December 6, 2019

November Reading Recap

Last month I got through four books and a lot of variety:

THE DEEP by Rivers Solomon: Yetu is the historian of her people, the one tasked with carrying the memories of the ancestors so the other wajinru can forget the painful origins of their underwater civilization. She alone remembers, and constantly relives the story: The first wajinru were born in the ocean from drowning two-legs mothers, thrown overboard from slave ships. Yetu has never been well-suited to the role of historian due to her unusual sensitivity, and this year when she shares the memories at the Remembrance, she can't bear the thought of taking them back.

THE DEEP is a beautifully written, emotionally charged story. What I knew going in was that the book was inspired by a song by clipping., itself inspired by the music of Drexciya, who imagined water-breathing descendants of enslaved Africans drowned during the crossing. (An excellent afterword by the members of clipping. discusses the evolution of this collaborative mythology.) Where Solomon takes the story, and how they structure their telling, is fascinating and unexpected (a trait I admired in their debut). Some of the elements this short novel dwells on were not as interesting to me as other parts that got less attention, but I remain a fan of Solomon's inventive writing.

THE CHARISMA MACHINE: THE LIFE, DEATH, AND LEGACY OF ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD by Morgan G. Ames: The One Laptop per Child project aspired to build cheap, sturdy laptops that kids in the developing world would use to teach themselves software programming and hardware maintenance. From the beginning, OLPC failed to live up to many of its goals, but the project still captured the public imagination due to the charismatic ideas and personalities behind it. Morgan Ames spent half a year in Paraguay observing schools with OLPC laptops to discover the reality of how they worked in classrooms (frustratingly, with much breakage) and how children used them in their free time (more for media and games than learning). In this book, she examines OLPC in the context of other utopian projects, presents findings from her fieldwork, and considers how cultural and gendered biases shaped the project.

THE CHARISMA MACHINE traces a fascinating subject with care and insight. While the writing is generally accessible, the book is a work of scholarship from an academic press, and parts were a bit dense on theory for me, especially the first chapter. I wouldn't fall into the usual audience, but Morgan is a friend, and I've followed this book's progress from fieldwork to dissertation to manuscript. Once past the more abstract section, I read the rest with interest, curious to learn about the development of the laptop and eager to discover how it was received by the children of Paraguay. This is a thoughtful, thoroughly researched book with a charisma of its own.

REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro: Stevens has served as the butler of Darlington Hall for over thirty years. He worked for Lord Darlington himself until his death, and now in 1956, the home is owned by an American gentleman. The state of the house and the size of its staff are greatly diminished, and so is the reputation of his late lordship, all facts that trouble Stevens when he takes the time to think about them. He's presented with quite a bit of thinking time when he gets the opportunity to borrow his employer's car for a road trip to admire the beauty of England and visit a former colleague. Along the way, he ponders the question of what makes a great butler, the nature of dignity, and the political choices of Lord Darlington before and during the war.

The core of this novel is Stevens's narration and his tightly controlled perspective on everything he's experienced and witnessed in his years of service. What first drew me in is the intriguing way Stevens addresses his audience as already familiar with the world he's describing and, for example, knowledgeable about which butlers are held at the top of the profession. (Ishiguro uses the same narrative trick in the excellent NEVER LET ME GO, but I still found it just as effective here.) Then as the book progresses, it becomes clear there's an awful lot in Stevens's memories he's determined not to consider, and the story becomes about reading between the lines. I thought the setup was leading to a surprising reveal at the end, and that wasn't the case, but aside from that letdown, I enjoyed the journey and the craft of this story.

THE REVISIONERS by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: In 2017, Ava accepts a job taking care of her rich white grandmother so she can move her son to a better neighborhood and school. In 1924, Ava's multiple-great-grandmother on the other side, Josephine, looks back on her long life, the family she's raised, the farm she's built, and her childhood in slavery. Ava worries about her son being one of the only black students in his new school. Josephine worries about how her grandson will fare when his father remarries. Both women face looming racist threats: Ava from the declining mind of her grandma, Josephine far more dangerously from her new white neighbors. Josephine's memories of her time in slavery, and the visions and dreams that appear in the story, shed more light on the connections between the distant generations.

In reflecting on how to describe this novel, I've teased out some parallels that tie the timelines together, but these were less clear while reading the somewhat disjointed narratives. Ava and Josephine are both strong characters with complicated lives, and I wished for a greater and earlier understanding of why their stories were paired. The novel contains good historical detail in the 1924 and 1855 sections, and I was interested to see childbirth and midwifery depicted in all the time periods. Unfortunately, though, the overall story fell short for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Book Riot, Danika Ellis researches the various reasons why books are rectangular: "The other crucial piece of human anatomy that comes into play while reading is our hands. The proportions of a book look pretty similar to that of our hands, which makes sense because they should fit together. While the first books being bound were usually put on pedestals to be read, books now are meant to be held, which means they should be optimized to that shape--which may also explain how books have gotten shorter since their first incarnations."

November 26, 2019

Finishing the Sweater

Back in June, I used the analogy of a knitted sweater's loose ends to explain why the new revision of my novel needed another editing pass. All my projects, whether writing or knitting, take far longer than I expect they will, but I'm relieved to say that I finally have this novel into the shape I want it.

I went through the manuscript addressing all those comments hanging off the side. I worked in the extra bits of ideas and trimmed away the strands that still didn't connect. In a few areas, I had to redo sections with tangled or dropped stitches so the quality would match the rest. I removed part of the trim and added it back in another color. I sewed on some buttons to make the whole thing more attractive and more functional.

One of the final steps in a knitting project is to wash the garment and pin it down flat in the desired shape. This is called blocking, and it can dramatically change the size. In the course of rewriting and improving my novel, I'd ended up with a manuscript that was rather baggy. Happily, after the long soak and determined blocking of the past months, it's shrunk again to a more flattering fit.

Now that my project is really finished, I'm going to send it out into the world and see if any, um, clothing labels want to reproduce the design? Here the metaphor breaks down, but it's just as well, because I have a habit of spending months or years knitting something that I then put in a drawer and forget about. My novel deserves to be worn.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rahul Kanakia shares his approach for deciding what to write next: "I have an exercise where I imagine opening a new book, and I imagine staring at 'Chapter One' and I imagine looking at the page and what I'd like to see on it. What's my ideal page one? Not my all-time ideal, but my ideal for right this minute. What do I want to be on that page? Usually what comes to me first is a certain shape. I want the text to look a certain way on the page."

November 6, 2019

October Reading Recap

Someday I'll return to blog content other than book reviews, but for now, here's another month of recommended reading:

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor's solitary life of routine and self-sufficiency is first thrown into disarray when she discovers the man she is determined to marry. Eleanor hopes this match will satisfy Mummy, a demanding figure who exerts a formidable influence even from a distance. Then, just as Eleanor starts learning everything she can about the object of her interest, progress is interrupted by a number of interactions that are decidedly unplanned. Eleanor is bystander to an elderly man's medical emergency, and through the interference of her irritating coworker Raymond, she ends up entangled with this stranger's loving family. She's forced into some difficult new situations and some pleasant ones. With Raymond's prompting, she begins to contemplate how she's arranged her life and consider that other options might be possible.

You can guess from the title of this book that Eleanor is not fine, but you probably wouldn't guess from the marketing that the reasons are profoundly dark and disturbing. While Eleanor's observations and misunderstandings are often quite funny, this is not the hilarious bit of whimsy suggested by many of the blurbs. It's a heartbreaking story about trauma and recovery, skillfully presented through a narrator who's uncertain about her own past. Honeyman writes Eleanor, Raymond, and the people around them with care and nuance, and I was glad to be invited into their lives through bad times and good. ELEANOR OLIPHANT is completely wonderful.

MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim: In an isolated Virginia town, the Yoo family runs Miracle Submarine, a private facility offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat chronic conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. A terrible chain of events leads to an explosive fire that kills and injures several. A year later, one of the people involved is on trial for arson and murder. Tense courtroom scenes and character recollections piece together the events of the tragic day and everything that led up to it, revealing that nobody's testimony is entirely truthful.

This is a fantastically written mystery in which every new perspective introduces details that plausibly undermine the previous explanations of what happened. The intricate plot does require more coincidences of bad timing than would occur in real life, but it's all so cleverly constructed that nothing seemed far-fetched. Beyond the mystery, the novel tells an emotional story of complicated characters who are suffering over their roles in the tragedy. I sympathized with all of them, even as they admitted to regrettable actions and thoughts. The novel explores difficult issues around parenting, disability, and immigration with sensitivity. I recommend this suspenseful debut and look forward to more from Kim.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz: Tess has always traveled through time with the goal of editing history in a more progressive direction. She and her fellow like-minded travelers have discovered a group working against their changes, men from the future who follow the 19th century moral crusader Anthony Comstock. These men are trying to edit the timeline to take away women's rights, then lock that version in place by permanently destroying the time machines, which are ancient and mysterious geological formations. As women from different eras join forces to defeat these men, Tess also attempts to edit a traumatic event from her personal history.

This is an exciting time travel story containing a great mix of real and imagined history from several eras. I didn't always connect with the characters due to sections that felt more didactic than natural, but I was very invested in the high stakes of their endeavors. I especially enjoyed reading about and pondering the book's unusual time travel mechanics: how it works physically, what the constraints are, how much or little it's understood at different times. I'm not convinced I followed all the tricky time travel logic depicted, but I loved seeing a world where time machines are generally known about (and even portrayed on a popular unrealistic TV show) but available to only a few because of practical limitations. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is full of fascinating ideas, cleverly woven into an imperfect yet compelling novel.

Don't miss the delightful music video by Grape Ape, a feminist punk band featured in the novel but sadly lost to our timeline.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Elison writes for Tor.com about The Hidden Layers of Every Novel: "Every book is the tip of an iceberg. Most of what an author knows, through research and through experience, is ballast to fiction. What is written and what is published are a tiny sliver of all that exists. Every writer you have ever read and loved is ninety percent unpublished underwater knowledge, and ten percent ghostly blue published prose." (Thanks, Andrea!)

October 4, 2019

September Reading Recap

Hey, it's a return to the classic single-month book review post! (At least for now!) I did some fun and sequel-icious reading in September:

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell is the second book of the Simon Snow series. In preparation for its release, I reread the first book, CARRY ON. The story of a Chosen One in his last year of magic school was just as clever and delightful on a second read. I may have even liked it more than I did the first time.

While CARRY ON tells the obligatory Chosen One story of saving the world, WAYWARD SON considers what the aftermath of that looks like. Simon and his friends survived serious trauma defeating the threats to the World of Mages, and they're each suffering as a result, in different ways. Rowell always writes well about relationship strains and mental health issues, and the depictions here are realistic and compassionate.

The characters are facing a more mature and mundane set of obstacles in this book, but they're also going on a new adventure: a road trip across America. Along the way, they discover that the World of Mages is a very British institution, and magic operates quite differently in the US. They make new friends, encounter dangerous new foes, and maybe sort of have to save the world again, but everyone's better emotionally equipped by then.

I loved how these wonderful characters grow and heal throughout this novel. The expansion of the magical world is smart and thoughtfully done, and the plot takes surprising turns. There will be at least one more book in this series, and I'll gladly follow the characters wherever they go next.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but what's distracting at first is that it's also sort of a sequel to the three existing seasons of the Hulu series, which extends past the events of the original novel. Early on, too much of my attention was on analyzing this relationship and considering what details do and don't line up with the show. Though it took me some time to get past that, I was able to immediately appreciate that Atwood is still a fantastic writer, great at narrative voice. This sequel presents compelling characters, an exciting plot, and a fascinating further look into the totalitarian regime of Gilead.

The story is billed as taking place 15 years after the end of the first book, but that's not entirely accurate, since there are also flashbacks reaching as far back as the rise of Gilead (some of the best and most horrifying sections). The three narrators are women and girls with different perspectives on Gilead society, and this allows Atwood to show new aspects of the world, along with more sharp observations tailored to each character. One oddness of the book-show situation is that these narrators will be quickly identifiable to viewers of the series, while readers only familiar with the first novel may be more surprised by connections that are revealed later on.

This book is more plot-focused than the first, sometimes to its detriment. Certain developments strain credulity, and toward the end, events come at such a fast clip that the story and characters lose their earlier nuance. I don't expect THE TESTAMENTS to become a classic like THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but I found it an engaging read.

CHARMED PARTICLES by Chrissy Kolaya: In 1972, Abhijat earns a job at a world-renowned particle accelerator lab located in a small Illinois town. He brings his new wife Sarala from Bombay to join him, and they each take their own approach to settling into their marriage and community. Elsewhere in town, Rose has returned from traveling the world with her explorer husband to raise their child in a place she knows, though it's changed with the arrival of the lab. The daughters from the two families grow up to become the best of friends. But when the government proposes building a much larger collider beneath the town, everyone takes sides in the debate, and tensions rise.

This story of two families and a town divided contains a lot of great interpersonal dynamics. I enjoyed getting to know all the characters, whose complicated and evolving feelings for one another are well-depicted. Where the novel fell short for me was plot: Kolaya sets up a variety of promising conflicts, but issues with balance and pacing made the story drag at times. Still, I'll remember these characters fondly, and I'll look out for Kolaya's next novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kimi Eisele, author of THE LIGHTEST OBJECT IN THE UNIVERSE, describes working on an apocalyptic novel for years as the world changed around her story: "When I started the novel, the U.S. was at war with Iraq, and peak oil warnings were sounding loudly, at least in alternative news outlets. Against that reality I began to imagine what it would really be like to lose not just light, but mobility, long-distance communication, instant information, central governance, bananas, and the kind of entitlement that an economic system built on exploitation and convenience seemed to enable."

September 5, 2019

July/August Reading Recap

Well, I've certainly done a lot of reading since I last posted! These are all the books that kept me busy this summer when I wasn't writing or having family fun:

THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell is a novel that contains multitudes, and to describe too much of the story would take away from the joy of discovery. The joy (and pain, and question) of discovery is how the story opens, in fact, with a chapter narrated by a British explorer who's one of the first white settlers to "discover" the wonders of Africa. With much personality and prejudice, he tells of his life in colonial Rhodesia, including a chance encounter that seems to link together the fates of three families for generations to come. These descendants are vivid, unusual characters, and as Serpell weaves their complicated story, she follows the history of Zambia from colonial rule through independence and into the future.

This is a big, juicy novel full of difficult family dynamics, strange repercussions, historical and cultural details, and narrative quirks. I read it slowly because there was a lot to absorb, and I enjoyed stopping to look up the many unfamiliar words and references. It was fascinating to realize that some of the characters are real figures. The one source I avoided consulting was the family tree at the front of the book, because I found it more fun to wait for the story to reveal the connections.

Serpell is a great writer at both the storytelling and sentence levels. She delights in languages and wordplay, making her prose a delight to read. While the characters in THE OLD DRIFT often experience tragic circumstances, what sticks with me is the sheer pleasure of reading it. If this sounds like your kind of book, I highly recommend it.

→ In BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE, Gretchen McCulloch chronicles how communication styles, slang, and other language elements have evolved with the changing internet. Her analysis is rigorous (but always entertaining!), grounded in historical dialect studies and a taxonomy of internet usage patterns laid out in a chapter called "Internet People". In that section, McCulloch explores the ways different groups experience the internet based on when and how thoroughly they came online, and how this relates to linguistic conventions such as punctuation usage.

I appreciated that McCulloch brings a deep understanding of the internet to her investigation of online language. Anecdotes about her own life as an Internet Person provide a personal touch, and comparisons to language developments from analog communication modes give weight to her arguments. McCulloch's insights are nuanced, clever, and frequently funny, whether she's charting the history of memes or explaining how emoji substitute for the gestures that occur face to face. This book is a perfect blend of informative and fun. I learned, I lol'd, and I learned how the meaning of "lol" has transformed.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes: Evvie is in the middle of packing up to leave her husband when he dies in a car accident. A year later, she's struggling with the isolation and shame of her non-grief, because she lives in a small Maine town where everyone knows her tragedy, and she's never told even her best friend that her marriage was terrible. Evvie can barely motivate herself to work, so to help pay the bills, she agrees to rent out part of her house to Dean, who's looking for a small town where he can hide from his problems. Dean used to be a star pitcher for the Yankees, but he was forced into early retirement after mysteriously losing his pitching ability. He moves in on the condition that he won't ask about Evvie's husband and she won't ask about baseball. But soon they're both breaking the deal and pushing each other to address their problems, help that is sometimes appreciated and sometimes a big obstacle to their growing attraction.

Evvie and Dean are great characters, and I was rooting for their relationship from the start. I appreciated both the lighter moments in the story, like the natural way the characters joke and make pop cultural references, and the heavier ones where they cope with depression and anger. The pacing is a bit uneven, and I was frustrated when some threads and characters were dropped for stretches. Overall, though, this is an engaging story, and I'm eager to read more from Holmes in the future.

July 26, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer/Fall 2019

I've got a good chunk of my reading for the rest of the year planned, with a bunch of books I've been awaiting for quite some time!

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead (July 16): I've read several of Whitehead's earlier novels, all masterfully written and highly inventive. His latest takes place in Florida in the early 1960s, where a young black boy is sent to a reform school and subjected to racist violence. The subject matter means this won't be an easy read, but I'm looking forward to another powerful, engaging story from a great writer.

BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE by Gretchen McCulloch (July 23): For years, I've enjoyed McCulloch's articles on internet linguistics, as well as the Lingthusiasm podcast she co-hosts. I've been impatient for the release of this book and can't wait to dive into chapters such as "Typographical Tone of Voice" and "Emoji and Other Internet Gestures". I'll be reading in print, but the audio version narrated by the author also sounds very entertaining.

THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood (September 10) is a sequel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, a novel I treasure and admire for its thoughtful, chilling narrative. I hope the sequel will live up to the original and stand with Atwood's generally excellent work, but I'm nervous. Part of my wariness about a continuation is that the TV series, which started strong, has become infuriating, but I don't think Atwood has much to do with that, and this will definitely be a different story, set 15 years later with three different narrators. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell (September 24) is also a sequel. It follows Rowell's previous novel, CARRY ON, which was itself based on the Harry Potter analog Rowell invented for her earlier book, FANGIRL. Still with me? I've read all Rowell's novels with great delight, and I'm expecting more clever fun and heartfelt emotion from the further adventures of these magic-wielding characters.

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz (September 24): Newitz's first novel, AUTONOMOUS, was a wild ride through a world of pirated pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligences. I'm into the way Newitz thinks about science and science fiction, ideas she shares as co-host of the podcast Our Opinions are Correct. I'm excited about another book from her, and the time travel plot promises another thrilling tale.

THE DEEP by Rivers Solomon (November 5) has a cool origin story. Solomon took their inspiration from a gorgeous song produced by the group clipping. for an episode of This American Life. In the song, and now the novel, an underwater civilization has grown from the descendants of enslaved African people thrown overboard during the ocean crossing. It's an upsetting, empowering premise, like the one in Solomon's amazing first novel, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Jake Wolff explains his approach to integrating research into a story: "I heavily researched my debut novel, [THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER,] in which nearly every chapter is science-oriented, historical, or both. I'd like to share a method I used throughout the research and writing process to help deal with some of my questions. This method is not intended to become a constant fixture in your writing practice. But if you're looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply."

July 3, 2019

May/June Reading Recap

It's time to catch up on two months of great and varied reading:

RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston: Alex Claremont-Diaz is the son of the first female president, and he relishes the spotlight this places him in. As soon as Alex finishes his last year of college and sees his mom re-elected, he intends to channel his charm and popularity into a career in politics, like both his parents. If only the boring, stuck-up younger prince of England wasn't messing up Alex's plans! When Alex and Prince Henry have an altercation at the royal wedding, it creates an international incident that the White House and Crown publicity teams must scramble to spin. The rivals are forced into making joint appearances to convince the world they're actually great friends. As they spend time together, Alex discovers the real Henry behind the royal facade, and their pretend friendship becomes genuine. Then Alex discovers Henry's feelings for him are deeper than friendship, and he's shocked to realize the attraction is mutual. Now the two most eligible bachelors in the world have to somehow keep their relationship out of the spotlight and avoid a scandal that could topple the reigning families on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book is pure delight. Alex and Henry are both deeply lovable in all their complexities and flaws, and the characters around them are just as endearing. While the premise is unlikely, the story progresses in a very plausible way, with McQuiston anticipating the media reactions and political ramifications of every development. The gradually advancing romance is the core of the story, but there are also several well-depicted subplots about politics, family, and grief, some of which make the story quite serious at times. Most of it, though, is laugh-out-loud snappy dialogue, and/or steamy sex and longing.

You may not realize you need a politically optimistic gay love story in your life during these trying times, but you do. RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE has you covered.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang is another dazzling collection of stories from a wildly creative science fiction writer. I'm in awe of the way Chiang consistently comes up with incredibly clever ideas and then makes engaging stories out of them, a combination that's hard to achieve.

While Chiang's stories are all pretty different from each other, he does return to certain interests. I was delighted to read another story in his scifi subgenre that involves taking some religious belief as scientific fact and spinning out the world that results. In "Omphalos", an archaeologist explains how her field provides evidence of God's creation by digging up signs of the first plants and animals: trees with no rings at the center and bones that lack any signs of growth. In the world of this story, there's no question about the origin of life on Earth, but doubt enters from another angle.

Several stories explore fate and free will. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a page-turning time travel story with more stories nested inside it, charting how a variety of people cope with the opportunity to learn their own futures. In "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom", devices exist that can split off parallel timelines and allow limited communication between them. This story is long enough to play out the experiences of several characters as they cope with the psychological effects of seeing other possible versions of their lives.

About a third of the book is devoted to "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", an absorbing, emotional novella about developers at a company creating digital pets for users to raise inside virtual worlds. The story unfolds over years, plausibly presenting how the pets and their owners evolve and how the technology progresses and gets exploited.

I haven't even mentioned all my favorite stories (the title story is scientifically rigorous and also suspenseful!), because most of them qualify. I highly recommend this collection, along with the earlier STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane: At 40, May lives in her childhood home with her elderly father and the memories of her mother's difficult life and death. She works as a gardener at the university and is happy to interact more with plants than people. Though May has a couple of casual friends nearby, the friends she was once close to live far away, and they barely stay connected. When May is rewarded with extra time off from work, she decides to use it making a series of visits to the good friends from her past.

The novel's title, prologue, and marketing led me to expect the bulk of the story would focus on May's visits to her four friends, so I was surprised by how long the book spends with May at home, before and between the visits. Especially early on, when there was quite a bit of May describing her hometown and neighbors, I found the story slow, but as I got to know her better, I could appreciate those sections that were more musing than scenes. Kane writes beautifully and is a great observer of human details, so the individual pieces of the book were largely enjoyable to read. Still, I would have preferred a more strongly plotted version of this novel, with more narrative drive.

June 26, 2019

Weaving in Ends

It's been a while since I've posted a revision update (or anything at all). Some faithful readers may have been under the beautiful illusion that I was finished revising, but others may recall that my previous post about the novel referred to "getting back to work on cleaning up all these smaller issues." Yes, of course I'm revising again, because what else would I do with myself?

But allow me to explain in the form of a knitting metaphor. A large garment such as a sweater takes a long time to knit. It's made from many balls of yarn and often multiple pieces (front, back, sleeves) that get sewn together. When a sweater is finished and assembled, there might be a lot of loose yarn tails hanging from various edges and seams. The process of hiding and tidying up those tails is called "weaving in ends".

If I finish knitting a sweater and immediately put it on without weaving in the ends, it functions as a sweater, in that it fits on my body and keeps me warm. But all those tails hanging off don't look good. People can still admire the sweater's gorgeously complex pattern of color, but the glaring distraction of the loose ends catches their attention first, muting their appreciation. The year I put into knitting the sweater is undermined because I didn't spend the required hours weaving in the ends.

In knitting, I detest weaving in ends, and I don't think I do it very well. Happily, as I work through my manuscript again, tidying up ugly sentences and trimming away the irrelevant bits, I'm enjoying myself, and I'm feeling good about my editing abilities. It's highly satisfying to get each chapter into tip-top shape by removing the problems I don't want hanging loose. When I put this sweater on and wear it out into the world, it's going to look great.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Vox, Eliza Brooke investigates the practice of placing "A Novel" on book covers: "Books have used the 'XYZ: A Novel' format since the 17th century, when realistic fiction started getting popular. The term 'novel' was a way to distinguish these more down-to-earth stories from the fanciful 'romances' that came before..." (Thanks, The Millions!)

May 8, 2019

April Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of the remaining books from my winter anticipated reads and the first book from my spring batch:

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman: Ben falls in love with Kate in New York City in a 2000 that doesn't quite match our own. The intense happiness of their early relationship is only marred by the strange things Kate says about her dreams. In these dreams, Kate is a nobleman's mistress in Elizabethan England, leaving London for the countryside to avoid the plague. The dream world is as real as life, and Kate senses there's something important she must do there. Each time she wakes in 2000, the world she encounters seems less familiar, and Ben grows increasingly worried about Kate's mental state.

I loved this book. Every aspect of the mind-bending alternate timelines fascinated and delighted me. I was deeply invested in the main characters and their relationship, and distressed by the painful times they go through. I grew attached to the whole memorable cast of characters around them in 2000, and the historical figures in Kate's 1593 life sent me down some excellent research rabbitholes. This novel is full of both hope and despair, all shot through with humor and weirdness. It's not going to charm every reader, but it was just what I wanted.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami: Nora returns to her hometown in the Mojave after her father is killed in a hit-and-run. As she and her family grieve for Driss, Nora tries to uncover the truth of his death -- and his life. The narration shifts between numerous characters, including a childhood friend of Nora's who reenters her life, the detective investigating the accident, and a man who was present at the scene but fears speaking to the police because he's undocumented. Driss himself also tells his story of immigrating from Morocco and striving to maintain a small business as a Muslim in America.

The mystery of the hit-and-run propels the plot, but while the crime is solved, this is more a novel about life's complications than about precisely what happened. Lalami develops all the characters and their relationships beautifully. I enjoyed how each narrator reveals aspects of their lives and histories that those around them aren't aware of, so the layers of the story build up nicely. Some characters get more page time than others, which is fine, but I do wish some threads had been spun out further or better tied up at the end. This is a novel that might have benefitted from being longer, and I would have happily read more of Lalami's strong writing.

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison completes the post-apocalyptic Road to Nowhere trilogy that opens with excellent THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE. In this world diminished by disease, women remain far rarer than men in the generations that follow, and the scattered populations deal with this in various and frequently cruel ways. One thread of this novel picks up right after THE BOOK OF ETTA's exciting end. Another takes place much later in the life of Flora, as she reflects on all the grief and joy she's experienced and faces a terrifying new threat.

I was glad to return to the characters from the second book and learn their fates, as well as more about Flora's often painful past. Like the earlier installments, this one explores many ideas about gender, identity, and choice, and the characters encounter additional ways of life that emerge in the unbalanced world. At times, the ideas dominate the narrative to the point that it took me out of the story. This book didn't hang together for me as well as the other two, but it does provide a fairly satisfying conclusion to the series.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub presents some very relatable material in On Making Mary Berry's Fast Cakes And Not Writing: "The frosting semi-vanquished and the traybake in the oven, I decided . . . not to go back to writing. I know, I know, but the kitchen was already a mess, so I figured that rather than clean up only to destroy everything again, I'd go straight on to the Chocolate Cream Fingers. These were supposed to take 20 minutes to make, and they did! I felt vindicated and great at baking. Then I realized that I had only made the dough."

April 25, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2019

I've been organizing my to-read list and placing pre-orders, because it's time for a new season of anticipated books! Here's what I'm excited about reading this spring:

THE BOOK OF FLORA by Meg Elison (April 23): I've already started reading this final book of the Road to Nowhere trilogy, and I'm fascinated by what's presented in just the first couple of chapters. Each book in this intense post-apocalyptic story has a different narrative style, and each focuses on the life of a different character in a plague-stricken future where women are rare. The premise leads to difficult, violent content, so these are not light reads, but I loved the first book especially. That first installment, THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, can be read as a standalone.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang (May 7): This is a new collection of stories by a wildly creative and clever science fiction writer. When I read his first collection, STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS, I was impressed by how dissimilar the stories are from each other, and from anything else I'd ever read. (The movie Arrival, which I liked pretty well, is adapted from one of those stories.) I'm looking forward to enjoying more of Chiang's work, including some stories that have been available online but that I never got around to reading.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane (May 14): I was enthralled by Kane's first novel, THE REPORT, which imagines the story behind a real-life disaster. I also admired her short story collection, THIS CLOSE, particularly for the subtle depictions of complicated relationships. I expect to find more great interpersonal dynamics in this new novel about friendship, which sounds fun and funny.

CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert (June 4): I've never been inclined to read any of Gilbert's inspirational nonfiction, but I adored her historical novel about a nineteenth-century woman of science, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. Her new novel is also historical, set in the 1940s New York theater world, and my curiosity is piqued.

THE TENTH MUSE by Catherine Chung (June 18): Roxane Gay's recommendation made me interested in this novel, and I've realized I also meant to read Chung's previous novel, FORGOTTEN COUNTRY, after a recommendation by Gay but never got to it. I'll definitely be picking up this new book, a story about math and family secrets.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes (June 25): This is the debut novel from a host of one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour. Holmes's media commentary is always smart and funny, and I'm thrilled that she's publishing a novel. The story is a romance between two people who are struggling with (I believe) mental health issues, and I'm happy to see the early reviews are as positive as I'd hoped!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On Tor.com, Vivian Shaw considers How Much Research Should You Do For Your Book?: "I recently wrote a novella about air crash investigation and practical necromancy, in which I had to learn a great deal about how air traffic control works, how flights are routed, how to read various types of chart, where various controls are located in the Boeing 737's cockpit, and so on--and then I had to not have my protagonist lecture the audience about any of these things, or bring them up in conversation with the other characters unnecessarily. Writing a particularly intense scene where I had to walk that thin line felt physically exhausting, like lifting weights with my brain, but it was also deeply satisfying to have done."

April 4, 2019

March Reading Recap

I had an outstanding reading month in March, and I fully endorse these three excellent books!

→ Mira Jacob starts GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS with her biracial son's questions about race, prompted by his love of Michael Jackson's music. At six years old, he understands that he's brown, like his mom, and that his dad is white, and that all of this matters somehow, but there's a lot he's still wondering. Throughout this beautiful graphic memoir, Mira tries to answer her son's questions while reflecting on the questions of her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents. She doesn't always have explanations, though, especially as Donald Trump's presidential campaign gains power and her husband's parents continue to support him.

Each conversation and event portrayed in GOOD TALK is packed with emotion, humor, and difficult truths. The artwork is a joy to gaze at, consisting of drawn characters and speech bubbles on top of photographs that set the scene. (You can view a long excerpt on the publisher's page -- click "Look Inside".) The book jumps back and forth effectively between two timelines: The story's backbone is the years 2014 to 2016, a time of many questions about Trump and racial relations. Alternating with these conversations and often commenting on them, Mira's life unfolds chronologically, beginning with confusing incidents from her own childhood and showing important events in her growing up, relationships, career, and family. All the parts of this book are incredible, and I recommend it to everyone.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie: The people of Iraden have an agreement with the Raven god: The god will protect the territory and citizens from attack by outsiders, and the Raven's Lease will serve as human ruler and care for the bird currently inhabited by the god. Whenever the bird reaches the end of his lifespan, so will the Lease, who must sacrifice himself to replenish the strength of the god. Mawat is heir to the Lease, and he returns from war expecting the imminent deaths of the Raven and his father, ready to serve as the new ruler of Iraden. Instead, Mawat discovers that his uncle has usurped his place, claiming his father fled without making the necessary sacrifice. Mawat is overcome with disbelief and anger, and it's up to his clever aide Eolo to investigate what's true and what's a twisty political conspiracy.

The full scope of the agreements in this book is far more intricate and fascinating than presented in this summary, involving numerous gods and the groups of people who worship them. Leckie has built the world of her first fantasy novel as skillfully and inventively as in her wonderful science fiction. The story and its unusual narration gripped me right away, and I remained engrossed as more was gradually revealed. The characters, both humans and gods, are fully conceived, flawed, and fun to spend time with. As always, Leckie excels at showing the complicated details of the dynamics between individuals and groups. If this sounds like your sort of novel, I strongly recommend it.

SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler: In 1890 San Francisco, Lizzie is a member of the wealthy class, though her choice to remain a spinster makes her vaguely suspect in fashionable society. Through her volunteer work at a home for women and children in need, Lizzie crosses paths with the mysterious Mary Ellen Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant asks the home to take in a small girl whose origins are also shrouded in rumor, and Lizzie grows curious about both of them. As Lizzie investigates, she keeps running up against strange events, disturbing questions, and the tiresome forces of so-called polite society.

Several characters in this novel are real figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, who gained prominence in early San Francisco while passing a white woman but later revealed herself to be black. Fowler embraces the wild, contradictory histories of Pleasant and the others, telling different versions throughout the novel in entertaining detail. Lizzie and the rest of the fictional characters are just as richly, delightfully drawn, with Fowler's wry humor frequently on display. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, and some exciting antics drive the plot forward, but much of the story focuses on the nuances of how people treat each other in the name of propriety. It might be accurate to call SISTER NOON a comedy of manners, and I'd definitely call it one of Fowler's best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura B. McGrath writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books about studying literary diversity by analyzing "the most important data that no one outside of publishing has ever heard of: Comp Titles": "Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors' decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values. It turns out the industry values whiteness."

March 15, 2019

FOGcon 2019 Report

I spent last weekend at the ninth iteration of FOGcon. I like the way I described this convention in 2013: "FOGcon is mainly about participating in and listening to in-depth discussions of stories, fictional worlds, and the things these lead us to consider about our own world." As I tend to repeat in my annual con reports (often while commenting that I tend to repeat myself every year), I always have a great time geeking out about speculative fiction for three days with other people who think that makes for a fun weekend.

This year's theme was Friendship, a topic well explored in the works of the two honored guests, Karen Joy Fowler and Becky Chambers. Both guests served as entertaining, insightful panel members, and both were generous with their time throughout the convention weekend. I was especially excited by the opportunity to hear more from Fowler, an incredible writer who has been heavily involved in the speculative fiction community, but whose own work often doesn't fit within the genre. Ever since I met her while at the Squaw Valley writing workshop, I've felt an affinity as another science fiction fan who writes largely realistic fiction.

Fowler participated in two fascinating sessions remembering authors who have recently died. Honored ghost Ursula K. Le Guin was a well-known figure, and a friend to some of those attending the discussion of her life and work, which was run as a group conversation. I took a turn speaking to recommend Le Guin's STEERING THE CRAFT, an excellent book of writing advice and exercises that my writing group worked through years ago. The panel in memory of Carol Emshwiller introduced me to an important feminist author I'd regrettably never even heard the name of. I'm eager to start reading her work.

A few other standout panels: Speculative Motherhood considered why mothers (and parents in general) are often absent from science fiction and fantasy and how they're portrayed when they do appear. Sense of Place offered strategies for developing settings and incorporating worldbuilding details into stories without info-dumping. "Friend" As Code Word was a nuanced, entertaining discussion about real and fictional cases where LGBTQ relationships get labeled as friendships for a variety of reasons. Life in Closed Systems pondered how to sustain life in generation ships, space stations, and other imaginary, current, and future closed spaces.

Next year's convention theme will be Turning Points, with exciting honored guests Mary Anne Mohanraj and Nisi Shawl. After dragging my feet for years, I've finally volunteered to help the group who does the work of putting together the con. So I will be especially invested in anticipating FOGcon's tenth year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jesslyn Shields reports on the Lunar Library, a backup of human knowledge headed to the moon: "Rest easy, because much of the entirety of human knowledge has been backed up, and is on its way to the moon on an Israeli spacecraft called the SpaceIL 'Beresheet' lunar lander. It will be among the solar system's first off-Earth libraries, and the only technology the aliens or post-apocalypse humans will need to access the data will be a rudimentary microscope -- something we've had knocking around our planet since the 1700s." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

March 6, 2019

February Reading Recap

February was a month of unusual, surprising stories, all with speculative elements:

LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon: City is one of the finalists in the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest, with the chance to demonstrate that a black boy from Mississippi can deliver more dynamic sentences than any other competitor. But when the event takes a racist turn, City either makes a fool of himself or stands up for himself, depending on who you ask. He finds some consolation by reading an odd, authorless book called LONG DIVISION, in which he's surprised to find a character named City living in Mississippi in 1985, who finds a tunnel that takes him to 2013...

This novel starts out strange and gets stranger, and the story pulled me in more and more. The two Citys are compelling characters, though often adolescently frustrating, and each has an intriguing, amusing group of friends and foes. There's a lot packed into this book about love and hate, the past and future, and words and actions. By the end of the mind-bending, intense plot, I wasn't sure if I understood everything I was supposed to, but this is a story that will stick with me.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders begins in a city located at the boundary between night and day, the only area habitable by humans on a planet where the same side always faces the sun. In Xiosphant, the principles of Circadianism are strictly enforced to maintain order in this environment where the sky never changes. Sophie, a student from the dark side of town, takes the fall for her friend's petty crime and is banished into the frigid night. This should be a death sentence, but Sophie is rescued by the feared native inhabitants of the planet, who she discovers are intelligent creatures with their own civilization and technology. With their help, Sophie survives to team up with smugglers and revolutionaries, eventually working through the many traumas she suffers along the way.

The worldbuilding in this novel is fascinating and original. Though humans came to this planet with sophisticated technology, the knowledge and materials were lost over generations and through wars, so the story takes place in a fairly low-tech era, with much cobbled together from old parts. Anders put a lot of thought into how people would manage life in the terminator of a tidally locked planet, with schedule-controlled Xiosphant as one extreme and a freewheeling city Sophie visits as the other. I enjoyed listening to Anders talk about developing her novel's rich backstory on a recent episode of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast (segment starts at 16:30).

Much about the story and characters kept me interested, but significant pieces didn't work for me. The plot is oddly paced at times, and as the characters face obstacles that require changing their goals, I sometimes felt earlier parts of the story were rendered unnecessary. Deep friendships and/or love between characters are central to the novel, but I was confused about the story's position on the nature and health of these relationships, or whether my confusion was the point. The aftereffect of trauma is another major story concern, but it might have been more powerful with a lighter touch, which is something I've noticed in other novels and struggled with handling in my own writing.

I think this is one of those books that different types of readers will have very different reactions to (the reviews already support that), so I don't want to warn readers away from this novel, but I wish I'd liked it better.

WHAT I DIDN'T SEE AND OTHER STORIES by Karen Joy Fowler: I've read several of Fowler's varied novels, so it was no surprise that the stories in this collection also range wildly in setting, genre, and focus. What they have in common is excellent writing, at least a dash of humor, and richly developed characters and worlds.

About half the stories depict specific historical eras and sometimes take inspiration from real events and people. Two revolve around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: "Booth's Ghost" tracks the careers of the Booth family of actors, focusing on one of the brothers of the infamous John Wilkes, and except for the mildly ghostly bit, it's all rooted in truth. "Standing Room Only" follows a young woman, daughter of co-conspirator Mary Surratt, who is in love with JW and completely unaware of what else is going on.

I'm impressed thinking about the amount of research that must have been required to write the 20-odd pages of a story like "The Dark", which starts with Yosemite disappearances in the 1950s and 60s, moves on to the history of pandemics, and then shifts to the work of soldiers who cleared tunnels during the Vietnam War. It shares a few elements with "What I Didn't See", narrated by a woman on a gorilla-hunting expedition in the 1920s, including that both stories aren't quite science fictional but also aren't quite grounded in reality.

I enjoyed the blurry genre lines throughout this collection, and the frequent feeling that I had no idea what sort of story I was reading or where things might be going. "The Last Worders" involves twin American sisters taking a trip to an odd European city, on an odd quest, and every development twists the story in another direction until it all comes to a strange and satisfying ending. In "Always", a young woman joins an immortality cult in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the story arcs nicely around the many questions raised by the premise.

Karen Joy Fowler will be one of the guests at FOGcon this weekend, and I can't wait to hear and talk more about her work!

February 28, 2019

Reading My Words

For a while now, most of my posts have been about reading and books. This one is, too, but what's different is that the book I just finished reading is my own novel.

I finally reached the stage of this endless revision when it was time to read the manuscript all at once and see how it is. I'm relieved to report that this novel is pretty decent. Some places need adjustment to line up with things I ended up changing later in the revision. There are scenes I want to shorten to get to the point faster. But mostly, the story reads smoothly, and many excellent moments or sentences I'd forgotten popped up as delightful surprises.

I left myself many comments during the readthrough that I now need to go through and resolve. While plenty of sentences are "awk" or "unclear", the good news is that hardly any left me wondering what parasites had taken over my brain. The most notable of these was a sentence starting "Ironically enough," where I had to leave the very disappointed comment "that is not ironic." Aside from that, I rarely cringed, which is a notable improvement over previous readings.

So now I'm getting back to work on cleaning up all these smaller issues. Once I have a tight, coherent draft, we'll see what happens next

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kim Liao reflects for Literary Hub about rejections and creative failure: "Rejection still hurts. My skin is not as thick as I thought it was, and becoming accustomed to something is not the same thing as enjoying it. Also, not all rejections are created equally. Tallying every rejection as 1 out of 100 doesn't account for the fact that some rejections barely even register, while others feel like the sky is collapsing."

February 5, 2019

January Reading Recap

I started the year off right, spending January reading a bunch of great books!

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker is the suspenseful, beautifully written story of a town gripped by an epidemic, and I was relieved to find it handles the dreaming aspect of the story with a light and original touch.

In a dorm in the isolated college town of Santa Lora, California, a student falls into a sleep she can't be woken from. The mysterious affliction spreads to others in the dorm, and the doctors can't find any cause for the perpetual sleep. By the time the scale of the contagion is understood, many more cases have appeared throughout the town. Santa Lora is quarantined, and those still awake fear that sleep may descend at any time.

Walker recounts the Santa Lora epidemic with a well-crafted omniscient narration that spends time in the heads of about half a dozen major characters watching the disease unfold from different perspectives. The style works great for the story, and every character is a richly drawn person who I was pleased to see again and nervous about following further. The novel's disease has a fantastical nature, but Walker portrays it with the same detail and tension as found in real-life epidemics. Just as realistic are all the moments between characters that reveal their connections or distance. Pretty much everything about this book thrilled me, and I highly recommend it.

THE FATED SKY by Mary Robinette Kowal: A few years have passed since the events of THE CALCULATING STARS (my review), and the international effort to get humanity into space has established a small lunar colony. Elma works on the moon as a pilot for three-month stretches, and while she loves being an astronaut, she hates being away from her husband. When Elma is reassigned to join the first crew heading to Mars, it's a thrilling but terrifying prospect that she'll be away from Earth and Nathaniel for three years. Before the mission even launches, the crew has to contend with conflicts among themselves and pressures from a society grappling with both the civil rights movement and the effects of the meteor strike. The journey to Mars only introduces more, and more perilous, obstacles.

This book is an exciting, emotional ride. Kowal really puts her characters through the wringer, and while I wished these people I'd really grown to like weren't facing such harrowing situations, it made for a great story. As in THE CALCULATING STARS, there's lots of cool science and thoughtful character interactions. Both books would have benefited from some tightening to remove repetition, especially in the service of trusting readers to understand already established dynamics. I still definitely recommend them. I suggest reading the pair in quick succession as I did, because THE FATED SKY doesn't include much in the way of reminders about who anyone is or what's happening. Future installments, not yet published, are likely to catch readers up more. I look forward to Elma's further adventures.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh is the odd, absorbing story of a woman who's decided to sleep away her life for a year. Our narrator's problems, such as they are, involve lingering feelings for a jerk she dated and a scorn for the world that keeps her detached from everything and everyone. She believes a year of sleep will fix all that, and she has the financial means to stay in her Manhattan apartment and do nothing else, so she embarks on her project with a barrage of drugs prescribed by an absurdly terrible psychiatrist. Every day or so, she wakes for a few hours to eat a bit, watch movies, and endure visits from her one friend, who's just as discontented with life. Some months in, she starts doing things while drugged that she doesn't remember when she wakes up -- making purchases and appointments, chatting online with strangers -- and she struggles with how to keep the world at bay when her subconscious is so determined not to.

I was fascinated by the strange premise of this novel and delighted by how well Moshfegh pulls it off. From the opening pages, I felt sucked into the narrator's project by the strong voice and details both mundane and lurid. The experience was unpleasantly compelling. The dark humor of the story appealed to me, and some of the sessions with the psychiatrist made me laugh out loud. Not everyone is going to be drawn to this story, but if you're intrigued, I recommend reading it. Many critics considered it one of the best books of 2018.

AYITI by Roxane Gay is a collection of short fiction that was Gay's earliest book, recently republished and expanded. Many of the pieces are quite brief, more a depiction of a moment or idea than a story. Every piece sings with Gay's strong, vivid writing, but I preferred the longer, fuller stories that allow time to sink into the characters' lives.

The standout story in the collection for me is the longest one, "Sweet on the Tongue". I had time to become fully invested in the protagonist before the painful uncovering of her past, which turns out to be a kidnapping like that in Gay's powerful novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I also especially enjoyed the sexy "A Cool, Dry Place", about a young couple making plans to leave Haiti and making plenty of love. In general, I'd recommend the later collection DIFFICULT WOMEN over AYITI, but this small book is certainly worth reading as well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Jessica McCann shares experiences with novel research: "For my recent historical novel set in 1930s Kansas, I read no fewer than 25 nonfiction books and countless articles about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, farming, geology, auto mechanics, ecology, land surveying, food canning, quilting, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and so much more. I compiled many binders full of notes. And then I abandoned a lot of it."

January 23, 2019

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2019

It's time for the return of my anticipated book lists, because there are a ton of books being published this year that I'm already excited about. Most of these are from authors whose work I've loved before, and in some cases I've been eagerly awaiting these books since they were first mentioned years ago.

Here are the books I'm looking forward to reading in the next few months:

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker (January 15): I was a big admirer of Walker's debut, THE AGE OF MIRACLES, a coming-of-age story set during the gradual disaster of the earth's slowing rotation. The news of her publishing again delighted me, but I have to admit the new book's premise adds some trepidation to my anticipation. THE DREAMERS involves a town gripped by an epidemic (promising) that sends its victims into perpetual sleep (intriguing, but I've been disappointed by books with sleep-related epidemics in the past) and does something to dreams (a topic I usually find uninteresting in fiction). I haven't started reading yet, so I'm still hoping Walker will once again tell a story that exceeds my expectations.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Charlie Jane Anders (February 12): Anders has produced a lot of work I enjoy: her first novel, ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, shorter fiction, and the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT takes place on a planet with a permanent day side and night side, has a plot containing revolutionaries and smugglers, and sounds like great fun.

THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman (February 12): The two earlier books that made me a fan of Newman are THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel about an apocalypse in which nobody lives past adolescence, and HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL, a hilarious writing guide. THE HEAVENS is something different than either of those, a novel set in New York in 2000 and Elizabethan England, with maybe also some alternate history (yay) and definitely some dreams (hrm). My curiosity is certainly piqued.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie (February 26): I adored all of Leckie's previous novels: the trilogy starting with ANCILLARY JUSTICE and the standalone PROVENANCE. In THE RAVEN TOWER, Leckie moves from science fiction to fantasy, and I'm confident that the writing, characters, and story will be as wonderful as always.

GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS by Mira Jacob (March 26): Jacob wrote a lovely novel about a family, THE SLEEPWALKER'S GUIDE TO DANCING, and I've been following her career since reading it. A few years ago, she published a cartoon essay called 37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son and announced that it was part of a forthcoming graphic memoir. I'm eager to see more of these funny, tough, and visually striking conversations.

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami (March 26): Lalami is the one author on this list I haven't read before, but the buzz around this novel has me ready to snap it up as soon as it's released. It's a story about a hit-and-run accident told from many points of view, promising a mystery, secrets, lies, and complicated family dynamics.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, Charlie Jane Anders advises focusing on your weaknesses as an author: "Writing is one of the few areas where the better you get at it, the harder it becomes. This is partly because 'getting good at writing' requires you to have more awareness of the weaknesses in your own work. But also, you can't get better after a certain point without going outside your comfort zone. And there are questions you don't even think to ask about your own work, until you've been forced to think about them."

January 11, 2019

2018 By The Books

This is my now-annual January(ish) post in which I pick my top recommendations from the books I read the year before. As I started putting it together, I was thinking about how consistent my reading habits have become and how much of what I want to say in introduction is the same as for previous yearly book wrap-ups. I began musing on how to write about this consistency, and then I realized that consistency also comes up in my year-end writing overview. So: 2018 was a very consistent year in my life (except in all the ways it wasn't).

For example, my general goal is to average three books a month, and I again hit pretty close to that target, reading 33 books in 2018. I continued gravitating toward recent releases, with the vast majority of books I read published in 2018 or 2017. As I found last year, about a third of what I read was truly outstanding, which leaves me quite pleased with my reading selections. I'm recommending those exceptional books again here, with a link to the monthly recap containing my original, fuller review.

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer (February and March/April) earn the top spot on this not entirely ordered list for sticking with me the most strongly. This pair of novels tells a unified story (which will continue in two more books, less closely tied) of the complicated events that rock the world of 2454. Palmer's future is ambitiously imagined, with a mind-boggling number of disparate pieces and players woven together into a gripping tale of political intrigue and so much more.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (July/August) is a family story that stands out for how solidly every element is crafted. Through carefully detailed character portrayals and a plot that's never predictable or easy, Ko unfolds the story of a boy from China whose mother disappears after she brings him to the United States.

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie (October/November) is especially notable for the excellent use of perspective shift to reveal its complicated layers. In this tense and tragic novel, the fates of two British-Pakistani families become entwined by love, politics, and questions of loyalty.

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling (September) takes the family story down to the micro level of recounting the daily tedium and anxiety of parenting. Few significant events occur for much of this novel about a mother hiding from the world with her toddler, but the strength and intimacy of the narrative voice kept me enthralled.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker (July/August) depicts immigrant life in the multicultural stew of early twentieth century New York City, with supernatural protagonists who are also newcomers to the human world. Wecker develops her inventive premise marvelously, and this novel was even richer and more layered than I anticipated.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE by Ijeoma Oluo (January) is a thorough, approachable guide to noticing and discussing racism, whether you want to or not. Oluo offers practical suggestions on talking and acting in various difficult situations, and I intend to return to this book again.

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz (May) depicts a future in which humans, robots, and intellectual property can all be owned or freed, whether legally or illicitly. A batch of pirated drugs with lethal side effects set humans and bots on both sides of the law on a thrilling chase, packed with science, danger, and a stealth submarine.

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange (June) introduces a large cast, mostly Native Americans and mostly living in Oakland, and places them on a trajectory toward a powwow where a violent act is planned. Orange gives each character a full and vivid portrayal in impressively few pages, and I only wish there was more of this tight and suspenseful story.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL by Mira T. Lee (March/April) focuses on two adult sisters and the way mental illness impacts their relationship with each other and with each of their partners over the years. Lee complicates every character with unexpected details, and the evolution of the plot feels organic.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam (May) brings together two families from different races and classes, bonding them through tragedy and adoption. What particularly sticks with me about this novel is how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of every interaction between the well-drawn characters.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood at The Guardian explores the world of miniature books: "Nomenclature is important here: according to the US-based Miniature Book Society, a miniature book 'is no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness', and while the London Library has some 350-odd 'small' books, of less than five inches, it has only 47 true miniatures. The library decided they were being overshadowed by their larger cousins, so now they are gathered together in a glass-fronted cabinet." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

January 4, 2019

December Reading Recap

Here's my final month of book reviews to close out 2018, and next week I'll look back at the year's reading highlights.

THE CALCULATING STARS by Mary Robinette Kowal: Early in the space race, Elma and her husband Nathaniel are vacationing in the mountains after a satellite launch they both worked on, when suddenly the world changes. A meteor strike near Washington, D.C. destroys everything and everyone in the vicinity of the capital, including Elma's family, her friends and colleagues, and most of the federal government. Elma and Nathaniel escape to safety thanks to their combined scientific knowledge and her skills as a pilot. They wind up at a military base, where Nathaniel is pulled into meetings and Elma isn't allowed to do anything useful that might distract her from grief and shock. At last she's given some data to analyze, and through her calculations, she discovers that the consequences of the meteor impact are going to become far worse than they already are. Though no humans have yet orbited Earth, it's now urgent to figure out how to get humanity off the planet.

This premise combines two subjects I love to read about, apocalyptic disasters and space travel, and Kowal explores both with well-considered and fascinating detail. The science is woven tightly into the many plot events, which means both that the story makes sense and that it moves along at a pretty fast pace. With mathematician and pilot Elma as our guide through the accelerated space race, we get to understand and witness every development, and also experience the constant fight to have women's accomplishments taken seriously. Along with portraying the sexism of the era, Kowal is thoughtful as always about how every character's identity interacts with the story, especially paying attention to how black people are treated in the disaster and in the space program.

As soon as I finished devouring THE CALCULATING STARS, I started the sequel, THE FATED SKY, which continues the quest to colonize other planets. These two books are closely tied and were released in quick sequence. More books in the series are planned for the future.

THE PERFECT NANNY by Leïla Slimani, translated from French by Sam Taylor: In the first pages of this novel, two small children are murdered by their nanny. The story then goes back to the previous year, when Parisian couple Myriam and Paul decide to hire a nanny so Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. They bring on Louise, who delights the children immediately and soon becomes an indispensable part of the family. Myriam is thrilled to be working again and to leave the concerns of children and home to Louise, but she struggles with guilt about this choice and anger at the society that judges it. Louise is thrilled to dedicate herself to taking care of everything the family needs, and her devotion to the work blocks out the empty despair of life away from their apartment.

This tense, unsettling novel is primarily a character study of Louise and Myriam. By delving into the complicated thoughts and emotions of each woman and the changing dynamics between them, Slimani charts how the situation goes so horrifically wrong. I read this short book quickly and eagerly, fascinated by the nuanced characters and always in suspense at how the inevitable end would arrive. I anticipated that there would be no clear, simple explanation of what drives Louise to murder, but what surprised and disappointed me was that we don't get to see the event from her point of view, despite how much time we otherwise spend in her head. I'd still recommend this to anyone intrigued by the premise, but prepare for an ending you may find unsatisfying.

THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez is narrated by a writer and teacher whose closest friend, another writer and teacher, dies by suicide. As she's contemplating his life and death, their past together, and his history with women, his wife (Wife Three) asks her to take in his dog. Apollo, an enormous and aging Great Dane, moves into her tiny apartment where dogs are forbidden, and they grieve together. Soon Apollo becomes such an important part of her life that she won't consider giving him up, despite the threat of eviction from a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment.

This novel won the National Book Award and much critical acclaim, but I'm in the camp of readers who only liked the parts about the dog. Apollo is great, and the relationship the narrator forms with him is emotionally satisfying. The dead friend, and the narrator herself, aren't especially compelling, nor are the majority of their musings about writing that make up much of the book. This is one of those novels composed of short scraps, in this case often presenting a thought or quote about writing, a fact or anecdote about death or dogs or both, or the summary of another book or movie. While I've read several books in this style, I'm not much of a fan, and in this case I felt the disparate pieces really didn't gel into a cohesive novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Diana M. Pho explains What Writing Fanfiction Taught Me as an Editor: "I spent hours studying a blend of British common law and JKR's hints about the Ministry of Magic to theorize how they passed legislation as reactionary response to Muggle history. I made calendar timelines to figure out whether the Animorphs went to high school in a term or semester system. Now, when I look at an author's manuscript, I take out my sledge-hammer and test out the sheetrock of their world. Is that a plot hole? Slam! Magical loopholes? Whump! How does a character's social or political identity affect their place in this world? Why can the cat talk? How do the airships fly?"