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!

What I’ve been reading, July 2017 travel edition

I had planned to write extensive reviews of the various things I’ve been reading, but the fact is that I’m not great at writing extensive reviews. At least not on demand, and not while traveling, especially not while traveling for work. So instead, here’s what I’ve been reading with a few short thoughts.

Acquired at ALA:

  • Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork. This is a bit of a departure from Stork’s previous work, as it’s a thriller (though still written for the young adult market). At the same time all the elements that I love about his writing – a fundamental kindness towards humanity, the struggle with the “real world,” an underlying attention to issues of spirituality – are in it. I’m not objective about Stork’s work as (like Cashore) he’s one of my favorite authors, but I thought this was a fantastic read (and possibly one of my favorites of his). It’s due out in September 2017.
  • Leona: the Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby. Swedish thriller (the Swedish version was published a few years ago; the version I got is the English translation, the paperback of which is due out on August 1, 2017). This one wasn’t for me.
  • Murder in Saint-Germain by Cara Black. Mystery, part of a series about Parisian PI Aimée Leduc. Again, not for me.
  • White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht. This is the story of a young Korean woman kidnapped and forced to work as a Japanese “comfort woman” during World War II. I read it while sitting at a cafe waiting for my short-term apartment to become available and cried myself into a pulp – and this despite some unbelievable elements. Maybe not the best choice for reading in public, but definitely moving! It’s due out in January 2018.
  • Minik: the New York Eskimo by Kenn Harper. This biography of Minik, one of six Polar Inuit brought to New York by Robert Peary, is another heartbreaker. Minik was seven when he arrived in New York, and four of his traveling companions (including his father) died within months of their arrival. The fifth returned to Greenland, but Minik remained in New York. While I’ve long known the story of the Inuit group in New York (it’s one of the more shameful chapters in American anthropological history), Mink’s story after that first year was new to me. The back cover copy reads “…Minik never surrendered the home of going ‘home,’ never stopped fighting for the dignity of his father’s memory, and never gave up his belief that people would come to his aid if only he could get them to understand” and this is a fair summary of the book, I think. The are passages from Minik’s own writings included in the biography, and these I found especially compelling. This revised and updated edition of Give Me My Father’s Body is due out in September 2017.

Other:

  • Want by Cindy Pon. This is another author about whom I’m not objective, and it’s also a departure from her previous work. Want is young adult science fiction, set in a near-future Taiwan, rather than fantasy. It has an interesting combination of political, heist, and romance elements, making for a fun and page-turning read. Others agree with me: Want has been recommended in the LA Times and the New York Times. Out now.
  • The Waking Land by Callie Bates. I have to admit I picked up this beautiful adult fantasy because I liked the cover so much…but I’m glad I did. The magic in this book is what really drew me in, but there are many other things to like: heroine fighting against the odds, interesting world, etc. Out now.
  • Fire by Kristin Cashore. A re-read of an old favorite.

JANE, UNLIMITED

Every once in a while I read something new and realize, “this is one of my authors.” And I will then track down everything that person has ever written, and (if they are alive) will wait eagerly for their next book. I don’t, of course, enjoy all books by these authors equally, but I always like to read them; even when an individual book doesn’t work for me, because of my relationship with that author’s writing I will read anything the author publishes, usually more than once.

Readers of this blog will already know: Kristin Cashore is one of these authors for me. I truly enjoy her writing, whether it’s a book or her blog. Her new book Jane, Unlimited will be released this fall, and I was lucky enough to get a (signed!) copy at ALA last week. Naturally it was on the top of my ALA pile.

I won’t spoil anything by saying that this book is very, very different from Cashore’s other three books – but at the same time, I can see connections. Imagine a mashup of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, Run Lola Run, and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; add in a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; and write it explicitly for 21st century young adults and in Cashore’s inimitable style, and you’ll be there.

So yeah, it was a little weird. I liked it; it was both fun and interesting. I maybe wished for a little more tying-together of the various plots in some way, but I’ll see if that feeling persists on a re-read. I did gather (from the book’s acknowledgements) that Jane, Unlimited was, in original drafts, an actual choose-your-own adventure, written in second person and with various decision points.  So maybe the lack of integration is deliberate. I also felt like the house, though definitely a character (more in some plots than others) was not as fully realized as it might have been, but again that might just be a first-read impression….

Whatever else one might say, though, Jane, Unlimited is both different and daring. I also found it fun. Definitely, I’ll be re-reading it.

Next up: Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

The ALA 2017 exhibits experience and THE GLASS SENTENCE

Every few years, I get to attend the American Libraries Association (ALA) conference, courtesy of my partner (who is a librarian). I tag along to whatever cool location in which the meeting is being held and get an exhibits-only pass. Why bother getting a pass? One simple reason: ALA exhibits are *awesome*.

They have robots. Author talks. Publisher displays, from publishers large and small, with recently published and forthcoming books. Sometimes they give some of those books away. In fact for me the most difficult aspect of going to ALA exhibits, aside from the general overstimulating nature of it all, is not picking up too many books.

The ALA 2017 exhibits hall (at the end of the conference – the exhibits are in the process of being deconstructed by a crane in this picture!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(There are lots of other things in the ALA exhibits as well as books and book-related booths, like displays on library automation software and databases. I like those too.)

This year ALA was in Chicago. Not only did I wind up with a number of exciting-looking books (most of which I knew nothing about prior to the conference)…

I watched a cooking demo by Joshua McFadden

I didn’t get a picture of the demo, unfortunately, so here’s a picture of his new book, SIX SEASONS.

I got an advance copy of Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Waiting in line for Kristin Cashore's JANE UNLIMITED
Waiting in line for Kristin Cashore’s JANE UNLIMITED

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and I met up with the fantastic Cindy Pon!

Cindy Pon signing copies of WANT
Here is Cindy signing copies of her new book, WANT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To top that all off I spent some time exploring Chicago, including eating pierogis at Tryzub, a Ukranian restaurant; experiencing the Purple Pig; and exploring Read It & Eat, a cookbook-focused bookstore.

Yes, I spent all my time reading, eating, and talking with other people about reading and eating. And if that doesn’t sound totally worth the price of admission to you, well, probably you don’t read this blog.

(I did also attend the Chicago – Orlando MLS game, but I ate and drank while there so technically this is in the “eating” category. I didn’t read at the game, but it was still super-fun.)

In the midst of all this activity I also finished The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove, a book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. I definitely enjoyed it – it has great world-building and does interesting things with the concept of time. As this review points out it’s in the tradition of Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy, but (maybe because of the American setting) to me it had a very different feel. I’m still mulling over my reaction beyond “I liked it,” though. I suspect I won’t really know until I’ve read the other two in the series.

However, those other two books will have to wait, much as I enjoyed The Glass Sentence. My reading for the next few weeks will focus on the Advance Reader Copies/other books I picked up at ALA, so stay tuned for some thoughts on those!

Slow reading

I am a fast reader. When I’m on a reading binge it is not uncommon for me to go through two books (of a reasonable length, say 400 pages each or so) a day, even while doing other regular-life things.

But the past two weeks have been different. I’ve been reading a lot, but not maniacally. Instead I’ve been reading slowly, taking my time, making a conscious effort not to rush. Reading is a new experience when I do it this way, more of a meditation than entertainment. Right now, I need the slowness.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

  • The Bear and the Nightingale – I really enjoyed this Russian-style fairy tale. Reading it while the local temperatures soared past 100 F was a special treat.
  • Phantom Pains – this is the sequel to Borderline, which I read as part of the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge. I found it pretty darn entertaining, though for me it suffered a bit from being a sequel (i.e., I liked the first one enough that the second will inevitably be a letdown).
  • Kingfisher – this fantasy was a little high for me but I liked it nonetheless; the worldbuilding in particular I found fantastic.
  • Molly on the Range – light and fun, by the author of the blog My Name is Yeh (a new find for me).
  • The Baking Bible – this was the only one of the books I read over these past weeks that I really didn’t jive with. Beranbaum’s cookbooks have a lot of fans, but somehow they don’t work for me…I keep trying them, but the recipes, for whatever reason, don’t really inspire me. To each his own I guess.

Next up: The Glass Sentence as well as more stories in The Unreal and the Real. I also picked up a collection of LeGuin’s novellas, The Found and the Lost, and am really looking forward to them.

How is your summer reading going?

2017 Sirens Reading Challenge complete!

As of today: I have completed the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge!

As part of this challenge, I’ve read many books I would not have read otherwise. I loved some of them (N.K. Jesimin’s The Fifth Season, for example). I flat-out hated others (I alluded to one such here). Most were somewhere in between.

The experience of reading so many new-to-me authors and books was definitely positive. I do have some more specific thoughts about my experience of the challenge overall, but I’m letting them coalesce for the time being. Once I can write about them with some coherence I’ll post more. In the meantime, here’s what I read (books I especially liked marked in bold).

Guests of Honor: Required
Required Theme
Additional Theme Books
Middle Grade/Young Adult: Select Five
Adult

Zero draft done; on to revisions

After far too much time I have finally – FINALLY! – completed the zero draft of this unnamed project (it’s a novel, it’s historical fantasy, I am not sure about anything else about it other than that). Writing longhand is the only thing that got me through the last five pages. Pen-and-paper is my never-fail trick for dealing with blocks – when I’m stuck and can’t figure out where a story is going, pulling out a physical notebook always gets me back on track. (There are lots of other good reasons to write longhand – this article and this one both make strong arguments – but for me, getting unstuck is the most important).

In all honesty, though, it wasn’t stuck-ness that made this zero draft take so long. It was simply time: my life’s been busy (with writing other things, often). And once one’s out of the story, it’s difficult to get back into it.

For this reason I will be plunging straight into revisions. In an ideal world I’d take a little time between finishing a zero draft and moving on, but I know if I do that I’ll lose momentum. And, you know, I’m hoping to truly finish this thing before a decade passes…

Onward!

A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC

I’ve been looking forward to A Darker Shade of Magic for a while. This book, one of three in the “Guest of Honor – required” section on the Sirens 2017 Reading Challenge, is so popular at my local library that I’ve had to wait for three months. When my turn came up (coincident with the end of the school year, so I actually had some time to read it!) I was ready to dive right in.

And then…I didn’t love it.

I think the problem I had might simply have been too much anticipation. A Darker Shade of Magic did grow on me as I kept reading, and I especially enjoyed the character of Delilah Bard – it would have been so easy to make her a caricature, and Schwab avoided this with writerly skill. There were so many things I liked about this book. I just didn’t love it.

I might pick it up again later, when there’s not such a rush at the library, and see if I have a different reaction to a second read. I have occasionally been known to fall into a reading funk; having a reading funk problem while transitioning to summer rhythms would not be unexpected; and reading funk problems, I’ve found, often vanish in a second read.

Sequels and A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT

I recently read A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book which began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-published novel, was eventually picked up by a major publisher, and went on to be nominated for a number of prizes and make all sorts of “best of” lists. I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last year and really enjoyed it – it’s a fun novel about a multi-species crew traveling through space. It reminded me of Firefly in some ways, particularly in its focus on families of choice, but politically it ran in a very different direction than Firefly, its vision of the future being much more upbeat.

As I wrote earlier this year, I’m worn out with bleak projections right now, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was well-written and fun and a great antidote to all the dystopias littering the science fiction literature. After finishing it I immediately went to see what else Chambers had written/was writing, and was simultaneously delighted and dismayed to see she had a sequel coming out in 2017 – delighted because more to read, but dismayed because generally I’m not a fan of sequels.

There are a few reasons why I feel this way. Some are ones I know others share: so often sequels are heavy on filling in the backstory for readers who haven’t read the first book; and I find they often suffer from not enough plot, presumably because the author is trying to tie up loose ends from the previous book (as well as fill in backstory).

But the biggest reason I generally don’t like sequels is that, if I liked the ending of the first book, a sequel will often takes away from my enjoyment of that first book – because it’s essentially changing the ending. I know a lot of readers don’t feel this way – some people want to know “what happens next.” For me, though, the ambiguity in what happens off-screen is one of the things I enjoy about reading!

So I had mixed feelings when I picked up A Closed and Common Orbit. I’m happy to report, though, that this sequel was the kind I like – not a sequel exactly (though it does overlap slightly with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but more of a story-set-in-the-same-world. I thought it was fantastic, and am not at all surprised to learn that it’s been nominated for a Hugo.

Four to go: progress on the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge!

Making progress – four more to go! The full list for this challenge is here).

Guests of Honor: Required

 Required Theme (category complete!)

Additional Theme Books: Select Five (category complete!)

Middle Grade/Young Adult: Select Five
(category complete!)

 

Adult: Select Five

Sometimes it just takes time…

Last week I attended a webinar with Kendra Levin (hosted by SCBWI Europolitan as part of a run-up to their conference this year – wow I wish I could go, they seem like a great group) on the topic of rejection, what it means and how to deal with it. I don’t do a lot of webinars or writing events like this; I did when I first came back to writing, but I stopped after a while. I can’t honestly say why I signed up for this one. But I’m glad I did, not so much because the content was new to me but because, for whatever reason (whether Kendra’s manner, or the other participants, or just being at the right time for my mental state at the moment) it changed my perspective on my writing and where it is right now.

One of the “what rejection means” things that came up in the webinar was pacing. I have a pacing bruise – seriously, I wince when I hear/see the word – because of my experience with the first novel I ever wrote, which was also the first piece of fiction I wrote after a fifteen-year hiatus.

The thing is, when I started the novel, it was an experiment. Could I write a novel? I’d only ever written short pieces before. I started it based on a single image, completely pantsed it the whole way through, and got to the end and realized I loved it and didn’t want to stop. I’d fallen into the world I created. They always say don’t be too attached to your first novel, and I started off right – it was just an experiment, after all – but at some point I fell off that wagon, and I fell hard.

I sent it out to agents, got some interest, revised and sent it out again, signed with an agent – and then, the book got rejected, over and over again (this is not an even slightly unusual story, by the way). Why? You guessed it: pacing.

Despite my being attached to the novel, I wasn’t upset (or too upset) by the rejections. But I was upset by the consistent pacing critiques, because I wasn’t understanding them and I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. Soliciting feedback from other writers (and I hired an editor, too) got me advice like “what they mean is too quiet” and and “read The Hunger Games, that’s what sells.” Much as I love The Hunger Games, that wasn’t the kind of book I was trying to write. I thought maybe the problem was the market not the book. But while I could see that books that were more like what I was trying to write were rare, they were still being published (and in YA at that). So what was the problem?

My agent had asked me to revise to address the pacing issue. I did, but the only thing I could think of to do was to make the action more bang-bang-bang. I wasn’t happy with it; my agent didn’t think it was great either, though he did send it out; and guess what? The book never sold.

This all happened a while ago, but I still can’t hear the word pacing without feeling the sting of that experience, as well as sorrow for my poor first novel.

So – that was a very long introduction! – when another participant asked Kendra Levin about “pacing” rejections, I flinched. But I also listened. Kendra that for her, this often means nothing about the story surprised her – that there could be great characters, and plenty of action, everything could be fine, but nothing surprised her.

This was different, not what I’d heard before about pacing. It wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but I took the idea of “surprise” and stuck it in my keep-thinking-about-this file.

A day or two after I finished a book that completely fell flat for me. I finished, and thought about why it didn’t work for me – and the first instinctive answer that came to me was: pacing.

That was my lightbulb moment: I had become the enemy!

I do think I understand, now (after all this time!) where my first novel failed. It was a first novel, after all, and when I began it I had no idea what I was doing. The whole plan was to learn by writing. I didn’t realize that the learning would continue long after I had shelved the project, but it has.

Maybe I’ll go back and revise it again one of these days. I think I’d know how, now.

But then again, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just leave it as it is, for what it is: evidence of learning.