May 4, 2023

April Reading Recap

Another wonderful and varied month of reading:

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki: Katrina Nguyen has saved up money every way she can to buy a violin, and to run away from home after her father beats her for being trans. She heads to southern California, where Shizuka Satomi has also traveled in search of her next violin student. Shizuka needs to find one more musical genius and deliver their soul to Hell in order to fulfill the deal she made with a demon decades ago. Katrina and Shizuka meet, with some help from the donut shop run by a family of aliens who have come to Earth to live beyond the reach of the Galactic Empire. But all Katrina knows about any of this at first is that Shizuka wants to teach her and offers kindness, not the judgement and disgust she's received from almost everyone else in her life. With Shizuka, and later the aliens, Katrina finds a family, one that might have the power to fight back against hate, demons, and galactic threats.

This novel is so original and so emotional. While the overall story brims with fun and joy, it also unflinchingly portrays the violence, transphobia, and racism that Katrina and other characters face. I felt deeply for all the characters, with their many flaws, as they muddle through the strange set of circumstances they're in. The story is full of musical lore, mouth-watering descriptions of donuts and all the other foods of the San Gabriel Valley, and sheer delight.

LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle: In 1915, Adelaide Henry burns down the farmhouse where she's spent her entire life, incinerating the bodies of her parents, killed in brutal circumstances. Before this point, the Henrys lived among a community of other Black farming families in California's Lucerne Valley, but they always remained separate due to a secret shame. Adelaide must take that burden with her when she leaves, packed inside a heavy steamer trunk. She journeys to Montana, where even a woman on her own can acquire a plot of land to homestead. Montana is relentlessly cold long before winter sets in, and survival is a struggle. But Adelaide meets other lone women who help her out, and for a little while she doesn't have to worry about what she keeps locked up in that trunk. Secrets have a way of getting out, though.

This is an excellent work of historical, feminist fiction with a deep undercurrent of horror. The story is unsettling from the first page and contains many disturbing events, but I wouldn't call it scary, and I'd recommend it even to readers who aren't generally interested in horror. LaValle depicts the characters and their interactions with nuance, and he presents a fascinating rendition of frontier life. At any given moment, the threat might be coming from the steamer trunk, from other people, or from the land that's "trying to kill every single one of us," as another character tells Adelaide early on, and it all makes for a tense and riveting book.

ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews: The narrator, who at first only calls herself S, is lucky to find a job after graduating from college into the recession. She moves to Milwaukee, where the company even provides her an apartment, though it's a miserable situation living above a property manager who sends threatening texts every time S makes the slightest noise. The job also isn't great, but it's improved once S gets a college buddy hired as a coworker. Besides him, S knows nobody else in Milwaukee, and she's oceans away from her parents, who had to move back to India some years ago. For the first time, she feels free to explore dating women, though she tells herself she's only interested in sex, not relationships. She does want friends, however. Gradually, S finds the friends who will be able to support her through the difficult times ahead, if she'll only be honest with them about what she's going through.

I was immediately pulled into this novel by the excellent narrator, who is full of longing for love, friendship, and the trappings of maturity. Early on, the plot is sparse, and I expected the character to mostly meander through the events of early adulthood, but in fact there's much more to this story. As it progresses, the novel unfolds layers I didn't even realize needed unfolding, and I was impressed by the overall effect of the many developments. This is a beautifully crafted book about the complications of love: romantic, familial, and above all the enduring love of friends.

→ In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion recounts the terrible year that begins with her husband's sudden death while their adult daughter lies comatose in a hospital. In the aftermath of John's fatal heart attack, Didion moves mechanically through the practical tasks to be handled, aware that part of her still believes he's coming back. Only weeks later does daughter Quintana wake up to learn the news, and her medical ordeal continues, leaving Didion caught in uncertainty. Months pass before Didion can fully focus on her grief and accept the finality of her loss, and this memoir meticulously documents that process and the events of the year.

Didion approaches this project as a writer accustomed to researching and revising in order to provide the most accurate portrayal. I have the same tendencies, so I appreciated her methods as she returns to certain moments again and again, questioning her memories and trying to reconcile them with corroborating evidence. In some later sections of the book, the circularity and repetition started to feel tedious, and the whole thing could have been shorter, but that's also an accurate representation of grief. I came to this memoir with little knowledge of Didion's work, and I wished for a bit more context around the books and people she references. She had a fascinating life and a wide ranging career, and it was interesting to learn about parts of these in the course of her effective account of one tragic year.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meaghan Mulholland, writing at Electric Literature, finds connections between The Secret Garden and her life with long COVID: "At the time I began the [hyperbaric oxygen therapy] treatment, I happened to be reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden to my six-year-old daughter at bedtime. I'd forgotten much of the plot in the decades since last reading it as a child, but I was struck early on by the book's repeated references to the healing properties of air—specifically that of the moors around Misselthwaite in Yorkshire, where orphaned Mary is sent to live with her uncle at the story's outset."

April 27, 2023

Breaking Away

I reported two months ago that I'd finished a writing stage of my current novel project, producing a semi-draft and generating a slew of ideas over the course of four months.

I haven't made a lot of visible progress since then, because I took much of these two months off for a stretch of visitors and vacation. I'm grateful for the visiting and traveling I was able to do, and it was nice have a planned break after months of writing every day.

I did check in with my project periodically and somewhat recursively: First I reread the whole draft and took notes about what works, what needs work, and how the pieces might better fit together. Some time later, I read those notes from the readthrough and jotted down additional thoughts about what to prioritize. Later still, I looked through all the notes again to synthesize and reorganize. And then... well, then I decided it's probably time to move on from this particular notes stage.

During my downtime, I also had a chance for some background thinking about the novel. I wish I could say that while I was gazing at beautiful scenery, I came up with brilliant solutions to all my plot problems, but I've rarely found inspiration to work that way. Instead, now that I'm getting back to work, I'll need to devote focused attention to those plot problems, but I can hope the ideas might arrive a bit quicker because I've been pondering for a while.

The work ahead of me is still vast and intimidating, but after getting the time to relax and regroup, I'm feeling more ready to forge on ahead.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emma Staffaroni asks, What Kind of Pandemic Storytelling Do We Actually Need? "These two prestige pandemic stories allow their allegories of total destruction to chafe against our inhabited COVID experiences without directly representing them. They resonate emotionally: the early horror, the devastating grief, the world turned upside down. The Last of Us titillates more directly, its language of quarantine zones and potential vaccines unbearably coded. This can have the effect of registering the story's epic shoot-outs with 'the infected' as grandiose personifications of the quiet, microscopic battle with virus particles that actually shaped our lives for those long, pre-vaccine months."

April 7, 2023

March Reading Recap

I'm still on a reading streak!

THE TERRAFORMERS by Annalee Newitz: Some 60,000 years in the future, corporations terraform planets over millennia to prepare them as real estate and tourist destinations. Destry is a ranger with the Environmental Rescue Team on the developing planet Sask-E, and her job is to keep the ecosystem in balance so it can support eventual mass habitation. She was built as a homo sapiens, though other people on the planet are different species of hominin, or animals, or bots of various forms. Destry works closely with Whistle, a flying moose who communicates by sending text messages through the network. Along with some other rangers, Destry and Whistle go to investigate a mysterious door spotted in the lava tube of a volcano. There they discover a secret city of people living undetected by the corporation that owns the planet and wields control over all the other inhabitants. These free citizens want the ERT's help, and that request sets off a chain of events that will take centuries to unfold.

This is an ambitiously epic story that covers a lot of fascinating ground. Some elements worked better for me than others, but overall I enjoyed it. I was particularly drawn in by the varied characters and the connections they form. The novel celebrates friendship and love, giving an exuberance to a story that's sometimes about much darker topics like slavery and eugenics. Science fiction usually comments on the time it's written, and this book depicts problems such as gentrification causing homelessness in a way I sometimes found too exactly like today for a setting so far in the future. Other aspects are much more creatively imagined, and I liked the details of technology and society that Newitz develops and evolves over the course of the story. This may be an uneven novel, but the characters and ideas will stay with me.

→ In THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS, Matt Ruff returns to the characters introduced in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY and subjects them to new harrowing adventures. As a result of the events of the first book, Atticus and his family are tangled up with some powerful wizards, all white men who aren't thrilled to find themselves dealing with bunch of Black folks. Atticus and his father set off on a roadtrip to explore the history of their enslaved ancestors, and on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line, they end up on the wrong side the law and displaced in time, recreating the flight to freedom. Aunt Hippolyta and her angry teenage son have their own encounter with the police on a different roadtrip out west, but that doesn't stop Hippolyta from picking up the custom transporter that will allow her to explore the universe. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, other family members are involved with dangerous magic that's going to lead everyone to a big showdown with those evil wizards.

I was delighted to spend more time with these characters in a sequel that's packed with exciting escapades. This book has a different structure than the first, with chapters switching quickly between storylines, creating a fast pace with many tense cliffhangers. The story has everything I expect from Ruff: well-drawn characters, wry humor, cleverly entwined plots, and imaginative ideas. As a sequel, it lacks the novelty of the first installment, but it also benefits from Ruff's freedom to move beyond the basics that had to be covered in the original. This is a solid second entry in a series that will continue with at least one more book. I recommend starting at the beginning.

→ I reread AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the book club I've recently joined. We had a great discussion, and I enjoyed revisiting the novel.

My 2014 review describes the story of a young woman who immigrates to the United States from Nigeria, then after many years decides to move back. That review fairly well captures my response on the second read: The characters are compelling and the story provides fantastic insights on race and culture. I also still thought the novel gets bogged down some with sections that are more about presenting ideas than developing the characters or plot, so it could have been shorter.

Something that particularly impressed me on this read is how well Adichie writes dialogue. The characters always sound like real people talking, and like different real people, with subtle distinctions that convey upbringing, status, and setting. I haven't read any of Adichie's other work but am interested to see she has a story in the speculative collection Black Stars, which I've heard good things about.

OH WILLIAM! by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy and William divorced decades ago, but they've remained friendly. Now they're in their 60s and have both recently gone through big changes: Lucy's beloved second husband has died, and William's much younger third wife has left him. William has also learned some unsettling news about his late mother's past, and he asks Lucy to travel with him to Maine, where he hopes to learn more. In the course of their trip, Lucy reflects on the good and bad times in their marriage, their relationships with their two grown daughters, and the impact of William's mother on all their lives. She also shares more about her childhood of poverty and abuse, which she wrote about in her memoir.

The memoir Lucy refers to is Strout's earlier novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, and this book builds on the same characters and relationships, but it could be read alone. (I kept wondering what the rest of Lucy's books are like, since she's primarily a novelist but never describes her other work.) While this installment of Lucy's life has more present action than the first, with a bit of suspense over what Lucy and William will discover in Maine, it's primarily another character study. By this point Lucy's narration has become comfortably familiar, such that even at the slowest points I was more pleasantly lulled than bored. I enjoyed spending more time with these characters, and I immediately moved on to the next book in the series.

LUCY BY THE SEA by Elizabeth Strout: In March 2020, Lucy's ex-husband tells everyone in the family that they need to get out of New York City. Lucy doesn't really understand what's going on, but when William insists he's taking her to a house he's rented in Maine, their grown daughters encourage her to go with him. "Just for a few weeks," they say, with foreboding that's baked in, and since Lucy is writing from the future as well, she can ramp up the tension by listing all the things she "did not know that morning in March." Lucy and William drive to the Maine coast and isolate there, taking walks, having anxious phone calls with family members, and spending more time together than they even did during their long-ago marriage. As the weeks and then months pass, they make friends to socialize with outdoors, and they watch the pandemic unfold. Lucy continues processing her grief over her second husband while she also grieves for the world. In time, she is able to return to writing fiction.

What motivated me to start reading this series was my interest in getting to Lucy and William's pandemic experiences. I recommend reading at least OH WILLIAM! before this book, because much of the emotional impact comes from familiarity with the characters and their relationship prior to the upheaval of the pandemic. I found it compelling to go through these events with characters I already knew well, but I don't think the book would have been as successful for me without that background.

Strout does a good job evoking the fear and uncertainty of the early pandemic. Lucy and William are in the position of being able to remove themselves from risk, which was my experience as well, so much of what feels familiar about the story is the extreme privilege. Through other characters Lucy interacts with, Strout provides a somewhat broader picture. Lucy's family does not emerge unscathed, but I found some of the foreshadowing manipulative, suggesting a more catastrophic outcome than the story actually has.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Frederick Weisel describes what he learned from book clubs reading his novels: "Not everyone loves your book. In a book club, they tell you this to your face, not in the snarky, scoring-points way of a social media post, but in an honest explanation of what didn't work for them. That explanation will, like nothing else, bring you back down from whatever pedestal you climbed up on and, even if you reject the criticism, might open your eyes to other ways of seeing the story."

March 7, 2023

February Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month:

MERU by S.B. Divya: Far in the future, the genetic descendants of humans roam the stars. These alloys are designed to survive in the vacuum of space without any spacecraft, and some are large enough to theoretically serve as vessels to transport humans. However, humans are rarely permitted to leave Earth, since centuries ago they caused so much destruction to both their own planet and Mars that their scope and ambition were curbed. Jayanthi is unusual among humans because she was raised by alloy parents, and because she longs to see other planets. She also has a genetic anomaly, sickle cell anemia, that makes her an ideal test subject for the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the newly discovered planet, Meru. When Jayanthi is approved to travel to Meru, she's matched with an alloy pilot, Vaha, to transport her and live with her on the uninhabited planet. The two have little understanding of each other at first, but in time, they grow close, and the trial period on Meru starts out well. But not everyone wants their experiment to succeed, and there are many obstacles ahead for Jayanthi, Vaha, and their hope for a different kind of future.

I really enjoyed this book for the characters, the imaginative worldbuilding, and the exciting, emotional plot. The novel's perspective shifts between Jayanthi, Vaha, and another alloy, and all are complicated characters with different outlooks that evolve believably as events unfold. I was fascinated by alloy biology and culture as well as the many other pieces of this future society that Divya created, and the science behind the fiction felt solid. The story takes many unexpected, tense turns, and I remained invested in what would happen to everybody. While this is the start of a planned series, this book stands alone well by giving the characters resolution for now. I look forward to more time in this story's universe!

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers: After nine years tending the monastery garden, Sibling Dex is overcome with a restless desire to leave the City. They take up a new vocation as a tea monk, traveling from village to village with their wagon to provide comfort and respite along with steaming mugs of tea. But a couple years later, their restlessness returns. Dex sets out into the wilderness that humans ceded back to nature centuries ago, where they hope to be completely alone to find themself. Instead they meet a robot named Mosscap. Dex has never met a robot, and neither has any other human for 200 years, since the robots left humanity behind to retreat into the wild. Dex and Mosscap aren't sure what to make of each other at first, or even once they begin traveling together, but in the course of their journey, they learn a lot about each other and themselves.

This is a gentle, philosophical book with low stakes and little conflict, and I was surprised by how delightful I found it, since I'm often not the right audience for that. What made it work for me was how much I enjoyed Dex and Mosscap and their interactions. I also liked the ideas explored by the story world, where humans and robots have a long history together and apart, and society has adapted to minimize its impact on ecosystems. If the book had been longer, I might have wanted something beyond pleasantness from it -- or maybe not, because I read the sequel immediately for more time with this sweet story.

A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY by Becky Chambers: In the second book of the Monk and Robot series, Sibling Dex and Mosscap leave the wilderness to travel together through the villages of Panga. The route is familiar to Dex from their years providing tea service, but now they're uncertain what role to play as the first human to encounter a robot in centuries. Mosscap starts out confident in its task, to ask as many humans as possible what they need, but in time the question leads to more questions.

This is a satisfying follow-up that provides a similarly gentle read to the first book. I delighted in watching Dex and Mosscap's friendship grow as their time together continues. The trip through human settlements means the reader gets to learn along with Mosscap about how Pangan society functions in different areas, and we also get to meet an array of fun new characters. Whenever Chambers writes more books set in this world, I'll happily read on.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron is a funny book about a marriage ending. Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers her second husband is having an affair. (At least this time it isn't with her best friend, like her first husband.) Rachel wants to get away from her cheating husband, his lover, and everyone else in Washington, so she takes her toddler son back to New York City. While there, she seeks comfort from her therapy group and friends, leading to some situations that go wildly wrong. She reflects on the history of her marriage and contemplates why she's even considering taking her husband back. And since she's a professional food writer, she offers delicious thoughts about food and occasional recipes.

I chuckled a lot while reading this novel. Rachel is an engaging narrator who is consciously looking for the humor in her unpleasant situation, and it works. Beyond connecting with Rachel's sense of humor, I didn't feel I got to know her very well as a character, but I also didn't feel that was a major detriment. It seems deliberate that the characters and situations are often cartoonish to make this a fun, light read despite the painful subject of infidelity.

It's no secret that Ephron based this story on the ending of her own marriage to Carl Bernstein, and that provides a gossipy extra layer to the reading experience. The book is definitely of its time, which makes for both some cringey moments and an interesting look at a certain segment of the early 80s Washington social scene.

LIBERATION DAY by George Saunders: This collection opens with the title story, a long one that refamiliarized me with Saunders's wonderfully strange concepts and quirky narrative voices. And it really did feel familiar, because while "Liberation Day" is a striking and original story, the core idea seems to extend that of the most memorable story from TENTH OF DECEMBER, "The Semplica Girl Diaries". Both imagine a world where a popular status symbol is living people suspended from hooks, but while in the earlier story the people were merely decorative, in this new one, they've had their memories removed in order to provide entertainment as programmable storytellers and singers. "Liberation Day" is far more complex than the grotesque premise, and I thought it was a great story, but it certainly reminded me that writers are often drawn back to the same areas of fascination.

The rest of the collection continued to remind me of that, and there's nothing wrong with it, but the stories kept feeling familiar. In "Ghoul", the characters are trapped in a bizarre theme park, another Saunders standby. In "Elliott Spencer", once again people's memories are wiped so they can be used for someone else's purposes. And in many of the stories grounded in reality, there's a certain sameness to the way the characters fixate on grievances and mistreat each other. Every story offered something interesting, but for me, none lived up to the first story in the book.

If you haven't read much Saunders, I'd recommend TENTH OF DECEMBER over this collection. While it's possible I simply found those stories more compelling because I was less accustomed to the author's moves, I do think they're a stronger set. There was also more joy to be found in the previous collection. LIBERATION DAY is grimmer at least in part because of when the stories were written. A couple are explicitly about our polarized political landscape, and many are struggling with the question of how to possibly do any good in the world. As I said, there's a lot that's familiar here, but I don't fault Saunders for that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders shares her thoughts about Separating the Art from the Artist: "So I have to start off by confessing that this hypothetical separation of the person from the thing they created always rankles me a little bit — because I don't think marginalized creators, including trans creators, ever quite get that luxury. Our identities are always going to be bound up with the stuff we create, even if we aren't explicitly writing about our own marginalizations, and we're highly dependent on our own communities to support us. Someone like Rowling has a lot more leeway to behave like a jerk in public, because she belongs to most of the default categories: white, cis, straight, abled."

February 27, 2023

Left as an Exercise for the Writer

I reached the end of a novel draft last week. The accomplishment doesn't feel as momentous as it usually does, but it's still an important milestone.

The reason for my ambivalence is that what I've been writing devolved into less and less of a "draft" the closer I got to the "end". Early on, my scenes contained a lot of placeholder brackets. Later, the scenes themselves became placeholders indicating the sort of scene I wanted at that point. By the final stretch of my outline, I'd given up on scenes and dialogue and was instead writing out ideas about different possible plot directions and reminders about what story threads to follow up on.

Back in November, I said, "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." Sometime in January, my mental bridge model started relying heavily on piles of popsicle sticks strategically placed for later assembly. And then more and more often, those stick piles didn't consist so much of wood but rather scraps of paper with drawings of popsicle sticks or scribbled notes reading "IOU building materials". What I'm saying is, I'm going to have to do a lot more work and imagining before I get something shaped like a bridge, or a coherent story that anyone else could read.

But none of this represents wasted process, because in the course of sketching out all those sticks and possibilities and placeholder scenes, my ideas for this novel grew so much more solid than they were four months ago. I've identified all sorts of compelling conflicts and clever ways for events to impact one another. I still have a ton to figure out, like what's motivating those conflicts and how to get the characters into place for those events, but now I have a far clearer sense of what it is I'm trying to figure out.

In January and February, I kept up the daily writing habit I established in November and December. I wrote at least a hundred or so words every day, except for a break around the end of the year. That consistency was helpful in keeping me moving forward, as was the steady accumulation of words I could track and set weekly goals around. My final word count was close to 95,000 words, a good size but not necessarily correlated with the length of a more complete draft.

Next week, I'll read through everything I wrote and determine how to proceed. I have an intimidating number of missing pieces to figure out, and I'm not even certain how to approach the task. I may also need a new quantitative goal to keep me in the writing groove, since word count is less useful in planning stages. Before I start puzzling out those problems, though, I'm taking little time to bask in what I've already achieved.

February 1, 2023

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off great, with lots of books and lots of variety:

AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor opens with a gruesome accident: a speeding Mercedes mows down five people who were sleeping on a Delhi sidewalk. The drunk man who the police find in the driver's seat, Ajay, is well-dressed but recognizably a servant and not the owner of the car. He's carted off to jail, though there's a sense that he might be taking the fall for someone else. Then the story jumps back to show Ajay's impoverished childhood, the events that led to him being sold into servitude, and how he eventually became an employee of the wealthy and powerful Wadia family. Further shifts in time and perspective provide a deeper look at the characters Ajay quietly serves and observes. The heir Sunny Wadia dreams of doing something positive with his money, but he struggles against his father's corrupt influence and the ease of sinking back into frivolous partying. Sunny briefly finds happiness with the journalist Neda, who is also torn over whether to walk the difficult or the easy path. The narratives of these characters and others weave together to reveal everything that led toward and away from the accident, and how all that is part of a larger power struggle.

If you're at all interested in reading a literary crime thriller, I highly recommend this tense, layered novel. While during the short opening section I was unsure I liked what I was getting into, once the story flashed back, I was quickly drawn in and remained fascinated until the end. The prose is masterfully crafted, sometimes clipped and sometimes lush, to control the drama and emotion. My sympathy was with the characters even though their behavior was often reprehensible. I enjoyed exploring a world I knew nothing about, the extremes of wealth and poverty in Delhi and northern India in the early 2000s.

The book ends at a pivotal moment, leaving the reader to imagine the consequences. It didn't occur to me that made it unfinished until I learned this is the start of a planned trilogy. I look forward to more.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE by V.E. Schwab: Addie made an ill-defined deal with a shadowy god, and now she's cursed to live forever but never make a mark on the world, including in the memory of people she meets. As soon as a conversation or a passionate night ends and she's out of a person's sight, they forget her entirely and have no idea what transpired between them. For three hundred years, Addie has survived in this lonely, precarious existence, holding tight to the moments of happiness since she can't keep hold of much else. Friendships or a job are impossible, and even securing lodging is unreliable because at any moment she might be mistaken for a trespasser. But Addie has persisted from eighteenth century France to modern day New York City, when she meets someone who just might change her circumstances.

I appreciate stories that do a good job exploring what it would be like to live under some strange magical constraint, and this novel delivers that. I enjoyed getting to know Addie and the other characters she encounters across a range of historical settings. I had fun guessing at what was coming and often being surprised. The book could have been shorter, because certain aspects of the story became repetitive after a while, but aside from some impatience in the middle, I was glad I picked up this novel I've been hearing about for a while.

THE ROUTE OF ICE AND SALT by José Luis Zárate, translated from Spanish by David Bowles: This novella is narrated by the captain of the ship that brings Dracula to England, though of course he's unaware what story he's a part of. The captain's own story is that he's filled with desire for other men but will not allow himself to do anything that would reveal this to his crew. He watches his men at their work and imagines licking the sweat from their bodies, but he will never touch, only fantasize and dwell on old memories. On this journey, the ship's only cargo is fifty boxes of earth, and this seems to be having some strange effects on the rats aboard. As the days pass, events grow stranger, and the crew becomes more uneasy. Then the men start to disappear, one by one.

The short book is divided into three sections, each with a different style. The first is atmospheric and often erotic, with gradually building dread. In the second part, the quickly escalating situation leaves no time for longing. At the end, the doomed captain is mostly lost in memories. Every section was interesting to read but more literary and abstract than I was expecting. Two introductions and an afterword provide useful context about the book, which was first published in Mexico in 1998 and translated in 2020.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy goes into the hospital for what should be a routine appendectomy, but unexplainable complications arise, and she's stuck there for almost nine weeks. During that time, her mother comes to visit her for five days. The narration establishes these durations at the outset, because Lucy is writing her story years in the future, so scenes at the hospital alternate not only with memories of her past, but also with events that occur after the hospital stay. Lucy's relationship with her mother is strained, following a childhood of abuse and poverty. Though their conversations during the five days together are mostly about other people from their small town rather than their own family, Lucy comes to understand her mother better, to a certain extent. Later on, when Lucy pursues her dream of becoming a writer, when her marriage falls apart, and when her own children grow older, she eventually understands how her relationship with her mother shaped her.

This short book read to me more like an extended personal essay of self-reflection than a novel. The writing is good, and what Lucy has to say about herself and her life is interesting enough, but there was less to the story than I was expecting. Strout has written additional books about Lucy and the husband she divorces, and I have it on good authority that the series gets better with each installment, so now that I've learned Lucy's background, I'll probably read on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dan Kois at Slate writes about the bittersweet feelings of publishing his first novel at HarperCollins, where junior employees are on strike: "So here's my novel, which I've spent years on. And here's my desire to feel joy and excitement about its arrival. And here's my sadness that many of the assistants and designers and marketers and salespeople who have helped get my book into stores remain poorly paid and disrespected. It creates a real dissonance—and I'm not the only one feeling it."

January 25, 2023

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter/Spring 2023

Now that I've finished looking back on my favorite books of 2022, it's time to look ahead to the books I'm anticipating in the first half of 2023:

THE TERRAFORMERS by Annalee Newitz (January 31): I always enjoy encountering Newitz's ideas, whether in fiction, journalism, or the podcast they co-host, Our Opinions are Correct. Their two previous novels, AUTONOMOUS and THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, explore artificial intelligence and time travel in wild and unusual ways. THE TERRAFORMERS is of course about terraforming another planet, a subject I'm interested in, and the description mentions a whole lot of additional things I can't wait to read about.

MERU by S.B. Divya (February 1): Divya's debut, MACHINEHOOD, skillfully weaves together multiple story threads following characters in a near-ish future Earth. MERU goes far into the future and out into space, where humans must work together with "posthuman descendants called alloys". This is the first book in a planned series, and I'm eager to see where it goes.

THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (February 21): Ruff has been one of my favorite authors for a long, long time. His imaginative books range across genres and always feature excellent characters. This sequel to LOVECRAFT COUNTRY marks the first time Ruff has returned to one of his story worlds. I'm looking forward to spending more time with Atticus and his family and friends as they fight more horrors, both supernatural and all too human.

LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (March 28): LaValle's most recent novel, THE CHANGELING, fascinated me with the unexpected ways a realistic family story morphed into horror. It appears LONE WOMEN begins as a historical Western, and what follows is sure to be cleverly creepy and will probably keep me up at night.

YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang (May 16): I was recently impressed by Kuang's magical alternate history, BABEL. This new novel is something utterly different, a contemporary story set in the real world of publishing, about a writer who steals another's manuscript, as well as her Asian identity. The manuscript-theft plot isn't a new one (and this sort of cultural appropriation isn't confined to fiction), but I'm excited to see what Kuang does with it.

TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June 6): I'm a big fan of everything Leckie writes, so any novel is great news. When I learned the focus of this latest novel set in the Imperial Radch universe, I was extra thrilled. This book centers on the Presgr and their translators, who provided such memorable characters in ANCILLARY SWORD and ANCILLARY MERCY. I can hardly wait.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Los Angeles Times, Mark Athitakis considers how 2022 became the year of the fragmented-identity novel: "Throw in some overall social and cultural atomization, and it's coming to feel like we've become rhetorically unstuck in time. Fiction is usually a lagging indicator of global crises... but much of the prominent fiction of 2022 met the moment and captured this fragmentation, thick with code-switching, style-shifting and cacophonies of anxious narration."

January 13, 2023

2022 By The Books

Every January I take a look back at the books I read over the last year. In 2022, I found time for 45 books, a high number for me in a year when I was also consistently working on a novel.

In what has become a standard pattern, about two-thirds of what I read was brand new releases, a bunch more were catching up from the previous year, and most of the rest were from the past decade. I'm still enjoying keeping track of what's being published and reading the novels I'm most excited about while other people are discussing them and interviewing the authors. Last year I read a few books from small presses or that were otherwise more obscure, but I didn't make much of a special effort to do that, so like most people, I heard about and read books that were popular (because that's how popularity works). Maybe I'll mix things up some this year, or maybe I won't, but I have no regrets about the excellent variety of books that came my way last year.

In considering my 2022 reads, I identified five reading experiences that were the most memorable. (Follow the links to the monthly reading recaps for more detailed reviews.)

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin (August) is the book I've been recommending most widely. In this emotional story, a childhood friendship becomes a troubled creative partnership that results in groundbreaking video games and a lot of personal strife. I love the characters and their complicated relationships, I ache for what they go through, and I wish I could inhabit the game worlds they design. I still think about this novel often.

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović (June) strikes just the right balance of fun and serious in this novel set at a residential school for Deaf students. With a mix of point-of-view characters, Nović explores numerous aspects of Deaf culture and politics in the course of a gripping plot. The illustrated lessons in American Sign Language are an excellent bonus to the great story.

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler (March) delves into the fascinating history of the family of actors that produced the assassin John Wilkes Booth. Fowler takes the true historical details, imagines rich inner lives for each family member, and masterfully weaves them together. I've long been a fan of Fowler's inventive writing and the understated humor she finds in human behavior, and this novel delivers everything I expect from her work.

→ I reread A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan in preparation for the followup, THE CANDY HOUSE (both in April). On my second visit with the original, I had a far greater appreciation for how the book's chapters, each focused on a different character and with a distinct style, fit together to form a novel. With those threads fresh in my mind, I was able to catch all the connections in the new book, which follows characters at the periphery of the first set of stories. The second book involves several futuristic technologies, and I liked it even better than the first, and even better because of reading both books in quick succession.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (April) is so strange and so connected to Mandel's previous work that I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who isn't already a fan, though prior knowledge isn't strictly required. This story includes time travel, pandemics, moon colonies, book tours, and wonderful characters, and I loved every weird page of it. I read it not long after rereading Mandel's previous pandemic novel, STATION ELEVEN (February), not long after watching that book's fantastic TV adaptation during a surge in our real life pandemic, so it was an intense few months of Mandel appreciation for me.

Beyond the books that top my list, many more impressed me. A big factor was generally that they told compelling stories about complicated relationships. I'll briefly highlight those books and their featured dynamics:

January 6, 2023

December Reading Recap

My reading year ended well, with a great month of books:

BABEL by R.F. Kuang: After Robin is orphaned by a plague in Canton in 1829, an Englishman he's never met arrives with an odd proposition: that Robin return with him to England and study languages. There Robin is tutored in Latin and Greek and continues practicing Mandarin and English until he's old enough to enroll at Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel. Babel's scholars develop and control all England's silver-work, bars of silver engraved with language match-pairs used to power the country and keep it dominant over the colonies. Robin's first days at Oxford open up his previously lonely world, and he's quickly in love with the university, with the translation work, and with the new friends he'll spend the next four years studying beside. Then his eyes are opened as well, when he learns that while Babel's magic relies on foreign languages, its work is designed to oppress foreign nations, like the homelands of Robin and his new friends.

BABEL is a skillfully crafted novel that lives up to its ambitious intentions. The complete title, "Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution", conveys some of the story's intricacy and also warns that by the end, there will be violence and revolution. The plot gets brutal, and Kuang does not go easy on the characters after making the reader love them. In the story's calmer moments, I appreciated the time spent discussing languages and translation and exploring the workings of the language-magic. This is a fascinating work of alternate history in which magic has reshaped the world and yet real events still play out in much the same way, and that provides an illuminating perspective on colonialism and exploitation.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz opens with a section titled "Bonds: A Novel by Harold Vanner" that tells the story of an infamously successful and reclusive financier. Benjamin Rask's only interest is in analyzing the stock ticker, and as he makes more money, he withdraws further from society. But he knows marriage is expected of him, and he finds an appropriate match in Helen, who also values solitude and independence after her unusual upbringing. This novel-within-a-novel follows the Rasks' marriage and their growing wealth through the 1920s, and at the end of the decade, there are developments on both fronts. Then the narrative shifts to a different sort of text, attributed to a different author, and new light is cast on the story of the Rasks.

TRUST is a novel that requires some patience, because it becomes more interesting as each layer is exposed. The first section involves intriguing characters, but it's written in a style that's sometimes slow going, and I was glad to be aware that something else was coming after it. With each new section, I enjoyed the increasing fun of working out the connections and guessing at what the eventual reveals would be. Diaz does a great job developing and complicating the characters at each level of the story. The book as a whole is well-crafted and clever, and I only wish the final section went slightly more in-depth to answer some lingering questions.

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus has the trappings and tone of a light-hearted comedy, but it's actually a heavy-hearted one. As the novel opens, it's 1961, and Elizabeth Zott is a single mother to a precocious daughter as well as the star of a wildly popular cooking show. She's also depressed, because none of this is the life she wanted for herself. Elizabeth is a chemist, and a good one, but she was thrown out of a PhD program after her advisor raped her. She still goes on to pursue a career in chemistry, though relentless sexism makes every day at the lab a struggle. Then Elizabeth meets a fellow chemist, the only man who doesn't underestimate her, and she finally finds love and happiness after a lifetime of tragedy. Alas, that happiness is short-lived, and Elizabeth winds up on her own again, with a child and without a job. That leads eventually to hosting a TV show, purportedly to teach housewives how to prepare healthy meals but actually a platform Elizabeth uses to teach women about chemistry and their own worth and power.

As I mentioned, this is a comic novel, but I want to make clear that it's a dark comedy about surviving trauma, which isn't something most descriptions of the book mention. While I ultimately liked it quite a lot, it took me some time to start connecting because my expectations were set wrong. Garmus is using a quirkily humorous tone and sometimes absurd situations to tackle the realities of misogyny through an entertaining story. Elizabeth and the allies she gradually gathers are all excellent characters, and they're well developed through shifting points of view, including that of a very smart dog. I recommend this novel and am glad it's finding such success, but I'm surprised most of the discussion focuses on the funny parts and not the serious ones.

EVEN GREATER MISTAKES by Charlie Jane Anders collects some of her many short stories, all full of memorable characters and inventive speculative elements. I was glad to have an opportunity to spend time with a range of her work, because though most of these stories are freely available online, I'd only gotten around to reading a couple of them before. The short introduction before each story providing context about Anders's career is a nice bonus.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection play with time. "The Time Travel Club" cleverly combines imaginary and real time travel in a story featuring a whole group of wonderful characters. (Really, wonderful characters are a hallmark of every story here.) "Six Months, Three Days" charts the turbulent romance between two people who can both see the future, but in different ways. "Ghost Champagne" is an emotional story about a woman who is tormented by the constant presence of her own ghost, back from the future to haunt her.

Finding and building community is also a big theme in Anders's work. I enjoyed "Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy", a quiet story about people trying to make a community on the San Francisco archipelago after the sea rises. "The Bookstore at the End of America" takes place in a divided future country that wages nonstop civil war, but the story itself is a hopeful one about the owner and patrons of a bookstore at the borderlands.

While not every story was to my taste, I was a fan of others I haven't listed here, and the collection was more hits than misses for me. A big chunk in the middle of the book is the novella "Rock Manning Goes for Broke" (the first section is online), and I was wary since the introduction warns it's extremely violent. But I was quickly drawn in by the character voice, and the surreal, slapstick nature of the story appealed to me far more than I would have expected. Which is fitting, because the unexpected is a constantly impressive feature in the work of Charlie Jane Anders.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R. K. Duncan addresses SFF's Big Fat Problem at "We should all be having a conversation about how fat caricatures as villains serve to harm an already marginalized community, about how casual use of medicalizing language serves to other fat people, about how so much unremarked fatphobia makes SFF an unwelcoming community for fat creators and fat fans."

→ Meg Elison writes at Uncanny Magazine about progress in portrayal of fat characters: "Like every author on this list, I'm putting my whole fat self on the page, in the worlds that I want to see, in the struggles I know to be real by the ache between my thighs, in the heroics and beauties I know we can achieve because I see and feel them every day."