December 21, 2022

Everything Old Is Novel Again

I spent all of this year working on a novel. For my life in general, this is unremarkable, but that wasn't how I spent 2020 or 2021, and the return to full-time noveling has been a welcome development. I'm pleased with what I accomplished this year, and I'm especially glad to have found my way back into a comfortable writing groove.

The first ten months of 2022 were all research and planning, in slow preparation for expanding last fall's hastily conceived and written NaNoWriMo draft. I didn't allocate all those months as effectively as I might have, but I did work consistently, and certain aspects of the story and its world gradually became clearer.

In mid-October, with the start of NaNoWriMo coming around again and providing the pressure of an external deadline, I turned the year's ideas into an index card outline. That gave me enough of a structure that I was able to begin a new draft on November 1, and I've been writing every day since then.

In November, I passed my personal 25,000 word goal and ended the month with 30k words. I was afraid I might lose momentum once the mass writing challenge was over, but I've been setting myself weekly word count goals that provide sufficient motivation. Today I hit the 50k word milestone. That gets me to approximately the midpoint of the outline, which is where I want to be, because the goal is not merely to accumulate words but to make progress through the chapters so I end up with a story-shaped draft of a manageable size.

I wrote at least a bit every single day of November, and of December so far, and that's been helpful in sustaining my progress. I'm ready for a break now, but I'll try to not completely lose contact with the story while I take some time to relax and recharge. In January, I want to pick up where I left off and keep writing until I reach the end. Then there will inevitably be more planning, and more drafts, in the now-familiar cycle of my life.

As the seasons turn once again back toward brighter days, I wish you all a happy novel year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, writing for the New York Times, examines how the term "magic realism" is overused and why it matters: "Magic realism once referred to the literary style of a loosely connected group of Latin American authors who penned works some 60 years ago, but in the English-speaking world, the term has become synonymous with Latin American writing in general. Picture every work by a British writer being called 'Austenesque' today, and you get an idea of this phenomenon."

December 2, 2022

November Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

November 23, 2022

NaNo Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

November 7, 2022

October Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

October 31, 2022

Getting Scary Real

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

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

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

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

October 5, 2022

September Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

September 27, 2022

Slipping Into The Future

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

I don't know why it remains such a surprise to me that novels take a long time. (I'm sure none of my blog readers are surprised.) In March, I was looking back on my naivete from January: "I thought I'd take care of a bit of research, sketch an outline, and be ready to start writing a new draft in a few weeks." Naturally at that point, I was still busy researching and worldbuilding. And of course I was doing the same in May, the last time I posted an update on this project.

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

September 1, 2022

August Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

August 4, 2022

July Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

July 28, 2022

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer/Fall 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

July 6, 2022

June Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading in June:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stuff Out There:

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

June 6, 2022

May Reading Recap

May was another varied month of reading:

EUPHORIA by Lily King: Nell and Fen are married anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Nell's recent book has brought her a fame that Fen can't hope to match, which puts an additional strain on their volatile relationship. The two meet Bankson, another anthropologist in the area who has been struggling with feelings of isolation that push him to the brink of suicide. For Bankson, finding peers he can speak to freely is a lifeline that revitalizes both his will and his work. For Nell and Fen, the new friendship at first removes some of the pressure between them, but then introduces new conflicts as the bond between Nell and Bankson grows.

King has written an excellent novel analyzing the relationships between characters whose careers involve analyzing other people's relationships. The story as a whole is intense and sad, but the characters also share many moments of humor and joy. I was quickly invested in the three leads and the nuances of their reactions and behavior toward one another. The cultures of the different tribes are depicted in fascinating detail, and King explains in the acknowledgments that while these groups are fictional, she drew specifics from real tribes studied by Margaret Mead and the other anthropologists whose lives inspired this novel. The narrative also spends some time interrogating the nature and purpose of outsiders observing other societies. I'm glad I finally read this novel, and I plan to read more by Lily King.

THE DAYS OF AFREKETE by Asali Solomon: Liselle is hosting a dinner party to thank the people who worked on her husband's political campaign. It would be an odd dinner anyway, because Winn lost decisively against the incumbent, but what has Liselle on edge is that she's expecting the FBI to show up and arrest Winn in the course of the evening. While Liselle prepares, she thinks back on her past, especially her relationship with Selena in college, when she still considered herself a lesbian. Instead of making a life with another Black woman, Liselle ended up married to a white man, and this night has her wondering how that happened and what became of Selena, whose life followed a different and difficult path.

This character-focused, reflective novel kept me engaged throughout. Most of the story is in the connections and disconnects between the characters, and Solomon does an excellent job portraying these dynamics. The narrative voice is strong, incisive, and frequently funny. The book's setup had me expecting more to happen by the conclusion, and I found the ending abrupt, but I still appreciated the story.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD by Mike Ingram: One early January, before starting a new semester of teaching, Mike Ingram drove his friend's car from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where the friend was starting a great new job. Along the way, Mike pondered whether to stay in his own okay job, whether to try to salvage his rocky relationship, and whether to leave Philadelphia permanently. This book is a reflective essay on the journey, the soul searching, and the pieces of Americana that Mike encountered along the way.

I'm a longtime listener of the podcast Mike co-hosts, Book Fight, so I bring that context and bias to my enjoyment of this book. Still, I feel confident recommending it to anyone interested in well-written, thoughtful creative nonfiction that combines personal experience and research. The narration moves along quickly, lingering on only the most interesting or amusing details of the metaphorical and literal crossroads. The essay is nicely packaged by Awst Press into a pocket-sized paperback to serve as travel reading.

THE CARTOGRAPHERS by Peng Shepherd: Nell is a mapmaker who shares her father's passion for cartography. But the two haven't spoken in years, since a terrible falling out that led to him firing her from the map division of New York Public Library. When Nell's father dies suddenly, she's pulled back into the world of the NYPL, and she discovers an odd map hidden in his desk. It's not one of the valuable ancient artifacts he usually works with, but a cheap gas station road map. As Nell tries to determine its significance, she uncovers evidence suggesting her father may have been murdered, and that she could be in danger as well. There's something very strange about this map and what it represents, and it holds the clue to a string of impossible crimes and long-held dark secrets.

The novel's exploration of maps and libraries is fun, and the premise has potential, but unfortunately the execution was a big disappointment. Most of what the characters do and say seems primarily motivated by plot needs rather than plausible human reactions. And since the plot hinges on people behaving in ways that don't make a ton of sense, the story is on shaky ground from the start, and infuriating by the end. I really wanted to like this book, but I can't recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At, Molly Templeton struggles to find the magic of reading while traveling in the new weirdness of traveling again: "What we want in the books we pack with us, when we're headed out on a road trip or to the airport or train station, is as varied as our travel preferences. Window, aisle, observation car. Escapism, education, a break from the norm. What I wanted was to fall into something, to repeat the experience of reading Wanderers on a flight and forgetting how long it was (the book or the flight). Reading a book while traveling can mean forever associating the book with motion; returning to a travel read can, faintly and distantly, recall that experience. American Gods is always traveling in Australia, to me, however contradictory that sounds. When I reread it, two landscapes layer over each other in my mind."

May 31, 2022

Back Again

I'm squeaking in at the end of the month with another writing update, although there isn't much new to report on the writing front since the last update.

I did a lot more research in April and May to learn about the science behind the science fiction of this novel I'm planning. The scifi I like best is built on real science, backed up by plausible details, so I decided it was worth investing the time on research to make the world of my story convincing. I probably went overboard, since it's true that research is a great way to avoid moving on to writing, but I did manage to hammer out many worldbuilding decisions and nail down specifics.

That home improvement imagery may be coming to mind because also during these past couple of months, I was supervising various work on the exterior of our house. Though I didn't have to wield any tools myself, that created some commitments and distractions that took time away from writing. I had some additional fun distractions planned as well, so my productivity expectations for this time were lowered, and I'm actually surprised I got as much accomplished as I did.

The work on the house and the research both wrapped up just in time for a vacation. I spent a couple of wonderful weeks visiting family, seeing friends, and taking part in joyful celebrations. I'm grateful that I was able to travel and that most of the plans worked out pretty well. And now it's great to be back home.

I'm sure it's going to take me a little time to review the notes from before the trip and get back into the world of the story, but then I hope to move on to outlining and other non-research prep. Maybe next time I update about writing, I'll even have an update about writing!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Rebecca Ackermann writes about how the strangeness of office life is captured by the unrelated novel and show both titled Severance: "Through the fictional lens of extreme speculative scenarios—that somehow become more plausible by the month—both narratives illustrate the tempting lure of productive white-collar distraction in a chaotic world, the price of the dehumanizing dissociation that it demands, and the recognition that finding deep meaning and purpose in our relationships with each other can free us from a life lived half-asleep."

May 4, 2022

April Reading Recap

My April was busy with various things, including celebrating my birthday and reading so many books:

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel opens in 1912, but the table of contents reveals that the story will range across centuries. That list of chapter titles offers several other intriguing hints, and I studied it with excitement. Other readers may prefer to set out as unprepared as the first protagonist, who travels by steamship from England to Canada in 1912 with no sense of what might happen when he arrives. In the course of the novel, characters undertake many journeys, some carefully planned and others subject to chance and whim. The story itself is whimsical at times, deeply thoughtful at others, and threaded through with a careful plan that guides the narrative.

I highly recommend this short novel to fans of Mandel's work. The story connects up in delightful ways with her previous novels and career, so while I expect anyone could appreciate the book, some previous familiarity will provide a deeper reading experience. Mandel wrote the novel during our real pandemic, while facing renewed interest in her already bestselling novel about a fictional pandemic, so it's no surprise that pandemics play a role in the plot. Other elements include mysterious phenomena and moon colonies and book tours and more that I won't spoil. I loved this strange and wonderful novel, and I hope you do, too.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan: This was my second time reading this book, a collection of chapters written in different styles and focusing on different characters with connections to a few central figures. On my first reading a decade ago, I resisted the label of "novel" because I didn't find any central arc that unified the separate stories. This time around, I approached the text knowing what to expect from the structure, and also as a different reader. This time, I loved what the novel was doing, and it felt to me like an unquestionable, if unconventional novel.

The story is about time and its effect on the self, on memory, on technology and the music industry. So it's a philosophical sort of novel, focused on character and emotion, but I found it propulsive because every chapter involves tense events and interactions. The chapters build on each other, peeling back layers to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, or revealing future consequences. It's a cool way to get to know the characters, who are portrayed with specificity and humor. I'm fond of the whole cast after seeing them at different times and from different perspectives.

I'm glad I returned to this in another time and with another perspective, and I was happy to have it fresh in my mind for reading Egan's followup, THE CANDY HOUSE.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan: Like its predecessor, this novel is assembled out of chapters written in an array of styles, set in a range of times, and focused on a variety of people. The characters are all connected to each other, and they're connected to the cast of GOON SQUAD but mostly appeared only at the periphery of those stories. As the former background characters take center stage, events and details from the earlier novel are referenced and built upon, and while the reader doesn't need additional context, my recent revisit to the first book deepened my experience of the new one. What I came to appreciate most about both was unearthing all the links and echoes, and it was in part my familiarity with the web of characters that made me so fond of this novel.

Many sections of THE CANDY HOUSE revolve around a technology that allows people to externalize their memories and share them. As the invention and its offshoots grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly rare for anything to be forgotten, unknowable, or lost to time. Egan is less concerned with the scientific details of this tech and more with its possibilities as a literary device, which she uses to continue GOON SQUAD's explorations of time, memory, and self. But while this is a story more of ideas than plot, what it's most about is the characters who come alive as sympathetic, frustrating, singular people I was happy to get to know better.

April 7, 2022

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading took me into many unfamiliar worlds:

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler: The children of Junius Booth grow up in the shadow of their father's fame as both a Shakespearean actor and a drunken eccentric. Most of the sons aspire to a career in the theater, and Edwin will eventually be heralded as a great actor. Rosalie aspires to leave the family home one way or another, but she's needed at her mother's side. Asia aspires to a life of beauty and purpose, and she loves her family with fierce intensity, especially her brother John. As the favored child, John Wilkes is indulged despite getting into frequent trouble, because it's understood within the Booth family that he's destined for greatness.

This novel is a wonderful addition to one of my favorite genres, historical fiction that closely follows the known facts of a person or event, but gets to invent the small moments and interior lives of the characters. The fascinating Booth family provided plenty of material for Fowler to draw on, but she also had plenty of room for invention, and she portrays each family member with care and nuance. As always in Fowler's writing, the narrative is full of sharp observations and dry humor that conveys the humanity of these historical figures, even the infamous assassin. The tension of reading toward a historically inevitable outcome pulled me through the pages, but I also kept wanting to slow down and savor the well-crafted paragraphs. BOOTH was everything I hoped it would be, and then some.

THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne: Three storylines set millennia apart all converge around a sacred cave in what is today called Belize. In 1012, the young members of a royal family hope to restore prosperity to their declining empire by honoring the gods with proper rituals. In 2012, an American teenager with Mayan ancestry travels to Belize for the turn of the ancient calendar, and she feels drawn to the cave once used for sacrificial ceremonies. In 3012, when most humans have adopted nomadic lives in response to climate disasters, a researcher raises questions that threaten the world's dominant belief system. Life in the far future is shaped by the legends of these long ago young people and their mysterious fates, and as each timeline progresses in the story, the connections proliferate.

I enjoyed this ambitious novel overall, though some elements worked better for me than others. Byrne incorporates an impressive amount of research and creativity into the three story worlds, and while there's a tendency toward long expositional passages especially at the beginning, I did eventually feel immersed in the different time periods. I didn't connect as fully with most of the characters, but I was still invested in finding out what was going to happen to them. The ideas about layers of religions accumulating over time fascinated me, even though I don't share the spiritual pull experienced by the characters. My favorite aspect of the book was watching the pieces of history fall into place, and Byrne structured the novel well to highlight these satisfying connections.

NINEFOX GAMBIT by Yoon Ha Lee: After ordering an unorthodox formation during a bloody battle, Captain Kel Cheris expects her military service to end in disgrace. Instead, she's given the questionable honor of taking on a difficult mission with little information. Cheris's goal is to scour the calendrical rot wreaking havoc on the mathematical forces powering society and technology. Her primary weapon will be an immortal general infamous for his genius and his madness. What nobody warns her is that General Shuos Jedao currently exists only as a ghost, and he'll be anchored to Cheris's mind until they figure out who is behind the rot and how to fix it.

This is a much more military-focused sort of space opera than I generally read, and I wasn't in it for the many battle scenes, but I enjoyed the story pretty well despite that. Cheris and Jedao are both excellent characters, and what kept me engrossed was watching their evolving dynamic as they negotiate working together in strange circumstances. Other characters also get nicely specific depictions, even when they only appear for a few pages. What first drew me to the story was the calendar-based system of magic or science (I'm still not decided on which description fits), and I was disappointed there wasn't a deeper exploration of how and why it works. But the ideas make for some interesting worldbuilding, and the story within the world is an exciting one. There are two more novels in the trilogy, but I found the ending of this one conclusive enough.

WHEN I'M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST by Quan Barry: Chuluun, a novice monk in Mongolia, is tasked with helping locate the latest reincarnation of an enlightened Buddhist teacher. He's only been away from the monastery for a day when he somehow gets involved in sheep theft, but he eventually makes it to the capital to meet up with his twin brother. Mun used to be a monk as well, and he's the reincarnation of another old soul, yet he renounced monastic life and now works as a tour guide in the city. Still, he agrees to help Chuluun, and the brothers join a small group to drive across the vastness of Mongolia in search of the child who will carry on the faith.

I knew almost nothing about Mongolia and the Buddhism practiced there, so I was interested in the setting and situation portrayed in the novel. I grew attached to the well-drawn characters, and I appreciated the humor in Chuluun's narration. The book's plot is the journey around Mongolia and the various obstacles and people encountered along the way, but the focus is more on character introspection. Though composed of very short chapters, the story moves slowly, in a meditative way befitting the monk narrator. I would have preferred a different style and pace, but I think the book is well written and that Barry successfully achieved her intended effects.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Matt Bell talks to Hannah Gerson about his new craft book, REFUSE TO BE DONE, in an interview about revision: "I think the second draft is often the one that feels most like what I imagined novel writing to be, before I did it: I'm working from an outline, usually writing more or less linearly through the story, and making the scenes the best they can be before going on. (I couldn't do this without the exploratory, generative first draft, though, or at least haven't so far.) I usually know my characters pretty well by then, and the voice of the book is pretty established. It's the end of this draft that, book after book, feels most like a real accomplishment: at the end of the first draft, I just feel daunted by how much is left to do, where at the end of the second, I feel like I've written a novel."

March 30, 2022

All Part of the Process

It's been months since I posted anything about writing, but that doesn't mean I haven't been doing anything about writing. What I've been doing, though, is certainly more "about" writing than actual writing. But that's part of the process, and I am slowly (always too slowly) continuing work on the novel I started in November.

At the beginning of this year, I reread the scenes and brainstorms that made up my NaNoWriMo draft, and I was pleased to discover a lot of it was pretty good. It was a mess, but a promising mess. I liked the characters I'd started to develop, and I had ideas about how to further complicate their relationships and make their lives more difficult. (Sorry, characters. I do like you, I promise!) The story world and premise still interested me, and I was excited to figure out more details. In January, I thought I'd take care of a bit of research, sketch an outline, and be ready to start writing a new draft in a few weeks.

Well. I guess if I didn't have an eternally optimistic outlook on my writing, I wouldn't be able to keep going. Because of course it's been rather more than a few weeks, and I haven't started that new draft. But I have done things!

→ I researched many topics extensively, including more than a few topics that are largely irrelevant to the novel.

→ I began an outline but couldn't decide how to refer to the characters since I wasn't sure about the hastily chosen names in the NaNo draft.

→ I renamed all my characters, some multiple times. (Sorry again, characters.)

→ I reorganized my notes, some multiple times.

→ I learned how to use Scrivener features I hadn't tried before, and then let enough time pass without using them that I may have to learn again.

→ I mused about the world of my story, producing thousands of words that won't go into the draft. (This is a for-real accomplishment and essential step.) Some of the worldbuilding even drew on a portion of that extensive research!

→ I felt overwhelmed at the thought of the work ahead of me, while simultaneously imagining the joy of having the work behind me. Now I just have to figure out how to insert myself into the middle part.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at the New York Times looks at how writers are incorporating the pandemic into their novels: "Given how much the virus has dominated our lives, a flood of pandemic fiction is perhaps inevitable. And several authors said they believe it is necessary, noting that unlike the fire hose of news coverage about Covid, which can leave readers feeling numb and overwhelmed, fiction can provide a way to process the emotional upheaval of the past two years."

March 2, 2022

February Reading Recap

I spent February reading wonderful novels:

OLGA DIES DREAMING by Xochitl Gonzalez: Olga has built a successful wedding planning business, managing events for wealthy clients with more money than sense. She gets a thrill, and extra income, from finding opportunities to exploit the rich, but she's increasingly dissatisfied that she's not doing something more meaningful. Her brother Prieto is the do-gooder, a member of Congress who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his Brooklyn constituents. But Prieto has found himself in a compromised position, so he can't do all he'd like for Brooklyn, or for the people of Puerto Rico who he's also trying to help. Both siblings have had their adult lives shaped by their mother, who left the family when they were young in order to pursue the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Since then, she's only communicated by letters from unknown locations, but now she's reaching out in new ways, and it may be time to finally air all the family's secrets.

This fascinating novel opens with a discussion of fancy napkins and unfolds into a story with far more complexity, and sometimes darkness, than I was anticipating. From the start, I was interested in Olga and Prieto and the problems they were dealing with, and then as every new layer appeared, I grew more impressed. At times the book is light-hearted and amusing, but it also gets into weighty subjects including corruption, colonialism, and trauma. While at times the way the characters discuss these topics tends toward speeches rather than dialogue, there is a lot of nuance in the story overall. The many conflicts build to a satisfying conclusion, and the ending left me emotional.

DETRANSITION, BABY by Torrey Peters: Reese wants a baby, but as a trans woman who keeps dating married men, she feels this future is out of reach. Then she gets a call from her estranged ex, Ames. He's gotten his girlfriend pregnant, something that also seemed impossible since he was on hormone treatments for years when he lived as a woman, which should have left him sterile after he detransitioned. Ames is overwhelmed by the thought of having a baby with Katrina, and the one way he can imagine it working is if Reese would join them in parenting. The two women have never even met, so both think this proposal is absurd at first. But soon they're intrigued, and the three start exploring the idea of making a family together. This possible future could either provide exactly what everyone wants, or it will all be completely unworkable.

I loved getting to know these characters intimately as they consider their options, and as Reese and Ames's pasts are revealed in backstory chapters. The writing is extremely honest about the characters' thoughts on gender, sexuality, and how their evolving sense of gender impacts every aspect of their lives. I appreciated that the narrative seems to hold nothing back, though it meant reading about some difficult experiences. The story is full of both drama and humor, and I was engrossed throughout.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel: I rarely find time to reread even books I love, but I was eager to revisit STATION ELEVEN after watching the excellent TV adaptation, which makes many changes to the story and characters but captures the novel's spirit. Here's my 2014 review, with some description of what the story is about.

Since I'd just finished the show, my experience of reading again involved a lot of comparison, against both the adaptation and my memory. I felt nostalgic delight at encountering the moments I'd remembered from the book that weren't part of the series. I was frequently surprised by subplots I'd forgotten all about. And while I thought I'd recognized all the changes in the show, I was also surprised to discover that some scenes I thought were taken directly from the book didn't appear in the text at all.

Reading this book in 2022 was of course also different from reading it in 2014, when the concept of a pandemic only existed for me as fiction or history. I'm now back to being able to mostly enjoy apocalypse stories as a sort of comfort read, where the comfort comes from gratitude that our current pandemic remains far short of apocalypse. But I did occasionally have to stop reading and take a few deep breaths.

This novel remains one of my favorites, and the TV series is now a favorite as well. The two are different, each with their own strengths and flaws, but I highly recommend either if you're able to take comfort in fictional apocalypse.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Susan DeFreitas reflects on her year of reading every Ursula K. Le Guin novel: "I spent the better part of 2019 and 2020 immersed in the work of the great speculative writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and during this time, as my external world grew smaller, my internal world expanded. Even as I traced the same route through my neighborhood each day, I was sailing through an enchanted archipelago—and in a time when travel had become impossible, I voyaged among the stars."

February 22, 2022

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2022

I'm looking forward to an exciting batch of novels coming out this spring! And I'm defining "spring" as the period between today and the end of June, because why not? Who knows how time even works anymore anyway?

WHEN I'M GONE, LOOK FOR ME IN THE EAST by Quan Barry (February 22): I loved the quirky WE RIDE UPON STICKS, the story of a girls' field hockey team that turns to dark magic to improve their game. I'm expecting something completely different, but as wonderfully idiosyncratic, from Barry's new novel, which follows twin brothers across Mongolia in search of a great lama's next reincarnation.

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler (March 8): I've enjoyed several of Fowler's varied books, and I'm excited that she's expanding on the subject of two short stories from the collection WHAT I DIDN'T SEE. The fascinating earlier stories and the new novel are historical fiction about the Booths, a family of famous actors in the mid 1800s, most notable today for producing the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (April 5): I just reread STATION ELEVEN, Mandel's excellent novel about an apocalyptic pandemic, after enjoying the recent TV adaptation. Her strange and compelling THE GLASS HOTEL was published right at the start of our real life pandemic. This new book involves the author of a bestselling novel about a pandemic, and maybe there's also a pandemic happening, and also she lives on the moon? Plus there are at least two other plotlines occurring centuries apart. It sounds completely wild, and I can't wait.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan (April 5): When I read A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD ten years ago, it took me a little time and discussion to deepen my appreciation of the book and its tightly linked stories that may or may not count as a novel. But in the decade since then, I've found myself thinking back on many ideas and images from the story, so it certainly made an impact. I was intrigued to learn Egan would be revisiting the characters in a similarly structured book that may or may not count as a sequel.

WOMAN OF LIGHT by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (June 7): After I read the strong story collection SABRINA & CORINA, I was eager for the novel Fajardo-Anstine was working on. I'm delighted to see it's a multigenerational family saga with the requisite secrets, meaning it's in one of my favorite genres.

THE MEN by Sandra Newman (June 14): I was a fan of the time-bending THE HEAVENS as well as the post-apocalyptic THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR. The latter is set in a future when there are no longer adults, so it's interesting that THE MEN is about a world in which there are no longer men. It's a concept other writers have explored, but I'm sure Newman's take will be unique.

INVISIBLE THINGS by Mat Johnson (June 28): I've read two of Johnson's previous novels, and both were a lot of fun. In LOVING DAY, the adventures in family and education are grounded in Philadelphia. In PYM, characters take a wild journey to Antarctica and encounter strange creatures. This new novel send characters all the way to Jupiter, where there may be aliens, and there's sure to be some excellent satire.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ N. K. Jemisin shares her step-by-step process of revision, or Book Renovation: "During this process, the book will no longer be a readable draft. The insertions will create contradictions, the deletions may leave plot holes; anyone who tries to read it from start to finish will end up very confused. That's okay. These are gut-renovation-level changes, leaving the load-bearing walls in place while the other walls get moved and the old wiring gets replaced. It ain't supposed to be pretty."

February 3, 2022

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with some great and varied reading:

THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich: Tookie is released from prison after serving a sentence of many years for her involvement in a strange crime. She gets a job in a Minneapolis bookstore and lives a normal life for a while, until the store becomes haunted by a customer who is as annoying in death as she was in life. This happens in November 2019, and as the haunting becomes more ominous, so do events beyond the bookstore. The pandemic arrives, and Tookie's family faces the terror and confusion of trying to avoid sickness. Then Minneapolis police kill George Floyd, the city erupts in protest, and they try to find ways to help while staying safe. Meanwhile, the ghost still lurks as the one threat that just might be surmountable.

There's a beautiful rawness to this novel. Tookie's narration lays bare the unprocessed emotions she's coping with, often putting into words the feelings that many experienced in 2020. The narrative itself seems raw in places, not as polished as it might have been with more time, but that's not a shortcoming in this case, and I'm glad Erdrich crafted this story while the events are still fresh. Much that happens in the book is hard to read about, but there is also delight. The story contains a huge amount of love, for both people and books, and a fair amount of humor. Tookie and all the other characters are going to stay with me, and if I ever get to visit the real Birchbark Books, I'll be disappointed not to find them there (other than Erdrich, who has inserted herself into the novel)!

CIRCE by Madeline Miller: Circe, daughter of a Titan and a naiad, grows up among divine immortals who scorn her for lacking beauty and power. As a child, she has a brief encounter with Prometheus and is fascinated by his connection to mortals and the kindness that results in his eternal punishment. When Circe finally has a chance to meet a mortal herself, she falls in love, and in her desire to have him, she discovers the power that's been hiding within her. Circe is a witch, able to wield powerful magic, and this magic results in her exile to a deserted island. She's sentenced to captivity there for eternity, but gods and mortals come and go in the centuries that follow, and Circe plays her part in what will become the epic tales of heroes and monsters.

I'd encountered so many enthusiastic reviews of this book, and it really was as good as everyone said. Circe is a fascinating, complicated character, and so are the other figures of myth and legend who Miller portrays in surprising and nuanced ways. The relationships Circe forms with mortals are full of strong emotions, with the tragedy of their finite lifespans always lurking in the background. Most of the book's plot is drawn from ancient stories about Circe, some I was familiar with but most I never knew or forgot about, so my reading experience was a fun mix of anticipating what was ahead, having no idea, and being impressed by how Miller combines and skews existing material. The novel is written as a look behind the myths at what really happened and how much more power Circe and the other women actually held, and it succeeds wonderfully.

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Monique is a young journalist just starting out. Evelyn Hugo is an aging movie star, famous for her career, her beauty, and her seven marriages. Inexplicably, Evelyn approaches Monique with the exclusive offer to write a tell-all biography. She won't say why she chose Monique, and she won't answer the question of who was the great love of her life, but she promises all will be revealed by the time she finishes telling her life story.

The answer to the second mystery is the reason you might want to pick up the novel: Evelyn's great love is a woman, and the two can't be public about their relationship due to the times and their celebrity, a strain that drives them apart more than once. Evelyn, who is bisexual, marries some of her husbands for love and some as a front. The intricacies of the many relationships makes for an absorbing plot. However, despite some character complexity and good emotional moments, I often found actions and reactions unconvincing, driven more by plot needs than character motivations. The story's most contrived and poorly set up element is the big secret of why Evelyn is talking to Monique, and this would have been a better book without that frame.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Meg Elison writes about the importance of portraying bodies: "In all the fiction and nonfiction that I read, I am searching for the body. In fiction, I want to know how a character feels; how they churn and bleed, how they laugh from deep in the belly or cry their crocodile tears, how they plunge their hands into dry beans for the pure sensual joy of the act, or crush a half-rotten orange beneath a chunky heel just for the pleasure of decayed destruction in the gutter. Each of these actions of the body tells me something about the character and something else about the world. It is as important as dialogue and as plot, and it is the inescapable fact of the meat that carries our consciousness."

→ And in the same issue, Lincoln Michel considers the presence and absence of bodies in cyberpunk: "Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—loses something essential when the flesh fades away in the pixels. Because cyberpunk is the genre that can examine what emerging technologies are doing to us. How they will impact and change humanity."

January 20, 2022

2021 By The Books

It's time once again to look back at my most recent year of reading and celebrate my favorites among the many good books.

I read 39 books in 2021, which is fewer than the previous year, and the same number as the year before that. I noted in 2019 that two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and 2021 had the same fraction of new releases, with most of the rest from the past couple of years. Other than newness, there's little pattern to what I read, and I enjoyed sinking into a wide range of stories, genres, styles, and worlds. All my reviews are available in my monthly recaps, and each recommendation below includes a link to the month containing the full review.

My reading year started off with an excellent collection of nuanced short stories, THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans (January). Later in the year, I made a renewed effort to read more short stories, particularly in speculative genres. I was impressed by two speculative fiction anthologies, IT GETS EVEN BETTER: STORIES OF QUEER POSSIBILITY edited by Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin (September) and NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl (November/December). Both contain a fantastic variety of inventive, effective stories.

In pursuit of writing more effective stories myself, I read a couple of writing guides that proved both useful and entertaining. THE CYNICAL WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY by Naomi Kanakia (August) discusses tactics for making manuscripts more appealing to publishing gatekeepers. NEVER SAY YOU CAN'T SURVIVE by Charlie Jane Anders (October) offers practical techniques and encouragement for producing first drafts even during difficult circumstances. I recommend either book for writers who need advice in those areas. The other advice book from last year that I recommend to anyone is SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Saul Freedman-Lawson (September). This graphic guide pairs thoughtful words with personality-filled illustrations to help in the pursuit of being a better human.

As usual, novels made up the bulk of my reading year. These stand out as my favorites:

MATRIX by Lauren Groff (October) follows a twelfth century nun from her unwilling arrival at an abbey through a long, fascinating life of service and leadership. It's a beautiful, unpredictable story about a complicated woman claiming power and wielding it for good.

HAMNET by Maggie O'Farrell (August) also features a woman taking charge to the extent she can in a time and situation of little power, when the plague infects her family. Like MATRIX, this story is spun from the scant details known about historical figures, and the result is a surprising and compelling narrative.

THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV by Dawnie Walton (April) is pure fiction, written as such a convincing oral history that it's easy to believe the characters really skyrocketed to brief musical fame in the early 1970s. Music is at the heart of this outstanding novel, but it covers so much more about race, gender, loyalty, and time.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (May) also takes a hard look at how the passage of time changes relationships and allegiances. This emotional story provides a portrait of four friends and their evolving lives in the acting worlds of New York City and Los Angeles.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (May) balances the deep emotion of its family story by finding humor in the absurd details of life. Three generations are thrown together while they're all facing huge challenges, and I was quickly invested in these sympathetically flawed characters.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (October) also makes great use of humor in telling the story of a family man and schemer who's pulled between straight and crooked paths. I enjoyed getting to know all the excellent characters in and out of the crime world and watching New York City change around them in the early years of the 1960s.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (August) plays out in a changing New York City as well, while the title characters from THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI continue their immortal, secretive existences through the first decades of the twentieth century. This rich sequel expands and further complicates the already expansive story and magical characters of the first book, and I recommend reading both.

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones (February) is recommended only for readers who can tolerate extremely grisly images for the sake of an incredible story. The carefully structured plot follows a group of friends haunted by elk they hunted years earlier, and the story is far more than scares, with a lot to say about relationships between people and relationships with the past.

FOLKLORN by Angela Mi Young Hur (July) concerns another character haunted by an elusive being from her past. In this ambitious, unconventional novel, a scientist is visited by her childhood imaginary friend, leading to an investigation of folklore, family mysteries, and the questionable boundary between story and reality.

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry (January) also tests the bounds of reality when a high school field hockey team taps into local witchcraft to improve their playing. The novel is quirky, funny, and at times quite moving, packed with 1980s nostalgia and tales of young women finding ways to wield power.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tom Bissell, who has written magazine pieces, nonfiction books, stories, and for television and video games, summarizes the writing process in each medium: "Do reporting. Visualize piece in your mind while reporting. It will be long, thoughtful, discursive (but not too!), and definitive. Longform will link to it. It will be glorious. Start writing. Not glorious. Nothing about this is glorious. When stuck, create multiple graphs and flowcharts to illustrate how scene work, reporting notes, and research notes will crosshatch and enrich one another. Frown as they do not crosshatch and enrich one another."