2019 Sirens Reading Challenge

And it’s off! With this post I begin my reading log for the 2019 Sirens Reading Challenge. I finished my first book in the “Guest of Honor” section today: Aru Shah and the End of Time. This is a fun, fast-paced middle grade fantasy. It was a little on the fast-paced, wacky end for me, but even so I enjoyed it; and I think many readers in the target age range would love it. Which, given that it deals with complex aspects of a mythological system not tremendously well-known in much of the US, is pretty darn impressive (for instance, one of the terms defined in the course of the book is dharma – not really typical middle grade fare). I read author Roshani Chokshi‘s YA The Star-Touched Queen a while back, and enjoyed that one too.

I also recently re-read K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, which is in the “Heroes Books: Required” section this year. This was an interesting one for me. When I first read it I had two reactions: first, that this book is really not my kind of thing (it features,for instance, some extremely gory demon stuff, the sort that I generally avoid); and, simultaneously, the writing, the worldbuilding, truthfully the whole book SERIOUSLY blew me away. I put it down in a kind of despair, my writer brain thinking, how did she do that???? 

I had those same two reactions on the second read; if anything, they were magnified. This book is beautiful.

I’m not sure what my next Sirens Reading Challenge book will be – I have a few from which to choose – but I will keep logging here as I read.

A few thoughts on pseudonymity and updates on reading and writing

I have a couple of longer posts brewing right now, but they are going to take a while to finish. They involve some big ideas, and writing (and thinking!) about big ideas takes time and space. But I wanted to link to this thread now, because these big ideas are related in an indirect way to pseudonymity, and @nycsouthpaw‘s posts on why he chose to use a pseudonym touch on some thoughts I’ve been having. (Another source that I think has interesting things to say on this topic is You Are Not a Gadget, though the world is a little different now than it was when that book was published.)

Maddy McBride is, in fact, a pseudonym. My reasons for using a pseudonym are somewhat similar to @nycsouthpaw’s, but unlike him, I’m not at a point where being pseudonymous is impacting my ability to do what this pseudonym was set out to do. I use a pseudonym to talk about a part of my life (reading and writing) that’s separate from my professional life, without worrying that what I post might impact my ability to do my day job.

But the dividing line between my professional life and my life as a reader and writer of fiction isn’t always so clear, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Enough of that. Updates on reading: since I posted here last, I’ve read The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri (enjoyed it greatly up until the end – I’ll probably write about this at greater length at some point); Pacifica by Kristen Simmons; Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee; and The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by Emily and Melissa Elsen (highly recommended for pie technique – specific recipes may or may not be to your taste, but they do a great job of explaining how not just to make a pie, but to create a new recipe). Currently reading, among others, The Death of Expertise.

In other news, I AM FINALLY WRITING AGAIN!!!! (Definitely deserves a few exclamation marks.) Or really, revising. The particular manuscript I am working on is in need of a lot of work, and I’ve had a horrible time making myself get to it – I have so many other writing projects and it’s been easy to put this off. It’s a novel (so it’s big); it will probably never be published, unlike other stuff on my plate; and I have been working on it, on and off, for SO LONG.

But I’d like to finish it, and so I committed to really working on it, at least one hour a day, for the rest of this month.

The first few days were terrible…

But after a few days, things did turn around. It’s funny how revising is a little like kneading bread: at first the words are stiff and resistant, but with some consistent effort usually they’ll become supple and malleable. Fingers crossed that this good stretch of revising continues!

Categories, publishing, and writing: some questions

I was in a Barnes & Noble yesterday, for the first time in probably eight years (while I love brick-and-mortar bookstores, I vastly prefer smaller independent bookstores – here in New Mexico three of my favorites are Bookworks, Page One, and Collected Works. I don’t see a lot of difference between Barnes & Noble and Amazon, to be honest, though I know there are lots of people who would argue with me on that). There are a lot more bookshelf labels – marketing categories, essentially – than there used to be. It didn’t make it any easier for me to find what I wanted to read, though, which I assume is the point of these labels. It just subdivided books into smaller and smaller categories, when what I was looking for was simply a good book.

My dislike of these categories may be related to why I like smaller independent bookstores: in my experience these have fewer sections and, even better, more themed displays and recommendations for particular books from staff members. These last two are easy ways for me to find books I like, whereas marketing categories just tell me whom the publisher (and/or the author) wants to target.

I know that marketing is key in book acquisition by publishers; publishing is, when it comes down to it, a business, so this makes sense (here are some articles on the acquisition process that I’ve found edifying: http://www.underdown.org/acquisition-process.htm; http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/business-legal-matters/publishing-101-what-you-need-to-know; https://diymfa.com/writing/qa-acquisitions-process; https://www.janefriedman.com/book-pl/).

So I get this. And I’ll take on faith that these categories, at least in the short term, are helping publishers make more money (or at least, have more stable/predictable profit). But do these categories lead to more good books? It seems to me just as likely that being a slave to the marketing categories (and I am not arguing that publishers are – I don’t know enough to say that) would lead to more predictability but more mediocre books…because fantastic books are by their nature going to be risky.

Obviously, getting books to the right audience does require some kind of categorization. I’m just not sure that the super-specific categories seen in places like Barnes & Noble and in Amazon’s organization scheme are serving good writing. This is related to the “Are Algorithms Making Us Dumb” debate – here’s one article that discusses this, but there are many.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this – it’s not a topic I’m very knowledgeable about, as I am sure is clear!

NINEFOX GAMBIT and other current reads

I finally read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, after a year of it popping up in recommendations (both personal and algorithm-based). A quick online search will tell you that this space opera is one of the few works to have been nominated for all three of the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Clarke awards (it eventually won the 2016 Locus award). I’m not super-familiar with the space opera genre – I don’t read a lot of them, but there are a few I love (ahem Ancillary Justice) and I’m generally willing to give well-reviewed ones a try. When authors get too fancy/obscure with the future technology, though, they tend to lose me – there are probably more space operas on my DNF tally than anything else (well, of genres that I do in fact read, at any rate).

Ninefox Gambit was interesting, both in general and for me personally as a reader. It’s not likely to wind up on my shelf of personal favorites, but I enjoyed it despite the fact that it did involve a lot of obscure future tech – somehow I was able to skim right through all of that and enjoy the story. I was also able to overlook (and in fact I didn’t really even particularly think about, not until I went to Yoon Ha Lee‘s webpage to see what else he has published and found a link to a what-faction-are-you quiz) the fact that the world of Ninefox Gambit contains personality/aptitude-based factions, a plot characteristic that generally triggers an immediate DNF for me (it doesn’t necessarily bother me in the right context – the houses at Hogwarts, for instance, are fine – it’s only when it’s used as the basis for larger social organization that it bugs me so much). The last SF containing this particular trope that I actually completed was Divergent, which I hated with an intense passion. (Someday I will write about why I have such a problem with Divergent, but not right now.)

I think part of the reason Ninefox Gambit didn’t trigger my DNF instinct despite these two issues is that Lee doesn’t over-explain. Because of this, observing its world was kind of like watching an ant farm – I didn’t always know what was going on, but I could accept, watch, and enjoy.

The other part, equally if not more important, is that Lee’s writing, from a technical standpoint, is fantastic. I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the two sequels to Ninefox Gambit, but I will definitely search out his short stories.

In other reading news, I just gave up on Age of Assassins by RJ Barker (this also came highly recommended – but the first two chapters suggested it’s not my style, and there are a lot of other things I actively want to read right now) ; next up is either Pacifica or The Book of Hidden Things. I’m going to try to keep writing about my reading here too, so stay tuned.

What I’ve been reading, long-delayed edition

In no particular order. There are some notable exceptions on this list, but mostly I’ve been feeling meh about what I’ve been reading lately…another reading slump maybe?

And with my 4-year-old niece:

Back online

…we’ll see for how long.

This past week’s reading:

  • An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard: I really enjoyed this. Engaging, excellently written, a good curl-up-under-the-blankets read.
  • The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy: This was a DNF for me (setting issues – this was supposed to be early 1940s New England but I just didn’t buy it – but also see previous posts on YA.).
  • The Found and the Lost by Ursula Le Guin: she was the master. And though I didn’t used to be a big novella reader, the benefit of a volume like this is that I can pick it up, read one, put it down, and come back to it later – something I find difficult to do with novels. I’ve been doing the same with The Unreal and the Real for the past six months or so (short stories rather than novellas, but also fantastic).

I haven’t decided if I’m going to try for the Sirens Reading Challenge this year; it’s getting kind of late in the year. But I haven’t been reading much for fun (part of why I haven’t been posting) so it might be good

Autumn

It is still August and the calendar tells me there’s another month or so left of summer. But even here in central New Mexico, where summer weather may persist into the first weeks of October, lived experience reveals the “technically” aspect of calendric facts. No matter what the calendar says, autumn is here. I can see it in the tomatoes heavy on the vine; I can smell it in the late summer wildflowers.

I love autumn but the older I get the more bittersweet it is. Some of this is because I’ve grown into a gardener, and watching the garden die each year saddens me. Some is increasing awareness of my own mortality. But there is sweet that comes with this bitter: the seeds of next year’s garden, the appreciation of my own life.

So too in my reading and writing. With summer’s end I have less time for reading. But I woke this morning re-energized about a ms. which has been languishing for some time. Perhaps the sweet of this autumn, for me, will be in the writing…

My first-ever negative review (I think): FLY ME

I’ve just been reading Fly Me, which among other topics touches on women’s roles in the early 1970s. The story of a flight attendant (“stew”) living in Sela del Mar California in 1972 who gets caught up in drug smuggling and hijacking, this book has gotten some good press (it was one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Summer Reads this year) and I thought it sounded interesting.

I hated it.

I hated it for a number of reasons. Many of them fall into the “this one was not for me” category, but the biggest one has to do with authenticity of voice. I found Suzy (the protagonist) completely unbelievable.

One of the themes of Fly Me has to do with Suzy wanting to be in the driver’s seat – to take charge of her own existence. Anecdotes about Suzy’s time at Vassar, particularly her last semester (taken at Yale in the spring of 1972), are a strand of this larger storyline.

Vassar went co-ed in 1969, during what would have been Suzy’s sophomore year. This fact is, so far as I can tell, never once mentioned in Fly Me. I hated this book so much that I might have missed something in my rage, but if this particular point, given the overall story, was made at all it was made in passing, which makes NO sense given that it was this decision that allowed Vassar students to complete their degrees elsewhere…and given that there would have been men enrolled at Vassar for 3 out of the 4 years Suzy spent there.

There *is* space devoted to Suzy’s rationale for spending her last semester at Yale (although it also gets things wrong; to casually call Yale Vassar’s “brother school” given the issues that followed the Vassar-Yale study of 1967 seems nuts to me; and I don’t think Yale was one of the 12 colleges that were involved in the formal transfer program Vassar set up, but I could be wrong). Even giving the author the benefit of the doubt here, Suzy’s ability to go to Yale for a final semester would have rested on the decision of Vassar to go co-ed, so it’s odd that this is never mentioned.

This might seem like the kind of nit-picky detail that only someone who happens to know the history of coeducation at Vassar would be bothered by, but the coeducation debate at Vassar (and by extension at the other Seven Sisters) is an awfully big fact to leave unsaid – it was as much a part of the 60s and early 70s landscape as were all the other little historical “cameos” in Fly Me, and it would have been much more so for a student who attended Vassar and chose to finish at Yale. All single-sex colleges of the time were grappling with their futures. The idea that a Vassar student would go to Yale for a final semester in 1972 without any reference to these issues (beyond a passing “oh, if I’d entered college in ’69 instead of ’68 I could have gone to Yale!”) stretches credulity past the breaking point.

This exclusion is even more critical given Suzy’s failures while at Yale. These failures cause her to believe she can’t “cut it with the very best anywhere, even at a place with boys.” It thus sets up the idea that Vassar, and women’s colleges more generally, are inferior to Yale, and by extension men’s/coed colleges. I don’t think this is necessarily inauthentic – some people did (and some still do) think that way – but to put such an idea into the book without exploring it further is problematic to me.

The misrepresentation of this particular period of Vassar’s history is presumably an accident; I’m guessing the author just didn’t do the research (based on this interview, it seems he himself thinks no smart woman going to college in 1968 would ever have chosen Vassar over Yale if she’d had the opportunity to choose Yale, so I’m guessing he doesn’t know much about Vassar beyond the stereotypes from the earlier 1960s). But it is one example of many of how I found Suzy’s story to sound not like that of a young woman in 1972, but like that of a young woman in 1972 as imagined by a young man in 2017.

Updated to add: I found this review from LA Review of Books, and while the reviewer appreciated Fly Me much more than I did, she agrees with me about Suzy’s unbelievability and (to a lesser extent) about the book’s prose, which I didn’t mention here but I also found problematic.

I have yet to find a review that points out the misrepresentation of Vassar in 1972 though…please let me know if you do find one, or if you find evidence that I missed something in the book itself!