December 5, 2017

October/November Reading Recap

It's time to catch up with a double batch of reviews! Over the last two months, I read some excellent science fiction and fantasy, and also some other books.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon: Aster is a skilled healer and scientist from the lowdecks of the ship Matilda, which fled the Great Lifehouse 300 years ago and has traveled through space ever since. Life is never easy for lowdeckers, with imposed shifts on the field decks and frequent abuse from guards and overseers. Following a rash of unexplained blackouts, harsh energy rationing has made lowdeck conditions even worse, while the upperdeckers continue to enjoy their many comforts. For Aster, the blackouts also resurface questions about her mother, who committed suicide during the last series of ship-wide power outages, on the day Aster was born. When political events reveal information that appears connected to her mother, Aster begins searching for answers about her mother's life and death, and what she discovers has huge implications for Matilda.

I have been recommending AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS since I started reading, and my enthusiasm only increased as I got farther into the book. This engrossing, intense novel contains so many pieces that excite me. The world of the generation ship is intricate and often unexpected, and I only wish the story allowed room for Solomon to share even more of the tantalizing cultural elements they created. But the plot had to keep moving, and it's a great one, with secrets and power struggles and a mystery involving science. Every character is a complicated individual, and I cared deeply for Aster, her friends, and all the wonderful fierce inhabitants of the lowdecks.

Solomon's debut is ambitious and satisfying, and I look forward to their future novels!

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie: Ingray was adopted into a rich, politically powerful family, but she grew up knowing her brother was their mother's favorite and would be named heir. Still, she can't stop hoping to win favor, so she's traveled to a distant system and spent all her money on a wild plan that may impress her scheme-loving mother, or at least humiliate her obnoxious brother. When Ingray's plot immediately goes wrong, she's forced to return to her home planet with nothing besides a reluctant co-conspirator and an even more far-fetched scheme. It might have worked, too, if not for those meddling aliens -- plus some unanticipated police involvement and an interplanetary dispute over historical relics.

PROVENANCE is a exciting, twisty story, as gripping when the characters are undertaking tense exploits as when they're facing off over long-held resentments. I loved these nuanced, messy characters and their complex family dynamics and friendships. As always, Leckie has built a fascinating world where numerous cultures come into contact and don't understand each other, which is sometimes funny and sometimes thought-provoking. The story explores identity, social customs, power, justice, and gender, all in the course of a plot that speeds right along.

This novel takes place in the same universe as Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, and some political activity in the background is a result of events in the trilogy, but it's not necessary to know about (or remember) those to understand this standalone book.

THE OBELISK GATE by N.K. Jemisin picks up Essun's story where THE FIFTH SEASON leaves her, coping with the implications of the continent-shattering disaster that's destroyed the Stillness. There's a chance Essun can make the world right again, but first she's going to have to learn a lot more about her orogenic powers and discover the skills of others who may be able to help.

I was happy to return to the world of this trilogy (nice place to read about, wouldn't want to live there!), spend time with the characters I'd grown attached to, and meet new ones. This installment includes a lot of great, exciting developments, with a good mix of tense action and quiet character moments. Many of the story's mysteries start becoming clearer as Essun gains knowledge and power, but there's still much I'm eager to find out about, and I'm curious to see how tightly the various pieces will connect by the end of the final book.

November 22, 2017

Wait Till It Comes Around Again

Well, here we are much of the way through November, already into the hectic rush of the end of another year. I started the month with ambitious plans of drawing inspiration from the NaNoWriMo energy in the air and devoting bigger chunks of time to revision. That worked out for two or three days, and then there were some plot developments on the new house remodel that sucked up my attention. I never really managed the "NANOWRIMO AMOUNT OF FOCUS" that my all-caps to-do item called for this month, and writing progress has mostly trickled along. Our new home is proceeding more quickly, at least, and it will be ready for moving in next month. My manuscript will be ready next year, surely.

A year ago, November also began with high hopes. I was excitedly embarking on this revision that's still underway, and I wrote more or less the same thing about harnessing NaNoWriMo energy. Then the election happened, and focusing on writing got a lot harder for quite some time.

Of course, even under ideal conditions, I'm not super great at consistently putting hours of concentration into writing. Or maybe the issue is that conditions are so rarely ideal. Real life presents a constant distraction, which is a lovely thing as often as it's not. I knew I'd written about this issue before, and I found this post from many years ago on the topic, when naturally I was engaged in another revision of this same novel. Because let's not forget that I've been doing this over and over for a decade.

But hey, the tail end of the year is all about annual traditions, right? Some year it might be nice if my custom evolved to working on a different novel or revived making the most of NaNoWriMo. But I'm incredibly fortunate to get all this time for writing, and for that and so much else in my life, I'm truly thankful.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Adam O'Fallon Price explores the nature of both first- and third-person narratives in this Defense of Third Person: "We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it: who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it's worth taking it from them. In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people's minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness--their motives and feelings. The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator."

October 31, 2017

Horror Story

For Halloween, I present a list of scary facts about my novel:

→ It was ten (ten!) years ago that I wrote the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for NaNoWriMo 2007.

→ At that time, the 2026 portion of the story took place at the far reaches of the near future, while the late 1990s section drew on my recent memories. Today, the 90s are a historical setting, and by the time people can purchase my book, 2026 might be their credit card expiration date.

→ The first draft only took 30 days to write. Sure, it's 83,000 words of mediocre prose, the characters are simplistic, and the plot is a mere sketch of the story as it currently stands, but I got from start to end in a single month.

→ I'm now on the fourth major rewrite of the novel. Counting less extensive editing passes, this is at least the eleventh draft.

→ Despite all the research I've done over the past decade (decade!), there are still endless details in the manuscript that remain to be factchecked or rendered more accurately.

→ I've written or planned out several other novels in the years since beginning this one, and I'm still just as far away from finding a story that might eventually turn into something worth publishing.

These are the terrors that haunt me in the night. I wish you all a better sleep, a happy Halloween, and a successful NaNoWriMo!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Annalee Newitz explains for Slate How to Write a Novel Set More Than 125 Years in the Future: "Possibly the most difficult part of building a future was coming up with little details, like the euphemisms people use for slavery, or how they access the internet. Characters have to do things like eat, turn on the lights, and get wasted on a night off. These mundane details lead back to larger questions. What powers the lights? My novel is set after peak oil, so do the lights run on alternative energy? Batteries? Are the lights in fact just glowing bacteria living on the ceiling? Also, when would my character go out to a club? Do we still have the concept of weekends in the future? Do adults socialize mostly in the evening, or are work shifts so arbitrary that they might consider it normal to go to a raging party at 2 p.m.?" (Thanks, Jamie!)

October 10, 2017

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of a pair of second novels whose authors both managed the tricky feat of living up to the high expectations set by their excellent debuts:

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng: In the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, life is carefully ordered, and the ugly parts (garbage cans, racism) are kept out of sight. The Richardsons are the perfect Shaker Heights family: successful and well-off, generous to those less fortunate, blessed with three smart, popular children... and Izzy, the youngest, who never stops causing trouble. Izzy's rebellion reaches a shocking new level when she burns down the Richardson home at the end of a complicated year in which the arrival of an artist and her daughter affects each member of the family in a different way. And both families are impacted by their connections to a custody battle that disturbs the peaceful structure of Shaker Heights.

The novel charts the events of the complicated year by spending time with each character, and the reader gradually understands how everyone's actions are driven by experiences the other characters often don't know about. As in EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other. I liked how the full story of the past and present emerges, with interesting choices such as keeping Izzy ignored in the background (the way she is within the family) until fairly far into the book, despite her pivotal role.

There are so many fascinating, complex elements to LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. It's crammed with intriguing character details and nuanced interpersonal dynamics. The story delves into difficult topics of class and race and explores questions about who gets to raise a child. There's tension, mystery, and emotion on every page. Once again, I'm extremely impressed, and a bit envious, of what Ng has accomplished.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan serves up the same geeky fun as his debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but this time the wild quests and secretive societies revolve around food rather than books.

Lois has recently moved to San Francisco for a programming job at a robotics company striving to make work obsolete by overworking its employees. She's miserable in her new life, her stomach hurts constantly from stress, and she has no time away from the office to unwind or make friends. A small bright spot appears when she begins ordering dinner every night from a neighborhood restaurant run by two friendly brothers whose spicy soup and sourdough restore her body and soul. But soon the brothers' visas expire, and they move away, leaving Lois their sourdough starter and the responsibility of keeping it alive. Lois has never prepared food or even thought much about it, but she gives bread baking a try, and this sets her on the path to another new life, one that's far more exciting and delicious.

This novel is delightful and clever from beginning to end. The world of the story combines actual San Francisco and East Bay landmarks with locations that are wonderfully close to plausible, and then it mixes in a dash of the improbable. Lois remains an excellently real protagonist, however, and I sympathized with her hopes and frustrations. The writing made me laugh frequently, but the various plot threads eventually become quite suspenseful, and the satisfying way they tie up left me finishing the book with happy tears. SOURDOUGH is a warm and nourishing treat of a book!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Jennifer Kitses describes what trying to finish a crime novel taught her about writing: "A character might face multiple threats--he's being pursued by the Feds, and also by his partners in crime, and maybe his very survival depends on completing a job that is already hopelessly botched--but what sends him over the edge is worrying about his kids. In a domestic novel, the nature of the stakes and the source of danger might not involve a crime (though they surely can), but from the characters' points of view, the stresses they face at their jobs and in their homes feel no less urgent."

September 29, 2017

What's New

It's probably time for another revision update, and of course the update is once again that I'm still working my way through this draft. The new wrinkle is that I haven't been writing as much as usual due to real life demanding more time, as it so often does whenever the writing really gets flowing.

Fortunately, this real life intrusion is a happy and exciting one. Somewhat out of the blue, we've purchased a new house, and we're now in the process of arranging renovations before moving in. The new house is only a few miles from the old one, in the same Silicon Valley city, which is convenient, since I've been over there almost every day to meet with contractors and repair people, make decisions, and dream about how we'll set up our new home once it's ready.

I could craft some sort of extended metaphor comparing revision to remodeling, but let's just say they both tend to take longer than expected. We're almost to the point where the professionals are going to get to work turning our plans into reality while I get back to focusing on the manuscript, but this past month my attention has been more on the house than the words. I'm trying to do at least a little bit of writing every day, and that's sometimes successful and sometimes a reminder of how poorly I handle distractions.

The progress that's been happening, while slower than ever, is nonetheless good, satisfying progress. I'm continuing to make this novel so much better, because I'm constantly a better writer than I was before, which is a cool thing to realize. Eventually, the work will be done, and I'm confident it will all be worth the wait!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Melville House shares an essay from Elisabeth Jaquette on translating Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (which I read last year): "Much of a translator's work boils down to being a mediator. In the larger sense, we're mediators between languages, of course. But translating an entire novel also means mediating between cultures, histories, and readerships in ways that can present daunting -- and thrilling -- challenges."

September 11, 2017

August Reading Recap

These days I'm not reading as many books as before, but I'm pleased about continuing to experience an excellent variety of stories:

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin: The Stillness is a land that's never still, where communities are designed around the earth's constant trembling and the threat of a shake large enough to bring disaster. The disaster that's just occurred is cataclysmic. One survivor, Essun, is simultaneously suffering a personal disaster, the murder of her young son by his own father. The boy was killed for displaying his power, the ability to move and calm the earth, which he inherited from Essun. She's kept her identity as an orogene secret for years, because orogenes are hated and feared, despite the protection they can provide. The best an orogene can hope for is to be taken in by the Fulcrum, trained to channel their power, and forced into a life of service, keeping the Stillness a little bit stiller.

Jemisin has created a fascinating world, based on extensive research into geology and an imagined history that stretches back millennia. Like any skilled writer, she presents only as much of this background as is needed and interesting, and exposition about how the Stillness, the orogenes, and the Fulcrum operate doesn't get in the way of the story's tension. The characters are as thoroughly developed as the world, by turns endearing, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

This book grows more and more intriguing and clever as it goes along and presents new revelations and mysteries. The secrets are only beginning to unfold by the end, so this first installation of the Broken Earth trilogy doesn't form a complete story on its own. Happily, the whole trilogy is available as of last month, and also happily, I will be glad to spend two more books with Essun and the others, exploring the Stillness.

CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang follows the thoughts of a woman under pressure. She's a PhD student who worries she'll never match the accomplishments of her lab mates. She's the child of immigrants who fears she'll never live up to her parents' expectations. And she's overwhelmed by the marriage proposal from her boyfriend, who has completed his PhD, grew up with parents who praised him constantly, and doesn't understand what she has to be afraid of.

This short novel is composed of brief passages that detail a moment, a memory, an emotion, a scientific fact, or any blend of these. The first-person narrative is written with both humor and insight. Imagining her future, the narrator says, "I don't see myself having kids... If I had one, I would want to have two, and if I had two, I would want to have zero." Of her father, she muses, "Such progress he's made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon."

The combined pieces tell a story about a difficult period in the protagonist's life, but it's a relatively -- and realistically -- uneventful story, concerned far more with character than plot. While I prefer a more even balance between these in my reading, I found CHEMISTRY a well-crafted, appealing version of this type of book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Anna Solomon considers sexy backs, headless women, and evolving book cover trends: "Maybe the point isn't banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it's not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized--though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women's backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men's books in egregious disproportion to those by women... but by women ourselves."

August 30, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Fall 2017

Lately my reading time has diminished, because I've been trying to get as much writing as possible accomplished while I also have a lot of other things going on. This extra-busy state is likely to continue for a while, but I do intend to find time in the upcoming months for these books I've been anticipating!

GEORGE AND LIZZIE by Nancy Pearl (September 5): I'm a longtime fan of librarian, interviewer, and action figure Nancy Pearl, so I was excited to hear she's publishing her first novel. Even better, it's one about family relationships and secrets. Though early reviews are mixed, I'm curious to check this book out.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan (September 5): I wrote a glowing review of Sloan's debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, so this is one of those cases where I'm nervous about whether an author's second book can live up to my hopes. Happily, advance readers are enthusiastic about this new geeky adventure through the Bay Area tech world, which prominently features some of my favorite topics: food and bread.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (September 12): Again, this is a second novel from an author with a debut I greatly admired, the powerful family story EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. Ng's new book involves two Ohio families whose lives become entwined, and it sounds like it's going to be another incredible read.

PROVENANCE by Ann Leckie (September 26): If you're a science fiction reader and haven't tried Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy yet, consider this another reminder to pick up ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I loved that series! No need to read the trilogy before PROVENANCE, however, because this book introduces new characters in a different part of the Ancillaryverse. It's the story of a woman on a quest for power and lost artifacts, and it's sure to include richly developed people, cultures, and conflicts.

ARTEMIS by Andy Weir (November 14): Weir's first novel, THE MARTIAN, was a ton of fun, combining a thrilling survival story with fascinating space science. ARTEMIS promises to deliver more thrills and science, plus a heist plot, and it's set on a moon colony. I can't wait!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rosie Cima performs some excellent data analysis and visualization to measure the gender balance of The New York Times Best Seller list: "If we are looking for a single category to explain why women are better represented among best-selling authors today, the Literary/None category is our best candidate. Most best-selling books fall into this category, and its change over time closely matches the overall gender ratio, shifting from extreme bias in the 1980s to close to parity in the 2000s."

August 3, 2017

July Reading Recap

July was a busy month, writing and otherwise, so I haven't had time to post since my last batch of book reviews. I also didn't have quite as much time for reading, but I did enjoy two new novels:

THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle reveals its core premise in the title, and if not for that hint, you might get quite far in before guessing that dark, supernatural forces are at work. While the book describes itself as a fairy tale in the opening sentence, the first third is the realistic story of a family in contemporary New York City. Apollo is raised by a hardworking mother and starts his own career at an early age, buying and selling used books. He meets Emma at a library book sale, and they fall in love. Their baby is born under some unusual circumstances, but their experience of parenting an infant is full of the normal joys and pressures, with too many photos shared on Facebook and not enough sleep.

When the novel takes a turn, it's a very, very dark one that will make it not suitable for all readers. Even then, the full nature of the horror isn't revealed for a while. The story shifts through several apparent realities before the end, and Apollo has to battle numerous types of evil. Throughout, the characters are portrayed with as much care and detail as when this started as an account of a family just trying to get through the day.

LaValle has crafted a stunningly disturbing story with a ton of emotional impact. It's a harrowing read, but it earned a place on my list of favorites.

MADE FOR LOVE by Alissa Nutting: Hazel decides it's time to leave her husband when he wants to implant a chip in her brain to connect the two of them wirelessly. Byron's the genius founder of Gogol, the tech megacompany built on collecting and analyzing everyone's data, so for him, it's the natural next step in human relationships. For Hazel, it's the final straw after a decade trapped in a controlling marriage. She flees Byron's compound, aware that his surveillance abilities are limitless and afraid that he may kill her if he can't get her back. She seeks refuge at her father's house, where she discovers Dad has just purchased and married a sex doll. After that, things get weirder.

All the events in this story are over-the-top and bizarre, which made for frequent laughs, constant surprises, and occasionally some trouble connecting to the characters. That said, Nutting does an admirable job creating layered characters with real emotions and anxieties in the midst of this somewhat alienating plot. I was always concerned about what was going to happen to Hazel and the others, and it was always more odd than anything I could have guessed. Nutting is imaginative, to say the least, with the skill to render her story worlds in vivid, compelling, hilarious detail.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charse Yun considers the complex issues involved in Deborah Smith's flawed translation of Han Kang's "The Vegetarian": "I can't emphasize enough how different Han Kang's writing style is in Korean. Han's sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a 'nineteenth-century ring' to it, reminiscent of Chekhov." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

July 7, 2017

June Reading Recap

I spent much of June simultaneously reading these three wildly different books:

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay is an intensely honest and powerful account of moving through the world as a very fat woman. The book mixes smart musings on weight, food, and other bodily topics with concise sections of chronological memoir. Gay writes about what was done to her body -- she was gang-raped at the age of 12 -- and what she did to her body in response -- she made herself as large as possible to avoid becoming a victim again. With frank insight, she examines the complex repercussions of these points in her life and all that followed.

The writing is uncomfortably raw at times, but that's not to say it's unpolished. As in all her books, Gay demonstrates great skill at both sentence and structural level. Short chapters and recurring refrains give the reader some sense of the effort and bravery required to write this memoir, as the text sometimes circles around and works its way up to revealing the most humiliating parts. It's an effective and beautiful technique.

Right after reading the book, I was lucky enough to get to attend one of Gay's tour events at Kepler's Books, where she had a deep and wide-ranging discussion with interviewer Angie Coiro. I recommend seeking out any recordings of Gay's previous interviews to hear her talk about her work, such as recent appearances on Fresh Air and Another Round.

→ In STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany, there are over 6,000 planets populated by humans and aliens. The story provides readers a sense of the vastness and variety of this inhabited universe, while focusing primarily on two humans originating from two quite different worlds. One of the main characters spends decades in an extremely limited existence, enslaved on a planet where there's little knowledge of other worlds. The second comes from a culture shaped by the close cohabitation of humans and the native species, and works as a diplomat engaged in frequent interstellar travel.

I'm keeping this explanation simple because the book's many complexities are best discovered through reading. The impressive, intricate worldbuilding is presented the way I love, with concepts referred to but not usually explained right away, if at all, so the reader has a chance to reflect, guess at what's going on, or just roll with it. The scope of Delany's setting is enormous, and characters frequently mention that even a single planet is "a big place" with many cultures, languages, climates, and so on. Most of the story, however, takes place at an intimate scale, revolving around personal concerns such as desire, family, gender, etiquette, and food. For me, it's the perfect combination for a science fiction novel.

Delany planned this story as the first half of a diptych, but his creative focus changed, and he never finished the second novel. As a result, this book ends with much unresolved, but with that caveat given, I highly recommend it to anyone excited about what I've described. It's brilliantly conceived and superbly written, and I'm eager to read more of Delany's work.

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari looks at the shifts in human development and culture from prehistoric times, when homo sapiens was "an animal of no significance", to the present day. Harari analyzes the major leaps forward in human history -- the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions -- and explains the contribution of factors such as the rise of monotheism and the idea that the future will be better than the past. He draws connections between different changes and at several points considers whether history might have gone another way.

I learned a lot from this book. I knew a small amount about some of these topics and found out many more fascinating facts, and I discovered whole aspects of history I'd barely thought about. The writing engaged me most of the time, though there were some dry passages and some points where I disagreed with Harari's arguments. This is an informative and mostly easy-to-read survey of the significant stages in human progress, and definitely a good way to learn about the subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura explores maps that reveal the hidden structures of Choose Your Own Adventure Books: "In just about every case, it can be surprising how a simple choice leads you down a complex path. In By Balloon to the Sahara, you're in a balloon and are presented with a choice on the very first page. Storm clouds are on the horizon. Choice 1: 'If you act now, you can release gas from the balloon and land before the storm overtakes you.' Choice 2: 'Perhaps the storm will pass quickly. Maybe you can ride it out.' That’s just the beginning, since this book has the most decision points -- 48 -- of the series."

June 28, 2017

Things In Progress

Right now my life is fairly pleasant but a bit scattered, with various things in progress:

→ The revision, still, forever, but it continues to go well. Lately I've been really putting my characters through the emotional wringer, which I guess is a good thing. I keep believing milestones are just within reach, and then I hit a slow patch or discover more details to work out or have to manage the logistics of a scene with five people talking, and those points recede farther into the distance. I'll get there.

→ Three books I'm in the middle of reading. Earlier this year I was mostly focusing on one book at a time, and then I resumed my two-at-once habit until it got out of control this month. The books are wildly different, so I have nice variety to choose from, but it's a bit impractical. Expect reviews next week.

→ A knitting project, after a long bout of knitter's block. I spent a few months on a cardigan that was giving me a lot of trouble, and when I put it down in frustration a while back, I didn't pick it up again and was reluctant to start anything new. I finally decided I can return to the sweater when I feel like it and seek out more enjoyable projects in the meantime. It's soothing to be knitting again.

→ A heat wave. To be fair, the serious heat has passed for the moment, with temperatures only in the low 80s this week. That's still too warm for my taste, but it's far more tolerable than last week's record-breaking highs. It was over 100 outside my house.

→ Real life fun with family and friends. We've had various visits and celebrations around here, with more planned, and that's been nice. I'm glad I'm not a character in someone's novel of dysfunction and angst, because gatherings not interrupted by dramatic revelations are a lot more relaxing!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black analyzes How Exposition Breaks Empathy: "It shifts the story into a mode in which the focus flips 180 degrees around, pointing out of the story rather than into it. That feels radically different. It yanks you out of the immersive reading experience by reminding you that you are in fact reading a story told by an author."

June 6, 2017

May Reading Recap

I read another batch of recently released novels in May, all with very different subject matters and styles:

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal: Harit lives an isolated life that's only become lonelier since the death of his sister. He spends his days selling men's accessories at a department store and his evenings in a ritual of wearing his sister's clothes to soothe his grieving mother. Though Harit's family immigrated to Cleveland from India a decade ago, he's found little friendship or community until his pushy coworker insists they go for a drink together. Elsewhere in Cleveland, Ranjana appears to have a model immigrant life Harit would envy: comfort with American culture and strong ties to the local Indian community, a lasting marriage, and a son starting at Princeton. But Ranjana's reality is that she fears her husband is having an affair and she struggles under the expectations of gossiping acquaintances. Ranjana is happiest when she's writing fiction, a passion she has to hide from her family and friends, especially since her genre is paranormal romance.

Harit and Ranjana, along with the other characters inhabiting this wonderful novel, are complete and complex people who I adored getting to know. By the time their stories merged, I was thrilled to watch my two new friends meet and befriend each other. While this novel is focused primarily on the characters' emotions and relationships, Satyal has also developed a strong plot for his characters to move through, full of events that constantly surprised me. The one piece of the story that engaged me less was the thread following Ranjana's son at college, which felt like it belonged in a different novel.

This is a fantastic story of people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. It does a beautiful job of exploring the messiness of real life through unexpected developments and characters who aren't what others imagined. I highly recommend this novel. I also recommend Satyal's Hamilton-themed book trailer, which is unrelated to the story's content but quite delightful.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Lady hires a live-in nanny for her toddler after separating from her husband. The new nanny, who goes by the name S, is eager to move into the backyard cottage to get away from her mom, and Lady sympathizes due to a difficult history with her own toxic mother. The childcare arrangement is supposed to give Lady time to work on her book, a memoir about raising her older son, an 18-year-old who has never spoken. While Lady sorts through memories of his early days, S works on a project of her own.

This novel revolves around the two women's secret motivations, so information about their pasts and presents is doled out gradually, and I won't give more away. It's not a mystery story, and there's no shocking twist, but certain elements borrow from that genre. I enjoyed how the narrative unfurled, and while I did feel some of the revelations fell short of their intended impact, I was always eager to keep reading.

These characters are intriguing from the start, driven by unpredictable fears and desires. Small details of their lives and interactions make the story real and frequently funny. I think this is the first novel I've read where the characters use Twitter, and Lepucki has done an excellent job of integrating it naturally into the story. There's a whole compelling, unsettling world inside WOMAN NO. 17, populated by people who are fascinating to visit, but I'm glad I don't have to live there.

SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar: Jakub Procházka is the first Czech astronaut, launched by his country's space program to study the cloud of cosmic dust that's formed between the Earth and Venus. During the first months of the eight-month solo journey, Jakub's weekly video calls with his wife break up the lonely days he spends reflecting on his childhood during the fall of Communism. When his wife refuses to show up for a call, Jakub loses focus on the mission, and perhaps his grasp on reality. He starts talking to the giant alien spider lurking around the spaceship, who wants to probe further into Jakub's memories of his life on earth.

The space portions of this novel shift from wacky alien hijinks to harrowing danger, all of which I found entertaining, especially when I didn't worry too much about the science. These adventures are broken up, sometimes frustratingly so, by flashbacks to Jakub's childhood and relationship with his wife. Jakub's past, and how it relates to his country's changing politics, is a compelling story on its own, and it greatly increased my knowledge of Czech history. The interaction between the two pieces of the novel was occasionally clunky, but I liked them both enough to appreciate the book as a whole.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at The New York Times investigates how The Martian got a classroom-friendly makeover: "Apart from the four-letter words, 'The Martian' is a science teacher's dream text. It's a gripping survival story that hinges on the hero's ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math, in order to stay alive on a hostile planet. (The Washington Post called the novel 'an advertisement for the importance of STEM education.') After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Mr. Weir, who describes himself as 'a lifelong space nerd,' asked his publisher, Crown, if they could release a cleaned-up edition of the book." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

May 19, 2017

A Writer's Search History, Revisited

Last month I noted on Twitter: "My search history suggests I have small children and a drug problem. Happily, neither is true." Writing leads to a lot of internet searches, sometimes weirdly specific, often on topics that are odd or disturbing either individually or in combination.

Four years ago, I put together a post highlighting some search queries that had featured in my recent research. When I looked back at that post -- once I finished suppressing my panic about how it's four years later and I'm again, still, working on same novel -- I was amused (mixed with an additional dash of panic) to see many similarities with searches from the past few months.

→ Previously on Lisa's search history, I was seeking concussion information, and just recently I looked up "concussion check" and variations. As it happens, a different character is the subject of concern this time. Within the plot, this all makes perfect sense, but maybe I need to examine why my novel has a motif of head injuries. Related searches: "head wound blood", "bleeding from chin".

→ Last time, I wanted to know about the smell of vodka, and I didn't end up using the information. A couple of months ago, I put something in a scene about the narrator smelling tequila, but I wasn't sure it made sense and ultimately took it out. It doesn't appear I did any searching this time around, so I must have done some real world investigation, meaning the research didn't all go to waste.

→ In the category of "of course you can find that on YouTube", I recently searched "sound of a baby burping" and watched numerous videos, all in the name of essential research. More baby queries: "how long does it take a baby to drink a bottle", "when can baby roll over", "older child sharing room with baby". Incidentally, the baby and older sibling I was writing about are part of a brand new family of secondary characters introduced to the novel in this draft, since I didn't have enough people to revise already.

→ My previous search post discussed my brief desire to explore motel curtains for some reason. This year, my decor needs were about "bathroom tile walls". I'm reminded of a long-ago commiseration with a writing buddy regarding first drafts overly focused on describing wall and floor coverings.

→ "election day 2026" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly consider that the part of my novel that takes place in the future also takes place in early November. Election Day will be before the novel starts, and of course it's a midterm, so there shouldn't be a glaring absence if the characters don't mention it. Most likely, I went through this same panic cycle years ago.

→ "california shrubbery" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly doubt that an extremely small detail is realistic. I'm imagining a row of bushes in front of a house, which I think of as a very common yard feature, but what I'm picturing is a childhood home in Massachusetts, so do houses have those here? Several times a week, I walk around my neighborhood, but I guess I immediately forgot about this query, because I still haven't paid any attention to the question while outside my (unshrubberied) house.

May 5, 2017

April Reading Recap

Last month I finished reading two recently published novels (and I have more new releases in store for next month's roundup):

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad: The Second American Civil War starts in 2074 when a group of Southern states secedes after the United States government outlaws fossil fuels. Sarat is a young girl living with her family in Louisiana, on a coast reshaped by rising oceans, until nearby combat forces them into a refugee camp. As Sarat grows up in the camp and her family suffers further trauma, she learns to hate the North and channel her anger toward the cause of resistance.

Sarat is an intriguing character, and not an easy one to follow, because the horrors she undergoes and her resulting zealotry are tough to read about. El Akkad uses his background as a journalist, reporting from conflicts around the world, to fill this novel with grisly authenticity. I was very caught up in this book, and it also often made me uncomfortable, so it succeeds at telling an effective story.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but excerpts from imagined historical sources appear between chapters, offering more context and explanation of the war. These were so well-developed that I was sorry we didn't get even more of the big picture. What's there, however, does an excellent job at providing a level of commentary on Sarat's actions, which the character is only able to see from the perspective of her singular goal. This is an inspired book in many ways, and I hope to read more from El Akkad.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein: Karen has an amazing six-year-old son, a successful career as a political campaign consultant, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In the time she has left with Jake, who she's parented alone, Karen is trying to create good memories and prepare him for life without her. She's arranged for her son to be adopted into her sister's family after her death, but these plans are disrupted when Jake asks Karen to find his father. From Karen's perspective, Dave gave up all parental rights when he ended their relationship upon hearing she was pregnant. But Dave is overjoyed to learn of his son's existence, and now Karen is terrified he's going to try to take her place in Jake's life when she's gone.

The premise sounds like a tearjerker, but I didn't personally cry while reading, I think because while Karen occasionally gives in to despair, the narration focuses more on her stubbornness, anger, and dark humor. This is a sad situation, sure, but it's also a complex one, and the story is mostly about the nuances of characters trying to do the right thing when they can't agree on what that is. I found all the characters real and sympathetic, and I was absorbed by their interactions. I also liked the glimpses into Karen's campaign work, which involves another set of fascinating interactions.

The narrative takes the form of a book Karen is writing for Jake to read when he grows up, and I think that frame detracted from the novel in more places than it improved it. I also felt the story could have used a stronger ending. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this engrossing read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub finds the living authors with the most film adaptations: "There are plenty of writers whose works have been made into many, many films--William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle being the high rollers that immediately spring to mind. But with contemporary--read, living--authors, the field is a little slimmer."

April 21, 2017

Spring Is in the Air

It's April, so the cherry blossoms have scattered to the winds, flowers are springing up all over my neighborhood, and sneezes are in full bloom. After years of not enough rain, California has probably finished a season of too much rain, and we're looking at a stretch of pleasant sunny days before my valley inevitably gets much too hot for my taste.

I'm another year older now. I've been celebrating my birthday primarily by eating lots of delicious treats. I also bought myself a few books, celebrated with friends, and have more festivities planned for this weekend. Once again, I find it's good to be the birthday girl.

Between birthday activities and unrelated commitments, I haven't done much writing this week, but in general I've been making steady if slow progress on the revision. As I mentioned before, some of the changes to this draft involve writing entirely new material rather than simply adjusting what's already there. Something I only recently articulated for myself is that I'm trying to write this new stuff not as a first draft but as a fifth/tenth/whatever-this-is draft so that it matches all the parts that have been through many rounds of polishing. That's not completely possible, but I'm getting at least partway there, and it's one reason things are moving slowly for now.

While I'm working from a detailed outline I developed in the fall, parts of the story have drifted away from the plan, as tends to happen. I hit a big plot snag about a month ago, but I eventually wrote my way out of it. Though I'm still winging it a bit more than I was hoping, I'm happy with how the new version of the story is developing. I do have concerns that too much of my novel revolves around chairs, sandwiches, and ice cream, but after all, those are a pretty good set of things.

I hope spring is bringing good things your way as well!

April 3, 2017

March Reading Recap

My March reading was excellent, with a great batch of novels from authors I've enjoyed in the past:

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid: In a city on the brink of war, Nadia and Saeed meet at a night class about product branding. They begin to date as militants take over the city, and the uncertain times intensify their falling in love. Meanwhile, across the globe, doors are opening that transport people from one part of the world to another. When Nadia and Saeed get the opportunity to pass through one of these doors to a safer place, they make the difficult decision to leave the only city they've ever known. The couple joins the flow of migrants changing the structure of the world's cities, and migration changes the shape of their own relationship.

This is a brilliant novel that depicts both the minutiae of two intertwined lives and the societal impact of countless migrating bodies. From the opening pages, I was invested in Nadia and Saeed as characters and drawn into their day-to-day reality, where the banality of emailed marketing pitches mixes with the routine of car bombings and checkpoints. Despite the magical doors, which are introduced with little fuss, this story feels like it could be happening right now, thanks to Hamid's care with details.

While the workings of the doors aren't explored, their effect on migration numbers is thoroughly imagined. Existing inhabitants fight or embrace the refugees, new arrivals establish ways to organize themselves, systems adjust to accommodate growing populations. I was fascinated by the plausible infrastructure solutions Hamid developed for the novel, and I hope our own world will move to resemble those parts, not the ones where people fear and hate each other. I encourage everyone to read this timely and wonderful story.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders is based on a historical fact, the death of Abraham Lincoln's beloved young son Willie, which occurred just as it became clear how long and bloody the Civil War would be. It's also inspired by a rumor from the time, that after the funeral the grieving president visited the crypt where the boy was interred. Saunders combines historical record and speculation with the supernatural and fills the cemetery with ghosts who witness the events of that night and help Willie through the transition from life to death.

The premise is inventive, but the really unusual part of this novel is its narrative construction. I was a fan of Saunders from the collection TENTH OF DECEMBER, and while those stories are all wonderfully weird in content, they stick to pretty standard forms, so I wasn't expecting his first novel to be stylistically unlike anything else I've read. Understanding how the story operated was a thrilling and unsettling pleasure, so I'm not going to spoil anyone else's fun by explaining further. If you're uncertain about trying experimental prose and want to know more first, check out Ron Charles's Washington Post review for a fuller description.

Saunders does a lot of skillful work in this novel, from pulling off the format to crafting a huge cast of distinctive and memorable characters. It's a moving story involving a good deal of grief and pain, which Saunders handles with his characteristic compassion, while also weaving in a bit of his characteristic humor. I really enjoyed this book as both an impressive writing feat and an emotionally engaging tale. It's not going to appeal to all readers, but if you're drawn to unconventional prose, I highly recommend it. And if you're into audiobooks, note that this one has a large cast of celebrity narrators -- I'm not normally an audiobook listener, but I'm considering experiencing the book again that way.

THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison: This is the second installment in a planned trilogy, after THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, which I adored last year. Since the first novel stood strongly on its own, I was a bit nervous about a sequel, but the new characters and developments in this story made for a compelling continuation. I expect most readers who enjoyed the first book will also appreciate this further exploration of Elison's post-apocalyptic world.

Generations after a plague wiped out most of humanity, killing women at far higher rates than men, the disease still lurks in the population, and women remain a small minority. Eddy was born to the fulfilling life of adventure on the road, where he raids for useful supplies in the ruins of the old world, trades with small towns, and rescues women and girls held by slavers. When he returns home between trips, he despises having to resume the role of Etta, daughter of a respected village mother who can't understand why Etta won't accept the biological necessity of becoming either a mother or a midwife.

Identity and gender are big topics in this novel, and the problem of an unbalanced world presents numerous complications. As Eddy travels between towns, he encounters many different arrangements between the men and the few women. Some are cruel, all are imperfect, and each adds something to the story and Eddy's perspective on the world. (The first book also explored various possibilities, but nothing here struck me as repetitive.) While reading, I was somewhat frustrated by information that was hinted at but went unrevealed for what felt too long, but mostly I stayed intrigued by the story. Toward the end, it gets especially intense and takes a number of quick turns before reaching a conclusion that wraps up major plotlines but also sets things up for the final book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen explores the approaches to cover design for 1984: "George Orwell's classic 1984 -- a staple of high school classrooms everywhere -- has been holding strong to the top of the bestsellers list for the last few months. I spent a little time looking at covers from previous eras, as well as foreign editions, and I found some interesting commonalities."

→ And Rebecca Romney collects covers for The Handmaid's Tale: "The color red, both an evocative design choice and a key aspect of the narrative, has dominated most cover designs since. Whether the designer goes for something abstract and almost digital in appearance (as in the 2016 Vintage Classics edition) or strews the space with flowers (as in the 2009 Bloomsbury edition), the flash of red is eye catching and ominous."

March 29, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2017

I've just finished reading through my previous crop of anticipated books, and I'm getting excited for the next batch. These are the books coming out this spring (and the start of summer) that I've been eagerly awaiting:

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad (April 4): I've been seeing buzz for a while about this novel, which imagines a second American Civil War. The description also mentions a plague, which places it squarely in the category of "horrific things I love to read about". I'm looking forward to being horrified by this one, which is Akkad's debut.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki (May 9): I've long been a fan of Lepucki's writing for The Millions, and I enjoyed her debut novel, CALIFORNIA, about a couple who flees to the wilderness as civilization collapses. That first novel received a great publicity boost during an Amazon brouhaha, so this one may arrive a bit more quietly, but I'm one of many readers interested to find out what Lepucki has in store this time. The novel involves a writer in the Hollywood Hills, the nanny she hires, and the friendship they develop, and it's billed as "sinister, sexy noir".

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay (June 13): This book was originally slated for publication a year ago, but now it's really on its way, and I'm sure it will be a beautiful, difficult read, like everything else Gay writes. I loved her story collection DIFFICULT WOMEN, out only last season, and I previously devoured her amazing novel and essay collection. This new memoir considers food, weight, and body image, frequent topics in Gay's writing.

MADE FOR LOVE by Alissa Nutting (July 4): Nutting's debut novel was TAMPA, a seriously disturbing, seriously impressive book about a middle school teacher who is sexually obsessed with her students. I've ben curious to see where Nutting would go from there, and the answer involves a woman leaving her husband, a senior citizen trailer park, a sex doll, and tracking technology. I'm intrigued.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Guardian, George Saunders considers what writers really do when they write: "My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with 'P' on this side ('Positive') and 'N' on this side ('Negative'). I try to read what I've written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might ('without hope and without despair'). Where's the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the 'P' zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts." (Thanks, Henri!)

March 16, 2017

FOGcon 2017 Report

Last weekend was my seventh year at FOGcon, and my high-level recap is similar to all the previous years: I had a great three days talking about speculative fiction and related topics with other people who enjoy thinking hard about such subjects, and I came home happily exhausted from all the conversation, ideas, drinks, karaoke, and fun.

Honored guest Ayize Jama-Everett was one of the highlights of this year's programming for me. Prior to his announcement as guest, I wasn't familiar with him or his work, and the conference booklet features an excellent profile by Anasuya Sengupta addressing the fact that many black writers remain relatively unknown in speculative fiction. I'm glad I read Jama-Everett's THE LIMINAL PEOPLE before the con, and it was a thrill to hear him speak on several panels about his experiences as a writer and teacher. For his guest slot, he brought in futurist Lonny Brooks, and the two had a fascinating conversation about how writers and theorists can imagine the future and explore the present.

I didn't get a chance to read anything by the other guest, Delia Sherman, but I appreciated her thoughtful contributions as a panelist. She participated in two panels I particularly liked, one covering the joys and problems of Writing Between Genres and one about the scarcity of middle-aged women as SFF characters, called In Between the Pixie and the Crone. The "between" in both these panel titles stems from this year's theme, Interstitial Spaces, and numerous panels considered stories and identities that lie between categories.

Even more than usual this year, many FOGcon attendees were interested in politics and activism, and I attended most of the panels on those topics. At the How Did You Survive The Election? panel, participants talked about balancing emotion and action. When Do You Pick up the Blaster? reflected on resistance in fiction and the real world. The Writer as Resistor panelists talked about how their stories have changed since the election. I found all of these discussions compelling and wish I had more notes to share.

This year I wasn't placed on any panels myself, which was just as well, because after a hectic month, I was content to not have any preparation or responsibilities to deal with. I had plenty of time in my schedule to attend a couple of reading slots, where I heard some wonderful stories and poetry. And in all the interstitial spaces in the program, I enjoyed lovely meals with good friends. It was a wonderful mix of relaxation and invigoration, and I came home excited about getting deep into writing again!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathryn Schulz investigates what calling Congress achieves: "In normal times, then--which is to say, in the times we don't currently live in--calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time--thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention."

→ Eric Harris reports from a congressional office on what it's like answering all those phone calls to Congress, and it's worth noting that the numbers are still small enough that your call really counts: "Before Trump's inauguration, our Washington office received anywhere from 120 to 200 calls in a given week. Those numbers have more than doubled this year."

March 8, 2017

February Reading Recap

I returned to my regular diet of wildly different novels last month, and I also read a play:

THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK by Tom McAllister: Hunter is 29, and the one thing he's accomplished is creating a happy marriage with Kait. His life revolves around their relationship and their shared dream of saving up enough money and time to travel the world. When Kait dies with no warning, Hunter can't face the thought of remaining alone in their Philadelphia home. He takes Kait's ashes and very little else, gets in the car, and starts driving west in search of anything that might help him comprehend a future without Kait.

This is a novel about grief, so it certainly includes plenty of sadness. I cried at the end of the short first chapter, which means McAllister pulled off the tricky writing challenge of getting me emotionally invested in just 10 pages. It's also a book about a road trip that goes ridiculously wrong, and I often laughed at the people Hunter encounters and the situations he gets himself into. Finally, it's the story of a relationship, and the flashbacks to Hunter and Kait's marriage contain some of my favorite bits, both funny and heart-wrenching. I admired the perceptive observations about the reality of how people relate, such as a passage on the concept that "It's in the arguments that you ultimately felt the love."

I recommend this to anyone who likes character-focused novels and the opportunity to both cry and laugh over a book. I also recommend the weekly podcast McAllister co-hosts, Book Fight!, which generally only produces laughter.

THE LIMINAL PEOPLE by Ayize Jama-Everett: The author is one of the honored guests at the upcoming FOGcon, so I tried out this book that wouldn't otherwise be the type to attract my interest. I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the characters and the writing, and I recommend this novel, especially to fans of urban fantasy.

Taggert has the power to alter bodies at the molecular level. He can use his ability to heal, but during his time in Morocco, he's more often applied it to harm or impede the enemies of his boss, an international drug dealer whose powers far surpass Taggert's. When a long-lost love gets in touch asking for help, Taggert returns to London to assist her and her family, and he ends up caught in a life-and-death struggle between opposing superpowered factions.

Taggert is an excellent narrator, with a voice and perspective that pulled me into the story immediately and drew me along to the end. He's highly competent and frequently short on patience, with an attitude that makes for a fun narrative. ("I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker.") His ability to analyze and modify bodily processes, both his own and those of people nearby, is an ever-present part of his awareness, which is cleverly conveyed and used to drive the plot. The other characters are a fascinating and unexpected bunch, and I liked how the dynamics between them shifted over the course of the story. This is the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with some closure but also some setup for the next installment.

MISTER MONKEY by Francine Prose charts the final weeks of a way-off-Broadway production of a terrible children's musical. Nobody in the cast and crew of Mister Monkey the Musical is proud to be involved, though they're grateful for the work. Audience members young and old are largely bored or confused by the story of a talking chimp who ends up in a New York City courtroom. As the show falters, it takes on a larger and stranger role in the lives of everyone connected to the production.

February 27, 2017

Slowly But Surely

I've had a busy month, but mostly not on the writing front, so while revision continues, my progress has been rather sluggish. Still, I figured it was time for an update on the project.

As usual, rewriting involves a lot of new writing, which means figuring out the logistics of scenes and even characters who didn't exist before. Though I planned a lot in advance while outlining, I've come up with plenty of enhancements and changes since then, so the story is getting better but taking longer to revise. I'm pleased about making these improvements, despite the frustrating pace.

It's always exciting to finally write a scene I've imagined for months. I recently reached an episode I was anticipating with a special thrill because it was a sex scene. The reality of the event didn't quite live up to my expectations, which created an entirely appropriate tone for the scene.

Sometimes I get confused about what season it is because my mind is still inside the calendar of my novel (no, I don't usually forget the current decade). Other times, life and fiction line up nicely, as when I needed to write my characters getting caught in the rain while rain poured down outside my window. Occasionally, reality produces parallels that I wish it wouldn't. While I subject the characters in my novel to the loss of housing and possessions after an earthquake in San Jose, some of the city's real residents are coping with the effects of a devastating flood that damaged thousands of homes. Reading about the relief effort for this disaster has been familiar and odd and uncomfortably informative.

A couple of happier real life distractions are coming up, in the form of a visit from family and then another fun FOGcon weekend. So it's going to be a little longer until I get time to seriously focus again, and inevitably at that point I'll find another excuse to take time away from my novel. But I really am still hard at work -- except when I'm not.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black discusses the tricky question of when to reveal backstory: "The difference between building up a reader's curiosity and spoiling it is this: First you hint that there's something to be known. Only later, after readers have had a long time to stew in their curiosity about it, do you ultimately reveal the Shocking Truth about the past."

February 8, 2017

January Reading Recap

January was an unusual reading month for me, because it didn't include any novels. Instead, I read a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction. All three were great, powerful books, but they all focused on bleak topics, so I may need to seek out some more escapist literature next.

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay is an incredible and intense collection. The opening story, "I Will Follow You", which features sisters who share a bond after suffering horrific sexual violence together, introduces subjects and themes that are repeated throughout the book. Most of the stories revolve around women figuring out how to survive brutality, grief, and other terrible circumstances, so while there are some hopeful endings, this isn't easy reading.

The narrator of "Break All the Way Down" is one of several in the collection mourning the loss of a baby, but Gay makes this and every other story specific and individual by delving deep into the character's particular journey through pain. I was constantly struck by the complexity of the lives established in a short space. "La Negra Blanca", for example, is a compact and nuanced portrait of both a college student who strips for tuition money and the customer who lusts after her, and the plot builds piece by piece to a terrible climax in just 15 pages.

Several stories have magical elements, such as "Water, All Its Weight" about a woman who is followed by dampness and mold. A couple are structured as a series of vignettes, like "FLORIDA", a powerful look at how class and body image affect the residents of a gated community. Whatever the style or tone, Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of the difficult lives that produce difficult (ill-treated, hurting, misunderstood) women.

WHAT WE DO NOW: STANDING UP FOR YOUR VALUES IN TRUMP'S AMERICA edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians: Following the election, the independent publisher Melville House pulled together this anthology of essays and speeches by activists, politicians, and writers. The contributions, divided into topics like Racial Justice, Immigration, and Women's Rights, address the country's current situation (or at least, the situation as anticipated before the inauguration) and attempt to offer guidance, motivation, and hope.

Two essays from ACLU directors, one by David Cole and the other by Anthony D. Romero, remind readers that legal action and the protections of the Constitution will continue to have power against the Trump administration's policies, a fact demonstrated sooner than we might have imagined. Brittany Packnett of Campaign Zero asks the important and difficult question, White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency? and suggests a few starting points. ("Here's a simple test: If the action you're taking isn't really costing you your comfort, chances are you're not doing enough.") Cristina Jiménez, director of United We Dream, delivers a rousing call for "local grassroots organizing, the daily practice of using an intersectional and cross-movement lens, and the discipline to do the hard work."

I found some of the entries more useful and engaging than others (I question the choice to open with a rather dry proposal for economic reform by Bernie Sanders), but every writer had something worthwhile to add. Taken as a whole, this collection provided much-needed inspiration for facing what's ahead.

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN by Erik Larson: This work of nonfiction looks at Germany in 1933-34, as Hitler rose to power, by focusing on the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, particularly his adult daughter Martha. The Dodds arrived in Berlin at a time of upheaval but initially disbelieved or downplayed reports of Nazi persecution and brutality, a position that's chilling from the perspective of both history and current events. The family's interactions with many of the prominent people in Berlin at the time, from leaders of the Nazi party to Jewish journalists, provide a fascinating view into how German society changed in the course of a year that eventually convinced the Dodds to recognize the danger of Hitler's reign.

Larson tells the story with a novelistic technique that makes for page-turning reading, though at times I found the literary style a bit overdone and would have preferred more straightforward prose. I did appreciate Larson explaining upfront that anything presented as a quote is taken from a diary, letter, or other primary source, so it was clear that despite the use of devices from fiction, this is a factually accurate, heavily researched account of history. I didn't know a lot about this period, and I learned a great deal.

I picked up this book in January expecting a cautionary tale, but I was still alarmed at spotting quite so many parallels to the xenophobia, discrimination, and governmental chaos happening right now. One of many sentences that resonated: "Hitler's government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another." By the end, though, I felt hopeful on reading, "Throughout that first year in Germany, Dodd had been struck again and again by the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest." Germany's silent acceptance was a terrible mistake that we aren't taking any chances with today.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Eileen Webb shares strategies for Productivity in Terrible Times: "Blocking off time -- whether for volunteering or regular work -- can feel daunting, and disconnecting from our news sources and friends can feel simultaneously like guilty relief and anxious negligence. But the world will still be burning when you come back, and you'll feel better for having given your time, or completed some work that will enable you to keep fighting."

→ At Literary Hub, Anna Pitoniak reveals What Being An Editor Taught Me About Writing: "Every sentence or passage ought to perform a function, whether it is moving the action forward, or developing a character, or deepening an emotion, or something else that truly enhances the story. I am wary of writing that is merely beautiful. And if you’ve convinced me that a character is a certain way, you don't need to keep convincing me of that again and again."

January 18, 2017

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2017

Whatever else 2017 has in store, at least there are still good books on the horizon. I've been especially anticipating these winter releases:

DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay (January 3): The wait is already over for this short story collection, and I'm nearly finished reading it. I am a huge fan of Gay's writing, whether it's fiction or essay, and these stories are as hard and beautiful as I expected. These are examinations of pain and loss and the difficult lives that produce difficult women, and they're written with nuance and power.

THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK by Tom McAllister (February 7): McAllister is one of the hosts of Book Fight, a conversational literary podcast I look forward to every Monday morning. He's reported periodically on the long process of getting his first novel published, and I'm excited to finally read it. The story follows a young man suddenly widowed who embarks on a road trip with his wife's ashes, and it promises to be both sad and funny.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders (February 14): I was one of the many who became aware of Saunders's wonderfully weird stories after the success of his 2013 collection. His career began much earlier, but he's only ever published shorter works, so this novel has been highly anticipated. The main character is Abraham Lincoln, who mourns the death of his young son during the Civil War by visiting the cemetery, where he encounters the ghosts of other people buried near the boy. It's a strange, fascinating premise that I expect Saunders will pull off with style.

THE BOOK OF ETTA by Meg Elison (February 21): I recently raved about Elison's gripping post-apocalyptic tale, THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, and I'm glad the followup is nearly here. This sequel takes place somewhat later, featuring a different character who is mentioned at the end of the first book. I'm eager to return to the intense world of the story and explore further.

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid (March 7): I read Hamid's previous novel, HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, and while my review was lukewarm, I've been curious to read more of his writing. This upcoming novel sounds great, involving a love story in a war-torn land and magic portals that allow instant immigration. I can't wait to start reading!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times spoke with President Barack Obama about the role of books in his life and presidency: "To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Golden Notebook and The Woman Warrior). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night -- reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow and Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction." The interview transcript is also well worth reading.

January 13, 2017

2016 By The Books

After a new year begins, I like to take a look back at my reading trends and favorite books from the year before.

In 2016, I read 35 books. In last year's roundup, I reported that I'd just managed to match the 36 books I read two years previously (the in-between year was an outlier of record reading). I was intending to at least hit and ideally surpass 36 this time, and I thought I'd squeeze in some short books at the end if necessary to reach the magic number, which nicely averages out to three books a month. Of course this plan was kind of silly, and I decided not to let it bother me (too much) that I fell just short of the earlier number.

I'm always going to experience some disappointment over the number of books I read in a year, because there are always more books than I have time to read. I find a pace of three books a month generally workable, and it lets me get to a decent selection of the books I'd like to read. However, on occasion I end up reading when I really ought to be writing, not just because it's more fun but because I feel responsible for reaching my book quota, and again, that's kind of silly. I hope I can arrange my time to enjoy roughly the same number of books in 2017, but I'm also going to try for a more sensible approach, so we'll see how it goes.

Over time, my reading has shifted toward new releases as I become increasingly tuned in to various sources of book news. This year I got especially organized about tracking and reading books as they were published (next week I'll share another installment of Releases I'm Ready For). As a result, two-thirds of the books I read this year were published in 2016. A handful of others were 2015 catchups, a few more from the earlier years of this decade, and only three from before that, with nothing published before the 1990s. I'm happy with the variety of stories and styles I'm getting from contemporary books, so I have no particular plans about changing my selection habits, but again, we'll see what happens.

I did really well this year at choosing good books. I still don't have the hang of abandoning a book I'm not enjoying, but that wasn't an issue this year, because I was pretty happy with everything I started. (I'm not counting sampling the opening pages and quickly determining a book's not for me.) Sure, I did read some books with flaws or frustrating elements, but even those had good qualities that outweighed the problems. So if you're looking for reading suggestions, check back through my monthly reviews. I recommend everything!

Of course, I do have some favorite picks, which I've wrangled into categories:

Family: Stories about family relationships are my favorite genre and made up approximately a third of my reading this year. COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett (December) is a standout depiction of a family over time, with nuanced characters and situations, an unusual chronological structure, and perfectly observed details. THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (March) throws highly flawed family members into a crisis and cleverly weaves their problems and conflicts into a gripping, vibrant story. Family dynamics are more of a subplot in ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August), which portrays a high school senior's disastrous ambition through a compelling, unexpected plot and masterful handling of a tricky structural conceit. All three of these novels convey real, difficult emotions with a solid dose of humor, and they all contain characters I came to love despite their often terrible behavior.

Speculative: Out of my various science fictional and related interests, post-apocalyptic reading has been a staple for me in recent years, but I only read one such book in 2016 (insert comment about current events). THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison (November) really scratched my apocalyptic itch with the gripping, brutal story of a woman surviving a world devastated by disease. Another favorite novel this year in the broader speculative genre is LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by Matt Ruff (February), a deft and thoughtful tale that subjects its characters to both supernatural horrors and the horrors of racism in 1950s America. 2016 introduced me to STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS (also February) by Ted Chiang, a 2002 collection of brilliantly written short stories that explore wildly original science fiction concepts.

Historical: I've always enjoyed reading good historical fiction, though I think it's only recently that I've noticed this preference. THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee (February again!) is an intricate, suspenseful story of an opera singer in 1880s Paris and the complicated path she traveled to obtain her fame. Like any strong historical novel, it demonstrates an immense amount of research and uses that knowledge in service of character and plot, and the same is true of my top book pick of 2016: The amazing HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (May/June) covers 250 years, depicting the impact of slavery on the United States and Ghana through vivid snapshots of each generation that expertly bring characters fully to life in the space of a chapter.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Atlas Obscura, Eric Grundhauser reports on The Highbrow Struggles of Translating Modern Children's Books Into Latin: "In addition to Green Eggs and Ham (Latin title: Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!), the Tunbergs have also translated Dr. Seuss classics How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi natalem Abrogaverit) and The Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus), as well as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (Arbor Alma)."

January 6, 2017

December Reading Recap

I'm closing out my 2016 reviews with recommendations for the two books I read in December:

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett starts with an adulterous kiss at a christening party that breaks up two marriages, creating a new family of stepsiblings united only in resenting their parents. I'm hesitant even to share that brief summary, because the kiss and almost everything that happens in this novel emerges as an unanticipated development. The story jumps back and forth across decades, presenting big and small moments in the lives of the characters as they navigate family dynamics, growing up and growing old, and the problems of remembering and retelling shared experiences.

I am in awe of the way this novel manages to convey the story of an increasingly sprawling family by focusing on a small set of incidents that often aren't the scenes I expected to play out. While the reader gets to spend more time with some characters than others, each family member is portrayed as a full and nuanced individual. I especially enjoyed seeing how various siblings and parents clashed or connected and watching these relationships change over time. This family felt real and unique, and I cared about everyone's fate, so the novel delivered all that I hope for (but don't always find) in a family drama.

Patchett is an incredible writer at every level. Her sentences are crammed with well-observed detail, but the casual, comfortable language always provides a smooth reading experience. Even at serious moments, Patchett teases out the humor in mundane human behavior and interactions. I was impressed by the deft handling of the book's idiosyncratic structure, which frequently skips past major events and then gradually fills in the details of what happened. Like so much in this novel, the manner in which the story unfolds was a delightful surprise.

Commonwealth joins my list of favorite family stories, and I heartily recommend it to other fans of the genre. If you've read it already, I suggest this Bookworm interview in which Patchett discusses her decisions in crafting the novel as a whole and some specific scenes.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen opens at the end of the Vietnam War, as Saigon falls, or is liberated, depending on perspective. Those different perspectives are at the core of the novel, because the narrator acts as an officer of the Republic of Vietnam's National Police while secretly serving as an agent of the communist Viet Cong. During the attack on the capital, he escapes and resettles in Los Angeles, where he previously attended college and studied American culture. Once in the US, our protagonist continues living a divided life, working in the Department of Oriental Studies at Occidental College (a dichotomy not lost on him) and conducting covert operations for both sides of the Vietnamese conflict.

There's a lot happening on every page of this novel, particularly inside the narrator's head. As he announces at the start, he's "a man of two minds," and much of the story explores how a person (as well as a country) can cope with duality. Plotwise, a lot also takes place, including some extremely tense and intensely violent scenes, but the events are spaced apart by more cerebral sections and somewhat detached from each other. Though I found the slow pace a challenge at times, most of the book kept me fascinated.

The novel is packed with cleverly constructed sentences that often take a darkly funny turn. Some gems: "Over the next few days, we wept and we waited. Sometimes, for variety, we waited and we wept." "I barely even had the opportunity to sleep, since a sleeper agent is almost constantly afflicted with insomnia." "She cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary." I look forward to reading more of Nguyen's great writing in his upcoming story collection, THE REFUGEES.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A few months back, Emily St. John Mandel crunched the numbers at FiveThirtyEight on books with "girl" in the title: "A number of patterns emerged in our analysis: The 'girl' in the title is much more likely to be a woman than an actual girl, and the author of the book is more likely to be a woman. But if a book with 'girl' in the title was written by a man, the girl is significantly more likely to end up dead."

→ This week, Adrian Liang of The Amazon Book Review points out a hopeful new trend (also mentioned by Mandel), books with "woman" in the title: "I sometimes have this horrible suspicion that, consciously or no, a book title is whispering, 'Read about "girls." They're less troublesome than women.' ... More troublesome 'women,' please." (Thanks, Book Riot!)