March 7, 2018

February Reading Recap

I found time for a bunch of reading in February, including some preparation for FOGcon this coming weekend:

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING by Ada Palmer, one of this year's FOGcon Honored Guests: Before the narrative even begins, this book presents a baffling list of endorsements, such as "certified nonproselytory by the Four-Hive Commission on Religion in Literature". Then the narrator's introduction explains that eighteenth century literary styles will be used to recount these important historical events from the year 2454 ("You must forgive me my 'thee's and 'thou's and 'he's and 'she's") because the philosophies of the Enlightenment influenced the transformation that rocked the twenty-fifth century. Only then are we plunged into the action, where someone referred to as a Cousin and a sensayer, who's very much at home in this world the reader doesn't yet have the slightest handle on, shows up in a flying car at something called a bash'house and witnesses a scene they don't understand any better than we do.

I love a book that throws readers into the deep end, as long as there's a skilled writer keeping us afloat with well-placed bubbles of information and the promise of a solidly built floor underneath. Palmer succeeds admirably at this feat, which I found more and more impressive as the full complexity of the story and world became apparent. If there were half as many things going on in this book, it would still be great, and my mind is boggling over how many pieces Palmer imagined, developed, and wove together so effectively.

This novel contains multitudes, both in its large cast of memorable characters and in the many subjects it covers. The 2454 setting introduces us to new approaches to religion, family, citizenship, and gender, many of which are discussed in relation to Enlightenment-era philosophy. The narrative plays around with language and reliability. The intricate, suspenseful plot involves political intrigue, secrets, and murder. From start to finish, TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING delivers surprise after surprise, some delightful, some horrific.

Only one surprise was somewhat frustrating: This volume doesn't conclude the story, which continues into SEVEN SURRENDERS. I'll be happy to read on immediately, but I wasn't planning for it when I started this book. And that's just as well, because if I'd known it didn't stand alone, I might have skipped it, and then I would have missed out on one of my new favorite books!

TURF by Elizabeth Crane: I picked up this collection after reading an excerpt of the longest story, "Today in Post-Apocalyptic Problems", and needing to know what happened next. The rest of the story delivered just what I was hoping for, an exploration of family dynamics in a world that's fallen apart. I happily read the whole, delightfully odd collection.

Many of the stories feature some form of off-kilter reality. Some are wildly surreal, like "Star Babies", in which celebrities or babies of celebrities (the story isn't hung up on the exact details) somehow take over and become the entire population of the United States. Others are closer to the familiar: "Here Everything's Better" blends the mundane experiences of grocery shopping and vague discontent with the weirdness of discovering someone living in a store's bulk foods aisle.

Crane uses lists frequently within stories, or builds stories entirely around them. "Some Concerns" is a litany of fears that starts with "I am afraid that this shirt does not go with this sweater" and escalates from there. "Everywhere, Now" opens with a series of snapshots of what people around the world are doing, but then the narration loses the thread in a meditative and amusing way. Meta techniques like a narrator struggling to control the story also appear several times in the collection, most emotionally in the attempt to resolve parent issues in "Notes for a Dad Story". (Where possible, I've linked to online versions of stories, which sometimes differ from the versions appearing in the book.)

As with most collections, I connected more with some pieces than others, but the ones I liked best, I liked quite a lot. I recommend TURF to other readers drawn to stories that play around with styles and formats.

THE WEDDING DATE by Jasmine Guillory: Alexa and Drew meet in a stuck elevator in San Francisco, and while they aren't trapped for long, it's enough time to discover the chemistry between them. Drew is visiting from Los Angeles for a wedding with an uncomfortable backstory, and he begs Alexa to attend as his pretend girlfriend. She reluctantly agrees, and they have a fantastic and sexy weekend together, free from the pressure to make it more. A wild fling is all their demanding careers leave time for, plus they're both sure the other person couldn't possibly be interested in pursuing anything further. But they do both seem to be having a lot of trouble going an hour without texting or a week without meeting up in one city or another...

This is a fun story of two appealing characters falling in love. Alexa is a fat black woman, and Drew is a conventionally handsome white man, and Guillory especially excels at portraying how these traits give them different perspectives and experiences as they navigate the world. I enjoyed the well-written sex scenes, which are hot but not graphic, and the realistic grounding of the story, which doesn't ignore that people need to eat and check their phones. What pulled me out of the story at times was occasionally clunky dialogue and some unconvincing emotional beats. With those caveats, I recommend this novel for anyone seeking an entertaining, smart romance.

ONE HUNDRED AND TWO H-BOMBS by Thomas M. Disch: I wasn't familiar with Disch, the FOGcon Honored Ghost, and I chose this short story collection as a quick way to get a sense of his work. I liked about half the stories but wasn't wild about the rest. However, I've been told Disch is more renowned as a novelist than a short story writer, and I'd definitely give one of his novels a try.

Many of the stories are fairly brief, mainly setting up a premise and then presenting a twist or two. One of the more effective of the very short ones is "The Demi-Urge", in which two aliens come to different conclusions after studying life on Earth. "The Sightseers" is a bit more involved and works several interesting turns into a story about wealthy people who extend their lives by having themselves frozen and woken up for only a day each century.

I tended to prefer the longer stories that take more time to develop the characters and concepts, although some develop for a bit too long. The title story, "102 H-Bombs", drags at first but gets good once the telepathy and time travel are introduced, then reaches a satisfying conclusion. My favorite story in the collection is "Final Audit", which kept me engaged and curious throughout while following the life of a bank clerk in Victorian England who is blessed and cursed with very limited powers of prophesy.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Naomi Hughes shares insights about scene craft in this Twitter thread: "Writing hack: approach each scene as a mini-story, using the same basic formula as you do for the Big Plot. The POV character swoops in with a goal, taking active steps to attain it. They are stymied by an Opposing Force, which creates conflict & tension (which readers eat up!)." (Thanks, Julia!)

→ Erin Schreiner at Atlas Obscura provides A Peek at Famous Readers’ Borrowing Records From a Private New York Library: "The Library has of course had to replace books over the years, but it still retains an aura of readers past in its collection. Often enough, the same book survives in the stacks to link readers past and present.... A book on whaling that Herman Melville kept out for 13 months while he was writing Moby Dick is still there, and so are the volumes of Voltaire that [Aaron] Burr borrowed." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

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