Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

December 2, 2022

November Reading Recap

I found time to read in November even while writing over 25,000 words:

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite: When Korede's sister calls to say she's killed the man she was dating, Korede hopes this is the last time she'll have to clean up Ayoola's mess. Korede is good at cleaning, though, and she performs the tasks of mopping up the blood and disposing of the body as meticulously as she does everything else, including her work as a nurse. Ayoola is unrepentant as usual about the murder, insisting it was an accident that happened while she was defending herself from her boyfriend's sudden violence. Korede is skeptical and worries about who her sister will kill next, and the only person she can talk to is the patient at the hospital who's in a terminal coma. The nightmare of the whole situation grows worse when the beautiful Ayoola attracts the attention of the charming doctor Korede has been falling in love with.

This is a fast-paced read that kept me entertained. The characters and situations are larger than life rather than realistic, which makes the novel comic and fun instead of horrific. I enjoyed that tone, but I wouldn't have minded a longer story that went more in depth in some areas, especially the previous murders, to give a fuller picture of how Korede and Ayoola's relationship got to this point.

THE SPARE MAN by Mary Robinette Kowal: The famously wealthy inventor Tesla Crane is enjoying a rare taste of anonymity and peace while she and her new spouse Shal travel incognito on an interplanetary space cruise. But only a few days into their honeymoon, a fellow passenger is murdered -- and Shal is arrested as the only suspect. Nothing he or Tesla say can convince the ship's authorities that he wasn't involved, and they start to suspect they are being framed. While Shal is ordered to remain in their cabin until they reach Mars, Tesla roams the ship in search of the real murderer. As she questions passengers and crew, her adorable service dog, Gimlet, provides irresistible cuteness that makes everyone more amenable to interrogation.

A murder mystery on an interplanetary space cruise is a fun idea, and Kowal delivers a reliable sequence of developing complications and solid science about the journey and the ship (plus cocktail recipes at the start of each chapter). But I think the book would have benefited from another round of editing. Kowal has certain writing habits, such as focusing on characters' physical sensations of pain, that I find get repetitive after a while. I was also underwhelmed by the ending and unsure how all the pieces connected, so I would have appreciated that classic scene where the detective explains everything that happened.

MEET US BY THE ROARING SEA by Akil Kumarasamy: The protagonist is living in her recently deceased mother's house, which is crammed with objects of historical significance. She (or more accurately "You", since the narration is in second person) hasn't been coping well with the grief from her mother's death, so her cousin has moved in. The narrator works training AI models, and the cousin is developing a technology to extract memories. By night, the main character translates a Tamil manuscript about a group of female medical students practicing radical compassion on the edge of a camp where refugees arrive after escaping a civil war. Chapters of the manuscript appear between chapters about the protagonist, who reconnects with an old friend, an artist whose parents recently died as a result of the decision of an artificial intelligence.

All these elements set up at the beginning of the novel are fascinating, and I was excited by the story's potential and intrigued by the strangeness of the narrative. But by the end, I was frustrated that many of the most interesting threads weren't developed much and that despite all the different pieces, the story is fairly slow. This is a genre-bending, shape-shifting tale of grief and translation and artificial intelligence, and some readers are really connecting with that, but for me, this was the wrong combination of too much happening and not enough happening.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, John Perilli recounts the eerie experience of watching his science fiction story become real: "I remembered, though, my initial feeling of submission dread: that my story was not forward-looking enough. If the premise of my supposedly futuristic story had come to pass in a matter of six weeks, was I truly stretching my imagination as far or as deep as possible?"

November 23, 2022

NaNo Update

It's week 4 of National Novel Writing Month. I can confirm that as I planned, I will not be attaining 50,000 words this November, but I have already reached 25k, my tentative personal goal.

My half-NaNoWriMo has been going very well. I've written every day this month so far, and most days I wrote a thousand or more words. A thousand words a day feels like a sweet spot for me: high enough that I have to keep pushing forward, but not so high that I end up typing every random thought simply to make word count. It feels like a sustainable pace that I can continue on past November, as long as I keep the flexibility of having some shorter days and breaks.

Tracking my words and having a numerical goal is great motivation, and it's ensuring my progress doesn't grind to a halt whenever there's a decision to make (which is constantly). For example, I got to a point in my outline where some characters were supposed to have a tense discussion about a particular area of conflict. I didn't have any notes about what setting or context this scene might happen in, so I had to think of one on the spot. I considered sending them on a hike, but then I immediately had a million questions for myself about logistics and location and what other activities would fit the story better than a hike. But I didn't have time for any of that, because I needed to write the scene, and what's important about the scene is the conversation and how it leaves each character feeling at the end. That's what's moving the story forward, and that's what will most likely persist into the next draft. The details of the hike that I scattered in around the conversation can easily be changed in revision. Once I've written the entire story and can examine it as a whole, I'll have more basis for determining whether it would be most useful for these characters to habitually take hikes together or play games or do some activity I'm definitely going to invent to be popular in the hundred-years-from-now setting of the novel.

Next up in my outline is a scene in which two characters start a collaboration that becomes significant for everything that happens in the rest of the story. I don't think I've sufficiently established why they decide to collaborate, but in the interest of pushing ahead, I'm going to get them started anyway. Filling in the missing steps can happen in revision. So can addressing the many unknown details throughout this draft that I've marked with square brackets, like "They discussed [something related to somebody's job]" and "the program to do [whatever], which was located in [wherever]."

I've been thinking of this draft as a model of a bridge, constructed of popsicle sticks and string in a somewhat haphazard manner. It may not be possible to drive even a toy car across it without jumping over gaps, and it's certainly not designed for real traffic, but it should wind up approximately the right shape to represent the bridge I want to build.

The 25,000-plus words I've written so far are a much more solid start to this novel than what I wrote last NaNoWriMo. A good word count for the finished draft might be somewhere in the vicinity of 100k, but I'm not sure where I'll actually end up, or how that might relate to the length after revision. I know I've written a lot of long, throat-clearing passages that will be streamlined or cut, but I also have all those holes and brackets to expand.

After today's writing session, I'll be taking a few days off to gather with family and friends. Next week I'll get back to work, and I'll keep writing into December and beyond.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ B. A. Shapiro shares her visual and mathematical plotting strategy at CrimeReads: "So how the hell does one go about writing a novel with such a large unconnected cast and so many intertwining plots? Well, how about Excel spreadsheets, bar graphs, bubble maps, pie charts and scattergrams? Not to mention intersecting and overlapping normal curves. Not the usual items in a novelist's toolkit. But my tools, nonetheless. Granted, I have a math background—one of my areas of specialization in graduate school was statistics—and everyone knows that being able to invert a matrix is a prerequisite for a successful literary career. Or not."

November 7, 2022

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all brand new books I'd been anticipating:

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie: Zahra and Maryam are fourteen in Karachi in 1988. They have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Also as long as they can remember, Pakistan has been under the rule of a dictator. In a year of many changes for the girls, they both experiment with first crushes and learn uncomfortable truths about their families, but their friendship remains a constant. When the president dies in a plane crash and a democratic election brings a woman to power, the future becomes bright with possibility. Then Zahra and Maryam share an upsetting experience with repercussions that will spool out over the decades to come.

I formed some early guesses about how this story would develop, then kept revising my predictions, but what actually happens in this excellent novel was always different and more complex. And often smaller, in a way I appreciated: For example, the event that sets pieces in motion is big by fourteen-year-old standards but not so terrible or significant in the scheme of things, and that makes what follows more interesting. This novel is all about the small moments between people and the effect of those accumulating over time, and Shamsie portrays those moments so well in every scene. I was invested in Zahra, Maryam, and their friendship from the first pages, and I remained captivated by every development.

THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell: When Cassandra is twelve and her little brother is seven, he drowns in the ocean. Cassandra is there to witness Wayne's death, but his body is never found and the circumstances are confusing. As a result, Cassandra's mother believes Wayne is only missing, and her conviction interferes with the family's ability to grieve. Years later, Cassandra meets a man at a cafe and thinks he's her lost brother. At the moment of her realization, chaos erupts. Then the story seems to begin again, but this time, Wayne dies when he's hit by a car.

I spent the first half of this strange, absorbing novel wondering whether the shifting reality of the narrative would eventually have an explanation or was more of a metaphor about the uncertainty of grief. The answer is sort of both. In the second half, the book shifts even more, and certain mysteries gradually become clear, but not the expected ones. I never had any idea where the story was going, and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. Serpell is a gifted writer, especially when it comes to narrative voice, and the characters she's crafted here feel solidly real even while the world around them fractures.

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng: At twelve, Bird is intimately familiar with PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, because its importance in saving the country from crisis has been drummed into him every day at school. Yet he's only starting to understand what PACT has to do with his mother leaving three years ago, or with other children being removed from their parents by the government. Bird's father says to forget about his mother, but the kids at school never let Bird forget that since she's a Person of Asian Origin, the whole family's loyalty is suspect. When Bird receives a mysterious letter from his mother, he knows he should burn this incriminating material. Instead, he tries to puzzle out its meaning, while investigating her possible connection to a string of artistic anti-PACT protests.

The dystopian near future of this story is chillingly close to reality, and Ng sets it up convincingly. The speculative setting isn't the only shift from her excellent previous novels, both set in the recent past of the real world. In what I took to be a reflection of the many folktales referenced in OUR MISSING HEARTS, the plot and characters are often fable-like, involving an epic quest, archetypal figures, and long sections of storytelling. This is a departure from the earlier books, which stood out to me for how nuanced and real the characters and their dynamics felt, and that was a bit of a disappointment. I still found this an engrossing novel, but I didn't love it like Ng's others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Mosberg analyzes the trend of TV and movie studios preferring to adapt books and other media instead of seeking original scripts: "One reason seems to be that the agents and executives and managers and assistants are lacking confidence in their own ability to judge material. Oh, this is a book that a company published? Then it must be good. But of course that’s not true; many books aren't good. Scripts—even when written by produced, award winning screenwriters—don't come with an automatic stamp of approval. And yet an obscure self-published comic book with no fanbase somehow does?"

October 31, 2022

Getting Scary Real

It's the scariest day of the year: The last day to get my novel plans settled before I have to start writing on November 1! (Doesn't that imply tomorrow is scarier than today? Whatever, I have more urgent details to focus on.) Yes, as I teased a month ago, I'm going to use National Novel Writing Month as a reason to stop planning and start drafting this novel (again).

I'll be working on the same project from NaNoWriMo 2021, but my goals are different this time. Last year, most of my ideas about the characters and story were nebulous, and in my pursuit of 50,000 words, I churned out a whole slew of scenes, experimental character sketches, and authorial musings about possible plot directions. It was a fantastically creative month that gave me a solid foundation for working out what I actually want this novel to be. None of that NaNo material (except maybe snippets here and there) is directly usable for the next draft, but it was all useful.

This November, I'll be starting the novel fresh, with the goal of writing the beginning of a decent, coherent first draft. I don't expect to write 50,000 words, because that pace might result in generating too many words I have to throw out later. But I do want to use the collective word count challenge to keep me motivated and keep me writing. I'm tentatively aiming for 25k story words. I won't be counting all the notes I'm also sure to write, because tracking those would be more of a bookkeeping hassle at this point.

I've spent most of this year reimagining the novel, figuring out the world and characters, and outlining a plot. In truth, nearly all the plot work happened in the last two weeks, because of the power of a deadline. Faced with a pressing need to make progress, I turned to trusty index cards for the first time in many years. Once I began scribbling (almost illegibly) the ideas in my head onto little rectangles and moving them around my rug (obviously designed for this purpose), it was amazing how quickly the basic shape of the story emerged.

October 5, 2022

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was once again an extremely varied selection:

NUMBER ONE FAN by Meg Elison: Eli is in the middle of a hectic book tour and glad to get out of the heat and into the ride she called, where a cool bottled drink is waiting. She wakes up chained to a bed in a basement. The man who has kidnapped her is obsessively familiar with her books, a magical law enforcement series that has been adapted into popular movies, but he seems to be having trouble understanding that Eli is the author of the novels, not the main character. When she refuses to play along with this fantasy, the physical and psychological torture begins. Through the pain and despair, Eli keeps looking for ways to save herself, because she doesn't know if anyone except maybe her assistant will realize she's missing.

As should be clear from that description, this is a disturbing novel, and often brutally detailed, but it's very well done. While the bulk of the story focuses on Eli's experience of her captivity and memories of past events, other character perspectives appear to give a fuller picture of what's happening -- and further increase the tension. Elison is deeply familiar with the nuances of genre, fandom, and social media, all of which adds realistic layers to the plot. I recommend this gripping thriller, but only to readers prepared for an intense book.

THE CITY INSIDE by Samit Basu: In a very near future Delhi, everything has become more extreme: climate change and pollution, political and societal divisiveness, surveillance, and social media. Joey works as a Reality Controller, managing the Flow of a popular online star, and she's talented at presenting the carefully crafted "reality" that endears him to both fans and funders. When she learns an old friend is under pressure from his wealthy and powerfully unethical family, she offers him a job that's intended to provide an escape. But Rudra's family seems to be exerting control over Joey's company now, and there's a whole web of conspiracies the two will need to investigate.

The characters and the well-developed worldbuilding pulled me into the story right away, and I remained immersed. I liked reading about the production and business side of Flows and watching Joey and her team sometimes work great together and sometimes clash. The many ongoing crises of the offline world are woven pretty well into the story, though there wasn't space for a full exploration of everything. I found the pacing somewhat uneven and wanted the story's events to form a more cohesive plot, but I still enjoyed this novel all the way through. (I also enjoyed Basu's Big Idea post about envisioning and reenvisioning the book.)

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks: What brings Hanna from her safe home in Sydney to war-ravaged Sarajevo in 1996 is a book. A beautiful medieval haggadah (a book used in the Passover seder) that was thought destroyed in the war has been rediscovered, and Hanna's skills as a conservator are needed. While taking the book apart to repair the binding, Hanna finds bits of debris including an insect wing and a white hair. After the work is done, she sets out to visit other experts who might help her understand the book's history, and along the way, she also learns more about her own. Alternate chapters set in earlier eras follow characters who played a role in the haggadah's survival across the centuries, explaining the mysteries behind Hanna's findings.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and there's real drama behind what's known of its recent history. The extended history invented by Brooks is fascinating, though I thought a few sections heightened the drama to the level of melodrama. Extensive research clearly went into the novel, and while some of the setting descriptions were too detailed for my taste, I appreciated the specifics about how characters lived in the different times. Because much of the story necessarily focuses on Jewish oppression, there's a lot that's hard to read, but the overall story is one of perseverance. It also doesn't exclusively focus on hate, but instead shows the points that Muslim and Christian characters chose to help preserve this Jewish artifact. This novel introduced me to many places and times I knew nothing about, and I expect the story will stay with me.

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY by Mahsa Mohebali, translated from Farsi by Mariam Rahmani: Tehran has been shaking since midnight from a steady string of earthquakes, but what really concerns Shadi is that she's almost out of opium. Her panicked mother wants to gather the family and leave for safety, but Shadi is uninterested in escaping and knows the family car won't get anywhere in the snarled traffic. Shadi sets off on foot to check in on her friends and their opium stashes. The upheaval in the streets is more societal than literal, and there's revolution brewing as she roams the city, encountering old and new friends and strange adventures.

This short novel was interesting to read even though I wasn't wild about it. Shadi is a distinctive narrator who bounces between ideas, jokes, and deep ruminations. She talks about a lot of people in her life with very little explanation, and while the disorientation this creates for the reader is probably deliberate on Mohebali's part, it did make the story hard to follow in places. I'm sure I lacked plenty of cultural context that I wouldn't expect the novel to provide, but I would have liked more context for Shadi as a character so I cared more about her day's adventures.

I appreciated the afterword by translator Mariam Rahmani that explains her approach to translating a story that was radical when published in Iran but despite her best efforts won't seem as transgressive to readers from freer countries. Rahmani also wrote about the experience of translating the book in an essay in Granta.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bettina Makalintal at Eater digs into the recent bounty of romance novels set in the world of food entertainment: "Beyond mirroring an author's own hobbies, food is the perfect plot device for the kinds of moments and personal revelations that are essential for romance's meet-cute to conflict to happy ending pipeline, and whether it's televised competitions or dueling food trucks, the food world is a convenient setting for romance's popular tropes and story structures. Food, like sex, is a sensual experience that fits into romance's sense of delight. But above all is the evergreen popularity of food — there is more food to watch, read, listen to, and consume than ever, yet audiences remain interested."

September 27, 2022

Slipping Into The Future

Time certainly does keep passing, in that fast-slow way it has, and somehow it's late September, a moment-lifetime ago from last September. The calendar calls that a year since I first got excited about a new idea that led to me participating in NaNoWriMo again and writing a big mess of words that will form the basis of an actual novel. But surely it can't be true we're three-quarters of the way through 2022 already, because I intended to have a real draft of that novel written by now, or at least started, and instead I'm still in the planning phase.

I don't know why it remains such a surprise to me that novels take a long time. (I'm sure none of my blog readers are surprised.) In March, I was looking back on my naivete from 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." Naturally at that point, I was still busy researching and worldbuilding. And of course I was doing the same in May, the last time I posted an update on this project.

I have not yet stopped focusing on worldbuilding, along with researching the real science behind the future world I'm creating. I've been developing the story's characters and plot as well, but every time I make progress in those areas, I realize there's more I need to understand about the details of my imagined future in order to fit the pieces together. My goal is to write scifi that will be convincing and coherent to readers, and that requires me to become an expert on the science of my fiction.

I'm incredibly eager to have the story elements settled and the plot outlined so I can begin writing. But I also don't want to write a draft that's another mess because I'm making every single decision on the fly. I've written plenty of drafts like that, and many good ideas have come from them, but so have many rounds of revision. That method takes a long time, too, so I'm trying this way with the planning time up front to see how that goes.

November is only a month away (somehow), and I may end up doing some sort of NaNoWriMo challenge to move this novel forward. I'd love to be ready to start writing by then, but if I'm not, maybe at least I'll manage not to be too surprised.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Heather Schwedel spots a trend in the Protagonist Does a Thing formula of book titles: "In 2017, we learned that Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine. As you may recall, there was a bestselling novel all about it, titled, appropriately enough, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Soon, a wave of syntactically similar book titles followed, all involving simple sentences containing the female protagonist's name: Evvie Drake started over. Florence Adler swam forever. Eliza started a rumor. Britt-Marie was here."

September 1, 2022

August Reading Recap

I've been having an excellent reading summer and enjoying so many great new books!

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin: Sadie and Sam become best friends after bonding over video games when they meet in a children's hospital. But a betrayal sours the friendship, and they don't speak for years, until they run into each other while both college students in Boston. With games again as the point of connection, they rebuild their friendship and design a game together. That first collaboration leads to a wildly successful company, and that success brings pressure, public scrutiny, and new challenges to the friendship. Over the years, there are more games, more betrayals, tragedies, and triumphs. Everything that happens to Sadie and Sam entwines them tighter, but that doesn't make their relationship any easier.

This is a beautiful novel about the complicated nature of human relationships and the lure of imaginary game worlds where things might make more sense. I recommend it to any reader interested in following excellent characters through their messy and occasionally devastating lives. Familiarity with video games isn't required, but I extra recommend this to gamers. The story starts in the 1980s and tracks the advances and trends in gaming over the following decades, which mirrors my own experiences since I'm about the same age as the characters. I'm familiar with most of the real games that make appearances, and I wish I could play every fictional game developed by the characters. This novel gripped me, left me emotional, and is joining my list of favorites.

ANY OTHER FAMILY by Eleanor Brown: After a set of siblings loses the grandmother who cares for them, they're adopted into three separate homes by new parents who commit to keeping the children connected. They come together as a big happy family for Sunday dinners, holidays and birthdays, and now a two-week shared summer vacation. The kids thrive under the arrangement, but the situation is more of a challenge for the three mothers, who have little in common besides the family. Tabitha always dreamed of a large extended clan and is delighted to organize every occasion to make things perfect, but she's frustrated that her efforts are so often met with complaint and pushback. Ginger is averse to chaos and change, and she's tolerated so much already for the sake of her daughter, but she isn't sure she can handle the further complications the family keeps throwing at her. And Elizabeth is exhausted from her baby's difficult first year and the unsuccessful fertility treatments that preceded it, and she's harboring the secret fear that she isn't cut out for motherhood after all. Two weeks of togetherness (carefully scheduled by Tabitha, of course) were going to be enough of a strain before a big piece of family news upsets the status quo.

I love the three complicated women at the heart of this book and the whole joyful mess of their unconventional family. Tabitha, Ginger, and Elizabeth could have been caricatures of easily sketched types of mothers, but instead each one has layers. The way they clash but also care for each other is nuanced and believable, and their interactions make for a great story. The book is full of emotion as well as humor, and it delighted me from beginning to end.

THE LAST WHITE MAN by Mohsin Hamid: Anders wakes one morning, and his white skin has turned brown. His entire appearance has changed, so the people who know him won't recognize the dark-skinned man he has become, and he must try to explain the inexplicable transformation. The first person he calls is the still-white Oona, an old girlfriend he's been casually seeing again. She isn't sure about getting involved in this strange drama, but out of pity, she goes to him in his time of need, and it brings them closer. As other white people turn dark, tension grows around town, and violence erupts. Anders is threatened and goes to stay with his father, who is nearing the end of his life. Oona tries to help Anders while managing her mother's growing racism fueled by online conspiracies. Meanwhile, more and more white people keep changing color.

Like Hamid's wonderful previous novel, EXIT WEST, this story focuses on a relationship between two characters in a world undergoing change on a fantastical scale. In EXIT WEST, the magical doors allowing instant passage between countries lead to migration looking quite different than it does in the real world, and Hamid explores the resulting problems and solutions in fascinating ways. THE LAST WHITE MAN depicts an abrupt version of the browning of America, but since the racism is just the same as in reality, I felt that either the story was missing something, or I was. It was only at the very end that I had a better idea of what the premise was getting at, but the relationships between Anders and Oona and their parents made an engaging enough story for this short book.

THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Carlota has never left the home she shares with her father in the Yucatán of 1871. People rarely visit, either, because Dr. Moreau's work must be kept hidden. But someone is needed to run the estate, and so Montgomery is chosen to be let in on the secret: The doctor is creating hybrids of humans and animals. Dozens of hybrids live and work on the property, but most suffer from health complications that Dr. Moreau is trying to overcome. Carlota is content with her isolated existence among the hybrids, and Montgomery settles in fairly well, though he remains haunted by his past. Then their comfortable life is threatened by the arrival of young men who take interest in the nature of the doctor's work, and in Carlota.

As in Moreno-Garcia's excellent MEXICAN GOTHIC, the story plays out in a vivid, claustrophobic setting where peril looms. But this novel never grabbed me in the same way, and after a strong start, I felt the tension slipped and was slow to redevelop. Despite some pacing problems, there is plenty of conflict and action to be found here, and other readers will connect with the story better than I did. Alternating chapters shift between the perspectives of Carlota and Montgomery, who bring very different experiences and personalities to the events, and the two points of view complement each other well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emily Lackey shares the agony of her year of trying to get an agent, and get pregnant: "I start to wonder what a fifteen-minute meeting with an agent is worth to me. If I got into Bread Loaf, would I be willing to pay $4000 just to get my foot in the door? When I start to think about what I would choose if I blow through my insurance’s IVF limit and have to choose between paying to attend conferences and paying for fertility treatments, I slam my laptop shut."

August 4, 2022

July Reading Recap

Last month, I enjoyed a good crop of recently published novels:

INVISIBLE THINGS by Mat Johnson: By the time the cryoship SS Delany reaches Jupiter, Nalini regrets joining the mission as a sociologist to study the crew dynamics. She might even regret entering the field of sociology, now that she's realizing just how terrible people are when they organize into groups. The frustrating power structure of the mission shifts when Nalini and her one real friend aboard make a bewildering discovery: There's a city under a dome on the moon Europa. This mysterious city turns out to be populated by humans who were abducted from Earth, or who descend from people abducted generations ago. The city looks just like a typical modern American city, and it operates like one, too, right down to the pervasive class inequality that keeps recent arrivals in precarity while descendants of the founders live in luxury. Now that Nalini is trapped there, with no way to get back home, she resigns herself to doing a sociological study of the stratified inhabitants. But even she is reluctant to explore the strange taboo against discussing the "invisible things" and the unsettling phenomena they cause.

The inventive and often absurd way the story's events unfold is characteristic of Johnson's work, and so is the biting humor. But this is a grimmer story than PYM and LOVING DAY, because despite the scifi premise, most of what occurs is depressingly close to our present reality. Writing satire is tough when everything actually happening is already so far-fetched, as Johnson discusses in a recent Fresh Air interview. So my reaction to this book is that it's well done, with a strong plot and a memorable cast of characters, but it's not the fun adventure I was anticipating.

THE EVENING HERO by Marie Myung-Ok Lee: Dr. Yungman Kwak has worked as an OB/GYN in a small Minnesota town for decades. When his hospital abruptly shuts down, he's forced into early retirement and realizes he doesn't know how to do anything except work. His relationship with his wife is strained, and maybe has been ever since they immigrated to America from Korea after the war. The recent return to Minnesota of their son, Einstein, might offer a chance to reconnect, but Yungman is bewildered by how Einstein lives his life, raises his own son, and practices medicine. Still, Yungman accepts Einstein's assistance in finding a new job at the high-end healthcare startup where he works. Meanwhile, letters arriving from Korea threaten to reveal the secret Yungman has concealed from his family: that he has a brother who he abandoned after the two had been through so much together during the difficult years of the war.

I was immediately drawn into this story, which opens by depicting both the great care Yungman has for his patients and the humor in situations he encounters practicing medicine in a small town. As the narrative progresses, it revels even more in the ridiculous while never losing the humanity of the characters. A middle section flashing back to Yungman's youth in Korea provides interesting context, but I missed the comedy of the rest of the book. On the whole, this novel is a bit uneven, somewhat too long, but largely an absorbing story, with excellent portrayals of both people and places.

FLYING SOLO by Linda Holmes: Laurie's beloved great-aunt never married or had kids, so after Dot dies, it falls to Laurie to return to her small Maine hometown and go through the contents of Dot's home. The project is a welcome break from her normal life in Seattle, since Laurie recently went through the embarrassing ordeal of calling off her wedding. Among Dot's many possessions, Laurie finds a beautifully painted wooden duck decoy. It seems an odd item for Dot to own, it was strangely buried at the bottom of a chest, and more questions arise when it turns out the decoy might be the work of a famous carver and therefore quite valuable. Laurie enlists both old and new friends to help solve the mystery, which eventually becomes a heist as the plot thickens. Her high school boyfriend, still living in their old hometown and now divorced, is an especially enthusiastic co-conspirator and willing to be something much more. But Laurie isn't sure if she ever wants a partner or if she'll be happiest living alone and on her own terms, like Dot.

This delightful novel combines a light, funny style with some deep insights about how many valid ways there are to arrange a life. I loved all the characters, their banter, and the strength of their bonds. The plot goes through a number of unexpected turns that are all a lot of fun and also make sense. The emotional moments are convincing as well, and the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. I'll definitely be continuing to follow Holmes's work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Paula Munier writes entertainingly about the deadly role of cheese in crime fiction: "By far the most common criminal activity involving cheese is theft. Cheese is the most stolen food in the world: it's pricey, portable, and perfect for money laundering. In Italy, organized crime steals so much Parmigiano Reggiano that Italian banks often hold their customers' rounds in their vaults for safekeeping."

July 28, 2022

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer/Fall 2022

Once again, I'm looking at upcoming publication dates and appreciating that if nothing else, at least the future will bring more books. These new releases are all by authors I'm already a fan of, and I'm eager to read their latest novels.

ANY OTHER FAMILY by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's two previous delightful novels were both about families and their challenges, a favorite subject of mine. I'm excited by the premise of the new book, which features a particularly challenging family configuration: a collection of parents who have separately adopted biological siblings but work to keep the children connected.

THE LAST WHITE MAN by Mohsin Hamid (August 2): I adored Hamid's brilliant last book, EXIT WEST, a speculative take on migration. In this one, white people are waking up to find their skin turned brown, and I'm so curious to see where this inventive author goes with that story.

NUMBER ONE FAN by Meg Elison (August 30): Elison is the author of both the post-apocalyptic Road to Nowhere trilogy and the very different FIND LAYLA, about a real world teen growing up in a horrific home environment. The new book is something different again, a psychological thriller involving an author who gets kidnapped by an obsessed reader.

THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell (September 27): Serpell's astounding debut, THE OLD DRIFT, was so epic and wide-ranging that it's inevitable the next novel tells a smaller story. In THE FURROWS, a girl's little brother goes missing, and for years she seems to see him everywhere, until she meets a man who may or may not be her lost brother.

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie (September 27): In HOME FIRE, Shamsie crafted a tense, complex reframing of Antigone through well-developed point of view shifts. The new novel concerns a friendship, which is something I always like to see explored in fiction, and I'm hoping for another layered and nuanced story.

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng (October 4): EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU and LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE are both outstanding novels about complicated family dynamics. Both are grounded in the real world, so I'm fascinated that Ng's next family story takes place in a dystopian future ruled by intolerance that sounds uncomfortably plausible right about now.

THE SPARE MAN by Mary Robinette Kowal (October 11): I've read and enjoyed all of Kowal's previous novels, which include a Regency-era magic series and an alternate history of the US space program. This time, Kowal is combining mystery, space travel, and the trappings of classic noir, and I'm expecting a fun adventure.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrew Simmons writes for The Millions about watching Station Eleven and teaching Hamlet to the class of 2022: "Hamlet has always been a vehicle for our existential vibrations, but the angst of my students has spiked. The class of 2022 negotiated the normal contortions of teenage growth on abnormally unstable ground—school closures, remote learning, masking, sickness."

July 6, 2022

June Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading in June:

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović: February, the hearing daughter of Deaf parents, is the head of a residential school where Deaf students learn and socialize in American Sign Language. Charlie is entering the high school at a major disadvantage: she was never allowed to learn ASL because she has a cochlear implant, but since the implant works poorly for her, she hasn't mastered spoken language either. February hopes to ease Charlie's transition to the school by putting her under the guidance of Austin, a student from a family with five generations of deafness. But the opening chapter reveals that by the second semester, Charlie and Austin have run away with another student, which is only the latest crisis February must cope with.

This fantastic novel features a great cast of characters and a gripping, layered plot. Everyone in the story is facing multiple challenges that fuel the tension, some related to deafness and some about family and growing up. Along the way, Nović explores numerous aspects of Deaf culture and politics, presenting different views among the characters with compassion for all sides. An innovative text layout differentiates the use of signed and spoken language, and the story is punctuated by brief, illustrated lessons in ASL and Deaf history. While I did learn a lot from this novel, what impressed me is what a good story it tells.

PANPOCALYPSE by Carley Moore is a mix of journal entries charting the pandemic lockdown and fiction about traveling through portals to other worlds, all from a disabled queer perspective. Orpheus is single and starved for company and touch after New York City shuts down. She buys a bicycle so she can spend some of her lonely days riding around the city, though cycling is sometimes difficult because of a disability that causes pain and poor balance. While Orpheus tries stop pining for her ex-girlfriend, Eurydice, she pursues admission to the mysterious club Le Monocle, which promises a safe place for queer touch. Eventually she finds her way to the club and meets someone who takes her on a farther, stranger journey.

I enjoyed this unusual book and the whole range of content it contains. Sometimes the recounting of the early pandemic captured experiences familiar to me, other times it provided a look inside a very different life, and I appreciated getting to read both. The author/character (the line is deliberately blurred) writes with insight about a variety of injustices she encounters personally or sees occurring in the wider world. When the story moves into the speculative realm, it's a fun interlude, but just as thoughtfully done.

THE COWARD by Jarred McGinnis: Jarred wakes up in the hospital after an accident and learns he'll never walk again, and a woman is dead. He's angry, guilt-ridden, and unprepared to face the future in a wheelchair. Upon discharge from the hospital, he's forced to call his father, who he hasn't spoken to in ten years. Jack takes in Jarred, his wheelchair, and his enormous medical debt, and father and son uneasily try to rebuild a relationship. As Jarred adjusts to navigating the inaccessible world in the present, the story of the two men's difficult and often violent past unspools.

The strong, well-written narrative voice and complex characterizations are this novel's strengths. Jarred is a funny, angry narrator. Much of what he rails against is justified, but he's also deeply committed to being an asshole and not allowing himself happiness, and the author mines both the humor and tragedy in this. The book's major flaw for me was that not enough happens in the plot, or at least the things that happen started feeling repetitive after a while. I grew fond of the characters and hoped for things to turn out well for them, but I would have preferred a shorter version of this book.

WOMAN OF LIGHT by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Luz, her brother Diego, and their aunt have made a life together in 1933 Denver -- a difficult, hardworking life, but one with many happy times. Life gets even harder after Diego angers a group of white men who brutally beat him, resulting in Diego leaving town. Luz and her aunt barely scrape by for a while, until Luz gets a job working for a local lawyer, where she learns about more cases of brutal injustice. She also finds a love interest, or maybe two. Luz periodically uses her gift for seeing visions to glimpse scenes from her family's past, going back generations.

The way this novel opens, with a list of family members by generation and a prologue set in 1868, led me to expect more of the story would span the generations, but it's mostly focused on a year or two in Luz's life. Unfortunately, I was never fully drawn into her story, and I found many situations lacking in nuance and bogged down by excessive descriptive details. There was a lot interesting in the family history, and I kept wishing to see more of the previous generations than the limited chapters provided. I preferred the tighter, more compelling short stories in the author's strong collection, SABRINA & CORINA.

THE MEN by Sandra Newman: One day, all the men in the world disappear. (More accurately, it's every person with a Y chromosome.) Jane is camping in the mountains with her husband and young son when this happens, so it takes her some time to learn that they are part of a mass vanishing rather than lost in the woods. She's reeling with grief when she reconnects with Evangelyne, an old but estranged friend who is becoming a charismatic leader in this new world. Meanwhile, video clips posted online seem to show men walking in eerie unison across strange landscapes, and nobody can agree who's behind the videos or what they mean.

I found the various pieces of this novel absorbing, but those pieces don't hold together well. The strongest part of the story is the opening chapters, when Jane and several other characters experience the mysterious loss of loved ones and struggle to understand what's happening. Early on, the book has some good exploration of immediate effects from half the population disappearing. After that, a surprisingly small amount of the book is devoted to these repercussions. There's a lot about the videos known as The Men, and the people who become obsessed with watching and analyzing them. And there's too much about the previous intense friendship between Jane and Evangelyne, and the separate traumatic experiences that shaped their lives before they met. The chapters about the past felt like they belonged in another book, because the events didn't especially influence the two women's response to the disappearance.

The gender apocalypse in this story is specified as connected to the Y chromosome, and so there are occasional references to trans women being among the disappeared, trans men remaining, and nonbinary people in both groups. I read this as acknowledging gender diversity without focusing on it, though I can't speak to whether the author had another intention. My interpretation is despite the fact that the first mention of a trans person is a (very brief) scene of assault, which made me wary as I read the rest. Mostly the story doesn't seem particularly concerned with the chromosome thing, or with any characters beyond the main set, which doesn't include any trans people. I wouldn't cite any of this as grounds to avoid the book, but I've already explained other reasons it may not be worth your time. (I do wholeheartedly recommend Katherine Packert Burke's essay about how this and similar novels mostly don't know what to do with trans people, and I'm featuring it below.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Katherine Packert Burke looks at the ways recent gender apocalypse novels treat trans people: "References to these trans women, or to the trans men who survive, are fleeting and uncomplicated. But these are books about gender. They're trying to reckon with something toxic in the structure of society. Why wouldn't trans people be a part of that? What fears are they reckoning with that don't include trans people?"