This has been a cold, dark couple of weeks for me, but – despite ongoing horrible world news – I am stumbling into 2020 with what feels like cautious optimism. I hope. And the older I get, the more I realize what a gift hope is.
Here are some things I have been reading during this dark time:
Seane Corn‘s Revolution of the Soul: part memoir, part yoga philosophy. I am impressed with Corn’s ability to tie some of these yoga philosophy concepts to real life, and with her bravery in using her own life to illustrate them.
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I loved this book, and will see if I can write about it in more detail later. For now: I was interested in how many things Rebanks describes about the Lake District that sound similar to New Mexico.
The Farmer’s Son by John Connell: this was recommended as a “read-alike” to The Shepherd’s Life, but I think that’s misguided. I found it to be much more of a literary memoir than a social science one – a really good one, though, and well worth a read.
December is, for me, the season of reflection. For the past week or two, as things have wound down at work, in the garden, everywhere, I’ve been thinking about reading and writing – what I’ve been doing over the past year, and what I’d like to change.
I didn’t get as much writing done in 2019 as I had hoped I would; there’s nothing new in that (does anyone ever get as much writing done as they had hoped?). I *did* have breakthroughs with a couple of different projects that were stalled at this point last year, and I know how I want to proceed with them now. The trouble is that I have too many concurrent projects going, and it’s not yet clear to me which of these I will pursue first and which will wait. This decision is at the forefront of my reflections right now. I will decide this, sometime over the next few weeks, and we will see.
On the positive progress side of things, I was able to return to reading in 2019. I read lots, and I wrote about reading, too (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). I’m happy about this – both the reading and the writing about it. My reflective reading brain is slowly creaking to life again, it seems. I am so glad to have it back.
And yet, despite this, I’ve been frustrated by my reading lately. This has happened before (and it’s a not-uncommon experience), but, this year (and maybe in previous years also, I don’t know) and for me, I think my frustration isn’t a purely internal phenomenon. I think it has to do with what’s being published, at least in part (this and this and this contain some previous related reflections).
When I’ve felt this in previous reading slumps, I’ve pushed back against my instincts, telling myself it’s all internal. And maybe I was right; I did manage to get out of those previous reading slumps. But this time, I’m going to try something new to address this. Following up on some recent thoughts on self-publishing/small presses, I’m going to try to devote a majority percentage of my 2020 reading to works published by small and independent publishers, rather than by the big 5.
I’m still working out how I will actualize this, but I’ll write about it here as I figure it out.
Yes, that is a weird collection of books. No, they are not
all for the same project. Yes, they are all related to ongoing projects – three
projects, to be precise! One novel, one picture book, one cooking project.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take
you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only (when other sites
associated with the books are available, I’ve linked to them instead). The
links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from
the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to
I am not a winter person. I was born in a tropical
environment, and although I didn’t live there long enough to remember it, I
think maybe it got into my bones. The dark, the cold, the sleeping plants, the swirling
dead leaves…they bring me down. Even though winter is (usually) relatively
short where I live, it always feels like it will never end.
This year, the cold has arrived early in central New Mexico.
Our frosts began early in October; at Samhain it is predicted to dip into the
teens. The garden is fully dead; we’ve had to move the potted plants into the
house; and the furnace is not yet on.
I am cold, inside and out.
I have two strategies for adjusting to the cold season. One is to get outside and exercise until I warm up. The other is the opposite: to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of tea, and read. In honor of the latter, I’d like to share a few of my favorite autumn/winter seasonal books – books that warm me when I am cold, books that help me see the beauty of winter, books that reassure me that warmth does exist out there and will come again. Some are explicitly seasonal, some are explicitly cozy, some are both, some are neither. They are all flawed. But I find them comforting as the cold and dark advance.
In no particular order:
A is for Alibi – What better, on a cold night, than to immerse oneself in Grafton’s 1980s California? The earlier books in her alphabet series work better for me than the later ones this time of year.
The Cuckoo’s Calling – This is the first of J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith mysteries. It’s got all sorts of flaws and things that bug me, but I also find it super-compelling.
Ha’penny – Set in an alternate-history London, this mystery is set in July but feels cold to me. It’s by Jo Walton.
The Pillars of Hercules – I find travel books a wonderful escape when the weather is cold, even when they are describing cold places. Theroux’s depiction of winters in Spain reminds me of my times living in southwest Europe.
A Perfect Spy – I only discovered this classic recently. I read it over the summer but it’s more a winter read for me.
The Shortest Day – This new presentation of Susan Cooper’s poem has truly fantastic illustrations. And what better than a solstice book for coming to terms with winter?
Bitterblue – I love Kristin Cashore’s writing in general; Bitterblue is my Cashore comfort read for autumn.
Sunshine and Beauty – I discovered both these books by Robin McKinley in the autumn, many years ago. They have become inextricably linked to late October for me, and I re-read them every year.
Tam Lin – the story takes place over four years at college, and therefore includes the full seasonal round of those four years. But it has a very autumnal feeling for me, and I don’t think I’m misleading by calling it a Samhain book.
Coyote Tales – among many Indigenous peoples, Coyote tales can only be told in the winter, from the first frost through the first lightning. I spent enough time living on reservations that I picked up this prohibition. Now, I find reading Coyote tales to be one of the joys of the season. There are lots of different published versions of different Coyote Tales from different Indigenous groups out there; the link above is to one of many.
Georgie – I loved this picture book as a child; I rediscovered it during one of its periodic reprintings. It’s out of print again now, but it’s widely available in libraries and can also be found used.
The Snowman – a classic and another childhood favorite.
The Feast Nearby – a memoir about seasonal eating. Though much of it takes place in spring and summer, the author’s focus during those seasons is largely preparing for winter.
Six Seasons – Seasonal cookbooks have become rather trendy in the past few years; this one, in my opinion, is one of the best. The six seasons it uses as an organizing principle aren’t the same as seasons in New Mexico, but I still love it.
The Wood Wife – This book is set in Tucson, where I lived briefly, and captures fall in the Sonoran Desert beautifully.
Classic German Baking – My go-to source for traditional German seasonal cookies (it’s got four different recipes for Lebkuchen). It’s great for other seasons too, but winter solstice in northern Europe is something special.
For anyone who hasn’t read them, the Wayfarers books take
place in a future in which humans have destroyed earth and moved off-planet,
where they have encountered other species who have banded together to create a
“Galactic Commons” government. In the Wayfarers world, humans were relatively
recently granted Galactic Commons (GC) membership and are lower-status members
of the galaxy.
These books have been quite successful. The first, The
Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, began life as a Kickstarter-funded
self-publishing project; it went on to be nominated for the 2015 Kitschies
(Best Debut) and was subsequently picked up and republished by Hodder &
Stoughton and, in the US, Harper Voyager. More awards nominations followed –
the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (Best Foreign-Language Novel), 2016 Arthur
C. Clarke Award, 2016 British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer), and 2016 Women’s
Prize for Fiction – as did the following two novels (not sequels per se but
rather books set in the same universe), which racked up an impressive list of
awards nominations as well. The series won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.
The thing about the Wayfarers series, for me, is that none
of the books are strongly plot-driven. A Closed and Common Orbit is a
bit more so than the other two; the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is
like a character-driven science fiction television series (I will not be the
first to note that it has a similar feel to Firefly, although Chambers’
Galactic Commons is quite different than the universe inhabited by the ship
Serenity) while Record of a Spaceborn Few reads like an
engagingly-written piece of ethnography. The world-building and the characters
are what make these novels so fun to read, not the plot. They are also
unfailingly optimistic, and given the current state of the world, who couldn’t
use a little optimism? But the character- and world-driven nature of these books
is startlingly unusual in the recently published books I’ve come across. I’m
amazed that they were published by big publishing houses – tremendously
grateful, for chances are I would never have found them otherwise, but amazed
nonetheless. I’d have guessed that their non-plot-driven aspects would have
immediately flagged them as no-go for major publishing houses. And I suppose I
wouldn’t have been wrong to make such a guess, as it’s only after the success
of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a self-published work that
they got picked up.
In this sense, the Wayfarers books are not dissimilar to Check, Please! Both are optimistic as well as episodic rather than plot-driven; both were self-published, gained success, and were subsequently picked up by major publishers. Obviously they are substantively different in other ways – but to me, both reflect how self-publishing has been changing norms about what types of books will be successful. I can’t help but hope their publication signals a shift among traditional publishers, an increased willingness to take a chance, to move away from marketing-defined pigeonholes and to publish some works that have unusual and perhaps risky characteristics and yet are nonetheless truly quality.
I am probably hoping too much. But my experience with Wayfarers, and with Check, Please! too, highlights a reason why I am hoping this: if these works had not been picked up by major publishers, I almost certainly would not have encountered them. Self-published and small press-published works are difficult to find if what you are looking for is quality rather than something that falls squarely in a genre; there are so many of them, and they are so all over the map in terms of their execution. I was lucky enough to find Younger-Older Ones and Tales from Rugosa Coven on my own. How many similarly quality books have I missed, all the while bemoaning the lack of innovation among recent traditionally published books? And yet, the pool of self-published and small press-published books is so very large as to make the task of sorting through it nearly impossible.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only. The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.
This is not a book review blog! The fact is that I am in some ways reluctant to call it a blog at all – it’s just my not-very-organized thoughts, usually but not always about what I am reading – but I don’t really know that there’s any other name for what it is. So, I can accept that it is a blog, despite my reluctance. But I most definitely don’t consider my thoughts on what I am reading reviews.
Reviewing is, in my view, a highly specialized art. A good review puts a book (or other piece of writing) in a larger context, and then evaluates how well that piece of writing does what it sets out to do within that context. If you are thinking that this definition excludes most of what appears in the “Reviews” section on Amazon, as well as most posts on Goodreads, well, you’d be right: I don’t consider the majority of such posts reviews, either. By my definition, they are opinions – sometimes insightful, sometimes less so. But they aren’t reviews.
(I don’t consider this blog a book opinion blog either, though I do occasionally offer opinions. Really, all I’m trying to do in my reading posts is document what I’ve been reading and, sometimes, analyze why I’m reacting to it as I am. In some cases I think my reaction is mostly about the book(s). In others, I think it’s mostly about me.)
I did try to write a review once. I don’t think I did a very good job; what resulted was, at best, an opinion piece. After that one try, I decided that writing reviews wasn’t what I wanted to do here, so I stopped. Instead I periodically post on what I’ve been reading. That’s really all I want to do, and since I’m not trying to monetize this or anything, it works just fine. While there are Amazon/other links to pages where you can buy books from here, these aren’t supporting me or this site in any way. A few of those links do support the American Indian Library Association (I would be doing this with all the links, but my link-provider no longer has access to information) and I think a few may support Sirens (because I grabbed those links from the Sirens Readers Challenge page).
But the purpose of this blog is to provide a record, not to make money for me or for anyone else.
And in that vein…here’s the…
What I’ve Been Reading Lately, Everything’s Crazy Edition:
in all this thinking about what the goals of this blog are and what I’m reading, a memory has surfaced. Years ago, I had the opportunity to read a story called Younger-Older Ones by Rina Swentzell, published as a limited edition letterpress book. The story has stuck with me, though it’s been a long time since I read it – it had interesting things to say about the tension between individuality and community, as I remember it (I might be totally wrong).
Regardless, I am trying to track down a copy. If anyone knows where I can find one, I’d be most grateful for the information! You can reach me via email (see the About page). Thanks in advance!
Somehow, in my sporadic and lazy return to blogging over the past few months, I forgot to write about Check, Please! How could I have forgotten? This book/webcomic lifted me up and got me through a very difficult week earlier this summer. I can’t remember how I discovered it – maybe it was Rachel Hartman’s blog interview with author/illustrator Nogozi Uzaku – but once I began I was hooked.
Check, Please! is a comic about college hockey, growing up, and baking, among other things. The first three years of main character figure skater-turned-hockey player Eric Bittle’s years at (fictional) Samwell University are available online and in Kickstarter-funded self-published editions, but a volume with just the first and second years (plus additional content) came out in September 2018, with the third and fourth years slated to be released in Spring 2020. Uzaku has also created a ton of supporting content (that link just goes to some of it; there’s so much that it’s difficult to link to it all!) for the series, which is well worth checking out.
I came across Check, Please! back in June, during a weekend when my partner was out of town and I was having an attack of the blues. Because my library had Check, Please!: #hockey available as an ebook and it sounded like a good antidote to my mood, I downloaded it – and then spent the rest of the weekend reading, first the book I’d downloaded, then going online to catch up through the third year, then reading through all the extra content. By Sunday I had ordered all three of the self-published books, and as soon as they arrived I devoured them too. It was the kind of this-book-is-perfect-for-right-now reading experience that I hadn’t had in quite a while.
I don’t really want to say anything more about the plot of Check, Please! because part of the pleasure of this series, for me, was discovering it as I went along. It crossed my path at the perfect time, when I needed something that made me happy. The comic is not all sweetness and light, but it is consistently fun and upbeat and I highly recommend it. I’ve been giving the book as a present at pretty much every relevant gift-giving occasion since June, and everyone I’ve given it to loves it too.
I don’t mean I miss writing them. I have never been much of
a blogger, as anyone looking over this particular site can probably guess. No,
I miss reading them. There was something fascinating about that period when it
seemed like anyone and everyone had a blog. It was a window into the minds of
strangers. In contrast to Instagram, which I find to be largely about surficial
presentation, blogs were (are?) about content. For this reason they were harder
to fake. One can, of course, write
anything down and it may or may not be true. I could write here that I have a
black belt in Judo and run a business deploying snakes as pest control, and the
casual reader would not be able to know if it were true or not. (In my case,
even a less-casual reader might have a difficult time tracking down the truth
of any particular statement I make, as Maddy is a pseudonym.)
But what can’t be faked in writing (at least I don’t think
it can) is the voice. The voice is what tells the reader, there is an
underlying, substantial truth here, even if the superficial is false. It’s what
Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, called quality.
Blogs were a window into quality of so many kinds. Of course, there were lots of low-quality blogs out there, but it didn’t matter; in the freeform days of early blogging, there were so many different blogs with so many different goals out there that it was easy to find interesting, unusual, and high-quality writing within them.
I am not an internet historian and I wasn’t even really a dedicated blog reader, so I don’t know what happened with blogs – I just noticed that many of the ones I liked to read went dark, or the authors stopped posting, and that I wasn’t finding new blogs that I liked to read. Some time after I noticed this, I discovered a lot of people (online and off) commenting that blogs are dead. Presumably people have written about why blogging died, and maybe I will try to track those writings down. But as a casual reader I wonder if it was monetization that killed the blog as an art form. There are still blogs, sure, but so many of them now are just marketing devices for the blog author or composed nearly entirely of sponsored posts (i.e., marketing devices for various products).
And so they are boring.
I guess it’s funny to write about this in a blog post. I
didn’t start posting on this site until well after the golden age of blogs, and
I sometimes wonder why I do it. I don’t do it for the traffic (which is good,
since I get so little) and, as I write here as my reader/writer self rather
than my professional self, I tend to neglect it when my professional life gets
busy (hence the numerous long hiatuses in posting). But I keep coming back to
it…perhaps because I miss reading blogs, and if I can’t find any to read, the
only way to address that is to blog myself.
I stumbled across this post by Jo Walton recently – http://www.jowaltonbooks.com/genre-pacing-a-question-from-goodreads/. I thought it was interesting at the time, as genre is something with which I sometimes struggle, but it’s grown more interesting to me in the time since, as I’ve read some books that are certainly admirable in many ways but at the same time haven’t worked for me.
Walton’s post is about pacing and how it defines genre. She gets there by way of two other widely-used definitions of genre:
the marketing definition, i.e., genre tells booksellers where to place books on the shelf. This is a definition I find deeply annoying on a personal level. Marketing-based definitions seem to invariably lead to fewer and fewer books that I want to read within the genre at hand. This has happened for me most notably with young adult literature: the more the marketing machine took over the definition of YA, the fewer YA books I’ve found that I’ve liked. (I have the same experience with Pandora in that the more I interact with it, the fewer songs that I like come into rotation, which is the opposite of how it is supposed to work. I have thoughts on why this is, which I may try to explore at some point in the future.)
the “furniture” definition, i.e., a genre is defined by the devices it uses. Walton’s examples of this include rocket ships in science fiction and couples in romances; I’d add girl-choosing-between-two-boys (technically not a love triangle, though it’s often termed such) in YA to this list.
Walton’s post goes on to discuss works that use science fiction furniture but are nonetheless ultimately literary, and thus unsatisfying to the science fiction reader. That’s not where I want to go here, although her thoughts are super-interesting and well worth reading! But thinking about her definitions of genre helped me to understand better why sometimes I, as a reader, find certain books frustrating.
One example of such a book is Searching for Sylvie Lee, by Jean Kwok. I’d never read any Kwok before picking up this book; I gather she’s a well-known writer of literary fiction (which I generally don’t read, though there are exceptions). Searching for Sylvie Lee crossed my orbit because I stumbled across a review that described it as a thriller focused on an immigrant family. I enjoy thrillers, and fiction about the immigrant experience has long been of interest to me. I read the book quickly (after a long wait on the library waitlist) – it’s exceptionally well-written, I think – but I nonetheless found it unsatisfying, especially as the mystery part of the book began to heat up. I think the reason for this is that I was looking for a thriller/mystery, but this is a book that is, at its heart, literary fiction. Searching for Sylvie Lee is all about the emotional resolution; it’s not about the puzzle, the pace, the figuring-things-out. To use Walton’s terms, the thriller furniture is scenery here – it’s not the heart of the book. Given Searching for Sylvie Lee ‘s success, this clearly isn’t a problem; the book has found its audience, even if that audience isn’t me.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another book that I read recently and found unsatisfying. I have seen this one billed as adult fantasy (here’s one review https://www.npr.org/2019/07/23/741222646/gods-of-jade-and-shadow-spins-a-dark-dazzling-fairy-tale) and it certainly has a fantasy plot: Mayan gods materialize and act out a duel in the real world (in this case Jazz Age Mexico). But, although the author does not see this book as YA (see https://www.goodreads.com/book/36510722-gods-of-jade-and-shadow/questions#), it seemed to me that the furniture in this book (the coming-of-age theme, the plot, the pacing) – everything except the ending (which I *did* find satisfying) – was almost entirely that of YA fantasy, not adult fantasy or SFF more broadly. My frustration with YA plot devices meant that I very nearly did not finish this book. I’m glad I did finish it (because of that ending!); but at the same time, I can’t help but (selfishly) wish that the book had been written without the YA devices. I would have enjoyed it, I think, rather than having been irritated by it. But, this is presumably just another case of me not being the audience for this book.
I have not yet seen Gods of Jade and Shadow reviewed for a genre audience; I’d be curious to see if those reviews agree with me that this book is more similar to YA than adult fantasy, or if I am on my own here. But I definitely don’t agree with the author that the only reason Gods of Jade and Shadow is classed by some as YA is that SFF written by women automatically is considered such. I think she does have a point (why Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel was not considered YA is beyond me, for instance); but Gods of Jade and Shadow uses so many YA conventions, whether by accident or on purpose, that by either the “furniture” or the pacing definition I think it could fairly be considered YA. Though perhaps this is a question better left to dedicated YA readers…I am looking forward to seeing what, say, Locus has to say about it.