you're going to end low, you have to start high. The beginning is reverse engineered from the end. Most character arcs can be boiled down to this: 'It’s a story about a character who begins at X and must overcome Y to get to Z.' But in the writing process, Z comes first. Without Z, you don't know what Y or X must be. Without Z, you don't have a story."

December 8, 2021

Story Time

This is the usual point in the month when I post my reading recap, reviews of the generally three, occasionally more, books I read during the previous month. But in November, I was so busy writing 50,000 words that I only had time to finish one book and get through half of another long one. So I'll be discussing those books in a double-month recap in early January, and instead today I'm going to talk about reading short stories.

The one book I completed in the past month was a great story anthology, NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR, edited by Nisi Shawl. My review is already posted on Goodreads and highlights my favorite among the many excellent stories, with links to the ones also published online.

So much good short fiction is published online. This is a wonderful and also overwhelming thing. My computer is full of browser tabs open to stories, lists of links to stories in my notekeeping app, files in other applications containing more lists of links, and oh yeah, here are some more story tabs on my phone. I want to read all these stories, because they came recommended, or are by authors I like, or have an intriguing title and first paragraph that made me curious to read on. And while I know for sure I'll never have time for all the novels I want to read in my lifetime, it always seems within the realm of possibility that I'll get to all those saved-up stories.

Every once in a while, I'll try to establish a practice of reading a story every morning, or at bedtime, or whatever, but the habit never sticks for long. I am fortunate to have more time for reading than most people, but there is still only so much time, and though I want to read all those random stories, I also want to read from the infinite list of books. (It doesn't help that I seem to read far slower than the average person who does a lot of reading.) As a result, despite a recent renewed effort to read more stories online (specifically at several sites curating speculative fiction), I've had more success reading stories collected into books.

NEW SUNS was the second anthology I read in the past few months. The first was IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY, edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, which I raved about in my September recap. I was previously somewhat hesitant about picking up anthologies, since they contain a bunch of different styles of stories by many different people I maybe haven't heard of... and now I realize that's exactly what's so great about a good anthology, and also exactly what I would get if I ever managed to read through my story lists.

During my latest burst of seeking out stories online, I noted a few I wanted to recommend. These are definitely a wide range of styles, with authors who were new to me:

"Saint Natalis of the Wolves" by Emory Noakes crosses Catholicism with animal energy.

"Proof by Induction" by José Pablo Iriarte tackles math, grief, and family. (I also enjoyed reading about their process of arriving at this story.)

"Rebuttal to Reviewers' Comments On Edits For 'Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject'" by Andrea Kriz has a lot of fun with its format.

"Look to the Future" by Louise Hughes is a clever exploration of a character who is unusual in not being able to see the future. (The author discusses the story here.)

I'll keep attempting to make time for more online story reading, and I'll probably be checking out more anthologies soon. I'm also looking forward to reading EVEN GREATER MISTAKES by Charlie Jane Anders, a new collection of stories, many she previously published online at links that appear on my lists somewhere but that I never got around to reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Hilma Wolitzer describes What It's Like to Keep Writing at 91: "Elderly now, I find that language can be elusive, and not just when I'm trying to write. Like many people my age, I seem to lose a noun or two every day lately. They're like buttons that have fallen off my shirt and rolled under the bed, and I can't bend down to retrieve them. I can no longer count on my famous short-term memory either. Recent events can seem as ephemeral as dreams."

November 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Success!

I've completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November. As I posted last month, this was my return to NaNoWriMo after many years away, and my hope was to kickstart the drafting of a novel I was still very much figuring out. What I wrote this month didn't turn out to be so much a first draft as a lot of finding my way into the world, the characters, and the story. The demanding word count goal forced me to make progress much faster than usual, and while that speed produced some garbage, it also sparked some new, surprising ideas. So I consider the month a success at all levels.

To reach the 50,000 word goal (the length of a short novel) in 30 days requires writing an average of 1667 words each day. I started out the month keeping to about that pace. The first few days were slow while I tried to remember how to not worry so much about sentence quality, and as I stopped to think up names for every character who appeared. Then I eased into the NaNo groove and began writing faster and with more abandon. Some days meeting the word count was easy, others it was a slog, but I made myself get my words in every day.

About halfway through the month, I'd written every scene I'd imagined in advance and then some. I had the setup for a story, not much sense of where to go next, and many doubts about whether there even was anywhere to go. I'd already written some scenes and character explorations that fell outside the main storyline I was writing, so I decided I'd better do more of that, plus some writerly musings that I'd allow into my word count. Writing down my streams of thought about plot and character turned out to be an even faster way to generate words, and I realized I could probably reach 50k before Thanksgiving and be able to relax over the holiday long weekend. I ended Wednesday, November 24 with 50,108 words, recorded my win, and then happily put the story almost entirely out of my head.

Now I'm ready to start looking again at what I produced in the mad rush of November. About half the words I wrote are the first part (and a bit of the middle) of the novel this will eventually become, though much will change based on some new directions I worked out later. About 10k words are me posing questions to myself like "Where are the current characters headed, and what would improve their arcs?" and then brainstorming answers. The rest are experimental threads of trying out different character voices, backstories, and world details, and some of those turned out to be the most compelling stuff I wrote. In the final three days, I came up with two new characters who I'm excited to figure out more about. This mess of words is hardly a novel, but it's a lot of good material toward a novel, and I didn't have any of it a month ago.

I'll be letting these ideas percolate as the year winds down. I may start on some research and outlining, but most of that will come in the new year, when I intend to get back to work on this story in a major way. The NaNoWriMo site is set up for tracking word count goals at any time, and since I found the graphs there motivating, I may give myself another goal early in 2022.

I'm glad I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. The real goal of the event is the satisfaction of writing some words that wouldn't have been written otherwise. I've been happy to hear from many friends who also accomplished that success, regardless of whether they technically won. Congratulations to all of us!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Elisa Shoenberger at Book Riot offers A Tiny History of Miniature Books: "I was over the moon when I found out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a famous collector of miniature books, amassing 750 of them, some gifts from Eleanor Roosevelt.... He's not the only president to have engaged with little books. There was a miniature book for Theodore Roosevelt when he was campaigning, [book expert Anne] Bromer said. Many years later, President Gerald Ford worked with a printer in California, Bromer noted, to make two miniature books of his speeches, which he signed." (And don't miss the link to the 1832 miniature guide to birth control.)

November 5, 2021

October Reading Recap

Once again, my reading month was busy, varied, and great:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff: In 1158, young Marie is ejected from Eleanor of Aquitaine's court and made the prioress of a remote, impoverished abbey. Marie has no desire to become a nun, to lead a religious life, or to be separated from the radiant Eleanor. Life at the abbey is terrible at first, and Marie goes hungry with the rest of the nuns and dreams of rescue. But when she accepts that nobody else is coming to save her, Marie takes control, making changes to bring the abbey money and status. She starts having visions that guide her in reshaping the community of nuns into a prosperous, powerful enclave of women.

I loved this beautiful, surprising story of a woman claiming power and wielding it for good. Marie is an excellently complicated character, motivated at different times by lust and love, by selfish and altruistic desires, by revenge and justice. (Groff created her starting from the few details known about the real medieval poet, Marie de France.) The many other women who inhabit the novel receive complex, compassionate portrayals as well. The story spans 50 years, with many events summarized, yet the narrative remains gripping and specific throughout. I wouldn't have guessed that I was going to find a novel about twelfth century nuns this compelling!

NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders is a mix of writing inspiration and craft advice on "How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories". The book was originally published as a series of essays at that are still available online, but I appreciated having it to read in a single volume. This was definitely the writing guide I needed right now.

Anders talks about why stories are important even in (especially in) circumstances that make writing feel frivolous and pointless—and I found her arguments convincing in a way I often don't when this topic is discussed. She shares personal accounts of how reading and writing helped her through bad times, and she details how her writing changed in response to real world challenges. Interspersed with the encouragement is realistic, practical advice on producing first drafts even when writing is hard. I've long been a fan of Anders's craft advice, and here she focuses on the discrete elements and temporary decisions that can help get something down on the page to be improved later. The book includes some exercises to jumpstart writing sessions. While it's aimed at an audience of speculative fiction writers, most of the material would be equally useful for any genre. If you're feeling stalled or hopeless in your writing, I recommend this book or the individual online essays.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney is proud to own a legitimate business, a reasonably successful furniture store in 1959 Harlem that will eventually finance a nicer apartment for his growing family. Carney is definitely not a crook like his late father or his cousin Freddie, even if he occasionally moves some merchandise of dubious provenance. When Freddie shows up talking about pulling a heist, Carney wants nothing to do with it, but he ends up involved in the scheme anyway. In the following years, as business thrives thanks to both showroom and back room dealings, there are more schemes, and Carney has to figure out how to exist at the intersection of straight and crooked.

Colson Whitehead has of course written another novel full of impeccable sentences, nuanced characters, and well-considered moments. Because the subject matter of HARLEM SHUFFLE is less grim than his previous two books (THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS), he has more opportunities to focus on the humorous and ridiculous in his characters' situations, and this story is frequently funny. There is also plenty that's serious as Carney deals with racism, colorism, and the changes Harlem faces over time, through the riots of 1964 (in response to the police killing of a Black teen).

The plot of HARLEM SHUFFLE revolves around the details of several crimes, but this is a crime story in the same way that Whitehead's ZONE ONE is zombie story: heavy on digressions and character explorations that often leave the genre element in the background. But I'm a devoted fan of Whitehead's style by now, and I was happy to ride along with Carney even when it took a while to get to the action. I especially enjoyed getting to know all the story's excellent characters and watching Carney's life and the city around him evolve.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano: A full passenger jet crashes during a transcontinental flight, and the only survivor is 12-year-old Edward. His injured body will heal, but he's emotionally shattered by the loss of his parents and the older brother who was his best friend. Edward is barely functioning when he's taken in by his aunt and uncle, who are consumed by their own grief. The three of them have to figure out how to become a family and find a path out of tragedy, all while dealing with the media attention Edward is receiving as the miraculous sole survivor. The girl next door is the only person Edward encounters who treats him like a kid, not a miracle, and her friendship is the first comfort he finds after the accident. As Edward's life moves forward, another thread details the doomed flight from the perspective of several passengers, each focused on their own problems and planned destinations.

I liked many things about this novel, though others didn't work as well for me. I was most impressed by Napolitano's portrayal of Edward's mental state, which makes use of surprising metaphors and taps into some very raw emotions. In general, I appreciated everything in the story that was unexpected and specific, such as the way Edward's friendship with Shay develops and the nuanced dynamics between Edward and his aunt and uncle. While the characters on the plane have some original flourishes, they struck me as more cliched and not as fully drawn as the characters in the aftermath. I also found the letters somewhat contrived and was disappointed by where they took the plot in the last third of the book. This was a good read, but I didn't love it like many other readers.

October 29, 2021

NaNoWriMo Is Nigh, Once Again

It's nearly the end of the month, and so, as revealed in last month's peek behind the curtain, I'm up against my deadline to post another update.

More specifically, it's the end of October, which means it's almost the start of National Novel Writing Month. For many years, I spent every November writing first drafts at full tilt along with a growing number of writers around the world, in pursuit of the goal of producing 50,000 words in 30 days. NaNoWriMo changed my life and introduced me to many friends, and I have fond emotions about it every November even though the last time I participated was 2010, when I quit ten days in.

Well, the big update is that this year, I'm NaNoWriMoing again. In that post last month, I talked about the new idea I'd just starting mulling over, and I talked about how much I need deadlines. Early in October, I figured out that my new story concept was novel-sized, and the calendar had a perfect deadline just waiting there. In this case, it's the pressure to start writing on November 1 that I need most, because otherwise I might remain stuck in the planning stage of this novel forever.

This idea requires a lot of worldbuilding, and I've been plugging away at that all month and forcing myself to commit to a bunch of decisions about the story world. My sense of the plot is a lot vaguer than I wish it was, I'm still narrowing in on who the characters are, and nobody has names yet. But I know at least the first few scenes, so I'm going to start writing on Monday, and I guess I'll have to come up with something to call these people by that point.

I'm aiming for 50k in November, but I don't anticipate reaching the end of a novel, or even emerging with a coherent first half. There's so much about this story I'm still imagining, so I'm planning to write scenes as I think of them, expecting that they won't necessarily be in order and may often serve as backstory that doesn't belong in the book at all. I haven't deliberately written this way before, although of course I have written many scenes that were later moved or removed. I hope to find this method useful, and freeing.

I was amused/discouraged to discover that I had the same plan going into my last, failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. (And, yeah, weird fact, my final abandoned NaNo novel was about an apocalyptic pandemic.) This time around, I have a much more solid idea despite all the details left to figure out, and I'm hopeful about staying excited. I'll let you know how it's going, maybe even before the very end of the month.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R.E. Hawley at PRINT analyzes an popular cover trend in Behold, the Book Blob: "As a marketing tool, cover design can get deployed to bring algorithmic logic back to the physical world. 'If you liked The Vanishing Half, you might also like You Exist Too Much and The Death of Vivek Oji,' these covers seem to murmur enticingly from the bookstore display."

October 5, 2021

September Reading Recap

I've been reading a lot, with a lot of variety:

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson combines thoughtful words and personality-filled illustrations to provide advice that any human can use. Among the special topics are chapters titled "How to Tell People Things They Very Probably Won't Be Happy to Hear, at Least at First" and "How to Avoid Getting Your Upset All Over Other People When You Feel Out of Control." Other subjects include how to take both criticism and compliments, a formula for apologizing properly, methods to keep disagreements from becoming fights, and several approaches to being a better ally.

Every aspect of this book is a delight. The advice is as enjoyable to read as it is useful. Bergman writes with his usual tenderness and humor, and his willingness to share his own flaws and vulnerabilities makes the guidance land that much harder. Freedman-Lawson's drawings add another layer of charming humor, and they've taken care to fill the pages with the widest variety of human beings. The great book design includes distinct color schemes for each chapter and summarized instructions for the step-by-step advice. Highly recommended for all humans trying to do better!

View some pages here, here, and here.

IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin: This anthology was created with the goal of curating speculative fiction that celebrates queer characters finding joy and affirmation. It succeeds wonderfully, presenting a wide variety of clever, inventive, and well-written stories. Even the selections that were less to my taste in style or subject matter often affected me emotionally, and among the stories I liked best, it's hard to narrow down my favorites:

• "The Ghosts of Liberty Street" by Phoebe Barton starts the anthology off strong and thematic with a beautiful story that's all about possibilities.

"Custom Options Available" by Amy Griswold features an excellent robot narrator who's on a carefully considered quest to explore sexuality, identity, and the parameters of a free life.

• "The Invisible Bisexual" by S.L. Huang takes the phrase literally, in a way that complicates the main character's love life.

• "Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank's Late-Night Starlite Drive-In" by Kristen Koopman is as weird and fun as that title suggests, with a really sweet story of a character coming into herself.

• "Midnight Confetti" by D.K. Marlowe uses delicious-to-read sentences to tell a reluctant love story with a light touch of magic.

• "The After Party" by Ben Francisco is a lovely imagining of an afterlife that offers a chance to grow and heal.

The book is available in multiple formats directly from the publisher, and through independent bookstores and libraries.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon: Vern has run away from the compound where she grew up to hide in the woods and give birth to twins. Her life before was difficult, as an unwilling bride to the compound's leader, a reverend who preaches a mix of Black power and oppressive Christian doctrine. Life in the woods is even harder, with two newborns to keep alive and safe from the fiend who's hunting them, but Vern revels in the wildness and her newfound freedom. In time, her body begins growing stronger in ways that seem extraordinary, but she also suffers from terrible pain and haunting visions. Eventually Vern finds connection with people who can help her heal and investigate the dark past behind her mysterious powers.

Like Solomon's other books, this is written with skill and emotion, and the story delves into many dark subjects that can be difficult to read. I anticipated all that going in but otherwise never knew what to expect from this novel. The story makes surprising shifts from survival to body horror to conspiracy to erotica, and while not every turn worked for me, I was always intrigued. I will continue to seek out everything Solomon writes, because their stories are truly original.

THE WILL TO BATTLE by Ada Palmer: Following the shocking revelations and developments presented in the first two books of the Terra Ignota series, the world of 2454 stands on the brink of possible war, after centuries of peace. Mycroft Canner, the faithful chronicler of those initial days of transformation, continues recording the historic events for posterity. Mycroft is a figure of contradictions, infamous for his past but currently a force for good in service of every global power. As the world leaders try to preserve peace while preparing for the threat of war, Mycroft struggles with what role he should play in determining the outcome.

I can't say enough about how ambitious and impressive this series is. Palmer has imagined so much detail about the world of 2454 and everything that led to it, then crafted an intricate plot involving dozens of characters and numerous political factions, and then given the novels several layers of unique narrative complexity. Reading this volume, I occasionally found it all a bit much in a way I didn't with the earlier books. One reason is that Mycroft spends more time with the characters I like less, and those interactions grew tiresome for me in places. I'm still excited to read the final installment and discover how everyone fares in the wake of this story's cliffhanger ending.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Danielle Lazarin grapples with the ambiguous loss of (probably) not selling her novel: "I wanted to write this essay before the book's fate was sealed, from the mucky and often-silent middle we like to skip over in favor of how it ends, as if we are only our results and not the waiting for them, which is its own complicated story, the one we live in longer than the moment of knowing if we should celebrate or mourn."

September 29, 2021

Getting Real

I accomplish very little that isn't motivated by an item on my to-do list. Sometimes I accomplish very little, period, but the to-do list keeps that from being all the time. What motivates me more, though, is deadlines, but I've learned they need to be at least in some way real and external, not arbitrarily self-imposed.

I don't expect even the people who consistently read this blog to put much thought into when exactly I publish posts. But there's an easily detectable pattern in the posts that are about my own writing, not other people's books. In recent years, these writing updates always appear in the last two or three days of the month. That's because they grow out of a to-do list item optimistically called "mid-month update" that gets postponed day after day until the end of the month looms. And it's because the end of a calendar month provides a real and unalterable, if silly, deadline that's made visible in the number of posts per month on the Archive section low in the blog's sidebar. I know my readers don't look at or care about these numbers, but I do, and it's a real enough deadline that I usually can't stand to miss it.

Only just, though. I delay writing about my writing because I approach the prospect with such ambivalence. I keep this blog to provide myself with both a record and accountability, and to give the people who care some insight into what I'm up to. For all those reasons, I want to post updates on my writing life, but the reflection involved is intimidating. And that's not only true when I'm feeling bad about not having any writing to report on.

I have been doing some writing work lately! In admitting that, I've created more pressure to follow through, augh!

First, I used a really real external deadline to push myself through an intense round of final edits on the short story I'd been fiddling with for a year. On the last day of a submission window, I submitted my story to a magazine. It was rejected. I immediately submitted it somewhere else, like a legit short story writer. Rinse, repeat. Someday this could end in triumph.

Second, I am just starting to noodle around with a new story idea that I like a lot. I know that sounds great, but it's scary and intimidating and pressure-filled, too. It's going to be hard work to get from the page of scattered notes to anything even vaguely story-shaped, and I never feel like doing hard work. But here it is on my to-do list, so I guess I'm off to try and accomplish something.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The New Yorker, Daniel A. Gross covers The Surprisingly Big Business of Library E-books: "I read more books in 2020 than I had in years. I was not the only one; last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive's catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before."

September 10, 2021

August Reading Recap

Last month I read two novels and a guide for writers, and all were excellent!

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet is a young boy living in Stratford in 1596 with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents. He misses his father, who spends most of the time away in London, working in his theater. When Hamnet's twin sister falls suddenly ill, the family is rocked by the terror of discovering the pestilence has reached their house. Though Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is renowned for her healing potions and has a gift for seeing the future, she finds herself powerless to protect her family from the grief to come. The narrative slips among the viewpoints of every family member to give an account of the fateful day as well as the story of Agnes's courtship and marriage to Hamnet's father. (It's William Shakespeare, though the text avoids ever naming him.)

This novel won much acclaim, and I found the praise well warranted. O'Farrell has taken the little that's known about Shakespeare's family, especially his wife, and imagined rich and surprising lives that have little connection to his work and fame. From the first page, there's a carefully crafted sense of foreboding. The whole reading experience is one of anticipating outcomes that we know are historically inevitable but the characters don't, and O'Farrell plays around with this in interesting ways by giving Agnes visions of the future (or at least, belief in her visions). The story unfolds slowly, through vividly depicted moments and compelling insights into the minds of the different characters. While I was completely engrossed throughout the first section, my attention waned some in the second, but I loved the satisfying conclusion.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker: Following the events of THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, the title characters have evaded the threats to their lives and secrecy, so now they can go on existing among the humans of 1900s Manhattan. The Golem has a few friends in her Lower East Side community, and the Jinni has his business partner in Little Syria, but their true natures keep them both isolated, except when they're able to be open with one another. As time passes, though, they seem to become less close, not more, and their disagreements intensify. Meanwhile, other characters and forces are gathering, both nearby and far away, and when these others reach the Golem and the Jinni's stories, everything will change.

Wecker has written a wonderfully rich sequel that expands and further complicates the already expansive, complex story and characters of the first book. While the initial installment built to its exciting climax in the space of months, this one spans years of the world changing around the Golem and the Jinni. The two of them never age, and each in their own way resists altering their carefully constructed lives until situations reach breaking points that are often emotional to read. There's perhaps more pain in this book than the first, though also plenty of hope. I loved the new characters we meet and the developments with those we knew already, and I'm once again impressed by how the many story threads converge to a satisfying end. I highly recommend reading both these books.

THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia sets out to address a sad fact of the publishing world: many good books fail to be published or noticed while many bad books succeed. Kanakia's aim is to help the writers of good books convince publishing's gatekeepers that their book is a potential success, even if that means making the manuscript look a little more like a bad book. It's a cynical perspective indeed, but based on years of observation and experience. This guide lays out many hard truths about publishing and the writing life, with some practical advice on failure-proofing your manuscript while protecting your creative ambition.

I read this because I've long enjoyed the opinions on Kanakia's blog, in addition to appreciating her novels. I found her perspective thought-provoking and the advice helpful. I'm a writer who likes picking apart what makes stories work, and this book approaches that from a unique angle. The cynicalness of it appeals to me and makes the book fun to read as well as useful. I recommend it to writers who have experienced at least some attempts at traditional publishing and are wondering how to get further.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Amy Zimmerman, writing for Electric Literature, contemplates autofiction, pandemic time, and the desire to be the main character: "What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn't yield the gifts or the consequences that we've grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives."

August 30, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2021

I'm excited about a bunch of books coming out in the next couple of months. Some are books I've been eagerly anticipating for years!

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (September 7): Groff's previous novel was the fascinating FATES AND FURIES, a relationship story nothing like I expected. I'm surprised again, and intrigued, to discover that Groff's newest book is set in the 12th century, based on the life of a historical poet, Marie de France.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne (September 14): I haven't previously read anything by Byrne, though I was interested by reviews of THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I'm even more interested in this new novel, a global saga spanning two thousand years, from the ancient Mayan Empire to a post-apocalyptic utopia.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (September 14): Every anticipated list everywhere includes the latest from Whitehead, who produces literary masterpieces with impressive frequency. The new book has a family at the center, involves a heist, and sounds like a lot of fun.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (October 12): Bergman has long been a great source of thoughtful life advice through his column Asking Bear (and as a personal friend). This delightfully illustrated comic book features practical, step-by-step guides to behaving better, demanding better, and thinking through how to be a human in this complicated world.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer (October 19): This will be the fourth and final book in the expansive Terra Ignota series, a narratively inventive chronicle of twenty-fifth century politics, technology, and philosophy. The first two volumes (which are essentially one long book) left me astounded. I decided to wait on the third until it was clear when the last would be published, and then I forgot to stop waiting, but I'm looking forward to diving back into this incredible science fiction series!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Atlantic, Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter chart The Rise of Must-Read TV: "As television scholars have noted, the plots and premises of 'complex TV' are structured primarily around characters and their development: Viewers want to identify with, relate to, and follow characters. Given that, the adaptation economy may well be one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of what literary critics call 'multiprotagonist fiction,' books with not a single protagonist (an Emma Woodhouse or Hercule Poirot, say) but a collection of main characters whose stories intertwine in surprising ways over the course of a single narrative."

August 6, 2021

July Reading Recap

I packed a lot of reading into July:

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur: Elsa is a physicist nearing the end of a season at the South Pole, where she studies neutrinos, sometimes called "ghost particles." Maybe it's because she's stayed awake too long under the endless polar sun, but before Elsa leaves Antarctica, she's visited by another sort of ghost. The woman who appears to her is the grown-up version of her childhood companion, a friend who was imaginary, or at least invisible to everyone else. This elusive friend resembles a character from Korean picture books, or the folk tales Elsa's immigrant mother used to tell over and over. But her mother hasn't said a word in years, since an accident left her comatose. Elsa has tried to get as far as possible from the whole combination of misfortunes that is her family, until her ghost friend returns and she receives word of her mother speaking again. These events draw Elsa into an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

This summary only covers a fraction of the things going on in this fascinating novel. The story shifts in and out of the past, circles the globe, and slips between genres, often self-consciously. The characters' conversations shift quickly as well, between ancient legends and modern pop culture, from science to history. Elsa is a great narrator, funny and perceptive, except when she's oblivious and frustrating, which I was soon attached enough to forgive her for. This is one of those ambitious, unconventional novels that might so easily have gone wrong, and probably won't connect as well for all readers, but for me, it was a storytelling success.

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS by Rainbow Rowell: In the final chapter of the Simon Snow trilogy, Simon and his friends have just arrived back in England after their American misadventures. They've all come to various realizations about their lives and are ready to figure out what kind of futures are possible after saving the world a time or two. But some of those realizations still need some work, and definitely some working together, because much about being an adult is hard to figure out, both in and out of the World of Mages. Perhaps the rumored new Chosen One can provide answers, or at least raise different questions to get to the bottom of once and for all.

I'm very fond of all the characters in this series, and I was delighted to spend time with them again. The level of angst in Simon and Baz's relationship is less endearing to me, and while I appreciated watching them navigate their intimacy, I would have preferred less time spent on it. Mostly because of that focus, the story starts off slow, but once the plot is really in motion, things get exciting. The other characters have some great plotlines, though they all remain in separate plots for longer than I expected. Still, everyone comes together at the end to save the magical world again and conclude this wonderful trilogy.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig: Every decision Nora has ever made seems to be the wrong one, leading her to the worst possible life. After an especially terrible day that causes her to relive every regret, she decides to die. Nora takes an overdose and finds herself in a magical transition space, the Midnight Library. The librarian, in the form of a school librarian who was kind to her in childhood, tells Nora she has a chance to step into alternate versions of her life and experience what would have happened if she'd made other choices. By living out the result of each abandoned dream and possibility, Nora gets to choose a new future.

This popular novel is billed as a "feel-good" story, and I approached it skeptically for that reason, but I found it engrossing despite my preference for something less gentle. The smooth prose is a pleasure to read, the characters are lovely, and the story moves quickly through the expected beats, with a few surprises. I enjoyed this book, and though it didn't change my life, I don't regret following along as Nora changed hers.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge: In 1860, Libertie is a freeborn Black girl in New York, where her mother is a respected doctor. She's in awe of her mother's accomplishments and wants to follow in her footsteps, but dark-skinned Libertie also knows the path of medicine will be harder than for her mother, who sometimes passes as white. As Libertie grows older, she discovers more differences in the way the two approach the world, and a rift grows between them. When her mother sends Libertie off to college to study medicine, she feels banished, and at school she realizes she no longer shares her mother's dreams of practicing together. In search of a different future, Libertie marries another doctor who is returning to Haiti. But life in Haiti is nothing like she imagined, giving Libertie more reasons to consider what freedom means and decide what kind of life she truly wants.

There's much to praise in the well-researched historical detail and lush writing of this coming-of-age novel. Unfortunately, my interest waned as the story grew increasingly slow and atmospheric, and I had more and more trouble understanding what was behind some of Libertie's reactions. Greenidge took inspiration from the real life of an early Black woman doctor, but when I heard her recount the whole story on the Code Switch podcast (audio and transcript), I was surprised by her choice not to use some of the most dramatic parts in the novel. Still, I admire Greenidge's ambitious use of history and structural experimentation, also evident in her first novel, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, which I recommend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Drangle presents a typology of short story titles at Literary Hub: "The one-worder is a classic, from Chekhov's 'Gooseberries' to Mary Gaitskill's 'Secretary.' Both of those are decent, I'd argue—solid if unremarkable eighty percenters. Then you've got 'Gospel' by Edward P. Jones and 'Apostasy' by Mary Robison, both of which are fairly great, in my humble opinion. (Maybe one-worders benefit from religious connotation?) And then there's 'Give' by James Salter, which is just terrible. Poor James Salter—the man wrote exquisite, harrowing fiction, and his tables of contents read like the track listings of pretentious folk albums."

July 29, 2021

Where Do I Get My Ideas, Please?

Recently I've been putting focused time into brainstorming in hopes that I'll think up some viable story ideas. Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" to which my instinctual answer might usually be a panicked "I don't know, I don't have any!" Many other writers seem a lot more full of ideas than I've ever been.

A more accurate assessment, though, is that without further qualification, ideas are easy, and I have a million of them. I have opening scenes and configurations of characters and a more interesting spin on that thing that happened in real life. Maybe I'm as full of ideas as those other writers I'm envying, but the thing I'm too often lacking is an idea that transforms some of this random stuff into a story. I don't have enough ideas about middle scenes or plots to send the characters on, so I'm left with no coherent shape to assemble the existing ideas into.

I have of course had viable story ideas before, and that suggests I surely will again. Most often, the good ideas come to me in a way that feels out of the blue, but very often following a period of despair and maybe a public proclamation that I'll never have another good idea again. So I figured I'd better make this post to move the process along.

I went looking through old blog posts to see what I'd written before about the search for ideas. I was thinking of this post on how to write a short story, though it turned out to focus less on the pre-idea stage than I remembered. I also found a sort of sequel post that's really more about procrastination than anything else.

I ended up reading through a lot of other old blog posts (speaking of procrastination) and was kind of amazed to discover how much I used to post and how much more full of ideas I seemed back then. I once came up with a whole story outline to use in a discussion of plot for a column I used to write, and then there's this other detailed invention for the sake of example. Possibly the answer is to get my ideas from Past Me, so I guess I'll be writing a story about the stress of unemployment and dolphin training.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Taylor Adams explains What Makes a Killer Plot Twist: "While out-of-nowhere problems are a great way to intensify the story's moment-to-moment suspense (I often delight in imagining things that can go wrong for the main character), it doesn't land with the same visceral impact as a plot twist because the groundwork isn't there. A complication can be simple bad luck, but a twist is inevitable. The clearer the reader can recall these 'signposts'—and the longer they've been embedded in the story—the bigger the exhilaration when you circle back on them to deliver an unexpected (but fully unavoidable) revelation."

July 8, 2021

June Reading Recap

Last month I read two brand new novels and a decade-old self help guide:

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston: August is new to New York City, new to the easy friendship her roommates are offering, and new to the experience of falling so hard for a girl she doesn't even know. Her attraction to Jane during their first subway encounter is immediate, but it would have been a missed connection if not for the happy coincidence that August and Jane share the same daily commute. Jane is always on August's train, so there's time for their flirtation to grow into a possible romance, though cautious August isn't sure if someone as wonderful and mysterious as Jane could ever be interested in her. Jane is always, always on August's train, and eventually it becomes clear how odd that is, and just how much of a mystery Jane is, even to herself. All Jane knows is that she boarded the subway in 1976 and then time stopped passing for her, so August is determined to figure out what happened almost 45 years ago and how to fix it.

This is a delightful story about developing relationships that celebrates friendship as much as love, with a vibrant, constantly bantering cast of characters. The speculative element emerges gradually, and I really enjoyed the ways it impacts both plot and character dynamics. As August and Jane uncover Jane's past, the novel explores queer history of the early 1970s in fascinating detail. The story gets emotional at times, steamy at other times, and focuses on joy throughout. I loved the time I spent with August, Jane, and all their friends.

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Nella is the only Black employee on the editorial staff at Wagner Books, so she's delighted by the arrival of a new Black editorial assistant, Hazel. The two young women click immediately, and Nella is relieved to finally have a colleague who can share her perspective on the very white world of publishing. From the start, Hazel seems better at navigating that world than Nella has ever been, which Nella admires, then envies, then grows increasingly suspicious about. The sinister, anonymous notes Nella is receiving may be connected to Hazel, or may have nothing to do with her, but either way, Nella is paranoid about Hazel's motives and what exactly is happening at Wagner.

This novel begins as a sharp look at race in publishing and develops into an intriguing but not entirely successful thriller. I liked so much about the book early on, but once its secrets started to be revealed, I wished for a few more plot developments or layers to keep the tension up. Though each piece of the story appealed to me—the workplace dynamics, the mystery built through the different points of view, the accumulating clues—when they all came together, I felt there wasn't quite enough there. Harris is co-writing a television adaptation, and I look forward to seeing how that expands the great premise into a fuller story.

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Gretchen Rubin tracks a year in the author's life as she follows a set of resolutions intended to increase her happiness. The motivation for this project is her realization that while she has a pretty great life—a loving marriage, wonderful kids, financial security, and a career she loves—she is frequently unhappy about minor difficulties, annoyances, and slights. This well-structured, engaging book chronicles the changes Rubin makes, the results, and what she learns along the way from her experiences and her research into happiness.

To achieve her happiness goals, Rubin adopts new habits each month of the year, organized around themes. In January, to boost her energy for the rest of the project, she establishes routines for sleeping and exercising more, and she gets rid of household clutter that she finds draining. In later months, she works to strengthen the relationships with her husband, children, and friends using strategies that introduce more fun, patience, and generosity. Rubin pushes herself to expand her work and leisure by trying new things, but she also strives to recognize what she actually likes and values versus what she believes she should enjoy.

As someone coming from a similar position as Rubin, I was the right audience for this book, and it connected well for me. Like any self help guide, some parts were more resonant and applicable than others, but I found plenty to think about and try in my own life. I hope to use the ideas from this book to reframe my perspective and develop habits for more reliable happiness.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate investigates how representation and casting is changing in the audiobook industry: "It's customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book's narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel's author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own."

June 30, 2021

Keeping You Posted

A short general update, and then a technical update for the handful of people who receive this blog via email:

In general, my life is going pretty well, for which I remain grateful. Thanks to vaccines, I was able to travel to see my family, and I feel so fortunate that I got to have those happy reunions. I know that most of the world is not so lucky, and that insufficient vaccine uptake in this country means our window of increased safety could be receding.

In writing, other than occasional continued puttering on a story revision, I haven't been doing much. I don't have any specific writing goals at the moment, and that's keeping me somewhat adrift. I've been feeling more excited lately about the idea of diving into a new project, but I'm not yet sure what that project would be, so I have thinking to do.

And now, the boring announcement for my dozen or so email subscribers: The service (Feedburner) I've always used to automatically send my posts as email messages is discontinuing that feature. I've migrated my subscribers to a new service that will email the posts instead, but I'm still figuring out the details. If everything goes as expected, you'll receive this post from both services (probably at different times). Subsequent posts should only come from a new service, but the look (or the service itself) may change. Hiccups are of course also possible, because technology is fun that way.

Since this has required me to start messing around with the technical workings of my blog after years of barely touching it, I might even get inspired to make some bigger changes. So if there's anything (or everything) about my decade-old design that you think desperately needs an upgrade, let me know your thoughts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Maria Kuznetsova offers Writing (and Life) Lessons from Finishing Two Novels That Didn't Sell: "Find the axis that your novel turns around. You can have as many plots and subplots as you want, as long as there's a clear focal point. In my first book, I lost track of the fact that it was about how Chernobyl affected my narrator—every scene, whether it was her love for her friend's grandpa, or the friend's accident, should have revolved around that. When I lost track of Chernobyl, my narrator was aimless."

June 4, 2021

May Reading Recap

I had a fantastic reading month of three wonderful novels:

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade: Amadeo has a lot of plans for getting his life back on track, starting with faithfully portraying Jesus in the Good Friday procession of the religious brotherhood he's recently joined. He doesn't have time to deal with the unannounced arrival of the pregnant teenage daughter he barely knows. Angel has her own newfound sense of purpose as she prepares for the birth of her baby. Though she's only 16 and hasn't made the best choices to end up in this situation, she can see that her plans are more sensible than her father's. Amadeo's mother, Yolanda, would like to do all she can to guide her son and granddaughter to better futures. She'd rather they not know her help will have to be limited, so she decides not to tell them about the brain tumor that's going to kill her in a few months.

THE FIVE WOUNDS has everything I want to read in a family novel: sympathetically flawed characters with believably complicated relationships, multiple viewpoints with distinct outlooks, and a story that balances deep emotion with humor. The humor Quade finds in the absurd details of life is key here in keeping an often sad and painful story from turning maudlin. I became quickly invested in the lives of these characters, and I continued to care even when they made frustrating choices. I am so impressed with the novel that grew from Quade's short story, and I look forward to more of her work.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Flora and Margot's friendship began in New York City, when they were both young actors breaking into the theater scene. The friends were together when they met the men who would become their husbands, they saw each other through early successes and failures, and to their collective surprise, both couples ended up in Los Angeles. Flora has found steady work as a voice actor and raised a wonderful daughter, while Margot has become a huge TV star. As different as their lives have been from each other, and from what their young selves imagined, they've remained the best of friends. But Flora discovers troubling new information that makes her question everything that seemed settled and clear.

The discovery that launches the plot is a bit of a red herring, because this is not a book of twisty reveals but rather a compelling portrait of friendships and marriages evolving over time. I found the novel and its characters beautifully developed, with relationship dynamics and personal flaws that are complex and real. I also enjoyed the knowledgeable peek inside the two different acting worlds of NYC and LA. But until I understood that the initial hook was not the story, I was frustrated that flashbacks kept appearing every time the present day plot seemed about to move forward. That structure is best viewed not as a pacing problem but as a deliberate exploration of the way memories and experiences intertwine and small moments produce large consequences. This is a nuanced, emotional character story, and the secret that sets it in motion is only one step of a much longer journey.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells: In the newest installment of The Murderbot Diaries, our favorite Security Unit has to help solve a murder on a station where dead humans are an anomaly rather than an expected side effect of corporate operations. SecUnit is really only interested in this murder if there are indications that its own humans might be in danger, and it definitely isn't going to enjoy collaborating with the annoying humans who work in security on this annoying station. But with some clever deductions and a little more network access, maybe it can figure everything out and get back to watching media before it has to care about any of it.

I'd been looking forward to spending more time with Murderbot and was delighted to find this novella as excellent and satisfying as the rest. The mystery unfolds well and fuels an exciting plot. The portrayals of both the returning and new characters continue to be great, and it's especially fun in this series to watch dislike become grudging respect and even friendship. Note that this story takes place before NETWORK EFFECT, so if you're just starting out with Murderbot, you could read this novella after the others and save the novel for the end.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Naomi Kanakia explains the process of revising a book by exploding it in her mind: "It's very easy to write something in the text like, 'They were best friends!' But sometimes the problem is that they're not actually best friends. They just don't seem like, feel like, or act like best friends. The temptation here is to wade in and start forcing stuff into place, writing scenes where they swear eternal friendship, but the thing to do is first to just notice what is going on: What are the conflicts? What are the relationships? Not what do you want them to be–instead, what have you actually written?"

May 6, 2021

April Reading Recap

I did a lot of fun, exciting reading last month:

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton: In 1971, a barely known musical duo shot to fame in the wake of a racist riot that left their drummer dead. Opal Jewel, a flamboyant Black singer from Detroit, and Nev Charles, a quirky white songwriter from Birmingham, England, had started collaborating the previous year. These mismatched misfits only released two albums together before going their separate ways, Nev to massive solo fame and Opal to a patchier career. Forty-five years later, a reunion concert is in the works, and perhaps a tour. Music journalist Sunny Curtis has risen to the top of her field, a rarity for a Black woman, while taking care never to reveal her connection to Opal & Nev as the daughter of the murdered drummer. In this oral history, Sunny charts the origins and rise of the duo, investigates the circumstances of that fateful night, and plays a role in the long aftermath.

This outstanding novel joined my list of favorites before I even reached the powerful, satisfying end. I love fiction that makes good use of unusual forms, and here Walton creates complete believability as well as a compelling story in the oral history format of transcribed interview excerpts with judiciously placed editor's notes. Every character's voice is unique and real (the full cast audiobook production gets great reviews). Bad behavior and decisions are rampant in the story, but they always make sense for the person and situation. Despite the many developments explained at the outset, the plot builds and twists in surprising ways as the book goes on. Music is at the heart of this novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, family, time, and loyalty. I've been recommending it to everyone!

MACHINEHOOD by S.B. Divya: Welga appreciates the reliable pay of her job protecting high-profile clients, and she enjoys the physicality of fighting off attackers. The pills she uses to enhance her job performance are standard for people in any field who want to keep up with bots and AIs that are faster and stronger but lack the nuanced abilities of humans. Lately, though, Welga's pills seem to be the cause of symptoms that are getting scarier, and she turns to her biogeneticist sister-in-law Nithya for help. Nithya is coping with bodily concerns of her own: an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Both women's problems become smaller and yet more urgent with the emergence of a terrorist group called the Machinehood, which demands all pill production cease. The global crisis caused by the Machinehood could be the work of the first truly sentient AI, or it might be a cover for the continued warfare of a secretive empire, but either way, Welga is determined to take the Machinehood down.

I was quickly caught up in the thrilling plot, the well-developed characters, and the fascinating world. The future Divya imagines is innovative but also follows logically from our present, and the developments are a complicated mix of positive and negative. The novel is heavy on ideas about topics like progress, religion, and right and wrong, and these interested me but occasionally bogged down the story. Divya skillfully manages many different story threads and characters in this exciting sci-fi debut.

LOCAL STAR by Aimee Ogden: Triz is content with her quiet life repairing starships on a station, and she has no desire to travel through space like her more adventurous partners. It's just as well her relationship with Kalo is over, because his death-defying fighter piloting puts him in more danger than Triz can stand. But she worries that her partner Casne, and her wife, only want Triz to join their marriage if Kalo is part of the package. With Casne and Kalo both back on the station after a military victory, it might be time to address some of these relationship questions. Before that can happen, though, Casne is arrested on unbelievable charges, and Triz finds herself in the middle of a mystery, then a dangerous adventure to save the station.

This novella is a fun romp that delivers both exciting action and romantic drama. It was satisfying to watch Triz reckon with her self-doubt and gain confidence in her abilities and her place in Casne's family. I enjoyed the loving portrayal of polyamory in a world where this is the norm, though I was sorry the short length meant the relationships weren't developed as fully as I wanted. In general, the characters and their dynamics could have used more nuance, but there's an entertaining story here for those seeking a quick sci-fi read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller at Slate suggests what writers can learn from The Phantom Tollbooth: "Procrastination isn't always your enemy. Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth when he was supposed to be writing a book about cities for children, a project for which he had received a grant. As a rule, the thing that you write for fun will always be better than whatever you think is more important, serious, or expected of you."

April 30, 2021

Coming Around Again

One year ago, I posted about celebrating my birthday under the strange new conditions of pandemic life. By then, it was apparent the situation wasn't as temporary as we might have believed at first, but it's just as well I couldn't imagine that life would be similarly constrained a year later.

I marked turning 46 the same way as 45, with delicious treats at home with my household. But I did also get my Santa Cruz afternoon, complete with ice cream by the ocean, a few weeks in advance. And the best early birthday present was that two days before, I received my first vaccine shot!

A year ago, the outlook was grim and so unknown. Now I'm embracing a growing sense of hope as more Americans get vaccinated and cases decline. However, grim uncertainty remains when I look beyond the US to places where the pandemic still rages, particularly the horrifying crisis in India. (Donate at GiveIndia.)

A lot of life, for those as lucky as I've been, involves navigating the balance between personal joys and awareness of other people's suffering. I'm another year older now, and after a year that made those contrasts especially stark, I recognize this even more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Catriona Silvey ponders the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop: "Why do we seek out narratives that not only repeat themselves, but feature repetition as an anchoring principle of their structure? As a linguist and novelist, I believe that the answer lies in the process by which readers construct meaning from texts. Time loops, it turns out, are perfect for hacking this process to deliver a hefty intellectual and emotional impact within a tight narrative framework."

April 7, 2021

March Reading Recap

I had plenty more reading variety last month, with two novels, a book of nonfiction, and a short story collection:

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen: After the events of THE SYMPATHIZER, the man of two minds finds himself a refugee in Paris in 1981. He arrives with his blood brother, a killer of communists who cannot learn that our antihero spent years secretly operating as a communist agent (though he now isn't sure where his loyalties lie). The two find work with a crime lord, and the protagonist ends up selling drugs to the intellectual friends of his aunt, who isn't really his aunt but in fact a connection from his spy days. He also ends up using at least his fair share of the drugs, getting beaten and tortured quite a bit, and musing a lot about his own history and that of Vietnam and other colonized entities.

This is a consistent sequel that delivers more of Nguyen's clever sentences and pointed observations in a story that mixes intense action with cerebral analysis. As with the first book, at times I found the philosophical sections slow going. It's possible this book is grimmer than the first, or weirder, but as I remember more about the first, I'm not sure that's true. The narrative voice of these novels is unique and confidently crafted, and the narrator still has a fascinating story to tell.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price argues that too much of the conversation about environmental crises focuses on individual consumer actions, when the problems can only be solved at a systemic level. In this opinionated, accessible book, Price calls for corporate accountability, a reframing of environmentalist movements, and a more thoughtful accumulation of stuff. It's a great introduction to concepts like environmental inequality and greenwashing, but even those familiar with the subjects will find new perspectives and ideas here.

The book makes a clear case for why the focus has to shift away from individual actions: "Why can't you find a 50 Simple Things You Can Do to End World Poverty handbook at your bookstore?—or 101 Ways You Can Help Stop Gun Violence (or Solve the Middle East Crisis) Before You're 12!" Still, it does end by offering the reader a list of Ways to Stop Saving the Planet, but—guess what?—they aren't simple, and they aren't solutions. Many of the suggestions revolve around educating yourself, and this book is a good place to start!

MEDIUM HERO: AND OTHER STORIES by Korby Lenker: The two dozen-plus stories in this collection range from brief, lighthearted musings to intense character reckonings. All are nicely written, with moments and details that are well observed, unexpected, and often amusing. Some of the pieces have the feel of anecdotes from life rather than crafted stories with complete arcs, and while I tended to prefer the latter, I enjoyed reading either way.

Among my favorite stories: In "Pro Wrestling," full of great details and tension, a couple at a crossroads attends a wrestling match gone wrong. The protagonist in "Manboy and the Mafia Table" finds himself playing a surprising role in a social situation. The title story starts off as an insightful portrayal of how difficult the smallest things can be when depressed, then goes to an even darker place before reaching a satisfyingly hopeful ending. I'm glad I was introduced to the work of this author, who is also a singer-songwriter.

INFINITE COUNTRY by Patricia Engel: Talia's life and family have been divided by immigration restrictions. She and her brother were born in the US after her parents and their oldest child overstayed their visas. When Talia was still a baby, her father was deported to Colombia with no way to return. Her overwhelmed mother sent Talia back as well, and she grew up in Bogotá under the care of her grandmother. Now Talia is fifteen, her grandmother has died, and she's sentenced to a prison school after committing a random act of violence. But Talia has a plane ticket to finally return to the US and rejoin the mother and older siblings she barely knows, so she escapes detention in hopes of making it back to Bogotá in time for her flight.

INFINITE COUNTRY is beautifully written and recounts many experiences faced by undocumented immigrants and mixed status families, but I didn't think the story worked particularly well. After a tense opening scene depicting Talia's escape, the narrative changes course by jumping back to cover years of her parents' lives in Colombia and then the US. That the novel turns out to be as much about Talia's parents as Talia herself is fine, but the initial hook and ticking clock of the fugitive journey becomes a background thread that isn't all that deeply explored. Nor is there an especially deep exploration of the novel's many other events, because most episodes pass in summary, with only brief pauses for detailed scenes and dialogue. The result is that my reaction to this book was a generalized sympathy for these characters as representatives of a range of traumatic immigration experiences, but little feeling for them as specifically drawn fictional people.

This novel exists within the context of a publishing landscape in which stories about marginalized characters are more often rewarded when they focus on trauma and can educate readers about important issues. Whether or not that context influenced the writing or style of this novel, it seems like a factor in some of the praise it's receiving. Certainly the book exposes many terrible realities, but for me it fell short as a work of fiction.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal considers the history and legacy of who is reviewed and how: "Note that language. It reappears in the reviews of the interlopers — the nonwhite writers, women writers and especially L.G.B.T.Q. writers. Their books are not written, they are not crafted — they are expelled, they are excreted, almost involuntarily.... Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity."

March 19, 2021

This Year

In the first week of March last year, I was on the convention committee running FOGcon, and we were watching the news trying to understand what it meant for our small local con, scheduled for March 6 to 8.

We decided not to cancel. That could have been a very, very bad call, but instead we were very, very lucky, and as far as we know, our convention wasn't responsible for any COVID spread. Some would-be attendees wisely stayed home. Those of us who were there made some nice memories to think of during the time ahead. Even a couple of days after the con, it began to seem horrifying that we had just gathered 150 people together in basement conference rooms. But while we were gathering, the average person didn't yet know we were dealing with an airborne virus that had already spread widely, often through asymptomatic carriers.

This past weekend, the FOGcon committee presented a small set of virtual events to let our community reconnect. Chatting in a Zoom breakout room was of course different than hanging out in the hospitality suite or lobby. But there was also a pleasant familiarity in sharing thoughts and catching up with a group of people I've known for years, but only in this limited, con-going way. It was a lot of fun, and I'm glad we were able to make it happen.

During this long year, and especially this longest winter, I have been among those with the most privilege in every possible way. I've been in a position to comfortably go nowhere since November, but I also haven't been stuck inside, because I've been able to get out for neighborhood walks almost every day of the mild California winter.

Things are starting to change for the better in the US, though global trends are troubling. My parents and other older relatives are vaccinated, and every day I hear about more friends getting their shots. It's not my turn yet, but I don't mind waiting. I'm venturing back into the world in a limited way for routine checkups next week, talking about meeting up with friends outside, having hopeful discussions about family travel possibilities later in the year.

This year-old pandemic is not over, and some of the uncertainty of last March still remains. My optimism is uncertain, too, but it's been growing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Lit, Rachel Mans McKenny considers Why New Fiction Is Making Mothers into Monsters: "What I appreciate about these literary works is that there is no enfant terrible, no possessed child. It is not the child's fault that society has gutted or failed to implement systems to help caretakers. It is not the child's fault that the default caretaker in a heterosexual relationship is presumed to be the mother. In these stories, the children are just children. The mothers are eely, and their characters reveal the holes that mothers are allowed to fall through: holes in mental health care and child care and sexual satisfaction. The system is untenable, and mothers cannot continue to live this way."

March 5, 2021

February Reading Recap

Last month's reading was mixed, both in styles and in my reactions:

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones: When Lewis and his friends were young men, they went out hunting elk, and everything went wrong. Ten years later, one friend is dead, two still live on the Blackfeet Reservation where they all grew up, and Lewis feels pretty good about the life he's made for himself by getting away. He's happily married, has a good post office job, and rents a nice house that might be... haunted? By an elk he shot ten years ago? As the strange things Lewis is seeing and thinking become increasingly disturbing, his life goes in a short span of time from pretty good to really, really bad.

Wow, this novel is incredible. It is also extremely grisly, with humans, elk, and dogs meeting horrible ends in graphic detail. That I liked the book so much despite the terrible images now in my brain is a testament to Jones's storytelling skills. All the characters were immediately brought to life by natural dialogue and lifelike observations that often provide moments of humor. The plot unfolds through a carefully developed structure and some surprising narrative shifts that all work well to keep up the tension and intrigue. The story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past. Jones has published many previous books, and I look forward to more of his work!

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori: Keiko works in a convenience store. She started at the store the day it opened, 18 years ago, and has never worked anywhere else. She's an excellent worker, devoted to the customers and attuned to the rhythms of the store even when she's away from it. At the convenience store, Keiko understands how to behave, thanks to the detailed worker manual. Anywhere else, she is constantly reminded that the world does not consider her normal and disapproves of an unmarried, childless woman in her thirties still content to work part-time at a convenience store.

Most of this short book focuses on the details of Keiko's thoughts and interactions in and out of the store. I enjoyed this at first and was looking forward to getting a deeper insight into Keiko's perspective, but I didn't find much new as the story went on. Eventually there's a plot development. While it was good to have some change in the story, this arrives pretty late and was mostly frustrating to read about. I liked parts of this novel, but by the end, I was underwhelmed.

THE BOOK OF ESSIE by Meghan MacLean Weir: Years before Essie was born, her father's popular televised church services evolved into a reality show documenting the lives of the pastor's growing family. Or at least, their lives as carefully curated and milked for maximum ratings by Essie's shrewd mother. If teen Essie's pregnancy were exposed, the wholesome family media empire would be destroyed. But Essie has a plan. The first step is manipulating Mother into believing it's her own plan, and the next is enlisting the cooperation of a boy at school she barely knows and a local journalist hungry for a scoop.

The book starts off enjoyably sensational, and a real page turner. But as I kept turning those pages, I grew increasingly frustrated at how long the characters' secrets were being withheld, and increasingly certain that the truth about Essie's pregnancy would put an end to any fun left in the story. Some readers will want to stay away from this book due to subject matter. Others should avoid it for the narrative contrivance of point-of-view characters who keep thinking about their traumas but not specifying them in order to delay the shocking reveals. There are interesting aspects to the novel, especially when it explores celebrity and public perception, but I didn't wind up a fan.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrea Blythe embraces the risks of writing and deep water: "When I enter the ocean, I have to be present and alert to the dangers around me, and I have to trust in my ability to swim and hold myself afloat. Writing, I find, is similar."

February 24, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2021

The next few months are bringing many new books from authors I'm excited to read more from!

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 2): It did not occur to me to expect a sequel to THE SYMPATHIZER, but I was excited to learn one was coming. The excellent first novel follows a double agent from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War to a new life in Los Angeles, and the second takes him to Paris to deal with the many difficult events of his past. I look forward to more time with this fascinating protagonist, and to more of Nguyen's dark humor and clever sentences.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge (March 30): Greenidge's inventive debut, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, featured well-developed characters, complicated family dynamics, and a wide range of topics including sign language and the history of racist science. LIBERTIE promises to deliver more history and complexity with the story of a young Black woman during the Reconstruction who tries to find a life where she can truly be free.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (April 6): This novel expands a short story from Quade's great collection, NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS. All those stories did an impressive job rendering characters and relationships fully enough in a few pages to get me invested. I'm eager to see what Quade does with a whole novel to depict a family coming together in the face of a teen pregnancy.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (April 6): I adored Sweeney's debut, THE NEST, a standout in my beloved genre of dysfunctional family dramas. It was a particular delight to enjoy the book so much and see it succeed, because Sweeney and I were workshop-mates at the Community of Writers some years earlier. The new novel explores the truths behind a friendship and a marriage against the backdrop of theater and TV acting.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price (April 20): While I'm bragging about personal connections, I'll divulge that this author is one of my cousins, which is why I'm anticipating a book that's pretty far from my usual tastes. But I am genuinely looking forward to reading this, because I agree with the premise that most "save the planet" efforts do little to address the real problems of climate change and environmental inequity. Jenny is also an entertaining writer, and I recommend her previous book about human connections to nature, FLIGHT MAPS.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells (April 27): I read all the previous installments of The Murderbot Diaries last year and put the series at the top of my 2020 favorites. The title character, a cyborg security expert trying to find its place in human society, is an excellent, opinionated narrator, and I can't wait for its next adventure.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon (May 4): AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS and THE DEEP are both intense, beautiful stories about power and complicated relationships. SORROWLAND sounds like it will explore these as well, in the context of another intricately imagined world. I'm especially intrigued by this sentence from the description: "Here, monsters aren't just individuals, but entire nations."

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston (June 1): Since reading the delightful RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, the politically optimistic gay love story I didn't know I needed, I've been eagerly awaiting more from McQuiston. The new novel is a romance between two women, one of whom is displaced in time, and it sounds just as wonderful.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (June 8): This sequel to THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI has undergone changes to both title and release date since it was first announced, but it's really on the way now. I'm thrilled we'll be getting more to the richly developed story of two supernatural beings who met as immigrants to New York City and the world of humanity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Casey McQuiston writes at Goodreads about the importance of queer love stories: "I thought about what it would have meant to a teenager like me, stumbling around and grabbing onto anything that felt sturdy, to see a book like mine while loitering around the stacks. This pastel-colored confection, with a jacket copy describing a fantastical, frothy, happily-ever-after queer love story that sounded like so many of the rom-coms I loved. I think it would have helped her to know that stories like that could be prominently featured in her favorite place."

February 4, 2021

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off well!

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans is an impressively, consistently strong collection of stories. They're just so good! Each one puts well-drawn characters into nuanced conflicts, often with themselves.

Evans is particularly skilled at combining a bunch of seemingly unrelated elements so the story feels organic and lifelike, yet delivers a satisfying narrative arc. In "Happily Ever After," a woman works in the gift shop at a landlocked replica of the Titanic, she has a difficult health decision to make, and these threads and more weave together into a compelling whole. (An earlier, shorter version of the story appears online.) "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain" juxtaposes a potentially doomed wedding weekend with the disastrous circumstances in which a guest and the groom first met.

The situations in these stories are complicated. In "Boys Go To Jupiter," a college student goes viral for casual racism, and the story unfolds her tangled past. "Anything Could Disappear" presents a traveler with a series of choices that lead to an emotional journey through ethical gray areas.

The title novella has space for even more complexity in the plot and character relationships. The protagonist works at the Institute for Public History, a federal agency that combats misinformation by issuing corrections to plaques, public records, and so on. She's tasked with making a particularly knotty correction that puts her back into contact with an old frenemy and their longstanding rivalry. It's a fascinating end to an incredible collection!

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry: Danvers, Massachusetts, borders the more famous Salem, but it was part of Salem Village in 1692, when a group of teen girls discovered the power they could wield by accusing neighbors of witchcraft. The Danvers Falcons Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team have never come anywhere close to a successful season, but in the fall of 1989, their goalie turns to local lore for help. She makes a dark pledge that the rest of the team join by solemnly signing their names—to a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. With the magic of Emilio fueling them, the eleven team members discover their own power. They start scoring (both on and off the field), they grow into their truest selves, and they delight in wreaking havoc on their own terms.

I loved this quirky novel and found it wicked funny and at times quite moving. It didn't hurt that I was also a Massachusetts high school student in 1989, so every cultural reference charmed me. Barry does a great job managing an ensemble of eleven main characters, plus assorted classmates and adults, and I developed deep affection for everyone in the story. In the middle, I felt some sections dragged a bit, but in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd give up any part of the book. It's a lot of fun, it has a lot of heart, and all its weirdnesses lined up well with my own.

RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark: Maryse fights monsters that wear Ku Klux Klan robes. And they really are monsters: hideous creatures from who-knows-where that feed on racist hatred and take over the bodies of weak, despicable fools. Most people can't see the signs of the monsters lurking beneath the skin of the humans they've turned. Maryse and her friends have the sight, and they're part of a group using both magic and firepower to fight back against evil in 1922 Georgia.

This short book is packed with exciting action scenes and effectively disturbing body horror. I'm not the best audience for either of those, but I appreciated many parts of the story, including the opportunity to read about Black women wielding power in the Jim Crow South. I was intrigued by the premise and the connections made to historical events, and I would have enjoyed more worldbuilding about the origins and spread of the monsters. You can judge this book by the cover: The KKK robe and the mouths where they don't belong encapsulate the story's horrors, so use that to decide whether it's for you.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ruth Madievsky looks at the differences in reviews of women-centric and male-centric literary fiction on Goodreads: "In our publishing climate—where women authors (especially queer women and women of color) are often assumed to be writing autobiographically, are dismissed for writing work that is 'domestic' and characters who are 'unlikable,' and are reviewed significantly less than men in major media outlets—this ratings discrepancy doesn't feel benign."

→ Melissa Baron introduces Book Riot to the genre of ergodic fiction, a new term for me: "What that really amounts to is whether or not the text follows the conventional format of paragraphs, dialogue tags, standard margins, and all the things that make reading it easy."