November 20, 2015

An Introduction to Me, Age 13

Throughout this investigation of my childhood writing, I've been excited to get to the thick folder of eighth grade work. English class that year placed a heavy focus on writing, with an emphasis on the planning and revision stages. I was eager to examine pages of crossed-out sentences and scribbled notes that might reveal my early story development process.

Alas, while at least two drafts of every piece survive, the differences between versions are minimal in most cases, with only a few word choices improved, punctuation errors fixed, and maybe an occasional sentence rewritten. And really, that's not surprising, since I was a 13-year-old kid who'd always been praised for strong writing skills. Why would I bother to alter my stunning prose?

Based on my own experience and what I've observed in others, it tends to take a long time for writers to understand and accept that what pours out in the first draft is often nothing close to the best possible version of a story. Revision is time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating, so it's no wonder we resist it. Still, I applaud the Sudbury (Massachusetts) Public Schools for teaching revision in the eighth grade writing curriculum, even if this step was only cursory in practice:

November 14, 2015

Book Riot Live Report

The very first Book Riot Live conference was an incredible success, and I'm so glad I was able to visit New York City to attend!

I stayed in New York for the post-con week, hanging out with various family members, attending theater, and seeing sights, all of which was awesome as well. In quiet moments between the continued fun, I jotted down the highlights of my Book Riot Live experience, and I finished assembling this report on the flight home.

The programming at the con was excellent, and my only complaint was that at times there were too many cool things happening at once! I started my weekend -- after eating gourmet doughnuts in a car wash -- with a live recording of the Book Riot podcast. This show keeps me informed about the most interesting news from the book world on a weekly basis, so it was cool and strange to see the faces of the people with the familiar voices. During the Q&A period, I asked the first question, and I was tickled when the hosts recognized me from Twitter! You can listen to the live episode and hear me at about 33 minutes in. (Is that really what I sound like?)

The next day I attended another recording, this one for the interview show Reading Lives. The guest was announced only a couple of weeks before the con, and I was thrilled to learn it would be Angela Flournoy. Back in May, I recommended her wonderful debut, THE TURNER HOUSE, and it was great to hear about her development as a writer and reader.

Fighting the Good Fight: Turning Awareness Into Action was a fantastic panel of representatives from We Need Diverse Books, VIDA, First Book, and the Harry Potter Alliance, all great organizations working to increase diversity in publishing and accessibility of books. The panelists discussed their activism efforts and ways for readers to participate. In particular, there was much talk about noticing and counting who is represented on any list of books or authors, whether it's a personal record of books read or a set of award nominees or guest speakers. Striving for diversity in any such list, and calling it out when it's not there, has a cumulative positive effect. Personally, I've been very happy with how my reading life has expanded since I started paying more attention to who I read and recommend.

I was delighted at the prospect of attending a conversation between Margaret Atwood and N.K. Jemisin, two amazing authors I admire. The subject of the panel was Writing What You Don't Know, but the discussion was a wide-ranging one. I really didn't care what topic these two were speaking on, because everything they had to say was so smart and funny. The event was covered by The Guardian, which recapped the conversation, and I suggest reading that article for some choice quotes.

November 4, 2015

October Reading Recap

October was an exciting reading month, with one much-anticipated new release and two books from Book Riot Live authors:

ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie is the delightful and satisfying third book of a trilogy. I've previously offered strong recommendations for the first and second installments, and I'm happy to do the same for the conclusion. If you like science fiction and haven't checked out this series yet, it's now safe to get started, and I highly encourage it.

The trilogy follows Breq, an artificial intelligence who once controlled an enormous spaceship and all its crew, but is now reduced to a single isolated body. A quest for revenge drove Breq through the first book, and the second found her embroiled in political and personal complications. In this final book, she has to deal with the many consequences of what's come before, and it's a messy affair.

As with the other books, I was impressed by the way this story is simultaneously epic and intimate. It's an extraordinary combination of tense action scenes and people processing their feelings. Both Leckie's writing and Breq's unique worldview are always wryly perceptive, and this was probably the funniest installment of the series. ANCILLARY MERCY closes numerous arcs of plot and character development, some I hadn't even realized I was waiting to see resolved, and it brings the trilogy to a perfect ending.

EDINBURGH by Alexander Chee is a beautiful and difficult novel. It tells the story of Fee, who joins a boys' choir at 12 years old, becomes best friends with another singer, and falls deeply in love with him. The purity of this unrequited first love is quickly shattered when Fee, his friend, and the other young boys in the choir are molested by the man who directs the group. This sexual abuse continues for months, and after it's stopped, Fee and his friends can't escape the effects of the trauma. As Fee grows older, suffers through more unrequited crushes, and eventually finds happiness with a man who loves him back, all these relationships are complicated by his first great love and his first unwanted sexual experiences.

I'm not going to lie: This is a grim book. But I was engrossed by the unusual ways the narrative reveals and explores the horrific events and how they impact and confuse everything that comes later. The scenes of abuse are not explicit and are in fact often nearly glossed over, reflecting the first person narrator's discomfort with speaking about them. The disparate topics that Fee chooses to focus on instead form a fascinating and strange story. The writing style throughout the book is gorgeous, filled with delicious, well-observed details like "The sky outside my window is a dark door with light peeping under the crack."

Chee is a great writer. I look forward to his participation in Book Riot Live, and to the release of his second novel next year.

→ I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood, who has written some amazing novels. THE HEART GOES LAST is not her best work. The earlier part of the book explores some interesting worldbuilding ideas, and later it turns into an exciting conspiracy thriller that becomes rather madcap toward the end, so there's plenty of enjoyment potential, but much of the story didn't appeal to me.

In the wake of a large-scale economic meltdown, Charmaine and Stan are among the many who have lost their comfortable middle class existence. The couple is broke, desperate, and living in their car when they learn about a chance to improve their situation. They apply to move into an idyllic suburb, where they'll receive housing and good employment in exchange for spending every other month as inmates in the prison that fuels the local economy.

The premise behind the town's utopian vision doesn't make a lot of sense, but maybe it doesn't need to, because the town is actually funded by nefarious schemes Charmaine and Stan eventually uncover, though those don't necessarily hold up under scrutiny either. These issues of plausibility and some plot holes, as well as the amount of time spent on entertaining but unimportant tangents, made the novel feel unpolished to me. It's also the case that the author was interested in different aspects of the story than I was, and I wasn't amused by much of what was intended to be ridiculous or satiric. Despite my lukewarm reaction to this particular book, I'm still thrilled to hear Atwood speak at Book Riot Live this weekend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Adrian Barnes writes in The Daily Beast about the strange and terrible synchronicity of receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer as his novel neared publication: "As both the disease and my novel progressed I began to notice eerie similarities between the two, even down to the physical similarity between the eye on the book's cover and an image of the tumor itself, with its vein-like tendrils spreading out across my brain."