June 6, 2022

May Reading Recap

May was another varied month of reading:

EUPHORIA by Lily King: Nell and Fen are married anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Nell's recent book has brought her a fame that Fen can't hope to match, which puts an additional strain on their volatile relationship. The two meet Bankson, another anthropologist in the area who has been struggling with feelings of isolation that push him to the brink of suicide. For Bankson, finding peers he can speak to freely is a lifeline that revitalizes both his will and his work. For Nell and Fen, the new friendship at first removes some of the pressure between them, but then introduces new conflicts as the bond between Nell and Bankson grows.

King has written an excellent novel analyzing the relationships between characters whose careers involve analyzing other people's relationships. The story as a whole is intense and sad, but the characters also share many moments of humor and joy. I was quickly invested in the three leads and the nuances of their reactions and behavior toward one another. The cultures of the different tribes are depicted in fascinating detail, and King explains in the acknowledgments that while these groups are fictional, she drew specifics from real tribes studied by Margaret Mead and the other anthropologists whose lives inspired this novel. The narrative also spends some time interrogating the nature and purpose of outsiders observing other societies. I'm glad I finally read this novel, and I plan to read more by Lily King.

THE DAYS OF AFREKETE by Asali Solomon: Liselle is hosting a dinner party to thank the people who worked on her husband's political campaign. It would be an odd dinner anyway, because Winn lost decisively against the incumbent, but what has Liselle on edge is that she's expecting the FBI to show up and arrest Winn in the course of the evening. While Liselle prepares, she thinks back on her past, especially her relationship with Selena in college, when she still considered herself a lesbian. Instead of making a life with another Black woman, Liselle ended up married to a white man, and this night has her wondering how that happened and what became of Selena, whose life followed a different and difficult path.

This character-focused, reflective novel kept me engaged throughout. Most of the story is in the connections and disconnects between the characters, and Solomon does an excellent job portraying these dynamics. The narrative voice is strong, incisive, and frequently funny. The book's setup had me expecting more to happen by the conclusion, and I found the ending abrupt, but I still appreciated the story.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD by Mike Ingram: One early January, before starting a new semester of teaching, Mike Ingram drove his friend's car from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where the friend was starting a great new job. Along the way, Mike pondered whether to stay in his own okay job, whether to try to salvage his rocky relationship, and whether to leave Philadelphia permanently. This book is a reflective essay on the journey, the soul searching, and the pieces of Americana that Mike encountered along the way.

I'm a longtime listener of the podcast Mike co-hosts, Book Fight, so I bring that context and bias to my enjoyment of this book. Still, I feel confident recommending it to anyone interested in well-written, thoughtful creative nonfiction that combines personal experience and research. The narration moves along quickly, lingering on only the most interesting or amusing details of the metaphorical and literal crossroads. The essay is nicely packaged by Awst Press into a pocket-sized paperback to serve as travel reading.

THE CARTOGRAPHERS by Peng Shepherd: Nell is a mapmaker who shares her father's passion for cartography. But the two haven't spoken in years, since a terrible falling out that led to him firing her from the map division of New York Public Library. When Nell's father dies suddenly, she's pulled back into the world of the NYPL, and she discovers an odd map hidden in his desk. It's not one of the valuable ancient artifacts he usually works with, but a cheap gas station road map. As Nell tries to determine its significance, she uncovers evidence suggesting her father may have been murdered, and that she could be in danger as well. There's something very strange about this map and what it represents, and it holds the clue to a string of impossible crimes and long-held dark secrets.

The novel's exploration of maps and libraries is fun, and the premise has potential, but unfortunately the execution was a big disappointment. Most of what the characters do and say seems primarily motivated by plot needs rather than plausible human reactions. And since the plot hinges on people behaving in ways that don't make a ton of sense, the story is on shaky ground from the start, and infuriating by the end. I really wanted to like this book, but I can't recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, Molly Templeton struggles to find the magic of reading while traveling in the new weirdness of traveling again: "What we want in the books we pack with us, when we're headed out on a road trip or to the airport or train station, is as varied as our travel preferences. Window, aisle, observation car. Escapism, education, a break from the norm. What I wanted was to fall into something, to repeat the experience of reading Wanderers on a flight and forgetting how long it was (the book or the flight). Reading a book while traveling can mean forever associating the book with motion; returning to a travel read can, faintly and distantly, recall that experience. American Gods is always traveling in Australia, to me, however contradictory that sounds. When I reread it, two landscapes layer over each other in my mind."

May 31, 2022

Back Again

I'm squeaking in at the end of the month with another writing update, although there isn't much new to report on the writing front since the last update.

I did a lot more research in April and May to learn about the science behind the science fiction of this novel I'm planning. The scifi I like best is built on real science, backed up by plausible details, so I decided it was worth investing the time on research to make the world of my story convincing. I probably went overboard, since it's true that research is a great way to avoid moving on to writing, but I did manage to hammer out many worldbuilding decisions and nail down specifics.

That home improvement imagery may be coming to mind because also during these past couple of months, I was supervising various work on the exterior of our house. Though I didn't have to wield any tools myself, that created some commitments and distractions that took time away from writing. I had some additional fun distractions planned as well, so my productivity expectations for this time were lowered, and I'm actually surprised I got as much accomplished as I did.

The work on the house and the research both wrapped up just in time for a vacation. I spent a couple of wonderful weeks visiting family, seeing friends, and taking part in joyful celebrations. I'm grateful that I was able to travel and that most of the plans worked out pretty well. And now it's great to be back home.

I'm sure it's going to take me a little time to review the notes from before the trip and get back into the world of the story, but then I hope to move on to outlining and other non-research prep. Maybe next time I update about writing, I'll even have an update about writing!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Rebecca Ackermann writes about how the strangeness of office life is captured by the unrelated novel and show both titled Severance: "Through the fictional lens of extreme speculative scenarios—that somehow become more plausible by the month—both narratives illustrate the tempting lure of productive white-collar distraction in a chaotic world, the price of the dehumanizing dissociation that it demands, and the recognition that finding deep meaning and purpose in our relationships with each other can free us from a life lived half-asleep."

May 4, 2022

April Reading Recap

My April was busy with various things, including celebrating my birthday and reading so many books:

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel opens in 1912, but the table of contents reveals that the story will range across centuries. That list of chapter titles offers several other intriguing hints, and I studied it with excitement. Other readers may prefer to set out as unprepared as the first protagonist, who travels by steamship from England to Canada in 1912 with no sense of what might happen when he arrives. In the course of the novel, characters undertake many journeys, some carefully planned and others subject to chance and whim. The story itself is whimsical at times, deeply thoughtful at others, and threaded through with a careful plan that guides the narrative.

I highly recommend this short novel to fans of Mandel's work. The story connects up in delightful ways with her previous novels and career, so while I expect anyone could appreciate the book, some previous familiarity will provide a deeper reading experience. Mandel wrote the novel during our real pandemic, while facing renewed interest in her already bestselling novel about a fictional pandemic, so it's no surprise that pandemics play a role in the plot. Other elements include mysterious phenomena and moon colonies and book tours and more that I won't spoil. I loved this strange and wonderful novel, and I hope you do, too.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan: This was my second time reading this book, a collection of chapters written in different styles and focusing on different characters with connections to a few central figures. On my first reading a decade ago, I resisted the label of "novel" because I didn't find any central arc that unified the separate stories. This time around, I approached the text knowing what to expect from the structure, and also as a different reader. This time, I loved what the novel was doing, and it felt to me like an unquestionable, if unconventional novel.

The story is about time and its effect on the self, on memory, on technology and the music industry. So it's a philosophical sort of novel, focused on character and emotion, but I found it propulsive because every chapter involves tense events and interactions. The chapters build on each other, peeling back layers to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, or revealing future consequences. It's a cool way to get to know the characters, who are portrayed with specificity and humor. I'm fond of the whole cast after seeing them at different times and from different perspectives.

I'm glad I returned to this in another time and with another perspective, and I was happy to have it fresh in my mind for reading Egan's followup, THE CANDY HOUSE.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan: Like its predecessor, this novel is assembled out of chapters written in an array of styles, set in a range of times, and focused on a variety of people. The characters are all connected to each other, and they're connected to the cast of GOON SQUAD but mostly appeared only at the periphery of those stories. As the former background characters take center stage, events and details from the earlier novel are referenced and built upon, and while the reader doesn't need additional context, my recent revisit to the first book deepened my experience of the new one. What I came to appreciate most about both was unearthing all the links and echoes, and it was in part my familiarity with the web of characters that made me so fond of this novel.

Many sections of THE CANDY HOUSE revolve around a technology that allows people to externalize their memories and share them. As the invention and its offshoots grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly rare for anything to be forgotten, unknowable, or lost to time. Egan is less concerned with the scientific details of this tech and more with its possibilities as a literary device, which she uses to continue GOON SQUAD's explorations of time, memory, and self. But while this is a story more of ideas than plot, what it's most about is the characters who come alive as sympathetic, frustrating, singular people I was happy to get to know better.

April 7, 2022

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading took me into many unfamiliar worlds:

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler: The children of Junius Booth grow up in the shadow of their father's fame as both a Shakespearean actor and a drunken eccentric. Most of the sons aspire to a career in the theater, and Edwin will eventually be heralded as a great actor. Rosalie aspires to leave the family home one way or another, but she's needed at her mother's side. Asia aspires to a life of beauty and purpose, and she loves her family with fierce intensity, especially her brother John. As the favored child, John Wilkes is indulged despite getting into frequent trouble, because it's understood within the Booth family that he's destined for greatness.

This novel is a wonderful addition to one of my favorite genres, historical fiction that closely follows the known facts of a person or event, but gets to invent the small moments and interior lives of the characters. The fascinating Booth family provided plenty of material for Fowler to draw on, but she also had plenty of room for invention, and she portrays each family member with care and nuance. As always in Fowler's writing, the narrative is full of sharp observations and dry humor that conveys the humanity of these historical figures, even the infamous assassin. The tension of reading toward a historically inevitable outcome pulled me through the pages, but I also kept wanting to slow down and savor the well-crafted paragraphs. BOOTH was everything I hoped it would be, and then some.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne: Three storylines set millennia apart all converge around a sacred cave in what is today called Belize. In 1012, the young members of a royal family hope to restore prosperity to their declining empire by honoring the gods with proper rituals. In 2012, an American teenager with Mayan ancestry travels to Belize for the turn of the ancient calendar, and she feels drawn to the cave once used for sacrificial ceremonies. In 3012, when most humans have adopted nomadic lives in response to climate disasters, a researcher raises questions that threaten the world's dominant belief system. Life in the far future is shaped by the legends of these long ago young people and their mysterious fates, and as each timeline progresses in the story, the connections proliferate.

I enjoyed this ambitious novel overall, though some elements worked better for me than others. Byrne incorporates an impressive amount of research and creativity into the three story worlds, and while there's a tendency toward long expositional passages especially at the beginning, I did eventually feel immersed in the different time periods. I didn't connect as fully with most of the characters, but I was still invested in finding out what was going to happen to them. The ideas about layers of religions accumulating over time fascinated me, even though I don't share the spiritual pull experienced by the characters. My favorite aspect of the book was watching the pieces of history fall into place, and Byrne structured the novel well to highlight these satisfying connections.

NINEFOX GAMBIT by Yoon Ha Lee: After ordering an unorthodox formation during a bloody battle, Captain Kel Cheris expects her military service to end in disgrace. Instead, she's given the questionable honor of taking on a difficult mission with little information. Cheris's goal is to scour the calendrical rot wreaking havoc on the mathematical forces powering society and technology. Her primary weapon will be an immortal general infamous for his genius and his madness. What nobody warns her is that General Shuos Jedao currently exists only as a ghost, and he'll be anchored to Cheris's mind until they figure out who is behind the rot and how to fix it.

This is a much more military-focused sort of space opera than I generally read, and I wasn't in it for the many battle scenes, but I enjoyed the story pretty well despite that. Cheris and Jedao are both excellent characters, and what kept me engrossed was watching their evolving dynamic as they negotiate working together in strange circumstances. Other characters also get nicely specific depictions, even when they only appear for a few pages. What first drew me to the story was the calendar-based system of magic or science (I'm still not decided on which description fits), and I was disappointed there wasn't a deeper exploration of how and why it works. But the ideas make for some interesting worldbuilding, and the story within the world is an exciting one. There are two more novels in the trilogy, but I found the ending of this one conclusive enough.

WHEN I'M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST by Quan Barry: Chuluun, a novice monk in Mongolia, is tasked with helping locate the latest reincarnation of an enlightened Buddhist teacher. He's only been away from the monastery for a day when he somehow gets involved in sheep theft, but he eventually makes it to the capital to meet up with his twin brother. Mun used to be a monk as well, and he's the reincarnation of another old soul, yet he renounced monastic life and now works as a tour guide in the city. Still, he agrees to help Chuluun, and the brothers join a small group to drive across the vastness of Mongolia in search of the child who will carry on the faith.

I knew almost nothing about Mongolia and the Buddhism practiced there, so I was interested in the setting and situation portrayed in the novel. I grew attached to the well-drawn characters, and I appreciated the humor in Chuluun's narration. The book's plot is the journey around Mongolia and the various obstacles and people encountered along the way, but the focus is more on character introspection. Though composed of very short chapters, the story moves slowly, in a meditative way befitting the monk narrator. I would have preferred a different style and pace, but I think the book is well written and that Barry successfully achieved her intended effects.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Matt Bell talks to Hannah Gerson about his new craft book, REFUSE TO BE DONE, in an interview about revision: "I think the second draft is often the one that feels most like what I imagined novel writing to be, before I did it: I'm working from an outline, usually writing more or less linearly through the story, and making the scenes the best they can be before going on. (I couldn't do this without the exploratory, generative first draft, though, or at least haven't so far.) I usually know my characters pretty well by then, and the voice of the book is pretty established. It's the end of this draft that, book after book, feels most like a real accomplishment: at the end of the first draft, I just feel daunted by how much is left to do, where at the end of the second, I feel like I've written a novel."

March 30, 2022

All Part of the Process

It's been months since I posted anything about writing, but that doesn't mean I haven't been doing anything about writing. What I've been doing, though, is certainly more "about" writing than actual writing. But that's part of the process, and I am slowly (always too slowly) continuing work on the novel I started in November.

At the beginning of this year, I reread the scenes and brainstorms that made up my NaNoWriMo draft, and I was pleased to discover a lot of it was pretty good. It was a mess, but a promising mess. I liked the characters I'd started to develop, and I had ideas about how to further complicate their relationships and make their lives more difficult. (Sorry, characters. I do like you, I promise!) The story world and premise still interested me, and I was excited to figure out more details. In January, I thought I'd take care of a bit of research, sketch an outline, and be ready to start writing a new draft in a few weeks.

Well. I guess if I didn't have an eternally optimistic outlook on my writing, I wouldn't be able to keep going. Because of course it's been rather more than a few weeks, and I haven't started that new draft. But I have done things!

→ I researched many topics extensively, including more than a few topics that are largely irrelevant to the novel.

→ I began an outline but couldn't decide how to refer to the characters since I wasn't sure about the hastily chosen names in the NaNo draft.

→ I renamed all my characters, some multiple times. (Sorry again, characters.)

→ I reorganized my notes, some multiple times.

→ I learned how to use Scrivener features I hadn't tried before, and then let enough time pass without using them that I may have to learn again.

→ I mused about the world of my story, producing thousands of words that won't go into the draft. (This is a for-real accomplishment and essential step.) Some of the worldbuilding even drew on a portion of that extensive research!

→ I felt overwhelmed at the thought of the work ahead of me, while simultaneously imagining the joy of having the work behind me. Now I just have to figure out how to insert myself into the middle part.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at the New York Times looks at how writers are incorporating the pandemic into their novels: "Given how much the virus has dominated our lives, a flood of pandemic fiction is perhaps inevitable. And several authors said they believe it is necessary, noting that unlike the fire hose of news coverage about Covid, which can leave readers feeling numb and overwhelmed, fiction can provide a way to process the emotional upheaval of the past two years."

March 2, 2022

February Reading Recap

I spent February reading wonderful novels:

OLGA DIES DREAMING by Xochitl Gonzalez: Olga has built a successful wedding planning business, managing events for wealthy clients with more money than sense. She gets a thrill, and extra income, from finding opportunities to exploit the rich, but she's increasingly dissatisfied that she's not doing something more meaningful. Her brother Prieto is the do-gooder, a member of Congress who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his Brooklyn constituents. But Prieto has found himself in a compromised position, so he can't do all he'd like for Brooklyn, or for the people of Puerto Rico who he's also trying to help. Both siblings have had their adult lives shaped by their mother, who left the family when they were young in order to pursue the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Since then, she's only communicated by letters from unknown locations, but now she's reaching out in new ways, and it may be time to finally air all the family's secrets.

This fascinating novel opens with a discussion of fancy napkins and unfolds into a story with far more complexity, and sometimes darkness, than I was anticipating. From the start, I was interested in Olga and Prieto and the problems they were dealing with, and then as every new layer appeared, I grew more impressed. At times the book is light-hearted and amusing, but it also gets into weighty subjects including corruption, colonialism, and trauma. While at times the way the characters discuss these topics tends toward speeches rather than dialogue, there is a lot of nuance in the story overall. The many conflicts build to a satisfying conclusion, and the ending left me emotional.

DETRANSITION, BABY by Torrey Peters: Reese wants a baby, but as a trans woman who keeps dating married men, she feels this future is out of reach. Then she gets a call from her estranged ex, Ames. He's gotten his girlfriend pregnant, something that also seemed impossible since he was on hormone treatments for years when he lived as a woman, which should have left him sterile after he detransitioned. Ames is overwhelmed by the thought of having a baby with Katrina, and the one way he can imagine it working is if Reese would join them in parenting. The two women have never even met, so both think this proposal is absurd at first. But soon they're intrigued, and the three start exploring the idea of making a family together. This possible future could either provide exactly what everyone wants, or it will all be completely unworkable.

I loved getting to know these characters intimately as they consider their options, and as Reese and Ames's pasts are revealed in backstory chapters. The writing is extremely honest about the characters' thoughts on gender, sexuality, and how their evolving sense of gender impacts every aspect of their lives. I appreciated that the narrative seems to hold nothing back, though it meant reading about some difficult experiences. The story is full of both drama and humor, and I was engrossed throughout.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel: I rarely find time to reread even books I love, but I was eager to revisit STATION ELEVEN after watching the excellent TV adaptation, which makes many changes to the story and characters but captures the novel's spirit. Here's my 2014 review, with some description of what the story is about.

Since I'd just finished the show, my experience of reading again involved a lot of comparison, against both the adaptation and my memory. I felt nostalgic delight at encountering the moments I'd remembered from the book that weren't part of the series. I was frequently surprised by subplots I'd forgotten all about. And while I thought I'd recognized all the changes in the show, I was also surprised to discover that some scenes I thought were taken directly from the book didn't appear in the text at all.

Reading this book in 2022 was of course also different from reading it in 2014, when the concept of a pandemic only existed for me as fiction or history. I'm now back to being able to mostly enjoy apocalypse stories as a sort of comfort read, where the comfort comes from gratitude that our current pandemic remains far short of apocalypse. But I did occasionally have to stop reading and take a few deep breaths.

This novel remains one of my favorites, and the TV series is now a favorite as well. The two are different, each with their own strengths and flaws, but I highly recommend either if you're able to take comfort in fictional apocalypse.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Susan DeFreitas reflects on her year of reading every Ursula K. Le Guin novel: "I spent the better part of 2019 and 2020 immersed in the work of the great speculative writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and during this time, as my external world grew smaller, my internal world expanded. Even as I traced the same route through my neighborhood each day, I was sailing through an enchanted archipelago—and in a time when travel had become impossible, I voyaged among the stars."

February 22, 2022

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2022

I'm looking forward to an exciting batch of novels coming out this spring! And I'm defining "spring" as the period between today and the end of June, because why not? Who knows how time even works anymore anyway?

WHEN I'M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST by Quan Barry (February 22): I loved the quirky WE RIDE UPON STICKS, the story of a girls' field hockey team that turns to dark magic to improve their game. I'm expecting something completely different, but as wonderfully idiosyncratic, from Barry's new novel, which follows twin brothers across Mongolia in search of a great lama's next reincarnation.

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler (March 8): I've enjoyed several of Fowler's varied books, and I'm excited that she's expanding on the subject of two short stories from the collection WHAT I DIDN'T SEE. The fascinating earlier stories and the new novel are historical fiction about the Booths, a family of famous actors in the mid 1800s, most notable today for producing the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (April 5): I just reread STATION ELEVEN, Mandel's excellent novel about an apocalyptic pandemic, after enjoying the recent TV adaptation. Her strange and compelling THE GLASS HOTEL was published right at the start of our real life pandemic. This new book involves the author of a bestselling novel about a pandemic, and maybe there's also a pandemic happening, and also she lives on the moon? Plus there are at least two other plotlines occurring centuries apart. It sounds completely wild, and I can't wait.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan (April 5): When I read A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD ten years ago, it took me a little time and discussion to deepen my appreciation of the book and its tightly linked stories that may or may not count as a novel. But in the decade since then, I've found myself thinking back on many ideas and images from the story, so it certainly made an impact. I was intrigued to learn Egan would be revisiting the characters in a similarly structured book that may or may not count as a sequel.

WOMAN OF LIGHT by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (June 7): After I read the strong story collection SABRINA & CORINA, I was eager for the novel Fajardo-Anstine was working on. I'm delighted to see it's a multigenerational family saga with the requisite secrets, meaning it's in one of my favorite genres.

THE MEN by Sandra Newman (June 14): I was a fan of the time-bending THE HEAVENS as well as the post-apocalyptic THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR. The latter is set in a future when there are no longer adults, so it's interesting that THE MEN is about a world in which there are no longer men. It's a concept other writers have explored, but I'm sure Newman's take will be unique.

INVISIBLE THINGS by Mat Johnson (June 28): I've read two of Johnson's previous novels, and both were a lot of fun. In LOVING DAY, the adventures in family and education are grounded in Philadelphia. In PYM, characters take a wild journey to Antarctica and encounter strange creatures. This new novel send characters all the way to Jupiter, where there may be aliens, and there's sure to be some excellent satire.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ N. K. Jemisin shares her step-by-step process of revision, or Book Renovation: "During this process, the book will no longer be a readable draft. The insertions will create contradictions, the deletions may leave plot holes; anyone who tries to read it from start to finish will end up very confused. That's okay. These are gut-renovation-level changes, leaving the load-bearing walls in place while the other walls get moved and the old wiring gets replaced. It ain't supposed to be pretty."

February 3, 2022

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with some great and varied reading:

THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich: Tookie is released from prison after serving a sentence of many years for her involvement in a strange crime. She gets a job in a Minneapolis bookstore and lives a normal life for a while, until the store becomes haunted by a customer who is as annoying in death as she was in life. This happens in November 2019, and as the haunting becomes more ominous, so do events beyond the bookstore. The pandemic arrives, and Tookie's family faces the terror and confusion of trying to avoid sickness. Then Minneapolis police kill George Floyd, the city erupts in protest, and they try to find ways to help while staying safe. Meanwhile, the ghost still lurks as the one threat that just might be surmountable.

There's a beautiful rawness to this novel. Tookie's narration lays bare the unprocessed emotions she's coping with, often putting into words the feelings that many experienced in 2020. The narrative itself seems raw in places, not as polished as it might have been with more time, but that's not a shortcoming in this case, and I'm glad Erdrich crafted this story while the events are still fresh. Much that happens in the book is hard to read about, but there is also delight. The story contains a huge amount of love, for both people and books, and a fair amount of humor. Tookie and all the other characters are going to stay with me, and if I ever get to visit the real Birchbark Books, I'll be disappointed not to find them there (other than Erdrich, who has inserted herself into the novel)!

CIRCE by Madeline Miller: Circe, daughter of a Titan and a naiad, grows up among divine immortals who scorn her for lacking beauty and power. As a child, she has a brief encounter with Prometheus and is fascinated by his connection to mortals and the kindness that results in his eternal punishment. When Circe finally has a chance to meet a mortal herself, she falls in love, and in her desire to have him, she discovers the power that's been hiding within her. Circe is a witch, able to wield powerful magic, and this magic results in her exile to a deserted island. She's sentenced to captivity there for eternity, but gods and mortals come and go in the centuries that follow, and Circe plays her part in what will become the epic tales of heroes and monsters.

I'd encountered so many enthusiastic reviews of this book, and it really was as good as everyone said. Circe is a fascinating, complicated character, and so are the other figures of myth and legend who Miller portrays in surprising and nuanced ways. The relationships Circe forms with mortals are full of strong emotions, with the tragedy of their finite lifespans always lurking in the background. Most of the book's plot is drawn from ancient stories about Circe, some I was familiar with but most I never knew or forgot about, so my reading experience was a fun mix of anticipating what was ahead, having no idea, and being impressed by how Miller combines and skews existing material. The novel is written as a look behind the myths at what really happened and how much more power Circe and the other women actually held, and it succeeds wonderfully.

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Monique is a young journalist just starting out. Evelyn Hugo is an aging movie star, famous for her career, her beauty, and her seven marriages. Inexplicably, Evelyn approaches Monique with the exclusive offer to write a tell-all biography. She won't say why she chose Monique, and she won't answer the question of who was the great love of her life, but she promises all will be revealed by the time she finishes telling her life story.

The answer to the second mystery is the reason you might want to pick up the novel: Evelyn's great love is a woman, and the two can't be public about their relationship due to the times and their celebrity, a strain that drives them apart more than once. Evelyn, who is bisexual, marries some of her husbands for love and some as a front. The intricacies of the many relationships makes for an absorbing plot. However, despite some character complexity and good emotional moments, I often found actions and reactions unconvincing, driven more by plot needs than character motivations. The story's most contrived and poorly set up element is the big secret of why Evelyn is talking to Monique, and this would have been a better book without that frame.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Meg Elison writes about the importance of portraying bodies: "In all the fiction and nonfiction that I read, I am searching for the body. In fiction, I want to know how a character feels; how they churn and bleed, how they laugh from deep in the belly or cry their crocodile tears, how they plunge their hands into dry beans for the pure sensual joy of the act, or crush a half-rotten orange beneath a chunky heel just for the pleasure of decayed destruction in the gutter. Each of these actions of the body tells me something about the character and something else about the world. It is as important as dialogue and as plot, and it is the inescapable fact of the meat that carries our consciousness."

→ And in the same issue, Lincoln Michel considers the presence and absence of bodies in cyberpunk: "Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—loses something essential when the flesh fades away in the pixels. Because cyberpunk is the genre that can examine what emerging technologies are doing to us. How they will impact and change humanity."

January 20, 2022

2021 By The Books

It's time once again to look back at my most recent year of reading and celebrate my favorites among the many good books.

I read 39 books in 2021, which is fewer than the previous year, and the same number as the year before that. I noted in 2019 that two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and 2021 had the same fraction of new releases, with most of the rest from the past couple of years. Other than newness, there's little pattern to what I read, and I enjoyed sinking into a wide range of stories, genres, styles, and worlds. All my reviews are available in my monthly recaps, and each recommendation below includes a link to the month containing the full review.

My reading year started off with an excellent collection of nuanced short stories, THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans (January). Later in the year, I made a renewed effort to read more short stories, particularly in speculative genres. I was impressed by two speculative fiction anthologies, IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin (September) and NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl (November/December). Both contain a fantastic variety of inventive, effective stories.

In pursuit of writing more effective stories myself, I read a couple of writing guides that proved both useful and entertaining. THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia (August) discusses tactics for making manuscripts more appealing to publishing gatekeepers. NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders (October) offers practical techniques and encouragement for producing first drafts even during difficult circumstances. I recommend either book for writers who need advice in those areas. The other advice book from last year that I recommend to anyone is SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (September). This graphic guide pairs thoughtful words with personality-filled illustrations to help in the pursuit of being a better human.

As usual, novels made up the bulk of my reading year. These stand out as my favorites:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (October) follows a twelfth century nun from her unwilling arrival at an abbey through a long, fascinating life of service and leadership. It's a beautiful, unpredictable story about a complicated woman claiming power and wielding it for good.

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell (August) also features a woman taking charge to the extent she can in a time and situation of little power, when the plague infects her family. Like MATRIX, this story is spun from the scant details known about historical figures, and the result is a surprising and compelling narrative.

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton (April) is pure fiction, written as such a convincing oral history that it's easy to believe the characters really skyrocketed to brief musical fame in the early 1970s. Music is at the heart of this outstanding novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, loyalty, and time.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (May) also takes a hard look at how the passage of time changes relationships and allegiances. This emotional story provides a portrait of four friends and their evolving lives in the acting worlds of New York City and Los Angeles.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (May) balances the deep emotion of its family story by finding humor in the absurd details of life. Three generations are thrown together while they're all facing huge challenges, and I was quickly invested in these sympathetically flawed characters.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (October) also makes great use of humor in telling the story of a family man and schemer who's pulled between straight and crooked paths. I enjoyed getting to know all the excellent characters in and out of the crime world and watching New York City change around them in the early years of the 1960s.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (August) plays out in a changing New York City as well, while the title characters from THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI continue their immortal, secretive existences through the first decades of the twentieth century. This rich sequel expands and further complicates the already expansive story and magical characters of the first book, and I recommend reading both.

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones (February) is recommended only for readers who can tolerate extremely grisly images for the sake of an incredible story. The carefully structured plot follows a group of friends haunted by elk they hunted years earlier, and the story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past.

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur (July) concerns another character haunted by an elusive being from her past. In this ambitious, unconventional novel, a scientist is visited by her childhood imaginary friend, leading to an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry (January) also tests the bounds of reality when a high school field hockey team taps into local witchcraft to improve their playing. The novel is quirky, funny, and at times quite moving, packed with 1980s nostalgia and tales of young women finding ways to wield power.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tom Bissell, who has written magazine pieces, nonfiction books, stories, and for television and video games, summarizes the writing process in each medium: "Do reporting. Visualize piece in your mind while reporting. It will be long, thoughtful, discursive (but not too!), and definitive. Longform will link to it. It will be glorious. Start writing. Not glorious. Nothing about this is glorious. When stuck, create multiple graphs and flowcharts to illustrate how scene work, reporting notes, and research notes will crosshatch and enrich one another. Frown as they do not crosshatch and enrich one another."

January 4, 2022

November/December Reading Recap

I wrapped up my reading year with a lot of great books:

NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl: This anthology offers a great range of styles, tones, and genres, presenting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and stories less easily classified. Every story made an impression, but these are the ones that will stick with me most:

• The first story, "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias S. Buckell, quickly drew me in with an Earth dominated by alien tourism and the problems of the tour guide protagonist.

• The engrossing "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang is written as a scholarly analysis of archived documents that uncover the truths behind a misunderstood historical event.

"Burn the Ships" by Alberto YaƱez is a gut-punch of a story about a husband and wife taking two different approaches to magic against the colonizing forces that have imprisoned their people.

• "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh tells an intense, sexy, constantly unexpected tale of love with an immortal sea creature.

• I loved the subtle shifts in "The Robots of Eden" by Anil Menon, a family story that gradually reveals its science fictional aspects.

• The anthology ends strong with the inventive "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath" by Darcie Little Badger, in which the lingering last breaths of the dead need to be herded onward by the human main character and her dead sheepdog.

BLUE-SKINNED GODS by S.J. Sindu: Since he was a little boy, Kalki has been told he's the tenth human incarnation of Vishnu. The proof is that he has blue skin, and Kalki accepts these facts about himself, believing he's a god. His parents raise him in an ashram, where villagers come to pay tribute and receive Kalki's healing blessings, and little of the outside world filters in. When Kalki is ten years old, he first begins to doubt his powers after a sick girl he tries to heal is slow to recover from her illness. As he gets older and learns more about the world, he has many more questions, and far more doubts.

I like the way this story develops, starting with Kalki narrating as a child who yearns to understand the events happening around him but has little information to go on. The plot takes many surprising turns as he grows up, and I never knew what to expect but was always deeply invested. Kalki is a complex character facing a slew of conflicts, both internal and external, and the members of his family also receive nuanced depictions. The novel wrapped up faster and sooner than I expected, and I was sorry not to learn more about how Kalki's life turned out.

SEVERAL PEOPLE ARE TYPING by Calvin Kasulke: Gerald finds himself in a strange workplace predicament: He's somehow trapped inside his company Slack. One moment, he was at his desk at home, and the next, he's a disembodied entity within the corporate chat application. None of his coworkers believe him when he explains this, of course, and they think he's abusing the work-from-home policy. But it turns out he's a lot more productive without the distractions of a body, and anyway his colleagues are all dealing with their own problems, some of which end up being almost as strange as Gerald's.

This workplace comedy written entirely in Slack messages is very weird and very funny. I had a great time getting to know these characters and following along with their jokes and dramas. The story really is odd, and the humor is quirky as well, but it worked for me. The book is a short, fast read, so if you're intrigued, I encourage you to check it out, though if you don't know anything about Slack, I expect it will be harder to get into.

THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Jake teaches writing at a third-rate MFA program because his career as a novelist fizzled after an early success. Every year he resents his job more, and he never expects to find any talent among his students. Of course it would be the most arrogant jerk in his class who demonstrates some skill, but Jake is skeptical of the guy's claim that he's working on a novel with an unbeatable plot. Then the blowhard privately reveals the plot, and Jake is seized with the jealous realization that this unworthy person is going to produce a bestseller. So when some time later Jake learns that his student died before ever completing the novel, it's easy to justify that he should bring the amazing plot to the world himself in a book that does indeed become a huge bestseller. After all, nobody will ever know, right?

This was a lot of fun to read. The insidery parts about the publishing world delighted me, the humor made me laugh, and I enjoyed guessing at what was coming next. While I did figure out most of the twists (brag, brag), I still found the story clever and well constructed. Much suspension of disbelief is required, but I was willing to go along with that in order to appreciate this entertaining thriller.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer concludes the Terra Ignota series, an ambitious story of politics and power set in the twenty-fifth century. In this fourth book, the systems that have kept the Earth peaceful for centuries have broken down due to pressure and corruption, and world war has erupted. While the major divisions of global society are divided into two sides, many smaller factions and hidden conflicts complicate the conflict. Everyone is fighting for what they see as the best path toward the future, and nearly everyone wants as little loss of life as possible, but war is still hell. This final installment switches up the narrator but continues to provide an insider's chronicle of world leaders as they scramble to gain control, maintain their principles, and eventually achieve a new peace.

Many aspects of PERHAPS THE STARS captivated me, many others left me frustrated, and I kept wishing I was reading a shorter novel. I've consistently praised these books for their ambitious scope, but in the third and fourth installments, I felt the story was attempting too many things that didn't all land successfully. I'm glad I read this series, which contains so much that's going to stick with me, but I'm sorry to not end up as enthusiastic as I was after the first two books. The story's culmination was still extremely satisfying, and I remain so impressed by the world Palmer has created.