What I’ve been reading – it’s spring! edition

It hasn’t all been about the Sirens Reading Challenge! I’ve also been reading:

I have some thoughts on some of these…maybe at some point I’ll get around to writing them up.

Sirens 2019 Reading Challenge reading update

I’ve been relatively slow in my reading this winter; too much else going on. Here’s where I currently stand on the 2019 Sirens Reading Challenge:

Guests of Honor (two more to go)

Heroes Books – Required (category complete!)

Heroes Books – Pick Five (four to go)

Middle Grade/Young Adult Books – Pick Five (not started)

Adult – Pick Five (not started)

Previous posts on what I’ve been reading for the 2019 Sirens Reading Challenge are here, here and here. I also participated in the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge.

Three more books

Reading a lot these days…

  • Borderline by Mishell Baker: this was a re-read (it’s on the Sirens Reading Challenge). I liked it the first time; I enjoyed it this time around too. There are now two more books in this series. I read Phantom Pains (the second in the series) a while back, but Borderline is still my favorite.
  • Damsel by Elana K. Arnold: I found this book super-original and I admired it…and at the same time it wasn’t really my kind of thing. But my feeling about it isn’t dissimilar from previous books that, upon re-reading, HAVE become my sort of thing. I’ll have to wait and see with this one.
  • Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen: this was a Sirens Reading Challenge book. This one was *really* not my kind of thing, even while I admire what the author managed to do (vampire/other creature-infested Wild West with a heroine of color). Some of my issues are straightforward – vampires and Westerns both are hard sells for me, as are books with a world with a mashup of magical creatures (sirens and chupacabras, among others, also make an appearance in this one). Some are not so easy for me to pinpoint – while I can say that the native representation in the book seemed more related to tropes in Westerns than to any real understanding, that’s just my initial reaction and I can’t pull out exactly what bugged me. It just made me uncomfortable. I did look for a review of this book on Debbie Reese’s blog, but she apparently hasn’t received a copy.

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