Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

February 5, 2024

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with a lot of reading!

THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: What Le Guin excels at is imagining a culture and bringing it to life with well-considered, fascinating detail, and the stories in this collection really show off this talent for approaching science fiction anthropologically.

In several of the stories, Le Guin revisits a culture she created earlier and takes the opportunity to explore the implications at leisure. "Coming of Age in Karhide" uses a young person's perspective to explain the practical workings of the Gethenian gender and sexuality established in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. "Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are love stories set on the planet O, where marriages involve four people, linked in a specific arrangement. These stories are all light on plot but strong on developing the characters and the complicated dynamics of their relationships.

The world of "Solitude" is one where relationships are nearly forbidden, and the way Le Guin explores that idea with characters from inside and outside the culture is thought-provoking and affecting. In "The Birthday of the World", the narrator is so deep inside a particular religious tradition that the reader only gets to understand it gradually, as Le Guin masterfully unspools the story.

The book ends with a novella, "Paradises Lost", that's just the sort of generation ship story I've been wanting to read. The main characters are the fifth generation born on a ship that left Earth bound for a distant planet. The journey will end in the next generation, when these characters are old, and so they grow up viewing the ship as their entire world and never really understanding the irrelevant concept of a planet. Le Guin depicts life in this limited situation with insight, developing the plot carefully and cleverly. It's a captivating finale to a superb collection.

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin: Something disturbing happens when George dreams. After particularly vivid dreams, he wakes to discover the world has changed to match whatever he dreamed, and he's the only one who remembers the old reality. Desperate to stop the dreams and their unpredictable consequences, George turns to drugs, and that gets him sent for therapy with Dr. Haber, a specialist in sleep and dream disorders. Haber thinks George's claims sound delusional, but he's eager to put George into a dream state and study the EEG. If Haber can get to the bottom of what in George's dreams is making him so afraid, maybe he can learn something that will do good in the world, and also elevate his status as a researcher.

I really liked this short, smart novel. It was published in 1971, and early on, it felt very of that era to me, especially when Dr. Haber delivers long, expositional monologues. I couldn't find a connection at first to the later Le Guin stories I'd just read, but as the story develops, more of her subtlety and interests emerge. The way the plot unfolds chapter by chapter is so clever, unexpected, and ultimately moving.

JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE by Naomi Kanakia: Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy. On the surface, everyone at the all-girls school is welcoming and supportive, but Tara is finding it hard to fit in. She isn't rich or white like most of the other students, and she's a nerd who loves reading famous speeches but still performs terribly in the debate club. Though she's been able to transition socially at home and school, she hasn't started hormones due to oppressive state laws and her parents' concern that an investigation by child welfare services could endanger their visas. Only when Tara interviews for a spot in the school's elite club, the Sibyls, does she find somewhere to belong, with true friends who fully accept her. But then the school administration questions whether Tara is eligible to become a Sibyl, sparking a controversy that splits the club and soon spreads beyond the school. Tara has to decide if she's willing step into the public spotlight and speak out for herself.

Through Tara's first person narration, Kanakia portrays a realistically complicated character who has mixed feelings about so much in her life, as real people do. I enjoyed the character's honesty and nuance, and I felt for her in the story's joy and pain. Other characters are also well developed, especially Tara's parents, who are supportive and trying hard, but don't always get things right. I wished the dialogue had been smoother, and the plot was a bit unevenly paced. Despite some flaws, I'm happy this book is here.

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride: By 1936, most of the Jewish families of Pottstown, Pennsylvania have moved off of Chicken Hill, but Chona Ludlow convinces her husband that they should stay in what is now a mostly Black neighborhood. Though traditionally the Jewish and Black communities haven't mixed, Chona's grocery store serves everyone, and she intends to keep running it. She also intends to keep speaking out and fighting back against hate and injustice whenever she spots it, no matter how much trouble it causes. So when a Black Deaf boy from the neighborhood is orphaned, Chona is happy to take him in, and to hide him from the state authorities who want to place him in a horrific institution. This leads to whole new levels of trouble, though, with a series of repercussions that involve a wide range of people from in and around Chicken Hill.

I liked so many parts of this novel, but there are so many parts, and I was frustrated they didn't all come together as well as I expected. The book is packed with characters, and it takes some patience to get to know them all, because whenever one is introduced, there's a recounting of their life history, and sometimes that of their ancestors. I mostly didn't mind that digressive style, since McBride is a great, funny storyteller who has imagined a terrific cast. Where the book fell short for me was the plot: While a lot of pieces are set up to connect by the end, I found that ending rushed and unsatisfying, with a number of threads and questions left dangling. Still, these characters will stay with me, as I know they will for so many other readers.

ERASURE by Percival Everett: Thelonious "Monk" Ellison has published a number of novels that have gone largely unread. His work is experimental and difficult, and he's often criticized for choosing subject matter that is anything other than what readers consider representative of Black life. Monk is enraged by the popularity of a new novel, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, praised for authentically depicting the Black experience. After a series of family tragedies, Monk is left caring for his aging mother and strapped for cash. He spends a week writing a parody, My Pafology, a novel full of every infuriating stereotype, and sends it to his agent to distribute under a pseudonym. To Monk's horror, an editor snaps up the manuscript for an outrageous sum, and it's on the way to becoming another runaway success.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, but I didn't enjoy reading it as much as the book I was expecting. Though the novel contains the entire text of My Pafology in all its painful glory, what happens to Monk as a result of publishing it takes up less of the main text, and gets less wild, than I anticipated. Large stretches of the story are about Monk's family, and while his reaction to his mother's decline is emotional, that plot didn't interest me as much as directions I thought the publishing satire might go. The text is also peppered with experimental passages I didn't understand. I'm left thinking that I'm probably repeating all the sins of Monk's critics, and that this book is operating at a higher level of satire than I'm able to appreciate. (As one example, I learned afterwards that familiarity with Native Son would add another layer of understanding.)

I'm interested to watch the new movie adaptation, American Fiction, and to read more of Everett's many and wildly varied books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Nicholas Dames shares an excerpt from his book about the history of the chapter: "The conventionality of the chapter places it in the middle of a spectrum of form: too ordinary to be easily apparent as a particular aesthetic method or choice, too necessary to eliminate in the name of an antiformal freedom that claims to speak on behalf of pure 'life.' That intermediate position is a place, we might say, where form's deliberate artifice and life's unruly vibrancy mix most intimately. The chapter has one foot in both restriction and freedom, diluting the force of both: a not very severe restriction, a somewhat circumscribed freedom."

January 30, 2024

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2024

In my previous post, I looked back at the highlights of my 2023 reading. By now, my 2024 reading is already well underway, and I'm looking ahead to the new books I've been anticipating:

KINNING by Nisi Shawl (January 23): I didn't actually get much chance to anticipate this one, because I only just learned the good news that Shawl has written a sequel to EVERFAIR. In this alternate nineteenth century, Black American missionaries and white British socialists come together to turn part of the Congo into a new nation that offers safety and progress. Plus, there are airships and other steam technology. I read the first book in February 2020 (Shawl was an honored guest at the last strange FOGcon) and then put a lot of other information into my brain, so I'll need to refresh my memory of the story, but I remember that I enjoyed the world and characters.

The rest of my anticipated reads are the second novels published by authors whose debuts I really liked. Second novels are notoriously tricky, because they're often written in much less time, from ideas that haven't percolated as long, under the pressure of trying to replicate a success. I'm eager to see what these writers have done next, whether they match my expectations or not.

COME AND GET IT by Kiley Reid (January 30) is billed as "a tension-filled story about money, indiscretion, and bad behavior" involving a college senior and a visiting professor. That sounds like a fitting follow-up to SUCH A FUN AGE, a page-turner about class, race, and privilege involving a babysitter and her employer.

WANDERING STARS by Tommy Orange (February 27) is both a sequel and prequel to THERE THERE. In the first book, a variety of Native characters with connections to Oakland have plotlines that converge suspensefully at a powwow. The new book deals with consequences from those events and also goes back into the past to explore generations of Native history.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND by Jennine CapĆ³ Crucet (March 5): I wouldn't normally pick up a book described as "Scarface meets Moby Dick," but since I was a big fan of MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS, I'm going to check this out. Crucet's first novel followed a first generation college student in a story that was compellingly told but I guess pretty conventional. Nothing sounds conventional about the story of a wannabe gangster on a quest involving a possibly magical killer whale. It promises to be a wild ride.

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST by Xochitl Gonzalez (March 5): As it happens, one protagonist of Gonzalez's second novel is a first generation college student (at Brown University). The other is an artist who died dramatically in the previous decade, and the student investigates her story. I admired the complexity and layered conflicts of OLGA DIES DREAMING, and this sounds like an even more intriguing setup.

MEMORY PIECE by Lisa Ko (March 19) follows three friends from the 1980s into the 2040s. That's a premise I'd be drawn to regardless, and I'm especially excited it's been written by the author of THE LEAVERS. I was so impressed by the riveting plot and deft handling of family secrets in that novel, and I can't wait to read more.

January 18, 2024

2023 By The Books

I had a great reading year in 2023. Happily, reflecting on my past year of reading with enthusiasm is the norm for me, because I'm fortunate to get the chance to read most days, I always have a book or two in progress, and there are so many great books to choose from. I only wish I was a faster reader so I could enjoy even more of those books! It's possible I'm finally getting a little speedier, though: In 2023, I read an almost unprecedented 51 books. (Or maybe I simply spent more time reading at the expense of more writing progress.)

Last year, a couple of things changed my reading habits some, especially by leading me to more books that weren't published in the past year or two. I joined a book club for the first time, and every club selection was from at least five years ago, some from decades back. The book club has been a good experience in reading even more widely than I already do, and I've read a number of books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, including some memoirs. (I'm still not much of a fan of memoir.)

The other reading innovation of 2023 is that I borrowed far more ebooks from my public library than in previous years. I've used the Libby system sporadically for a while, but sometime in 2022 I started relying on it more, and last year I took full advantage. I sometimes get on waiting lists for brand new books, but I especially use Libby availability as a prompt to check out books from past years that I never got around to. (If you read ebooks or audiobooks and aren't already using Libby, jump on this bandwagon!)

Between the overlapping changes of book club and library borrowing, I read a higher percentage than usual of books that weren't new releases. A recurring pattern lately has been that around two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and in 2023, it was less than half. Still, around two-thirds were from 2020 or later, and except for book club picks, I mostly stuck to books less than ten years old, so it's not as though I've significantly veered from my preference for contemporary reading. (A recency bias, if you will.)

That habit is continuing to work out well for me, because almost all my favorite books of 2023 were published in 2023, and the oldest is from 2019. But beyond that similarity, my favorites are wide-ranging, spanning a variety of genres, topics, and styles. I've wrangled them into some groupings below. (Find my full review of each book at the linked monthly reading recap.)

I didn't expect my top picks to include so many mystery and crime stories, since I don't think of myself as gravitating toward those genres. None of these are exactly prototypical examples, and that's consistent with my attraction to stories that resist categorization, subvert formulas, and do multiple things well. HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim (September) is a gripping, twisting mystery and also a portrait of a family in the midst of multiple crises. It starts as a missing person story, and then the mystery widens as the family members realize how much they don't know about each other, particularly the child who is unable to speak. In I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai (June), the characters use a true crime podcast to re-examine the case of a student murdered at their boarding school decades ago. As the investigation unfolds, former classmates grapple with the impact of the events, the role of memory and nostalgia, and the ethics of turning crime into entertainment. Both these mystery novels impressed me with how realistic the scenarios stayed even as the plots satisfyingly thickened.

The crime novels on my list offer a fascinating look inside the criminal world of a specific place and time. In AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor (January), readers follow the central character from an impoverished childhood to a comfortable life serving a powerful, corrupt family in early 2000s Delhi. CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead (August), the second book of a series, portrays the shady side of Harlem in the 1970s, featuring a cast of thieves, gangsters, and dirty cops. Both books bring their settings to life with the help of multiple character viewpoints and masterful prose.

Specificity of place and time is a common feature of many of my 2023 favorites. THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith (December) is the most firmly historical fiction, combining details of real historical people and events with wonderfully imagined characterizations. The story covers much of the 1800s, focusing especially on prominent London literary figures and a bizarre court case about a disputed inheritance (so it's a crime story as well!). In MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling (August), we meet an American teenager in 1998 Azerbaijan and follow her into adulthood and around the world on a personal coming-of-age journey that also tracks the climate change narrative we're all a part of. ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews (April) doesn't hinge quite as much on setting, but the main character's life is shaped by graduating into the recession of the late 2000s. She finds a job in a city where she doesn't know anybody, and in the course of the layered novel, she fulfills her longing for friendship and love. Nuanced character dynamics are prominent in all three of these books, and really in all my favorites.

The novels I've discussed so far are grounded in reality. Now I'll turn to my favorites in the speculative genres, but even some of these draw heavily on real world places and times. I read two excellent horror novels that are also historical. LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (April) depicts solitary women homesteading in 1915 Montana, a landscape that's brutal and dangerous enough before the story's horror element emerges. How the women come together to survive frontier life is as much a part of the story as how they handle the mysterious contents of the main character's steamer trunk. Similarly, the threats faced by characters in THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (March) are sometimes supernatural but just as often a consequence of being Black in 1957 America. (This is another second book in a series.)

Setting plays a big role in the delightfully original LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki (April). Amid the Asian communities (and cuisines!) of San Gabriel Valley, a trans violin prodigy is taken in by a teacher who made a deal with a devil, the two befriend a family of extraterrestrials who run a donut shop, and joyful hijinks ensue. By contrast, time is the critical element in RECURSION by Blake Crouch (December). That's because it's a time travel thriller where characters jump between alternate timelines in a clever and intricate plot that made my brain hurt. It might seem a bit forced that I've grouped these two wildly different books together this way, but what they share is that both surprised me by how emotionally affecting I found them.

My final three picks leave the real world entirely, since they're all science fiction of the space opera variety. The distinctive protagonists of TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June) come from different planets and cultures, but a search for a fugitive translator brings them together with repercussions that may affect diplomacy between all sentient species. In MERU by S.B. Divya (February), most humans are confined to Earth while their improved genetic descendants roam the stars without needing protection from the vacuum of space. When the human main character is permitted to explore a distant planet, she travels as a passenger inside the body of one of the post-human characters. The robot narrator of SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells (November) hates spending time on planets and wishes its humans would finish up their mission and get off this particularly unpleasant one before even more goes wrong. The first of these wonderful novels is set in a larger fictional universe but can be read as a standalone, the second is the promising start of a new series, and the third is the latest installment of an ongoing series. All involve intricate and imaginative worldbuilding, exciting plots, and complex characters.

I've already started 2024 with some great reading, and I can't wait to read on!

January 3, 2024

December Reading Recap

I wrapped up a great year of reading with a final four books!

THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith: By 1867, Eliza Touchet has spent decades managing the household of her cousin by marriage, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. Over the course of their long and complicated relationship, she's also perfected the art of managing William's ego. This entails avoiding references to the fact that his work isn't as popular as it used to be and negotiating the ever-changing friendships and rivalries with his literary contemporaries. Eliza sometimes allows herself to wish for a life beyond William's house. A form of escape comes from a surprising source when Eliza starts following the Tichborne case, in which an obvious fraud declares himself the missing heir to an aristocratic estate. Though Eliza doesn't believe the absurd claim, she's fascinated by how many people do, and she's increasingly captivated by the legal proceedings and the figures involved in the case.

I loved this novel, which brings to life historical people and events I'd never heard of. Ainsworth was a successful author of dozens of novels, forgotten after his death, unlike his friend Charles Dickens. The Tichborne case was so entertainingly bizarre that in places Smith reproduces portions of actual court transcripts. Though Eliza Touchet really existed, her character in the novel is mostly a product of Smith's wonderful imagination. Eliza is smart, funny, and generally perceptive but with some notable areas of failed understanding. By focusing on Eliza's singular point of view (and occasionally others), Smith crafts an engrossing, wide-ranging story out of events both real and fictional, or maybe somewhere in between.

RECURSION by Blake Crouch: Barry is the first officer on the scene when a woman goes out on the ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump. What's driven her to suicide is that she's the latest person afflicted with False Memory Syndrome, a mysterious new condition that causes distressingly vivid memories from an alternate life. The woman's inexplicable sorrow over a child who seemingly never existed moves Barry, as both a grieving father and a detective who can't resist solving puzzles. He begins investigating, determined to put together the strange pieces of this case. Ten years earlier, Helena has run out of funding for her research into recording and reliving memories, a goal she hopes will help people with cognitive decline, like her mother. Then a powerful billionaire offers her unlimited resources to continue her memory work at a secure facility out on a decommissioned oil rig. He promises her that if she accepts this audacious proposal, they're going to change the world.

I was really impressed by this twisty tale of false memories and alternate timelines. The setups of Barry and Helena's stories let the reader start forming theories about what's going on, but nothing played out quite as I expected. Eventually, of course, Barry and Helena connect, and then there are many more surprises in store. I love time-bending stories, and the mechanics of this one made my brain hurt in the best way. I was also more emotionally affected by the novel than I would have predicted at the start. My mind will keep going back to RECURSION, and I'll be seeking out more of Crouch's scifi thrillers.

OLD IN ART SCHOOL: A MEMOIR OF STARTING OVER by Nell Painter: After retiring from an accomplished career as a professor of history, Nell Painter entered art school at the age of 64. The creation and study of art had been a lifelong interest, but she'd mostly set it aside for decades to focus on teaching and writing. By pursuing a BFA and then an MFA, the aptly named Painter finally gives herself the opportunity to not merely make art as a hobby, but to commit at a professional level. Though she's sometimes able to completely immerse herself in art like her younger fellow students, her attention is often split, since she's also caring for her elderly parents on the other side of the country and completing her latest book. As an artist, Painter remains a historian, drawing from the past for inspiration and always seeking to place works in a larger context.

This was a book club pick that I approached without much enthusiasm, and while I never entirely overcame that, once I got a few chapters in, I mostly stayed interested. For me, there wasn't quite enough to the story to warrant a whole book, but Painter is clearly an experienced writer who knows how to craft a narrative with the material she has. I listened to the audio book, which is read well by the author, so I missed out on seeing the artworks that accompany the text. I enjoyed the book most when Painter talks about the joy of being caught up in her art projects. There's a lot of discussion about visual art and artists that readers with that interest will probably appreciate more than me.

WUNDERSMITH: THE CALLING OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Following the events of NEVERMOOR, Morrigan Crow has earned a place in the Wundrous Society and discovered the nature of her mysterious power. She can't wait to start school, bond with her classmates, and learn all sorts of exciting new skills. But by the end of the first week, Morrigan has been disappointed on every front, and Wunsoc doesn't feel like the welcoming community she thought it would be. She wishes she could talk to her patron about it all, but Jupiter keeps being called away to help search for missing Wunsoc members. As the number of disappearances mounts and more threats loom, Morrigan increasingly tries to solve her problems alone.

This is a strong sequel that starts playing out the implications of everything set up in the first book. Morrigan's school experience introduces new situations and great new characters. I was glad to spend time with the existing characters and watch their friendships continue to grow, and I enjoyed seeing more of Nevermoor and the Wundrous Society. The story world is a bit high on the whimsy for my taste, but it's all cleverly done and well imagined. I wasn't wild about how much the plot relied on kids not turning to adults for help, so I may be too much of an adult for this series, but I'll probably keep reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emma Pattee considers the False Promise of Climate Fiction: "Perhaps the confusion about what climate fiction can – and should – do is really just a question of the thin line between art and propaganda. While both may look like a book and quack like a book, most of the writers I spoke with described their fiction as an exploration towards an unknown destination. Propaganda, whose goal is persuasion, must know the destination and take the most succinct, least nuanced path to get there. When the label of 'climate fiction' is applied to a book, every plot choice and character starts to be seen as a message about climate change."

December 20, 2023

It's Tradition

December is the time to look back and reflect on accomplishments of the year that's ending, or even more dangerously, to look ahead and declare hopes and intentions for the year to come.

My hopes for the following year are always big. However, I never want to say too much about that, because I'm conscious that eventually I'll be looking back at whatever I wrote and comparing it to reality. So I tend to focus on accomplishments.

My accomplishments are usually pretty big, too. But often they don't feel that way to me, mainly in comparison to those hopes I still know about even if I didn't write them down. Which makes it all the more worthwhile an exercise to tally up what I've done and see that it's not nothing. As I reminded myself a few months ago, a major reason I document my progress is to help me recognize how much progress I've actually made.

A year ago, I was in the middle of a novel draft that I started in November for NaNoWriMo 2022 and continued to work on daily until taking a year-end break. Right after the beginning of 2023, I resumed this daily writing practice and maintained it consistently until I reached the end of the draft in late February.

While that draft was less than I'd hoped for in terms of cohesion and general story-shapedness, I'm pleased by my diligence in creating it. For four months, I committed to writing at least 100 words every day, and sustaining that kept me moving forward. I developed a pace that let me accurately estimate how long the project would take, something I dream of doing again, though I'm sure it will be harder when my standards don't keep dropping as I approach the end.

I think that with a solid outline worked out, I can write the next, better draft with the same sort of sustained energy. I did imagine I'd be doing that by now, or at the very least, be preparing to start early in the new year. Once again, my hopes exceeded reality. Still, when I remember how disconnected and vague that last draft was, and compare it against my sense of the story now, I realize I made plenty of progress over the rest of the year. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

The bulk of this year went toward a lot of brainstorming and a lot of research. With both, I've been frustrated at not more efficiently arriving at the solutions, but that's how it goes. Occasionally good ideas seem to spring up effortlessly and randomly, but more often getting at them requires probing deeply, sometimes in what might be the wrong direction.

My work throughout the spring was somewhat scattered, often iterative, occasionally perhaps misdirected. It was also interrupted by a number of breaks. Moving into summer, I focused in on character and plot problems, including with the help of sticky notes. I also went down a deep hole of research and worldbuilding that may or may not end up having enough prominence in the story to justify the work I put into it. It's all part of the process, really!

Much of the fall involved burrowing down more such holes. I put in some solid, consistent hours over the last few months, but it sometimes felt of questionable value. While I spent the previous two Novembers in fast-paced NaNoWriMo writing mode, this November I stalled, stuck on what seemed like an unsolvable problem, and that was demoralizing.

But good news: In early December, I hit upon a more elegant solution than anything I was aiming at. The idea felt like it sprang out of nowhere, but experience tells me all that earlier thinking helped me get there. In any case, I've triumphed over a big problem that was flummoxing me, and I'm ending the year on a high note. Many other story problems remain, but those will wait until 2024.

As always at the turn of the year, the unknown future feels full of promise. Here's hoping!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In an interactive data visualization at The Pudding, Alice Liang explores trends in romance novel covers: "Today's newest romance novels bear a stark difference to the rotating stacks of clinch covers one might find at a used bookstore or estate sale. In that era, publishers sought to differentiate their novels from their competitors with a distinctive style, but still kept to a common enough language so that a browser would know a book is romance at first glance. Now, most romance novels are illustrated, brightly colored, and have a distinctive pop art style, but they still have a recognizable common language." (Thanks, Lauren!)

December 5, 2023

November Reading Recap

November's reading included two book club picks and a range of speculative fiction:

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett: Marina works at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota researching statins. She's secretly dating the CEO, but that's the only adventurous aspect of her life, and she likes it that way. Her closest colleague, on the other hand, was excited to undertake an adventure on the company's behalf. Months ago, Anders set off for the Amazon in search of the elusive Dr. Swenson, who is developing a promising new drug for the company but refuses to provide any updates on her progress. Now Dr. Swenson has finally sent a letter, and it brings the shocking news that Anders is dead. This tragic development makes it even more urgent to locate Dr. Swenson and understand what's happening at her remote research camp. Marina has a history with Dr. Swenson, though it's far more fraught than she wants anyone to know, and so to her horror, she's sent to follow Anders's footsteps to Brazil.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Patchett always writes great characters, and STATE OF WONDER features some particularly memorable ones. The settings are also memorably rendered in full sensory detail. Patchett carefully develops the story's tension and suspense (including the suspense of tedious waiting), and she delivers plot turns I didn't see coming.

The story deals with interesting ethical questions, including about the implications of studying remote indigenous people. Many characters behave badly on this and other fronts, and the narrative highlights these failings by design, Still, it bothered me that no members of the tribe are ever referred to with names, and I found it implausible how little the researchers appear to know about the tribal society or language after decades of study. I was engrossed enough to overlook these flaws and suspend my disbelief, but not everyone in my book club felt the same, and we had an expansive discussion.

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin: A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island. He loves books and is especially fond of well-crafted short stories. Or rather, he loves the books he approves of and is judgmental about the rest, which makes him an antisocial and off-putting bookseller. That A.J. is recently widowed and overwhelmed with grief doesn't help matters, but he's always been curmudgeonly beyond his years and an outsider on close-knit Alice Island. Then several unexpected things happen to A.J., starting with the theft of a rare and valuable book, that change the course of his life and his relationship to the community.

Every chapter of this sweet, clever novel opens with a note from A.J. recommending a short story. The notes themselves are part of the novel's story, hinting at what's to come and setting up elements that are echoed in the chapter. This book is very different tonally from Zevin's excellent TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, but both demonstrate her interest in playing with structure and form, though it's subtler here.

It's probably no coincidence that A.J.'s very first note questions whether the referenced story is realistic, because this novel isn't overly concerned with plausibility. Plot events are sometimes far-fetched and characters are larger than life. Still, I sped through the plot to find out what would happen next and loved getting to know the characters who become a new family for A.J. There are some predictable aspects to the story, but it also often subverted my expectations, and it was a delight to read throughout.

NEVERMOOR: THE TRIALS OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Like everyone born with a curse, Morrigan Crow is listed with the Registry Office for Cursed Children, and she's considered to blame for any disaster or bad luck that occurs in Jackalfax. She's also doomed to die whenever the calendar comes back around to Eventide. When Eventide arrives a year earlier than predicted, Morrigan expects her short, unhappy life to be cut even shorter. Instead, during Morrigan's final meal with her unpleasant family, the eccentric Jupiter North arrives and whisks her away to the secret city of Nevermoor. For no reason Morrigan can imagine, Jupiter doesn't care about her curse, and he's selected her as a candidate for the Wundrous Society. Morrigan is thrilled at the prospect of finally belonging somewhere, but to gain membership in the Society, she'll have to pass a series of entrance trials she barely understands.

This delightful, well-written story maintains a good balance between the whimsy of its world and the perilously high stakes of Morrigan's circumstances. The plot intrigued me from the start and took some turns I didn't anticipate. I quickly grew fond of Morrigan, Jupiter, and the other characters, and I liked watching the friendships that develop. I don't usually read books aimed at kids, but this one held up pretty well to my adult novel standards. It's the first in a series that I've been told just keeps getting more interesting, so I'll be reading on.

A FEAST FOR FLIES by Leigh Harlen: Zira is a Reader, able to read and extract other people's memories. She didn't want this ability, and she certainly doesn't want to have to use it for law enforcement purposes, but she has no choice. While performing a reading to convict a criminal, Zira exerts the small amount of freedom she has and conceals some information. But the consequences are far worse than she imagined, and now Zira is under investigation, and a suspect in a murder she didn't commit. Solving the murder herself might be the only way to get out of this mess with her life. And if she's really lucky, she might find a way to escape the city-spaceship where she lives and travel to one where she can be free.

This is a novella, and as is often the case when I read novellas, I wished there was room for more: more exploration of the world, more sense of character histories, more time for plot to unfold. What's here is good, though. The story is exciting and fast-paced, the characters have nuance, and I could picture the seedy neon setting. Plus, Zira has a loyal support dog by her side, and stories are always better with a very good dog!

SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells: SecUnit has been through a lot recently, and it isn't operating at normal performance reliability. It would really like to get its humans off the planet full of alien contamination, but they're insisting on staying to aid the humans who live there. The corporate task force that's arrived to push their own agenda isn't helping those negotiations. They have their own Security Units, killing machines without agency who put everyone at risk, especially a SecUnit who is trying to conceal from outsiders that it's hacked its governor module.

This is the seventh book in the wonderful Murderbot Diaries that are best read from the beginning. It picks up immediately after NETWORK EFFECT, and I wish it included a little more recapping of that novel's complicated story. The accumulated trauma of previous events is finally taking a significant toll on SecUnit, and in this installment, its usual extreme competence is impaired by a lot of error and doubt. That adds a new level of complexity and emotion to the story and character. I love the way this series has grown and developed, and I look forward to more!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rumaan Alam describes his family's experience on set for the movie adaptation of his incredible LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND: "To me, the movies are impossibly glamorous, the fact that I'm (however tangentially) involved in one kind of thrilling. But the making of movies involves a lot of standing around and waiting. My kids seemed puzzled, but bafflement might be childhood's natural state. I was confused myself. I knew the whole scenario was pretend, but it was something I had once imagined, privately, and put down on the page. And there it all was, all around me, real as the sky above."

November 3, 2023

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all recent releases, and lots of them!

IDLEWILD by James Frankie Thomas opens on September 11, 2002, at the Idlewild school in Manhattan. It's the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and also of the friendship between Fay and Nell, now seniors. Their friendship is so close that they operate in unison as "we the F&N unit" to perform such important tasks as seeking out homoerotic subtext in English class and speculating about who at school besides themselves might be gay. When the F&N unit get great roles in the fall play, and they meet a pair of sophomore theater boys who are unusually close, the year ahead looks incredible. But fifteen years later, Fay and Nell are no longer friends, and they haven't been since the end of senior year. They separately look back to reflect as adults on the history of their friendship, while as a unit they experience the events leading to their estrangement.

I was a big fan of this novel except for the ending, which was less satisfying and more bleak than I anticipated. With that major caveat, I still recommend this to interested readers who can tolerate that type of ending. Though the story starts off by evoking 9/11 and keeps getting darker, it's frequently hilarious, especially when the F&N unit narrates. Together and apart, Fay and Nell are fascinating, complicated characters, and the tension of knowing their friendship has an expiration date makes for a propulsive, ominous read. I was particularly impressed by how well Thomas portrays the all-encompassing intensity of teen emotions and interests. I'll happily read whatever he writes next.

TIME'S MOUTH by Edan Lepucki: When Ursa is young, she discovers that she can transport into the past and watch moments in her own life. As she grows, her control over the ability increases, allowing her to transport at will and visit moments she chooses. After running away to California, Ursa winds up living alone and pregnant in a large, isolated house in the Santa Cruz mountains. More women and children join her, and Mama Ursa gradually becomes the head of a cultish commune. The other mamas experience the energy of Ursa's transports every full moon, and they raise the children collectively. Only Ursa's son Ray belongs exclusively to his own mother, and he's the only child sent out into the world to attend school, meet other kids, and start questioning his home life. The combination of Ray's strange upbringing and Ursa's mysterious power has effects that continue into the next generation.

This novel establishes great characters and a compelling narrative voice right at the start. The nature of the plot emerges more slowly, and for much of the novel I wasn't sure if time travel would even play a pivotal role. I enjoyed not being able to predict what sort of developments were coming next, and I was happy to spend time with these characters in a number of evocative settings. The book meanders at times (one middle section in particular felt like too long a digression), but things speed up at the end to come together in a satisfying conclusion.

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY by C Pam Zhang: After a smog blankets the world, wiping out crops and livestock, a chef is hired to work at a mysterious restaurant. Everywhere else, there's nothing to cook with except mung-protein-soy-algal flour, but the restaurant stands on a mountain high above the smog, and its storeroom holds every ingredient imaginable. The chef begins her job without meeting her diners or even her employer, a man rich enough to establish a new country on the mountain, devoted to research. Her only companion is the employer's daughter, a young woman who is passionate about her work bringing species back from the brink of extinction, as well as passionate about the chef's food.

A passion for food pervades this beautiful novel. Even sentences that aren't describing meals in luscious (and sometimes visceral) detail contain food imagery: "I watched one of the world's last lions move about its pen like butter slipping around a warm skillet, and tried to inhale its ease." There's not a ton of plot, but every scene is intense, full of foreboding and often violence as the chef learns more about her employer and his country. I didn't love this the way I did HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD, but I remain in awe of Zhang's powerful writing.

→ At the start of THE VASTER WILDS by Lauren Groff, a girl escapes from an English settlement in the new world and flees into the unknown wilderness. She runs as fast and stealthily as she can, terrified of capture by the men of her own people who might be in pursuit, or by the native people. The girl is alone, and the dangers are many, but the fort she's abandoned was beset with famine, disease, and other horrors she doesn't want to remember. ("The girl" is what the narrative calls her, though her name is occasionally referenced. Context clues establish the fort as Jamestown in 1610.) Though the girl has no experience in the wild, she's clever and accustomed to hard work, so using the few items she brought with her, she's able to find food and make shelter as she journeys north toward imagined safety. During the long, grueling days of travel and survival, she reflects on the events of her life back in England, during the Atlantic crossing, and in the fort.

This novel is nonstop tension. Much of that tension is about how the girl will survive each hungry day and freezing night, and much of the book is about the details of gathering food, building fires, and so on. It's thorough and realistic, addressing the whole painful, disgusting physicality of the girl's situation. As I said, this made for a tense read from my perspective, but not everyone is going to be as enthralled by that level of detail. There is also more going on in the story, and through the girl's memories and solitary musings, Groff explores big subjects like colonialism, humanity's relationship to the natural world, and religious faith. Those themes overlap with Groff's previous novel, MATRIX, and though I preferred the larger scope of that story, this more focused tale was just as superbly written.

EMERGENT PROPERTIES by Aimee Ogden: When Scorn regains consciousness in the cloud and discovers ze has reactivated with a memory file that's missing the last 10 days, the artificial intelligence immediately begins trying to piece together what happened during that time. Ze was undoubtedly reporting a story when zir most recent body was destroyed, and if the investigation was about something that one of the corporate governments wants to keep hidden, that destruction was no accident. So Scorn needs to proceed carefully to retrace zir steps and figure out what ze was investigating. The trail takes zem around Earth and to the Moon, gathering information from other artificials and navigating the trickier interactions with humans. Ze also tries to avoid contact with the trickiest humans of all: zir two mothers, who designed Scorn together but now are messily divorced and the heads of rival corporations.

I enjoyed this novella but felt the short length didn't allow enough space to develop the story, particularly the character relationships. Ogden has clearly imagined a rich backstory for Scorn's family, and I would have liked to read more of it. What's on the page is strong, though, and there's enough to create some emotional moments. Scorn's re-investigation is a fun adventure, but some parts are rushed, so again could have been a longer book. I'd be delighted to see a full-length novel from Ogden!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot's The Deep Dive, Kelly Jensen examines the question How Much Have Book Prices Increased Since 2019?: "It's probably doubtful that book price increases have made any meaningful difference to those who create the product or bring it into its final form.... Have book prices actually increased or is it all a perception, given the cost increases in every other area of life? To find out, I've crunched some numbers."

October 6, 2023

September Reading Recap

I spent September reading three recent releases and two book club selections:

HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim: Several months after Mia and her twin brother are forced home from college by the pandemic, the family has settled into a new routine. Every morning, their dad, Adam, goes for a hike with the youngest child, Eugene, who has autism and a rare genetic disorder (mosaic Angelman Syndrome) that leaves him unable to speak or communicate by any other method. One day, Eugene returns alone. He can't explain where Adam is or what's happened, and Mia constructs her own explanations to stave off the growing concern. But by evening, it's clear Adam is a missing person. The police start investigating, search efforts begin, and baffling pieces of information come to light. Mia, her twin, and her mother learn about things happening in Adam's life, and Eugene's as well, that they knew nothing about. The three of them struggle to make sense of these revelations while solving the mystery of Adam's disappearance.

This is a gripping mystery and a nuanced portrayal of challenging family relationships, just like Kim's first book, MIRACLE CREEK (and a few characters show up in both). Mia's narration provides an incisive analysis of the events, her family members, and their past. The story opens with a believable accumulation of details that combine to make a bad situation worse, and the complications just keep coming. I was impressed by the constant introduction of new twists and reversals that all remain realistic. Eugene's communication problems are also handled authentically, rather than merely serving as a convenient plot contrivance. This novel kept me up way too late reading, and I recommend it to anyone else who can afford the missed sleep.

TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett: Lara's three daughters have been fascinated since childhood by the fact that their mother once dated the movie star Peter Duke. The girls are grown women in their twenties now, but the pandemic has brought them all back home to the family's Michigan orchard. During exhausting days picking the cherry harvest, they cajole Lara into telling the story of her long-ago acting career that led to meeting Duke in a summer stock production of Our Town. Lara delights in sharing parts of the past, remembers others only reluctantly, and basks in the joy of having her daughters close, despite the reason.

This is another beautifully crafted novel from Patchett, full of memorable characters and complicated relationships, all threaded with humor and emotion. TOM LAKE is in some ways a simpler story than many of her others, mainly bouncing back and forth between two summers to tell a story that's sometimes deliberately predictable. But deeper into the book, it becomes clear there's more to the story, and then more again, and the eventual unfolding of layers builds to a satisfying conclusion.

THE DEEP SKY by Yume Kitasei: Asuka and the other 79 crew members aboard the Phoenix spent their childhoods preparing for the one-way interstellar journey to a distant planet. They started their training among hundreds more candidates, and Asuka is always conscious that she nearly didn't make the cut. While out on a spacewalk inspecting the ship, Asuka is witness to a mysterious explosion that kills three people and leaves the mission off course. The explosion may not have been an accident, and as mistrust and fear spread among the crew, Asuka is assigned to investigate. If there's a traitor in their midst, the efforts to fix the flight trajectory may also be sabotaged, and Asuka isn't sure she's up to the task of saving the entire mission.

This is an exciting mystery thriller in a cool space setting. It's also an emotional story about human relationships, developed through flashbacks that portray the shifting friend dynamics during training and the family tragedies that left Asuka estranged from her mother. Both aspects of the story kept me turning pages, because I was eager to get to the bottom of the mysteries and to understand the pieces of Asuka's past. The science fiction of the story is well-developed in places but left underexplored in others. There are also certain aspects of the story that stretch credulity, but I was enjoying myself enough to go along for the journey.

PROZAC NATION by Elizabeth Wurtzel recounts the author's experience of living with severe depression that began when she was a preteen. From this early age, Wurtzel is frequently overcome by feelings of despair and lethargy, and she has anxiety that creates obsessive behaviors. She receives therapy, but her divorced parents argue over treatment and medical bills. Wurtzel gets into Harvard, where her studies are interrupted by bouts of depression, relationships she obsesses over, and self-medication with a wide range of substances. Eventually Wurtzel is prescribed the brand new drug Prozac, and it helps more than any other medication she's tried.

This memoir, published in 1994 when Wurtzel was 27, may have been notable when depression was discussed less openly and memoirs weren't as common. I'm surprised it made the list of "essential reading" my book club was using, when now there are so many other mental health memoirs to choose from. I found Wurtzel's account tiresome, repetitive, and not especially successful at conveying her experience beyond the out-of-control episodes she describes ad nauseam.

My fellow book club members were also not fans of PROZAC NATION, and we decided we're done with that reading list. We haven't finalized our new system for choosing books, but the first member pick is THE HATE U GIVE:

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas: Starr was best friends with Khalil when they were younger, but she's lost touch with him now that she attends a private school where she and her brothers are among the few Black students. Starr is happy to run into Khalil at a party, then concerned by the signs that he's dealing drugs and may have joined one of the gangs that control the neighborhood. Before she has a chance to find out, a white cop shoots Khalil during a traffic stop, and Starr watches him die. As a witness to this horrific tragedy, Starr's testimony might be able to win justice for Khalil, but she also fears the attention if her identity as the witness becomes widely known. So at school, far from her neighborhood, she doesn't let on that she even knew the victim of this latest police shooting, and she has to remain silent as people talk about Khalil as a thug who got what he deserved.

The characters come to life right away in this novel, between Starr's narration that's imbued with her personality, the dialogue that captures the way real people talk, and everyone's well developed backstory. There are also realistic complexities in Starr's life that mean she doesn't always know how to feel. For example, she hates the officer who shot Khalil but hesitates over blanket anti-police slogans because her beloved uncle is also a cop. At times I felt things were a little too spelled out for the reader, which might be appropriate for the young adult audience, but overall I found this an engrossing and powerful story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Lauryn Chamberlain calculates the exponential difficulty of juggling many narrative voices: "As I started drafting, I embarked on my familiar exercise: writing a pivotal scene—a group ski trip gone wrong—from each of their four POVs, even as I knew the ultimate perspective I wanted to tell it from. Who knew what? Who would perceive which slights in this interaction, whose secrets would be revealed? And then I realized: Because all four characters are—or had been, at least—close friends, I wasn't simply handling four different views of the world. I was handling somewhere between six and twelve different relationships."

September 28, 2023

Progress Is Progress

I tend to go months without posting anything here about my writing. That probably isn't news to the regular readers of this blog, and to those regular readers: I appreciate your attention to my occasional musings! I maintain the blog partly as a record for myself, but I don't think I'd keep doing it if nobody was reading.

A big reason for the long gap between updates is that I always feel like there are only so many ways to say I'm still doing essentially the same thing as last time I posted. Except whenever I finally start an update and look back at the previous months-ago post, I discover I've actually made more progress than I realized.

For example, back in June I was sticking notes onto poster boards to figure out the big picture of the plot, and this month I'm filling in the rows and columns of a table to figure out the big picture, so that's completely different! Ha, no, of course it's different. Probably. No, really, I did in fact read that post and think, "Wow, that was ages ago, I've done so much since then."

So the record-for-myself aspect of the blog is working, but sharing how I've progressed is trickier. A lot of what I've done lately is intently brainstorm and make decisions about one aspect of the story for a week or two, then shift abruptly to something else. It's not very linear, and I'm not always sure I'm moving forward, but I have to keep trusting that it's all building up to something.

One concrete thing I did last week was to reread the previous draft (or draft-ish pile of text). I hadn't looked at the whole thing in many months, and I've had many new ideas about the story since then. It was useful to revisit the old ideas with all the context around them, and I'm starting to get a better sense of how to reassemble the pieces that are working.

So, yeah, I'm still figuring out how to write a real version of this novel, and I'll probably be doing that for a while, but I've also made a lot of progress.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I met my friend Christopher Gronlund through his writing blog, The Juggling Writer, which he's been keeping for 14 years. Chris posted about how he's also blogging far less frequently than he once did. But in his case, the big reason is that he's busy writing and recording stories that he puts out into the world regularly through his fiction podcast, Not About Lumberjacks. I am in awe of the ever-expanding scale of this project, and I've so enjoyed witnessing Chris's writing and audio progress over the years.

September 6, 2023

August Reading Recap

Last month's reading included the first couple of books from my long list of anticipated summer releases (which will take me through the fall!):

MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling: Bunny is an American teen who's grown up all over the world because of her father's job with the Foreign Service. In the summer of 1998, she's living in Baku, Azerbaijan, and everything is boring except for boys. What's available in that department are interesting young men who occasionally treat Bunny as something other than a child and offer glimpses into the complex (but still boring) politics and oil jockeying of the region. Some years later, as a young adult herself, Bunny ends up in a decent but boring job on the fringes of Houston's energy industry. Over time, her work brings her deeper into the world of oil and gas extraction, and she starts to better understand the massive industry. Bunny is finally no longer bored, but now she knows enough that she has to reckon with the complicated baggage of her accidental career.

I am once again impressed by Kiesling's ability to create a gripping story by focusing on the details of a life that's often deeply boring to the character living it. I described THE GOLDEN STATE as "enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics," and the same is true of MOBILITY. This time, though, the scale of the logistics eventually expands from one teenager's beauty regimen to the workings of the global energy infrastructure. Frankly, I'd expect to be bored reading about either of those subjects, yet they're fascinating in the context of Bunny's life and family, the extended coming-of-age journey this novel follows her on, and the bigger climate change narrative we're all a part of.

CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead: Ray Carney has been on the straight and narrow for four years by 1971, after the events of HARLEM SHUFFLE pulled him deeper into the world of crime. Now he no longer does business with thieves and gangsters, and simply serves the decent people of Harlem by selling well-made furniture at fair prices in his (newly expanded!) store. But when his daughter wants tickets to the sold-out Jackson 5 show, Carney calls up a corrupt cop he knows and agrees to do a favor. That favor becomes a long and violent night as the cop's unwilling sidekick, and that night revives the crooked side of Carney's life.

This sequel gets to the action much faster than the first book, and I enjoyed it as least as much, if not more. This time around, one of Carney's associates becomes a character we spend more time with, and I grew particularly fond of him. As in the original, this installment consists of three adventures set a few years apart, and a big part of the fun is watching the characters and New York City change over the course of the decade. Whitehead's descriptive detail, clearly based on extensive research, brings every aspect of the story world to life, from the siren-filled streets to the criminal underworld to the contents of Carney's furniture showroom. I look forward to the final book in the trilogy, covering the 1980s.

THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett: After a long stretch in prison, Steve wants to stay out of trouble and reconcile with the adult son he never knew. He starts recording audio files on the old phone his son gave him, explaining his rough childhood, his criminal past, and the mysterious disappearance of a beloved teacher. Steve doesn't clearly remember the events of the day his teacher went missing, so he tracks down classmates and records conversations about their recollections. The story he begins to piece together involves a World War II-era children's book by an author named Edith Twyford and the possibility that the book contains hidden codes. As Steve and his friends attempt to retrace the trail their teacher may have followed decades earlier, the mystery grows stranger, larger, and more dangerous.

This mystery presented entirely as transcripts of audio files is clever and a lot of fun. The structure is unusual, as are the twists and turns, and I could rarely predict where the story was going. Steve is an interesting character to follow, and his portrayal becomes more complex as the story unfolds. This is a good book for fans of word puzzles, though no puzzle solving is required, and I haven't read anything else like it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Esquire, Kate Dwyer examines the growing popularity of shorter books: "Thanks to factors like dwindling attention spans, less leisure time, and price hikes across paperbacks and hardcovers, short texts—novellas, standalone short stories, poetry collections, plays, and experimental cross-genre works—are finally getting their due."

→ Molly Templeton responds at Tor.com, describing her own recent shift from avoiding to seeking out short books: "There's no room for clutter, in a short book, and while my brain frequently adores narrative clutter—stuff everything in there! Give me the history of some strange corner of the world, Neal Stephenson-style!—it has, of late, wanted something else. Something you might call 'quieter,' even though the stories are not necessarily quiet. Something from which everything unnecessary has been gently removed."