What I’ve been reading lately, nightmare autumn edition

It’s autumn, getting on towards Halloween – usually, my favorite time of year. But this year I am weighed down, and though I am making an effort to get outside, to witness the birds and the leaves and the river, it’s not easy. Some of my current circumstance is flat-out on me: I am overworked, having said yes to not one but half a dozen or more obligations that I had no business taking on. (It is strange but true that the more overloaded I am, the more I say yes to demands; saying no is hard, and when I’m stressed out and busy, I don’t have the energy to do it. Which of course makes things worse.) But some of it is the state of the world. For the last four years I’ve been saying, it’s a hard time, but the difficulty has been getting more and more acute. Knowing that so many have it so much worse than I do does not make getting through the day-to-day any easier.

The weather and my mood are reflected in my reading. I’m not really a horror reader, but have read (or tried to read) two recently. Mexican Gothic received such good reviews that, despite the fact that I really didn’t go for Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, I gave it a try. But this one (though very different) was again not for me and I didn’t finish it. I’m apparently the only reader out there who found both of these works much better in concept than in execution. I see that there are some who found Mexican Gothic slow; that wasn’t my problem. I just wasn’t into the prose. Like Gods of Jade and Shadow, though, Mexican Gothic has been widely praised. What am I missing?

(Speaking of things I’m missing: I stumbled across Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time list and was horrified. I mean, really horrified, so much so that I just can’t bear to link to it. I could go on and on about the way in which it skips over everything up till about 15 years ago – after bragging that they go back to the 9th century at that! – and that is a problem for sure. So is the fact that 14% of the books on it were written by the authors consulted in making the list. But on a personal taste note, the correlation between books I’ve talked about disliking on this blog and the past 15 years portion of the list is stunningly high. There are some notable exceptions – I love N.K. Jemisin’s work, for instance, and I absolutely agree that The Fifth Season deserves a place on a top 100 list. But a lot of the others….)

By contrast, I was very impressed by The Only Good Indians (I’d never read any Stephen Graham Jones before!) and I’m enjoying Trouble the Saints so far (not a surprise, as Alaya Dawn Johnson is a favorite author for me; wow, looks like I never blogged about Love is the Drug? I’m going to have to do that one of these days). But of the set, the book that most lifted me above my current state was H is for Hawk. It is totally different and yet somehow reminded me of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.

I hope everyone is finding things to read (or just things, period) that lift them out of the nightmare. Stay safe. If you are American, vote. And above all, take care – of yourself, and of the rest of the world too.

What I’ve been reading lately, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit edition

It is hot. The world continues to be difficult. But there is reading. I was completely blown away by The Changeling – I found it to be creepy, gripping, and nuanced all three, and that doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s a master class of a novel. I’ll be reading it again, that’s for sure.

None of the other three really grabbed me, though I have barely started Vita Nostra so that may change (but I don’t think so). It may be that they are suffering by comparison to The Changeling – not an unusual problem for me when I’ve read a book that really captures me; everything I read after seems flat for a while.

Stay healthy and well, readers. I hope something – whether books or something more concrete – is bringing you hope and comfort right now.

The adventure of reading literature in translation

Anyone looking at my what I’ve been reading lately posts would probably notice: I like to read books in translation. By books in translation I mostly (but not entirely) mean, books originally published in a non-English language that I then read in English. As I’ve discussed here before, one of my all-time favorite novels is If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, written and originally published in Italian; a sampling of other things I’ve read in the not-too-distant past that were originally published in a language other than English include Basho’s poetry, The Godmother, Baron in the Trees, Core of the Sun, and the Mirror Visitor Quartet. It’s not too hard for me to rattle off others that I love: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The Neapolitan Novels. Momo (the book not the internet hoax). What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I could go on and on. And that’s just the ones I remember offhand, not the ones that I enjoyed but am not remembering now, or the ones that I felt equivocal about, or even the ones I hated. I am glad I read them all, because they made my world bigger.

I will sometimes give works written in French or Spanish a read in their original language as well as in translation, but usually after having read the English version. This is partly because I’m not as fluent a reader in French and Spanish as I am in English, but it’s also because I love the insight into the art of translation. Reading the translation first and then the original not only improves my comprehension of the original, it renders me in awe of translators. Sometimes it also makes me frustrated with them, but when I read this way I am acutely aware that capturing an author’s art while getting meaning across is an impossible task (see this article for more about this!). A translation always walks a fine line between too literal and not literal enough. I find this line fascinating. I’m such a geek about this that sometimes I’ll try to read something originally published in – and which I first read in – English in its French or Spanish translation, just to see what it’s like, what new shades of meaning emerge when it’s put in another language.

(At least at this point, my reading ability in other languages isn’t good enough for me to be able to do this with works not in French or Spanish, but I keep on studying. I especially hope to add Italian to the list of languages I can read in – it’s close enough to Spanish and French that I think I should be able to get there with some concentrated study, and I am especially fond of the Italian works in translation I’ve read – but I’ve been working on German, for other reasons, recently. At some point I’d like to work on Japanese.)

Given this (admittedly peculiar) interest, and given that I travel (or used to, pre-COVID19) a lot for work, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that when I travel outside the USA I always try to spend some time browsing local bookstores. I find so many books that haven’t ever been translated into English; and at the same time, I’ve found that non-American bookstores often have an excellent stock of literature in translation (and not just translated from the English, either).

All this makes me wonder: what’s behind my difficulty in finding books in translation here at home? Are plenty of works translated, but the marketing machine for these books does not reach me, for whatever reason? Or are there in fact relatively few, and if so, does this indicate American insularity/unwillingness to buy translated works, or something more general such as the difficulty of the art of translation?

(In case you are wondering, as I was, if it is really true that books in translation aren’t as widely available in English as they are in other languages, a quick search found me a number of articles suggesting that indeed, this is the case: this article, which is about English-language translations in general, and this post, titled “Why Do Americans Read so Few Books in Translation?”, were two that I found particularly interesting. It does appear that the issue is not that I’m not able to find books that have been translated, but rather that there are relatively few non-English books that are ever translated into English.)

Works in translation are on my mind right now in part as a result of the recent passing of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, described as “the most-read Spanish author since Cervantes” in his obituary in the Guardian. I did eventually read The Shadow of the Wind in Spanish, but I started with the English translation. My life would be poorer without ever having encountered his work, or Italo Calvino’s, or Hannelore Cayre’s or Haruki Murakami‘s or Elena Ferrante‘s or Michael Ende‘s or that of so many others.

What I’ve been reading lately: searching for clarity edition

Not much to say, except doing a lot of reading (more than I’m listing here…I’ve been reading some things at the urgings of others and re-learning that I generally have pretty good instincts about what I like to read. Possibly I’ll post about that sometime) and writing (stuff that will almost certainly never see the light of day. There’s a lot of freedom in this kind of writing and I encourage everyone to give it a try). And listening. And watching. There is so much to hear, to see, to learn.

What I’ve been reading lately: lockdown edition (preceded by bonus thoughts on ANDERSEN’S FAIRY TALES)

When I last wrote one of these, I mentioned I was reading Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Specifically, I was reading “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story I knew from many childhood re-tellings but I don’t think I’d ever read in the original before. I remembered it as a story about the truth, and the importance of telling the truth. I wanted to read it for reasons that presumably are obvious; I felt like I was living in that story, and I thought reading it might give me insight into the current situation.

What I read wasn’t the story I thought it was, though. Rather than ending with the Emperor and his enablers realizing that their folly made the situation worse than it needed to be, it ends

“The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1597/1597-h/1597-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

In other words, they keep on pretending! Even when they all know the game is up! This isn’t a story about truth at all, but about lying to keep up appearances! This is a little too on-the-nose for me, in the current world situation, but even if it weren’t I would hate it.

It’s funny because this has happened to me before, and with Andersen too. I was introduced to “The Snow Queen” through a ballet performance for children, not through the story itself. I was very young, probably five or younger, when I saw it. What I remembered after was the mirror that made everything ugly and hateful, and how a sliver got into the brother’s eye and made him see the world in a twisted way. This idea really resonated with me. I carried it with me throughout my childhood. Yet for some reason I did not actually read “The Snow Queen” until I was an adult. And I discovered that first, Andersen’s tale focused on the mirror making things physically ugly, not ugly in a larger sense; and second, that the cure wasn’t knowledge or truth (which – again – I somehow had thought it was) but a combination of faith and innocence.

Anyway, that’s a long and not all-that-relevant prelude to “What I’ve been reading lately”:

  • Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (this, by the way, is a great pandemic novel and for my money better than all the more commonly-cited novels featuring viruses. I enjoyed Severance, which has made a few recent lists, but most of the other suggested reads on those lists I find…tedious at best. It’s amazing to me that Cold Earth hasn’t been on any such lists that I have seen. Well, here it is on mine.)
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (I found this because I was looking for Cold Earth. I’m surprised I hadn’t happened upon it for other reasons – but however I found it, I am so glad I did. It’s a stunning example of how powerful a short work can be.)
  • The Lost Kitchen by Erin French
  • The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre
  • Traveling Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (because the other books on this list were not helping me to sleep!)

What I’ve been reading lately, turn of the year edition

Books read over the holiday: Seane Corn's Revolution of the Soul, John Connell's The Farmer's Son, Jenniver Givhan's Trinity Sight, and James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life
Books read over the transition from 2019 to 2020

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.
  • Trinity Sight by Jennifer Givhan: the sole work of fiction on this particular list, and an example of why I want to dedicate more of my reading to small/independent press publications this year. It’s a fascinating book, complex, deep, and simultaneously a good read – and unusual enough in its conception and execution that it would be a big risk for a major publisher. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to re-reading it.

What I’ve been reading lately, nascent projects edition

Books I've been reading, spread on a white background

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 commercial sources.

Winter is coming: some seasonal reads

Evergreen trees, dead tree branches and orange Gambrel Oak in the Santa Fe National Forest
Late Autumn in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico, USA

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.
  • Waiting for Winter – this picture book is sadly out of print, but I love it.
  • 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.
  • The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West – Gardening catalogs, some of the best cozy reads, start coming in December, usually. Before they arrive I rely on gardening books. This one is one of my favorites.
  • 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.

Some thoughts on the Wayfarers series

A cup of tea, a plum poppy seed muffin, and A Closed and Common Orbit with candlestick in bagkround
Comfort in various varieties: tea, muffin, and Wayfarers book

I recently read/re-read the three books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ve loved these books since I read the first one, and even though they are relatively recent (in the case of the last, quite recent, only a year old), they have swiftly made their way onto my shelf of comfort re-reads. (If you are deducing from this paragraph that I’ve recently been in need of comfort, well, you aren’t wrong.)

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.

Chambers has a new standalone novella out this fall. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it.

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.

A clarification, the what I’ve been reading – everything’s crazy edition, and a memory

The clarification

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:

A memory/request

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!

CHECK, PLEASE! by Nogozi Uzaku

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.

What I’ve been reading lately, thinking about genre edition

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.

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.

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.