August, 2008

So when am I going to talk about something other than writing, you say. How about reading? Yes, indeed, step right up, it’s book report time.

When last we left my pile of unread books, the score was 4 for the year, it was six months ago, and the last thing I told you about was reading Ragamuffin, with the promise that I was going to track down Crystal Rain and read it too. In this particular case, I have kept my promise. Unfortunately, my recordkeeping during that time leaves something to be desired. I’m not convinced these are all the books I read, and some of the dates are fuzzy, and pneumonia apparently took three weeks of reading out of me back in April. However, I’m making good on the record for posterity here.

Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell. (5) [specfic]. I checked this out of the library. I liked it, though not as well as Ragamuffin. I wonder if having read it out of order affected some of my enjoyment, or whether it was the planet-bound nature of the work, or the fact that it was Buckell’s freshman effort and it kind of shows. It was still a perfectly adequate book, but I certainly recommend others read the books in order, because doing it backward sucks some of the plot momentum out of the first book. I’m still on for the ride, and the third book has come out semi-recently, so I’m going to read that when I get a chance. Finished sometime in 02/08.

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. (6) [YA, read aloud to Sophia]. I bought this secondhand at a garage sale, because I wanted to read it and I thought Sophia might enjoy it. She liked it quite a bit, as did I. Finished sometime in 02/08.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley. (7) [specfic, vampire]. I bought this and got to it quickly, because I’ve been meaning to read it for a while and I’m so glad I did. I used to read tons of vampire lit, but then I got kind of burned out and read some really terrible books and so had basically stopped reading this genre that I love. This book is wonderful and tender and I loved it. I want more books like this, when I can find them. Finished in early 03/08…maybe?

A fistful of sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. (8) [specfic, YA?]. I checked this book out of the library. This was a really interesting book. I continue to really like Hoffman, and wish there were more of her to read. She seems to be a relative unknown, but she’s quite wonderful. The premise of this book was interesting, and I liked her characterization. It was interesting to watch how deftly she laid out her obviously wealthy characters without giving them the usual trappings of the evil rich, and yet making them flawed in their own quite realistic ways. This book has a lot in common with McKinley’s Sunshine. Finished in early 03/08.

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin. (9) [specfic, YA]. I checked this book out of the library. Ursula K. Le Guin is a genius (still). I loved this book. Her poetic economy of language is beautiful and stirring. There’s a couple more books in this series, and I intend to read them. Thematically, this book really appealed to me. There’s a lot here about costs. Finished in early 03/08.

Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O’Malley. (10) [graphic novel, reading vacation]. I own this. Read it on the plane to Florida. Enjoy it for what it is, though in my mind Scott Pilgrim falls into the fluff category of reading. Nothing wrong with fluff, except there’s not much to say about it. Perfect for interruptions and plane rides. Finished 03/15/08.

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O’Malley. (11) [graphic novel, reading vacation]. Ditto. Finished on 03/15/08.

The Living Blood by Tananarive Due. (12) [specfic, reading vacation]. I checked this book out of the library. I had been interested in reading Due for a while now, as a prominent specfic POC author whom I’ve heard interviewed and cited often. I liked this book. It had thriller pacing and plot, although there were places where I thought it strained toward epic and didn’t quite make it. Overall it was skillfully done, but I kept reading the subtext and the symbolism as too overt and obvious, and kept wishing in parts it was a little subtler. She looked away at the ending, erasing some cost for the sake of happy and I didn’t care for that, although her characters do pay prices and it wasn’t total wish-fulfillment. I’m not sure whether I’ll read another book of hers or not. It didn’t set me on fire for her work, though there’s nothing specific that turned me off about it (as with Sarah Monette, frex). If my list of books to read weren’t so long, maybe I’d pursue reading more of her work, though I prefer to read stuff that’s just going to blow me away or that I’m going to enjoy immensely. Finished on 03/19/08.

Spirits that Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. (13) [specfic, reading vacation]. I checked this book out of the library. I inhaled this really lovely book. It had a bunch of magic concepts in it that I had encountered elsewhere, but that I thought were really well explained here, predominantly the little gods or household gods concept. I finally saw ways in which to use that, concreteness I hadn’t really grasped before. And even though the artist as protag has the potential to be so cliché, I thought Hoffman pulled it off with panache here. She continues to impress me with her writing. Finished on 03/22/08.

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. (14) [specfic, reading vacation]. I checked this out of the library. This is probably the first Jones book I’ve ever read that I wouldn’t bother recommending to anyone. It was like all her other books but less somehow. Perhaps it was the whole ‘oh aren’t cons cool and con people so wonderful’ vibe that had me rolling my eyes a little. Maybe it’s written for the con going fannish tribe, of which I’m not a member. I don’t know. It was fine. From anyone else I would have thought it fine. From Jones I thought it fine. But I didn’t love it. And I’ll never pick it up for a re-read, I don’t think. Finished on 03/23/08.

Carnival by Elizabeth Bear. (15) [specfic, must own]. This is a wonderful book. I love it. I think it’s probably my second favorite of Bear’s books, after the New Amsterdam mysteries. The worldbuilding was fabulous and she plays the ensemble cast to great effect. It’s a book about healing rifts, and all the character journeys dovetail thematically. Also there’s spies and intrigue and keep you on your toes betrayals which make all the pretty theme stuff just sing as descant to the thundering plot. Oh, and also cool SF ideas. I mean really, what’s not to love? Read this today! Finished in late 03/08, before pneumonia.

Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer. (16) [specfic, YA, re-read]. I own this. I re-read it because my husband had recently read it to my daughter and she wanted me to. I own the fourth book of the series, too, so I also re-read this third one to re-orient myself in the world. I thought the first book of the series was incredible, and the second one was pretty good. This was were I had started to lose interest the first time around. Finished sometime in late 03/08 or early 04/08. A pneumonia read.

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. (17) [specfic]. I own this. Exactly what I needed to ease back into reading after I had pneumonia. I love Bujold. This book was reliably engaging, and yet with room for thought amid the plot and romance. Finished this during 04/08.

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men In Conversation by Deborah Tannen. (18) [nonfiction, linguistics, book club]. I checked this book out of the library. My copy was full of notes penciled in cramped cursive. It was several chapters before I realized they were translations of words and concepts for a non-English speaking reader who’d had the book before me. This book had some interesting points, though I felt it was clearly outdated in certain respects. Was glad I read it, and wouldn’t have done it on my own. Finished on 05/16/08.

Laika by Nick Abadzis. (19) [graphic novel] What a beautiful, sad story. I’m so glad I read this even if it did make me cry! Finished on 05/18/08.

Blindsight by Peter Watts. (20) [specfic, re-read, book club]. I own this. I recommended this to book club. This book gave me so much to think about that I really wanted to discuss it with people. So far I haven’t found anyone to truly discuss the thing with in depth, and my book club mostly hated it. Still, I was glad for the opportunity to read it again. It’s remains a startling and amazing book full of revolutionary ideas. Finished on 06/18/08.

The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket. (21) [childrens]. I own this. I read it at the behest of my daughter. I dig these books, but I don’t believe I have much to say about them. Finished sometime 06/08.

Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by David Petersen. (22) [graphic novel]. I’d had my eye on this for a while and I finally bought it and read it. I liked it fine, but I was hoping for more than I got and ended up on the disappointed side. The pictures are pretty, but the story was a little bit weak and I didn’t think it needed to be. The elements were all there, they just weren’t played out quite in concert. Finished in early 07/08.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. (23) [YA, specfic]. Was loaned an ARC (thanks, Dave!). I loved this book. I thought it lived up to the hype, and if I get my act together I want to write a full-fledged review. Finished in 07/08.

Past the Size of Dreaming by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. (24) [specfic, YA, reading vacation]. So, I suppose it had to happen eventually. I hit a weak Hoffman book. It wasn’t terrible, but it was a follow up (possibly a third follow up?) on a stir of bones which was truly excellent. This one felt a little like a sequel done for the sake of revisiting with all the characters. They were all treated so gently. I never believed any of them was in a shred of danger and the menace just wasn’t there. Meh. Finished on 07/05/08.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. (25) [specfic, YA, reading vacation]. This is an acclaimed YA book that I’d heard a lot about. It’s a story about stories book. I did like it but I regret to say that it was a little too straightforward. There wasn’t enough layers. Needed to be more like ogres, I guess. The protag is likable but a little too stereotypically spunky and valorous. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be pushing it and whether I’ll read the followup remains a question. Finished on 07/06/08.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. (26) [specfic, horror]. I checked this book out of the library. Wow, this guy can write. This is great horror. I loved it. Can’t wait for his next book. Finished on 07/10/08.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. (27) [specfic, desiderata]. I checked this out of the library, and I stayed up late late to finish it. I liked it but there was way too much denouement. It was like the Return of the Kings movie that way, you think you’re finished with everything but there’s more. The world was rich and textured though, and the plot fast-paced and engaging. Finished on 07/20/08.

The Passage by Louis McMaster Bujold. (28) [specfic]. I checked this out of the library. It was standard Bujold and I quite liked it, and I raced through it, but I admit to feeling like it’s an in-betweeny book that didn’t forward the overarching plot nearly enough for my liking. Still she has a way with characterization, letting people represent their type but with depth and individuality. And some of the plot was quite unexpected, at least for me. I’m still on board for the next book, but I hope she doesn’t Robert Jordan on me, because I’ll step off the train if she does. Also, don’t like this world as much as I like the fivefold gods world. Just saying. Finished in latter 07/08.

Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. (29) [specfic, althistory]. I checked this out of the library. I plowed through it just like the previous one. Carey can really hold my attention. She’s good with stakes too. I figured there wasn’t much to follow up the epic tone of the first one, but she pulled out stops that I hadn’t expected. Satisfying ending. Her narrator voice is well developed and sympathetic. Reading her stuff is long overdue for me, and a simple, unalloyed pleasure. Immersive. I’m glad to have started on these books. Finished late 07/08.

Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey. (30) [specfic, althistory]. I checked this out of the library. More of the same, and much enjoyment for me. Finished early 08/08.

The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones. (31) [specfic, must own]. I checked this out of the library. You remember when I told you I read the Crown of Dalemark last year and I was so confused because of the griffins and I couldn’t see how the whole thing tied together? That’s because I’m a moron, and when I thought I read the Crown of Dalemark I was reading the Dark Lord of Derkholm. Yeah, don’t ask. ANYWAY, I finally read the Crown of Dalemark and it tied everything together nicely thank you very much. An excellent ending to the series. Huzzah for Diana Wynne Jones. Finished early 08/08.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. (32) [litfic, book group]. I checked this out of the library. I was glad to have read it, though I never would have picked it up on my own, which is what I was hoping to get out of my book club: a more varied approach than I would normally have. So far it’s working great. This book had fascinating worldbuilding, and careful details and was a pleasure to read even if the ending was a little wish-fulfillment and made me roll my eyes a little. Finished on 08/12/08.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. (33) [horror, specfic, desiderata, must own]. I checked this book out of the library. This is a terrific book. Really intensely, wonderfully, exhiliratingly good. I love how some of these horror stories have happy endings, how other ostensibly not horror stories have terrifying ones. Hill is the master of the nuanced and mixed emotion. And he wears so many hats in this one! The Bradbury homage was gorgeous. There’s almost no story in this one that wasn’t worth reading (and I only say almost because I may have forgotten about one, and so must hedge, I honestly think they were all awesome). I heart Joe Hill and hopes he writes another dozen books, both novels and short stories. He and Caitlin R. Kiernan are probably my favorite currently working horror writers. Though I’m also pretty partial to Laird Barron, only I haven’t read enough of him to put him in the favored group. Finished 08/17/08.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier. (34) [YA, specfic, desiderata]. I’ve heard a lot about how great this book is and was looking forward to reading it. This book is frenetically paced and relentlessly plotted. The characters are well drawn and everyone who gets POV is believable and engaging. It was easy to read and I had a vested interest in the characters. Even though I enjoyed it a great deal and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a teen reader, I felt it ultimately lacked something and I can’t see myself recommending it to any adults. I’m not sure what was lacking, I’m still working through it, trying to figure it out. It felt flat in places. Emotional reactions were overexplained for my taste. The central conceit is compelling, as was the outsider take, and I really liked the mathy stuff. It was good, and interesting, but it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I’m a little bummed about that. Finished on 08/21/08.

The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones. (35) [YA, specfic]. I checked this out of the library. I enjoyed it. It’s a followup to the Dark Lord of Derkholm. Finished on 08/26/08.

Kushiel’s Scion by Jacqueline Carey. (36) [specfic, althistory]. I checked this out of the library. I was a little hesitant about the shift in narrative voice, and I think my reservations are somewhat justified, as the character didn’t sound his age as often as I thought he should. However, there’s plenty to commend the book. The plotting is still great, I read it as compulsively as usual, and now there’s a secret cabal thing that’s just been uncovered, and I guess I’ll follow on at least as far as the next two books. I finished it on 08/27/08.

Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier. (37) [YA, specfic]. I checked this out of the library. I’m still of mixed mind about the trilogy, though I am likely to finish it out at this point. I like the storyline, I like the characters, I like the world, and the setting contrasts between New York and Australia, but it still feels shallow and surfacebound. Wish there was some depth I could hang on to. Maybe I just can’t see it? Finished on 08/30/08.

Just as a curiosity, things I started this year but set aside in favor of something (nearly anything) else: Kavalier & Clay, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Reading in the Dark, The Stars My Destination and The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. I intend to finish all of those at some point. Apparently, that point isn’t right now. This is interesting because putting books aside is something I didn’t used to let myself do. Right now I want to read for pleasure too much to insist with things that aren’t keeping me engaged. This too will pass, I’m sure.

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You know what is awesome? Looking at a story I wrote two years ago and actively seeing what I was trying to master when writing it. Oh look, I’m practicing kinesthetics. I’m telling you whatever people are doing physically at all times. And for my finale, I’m going to have a three person fight in a closet.

I tend to think I don’t take (enough) risks with my writing, but there it is right there, three person fight in a closet, when I had trouble describing someone walking across a room. Not that it’s a good three person fight in a closet. It needs some work. But I was consciously trying to tackle something I knew I sucked at.

And you know, my kinesthetics, lo these many months later, aren’t exactly going to split open the world but they no longer suck either. Passable. Nice, from time to time, to be reminded of progress.

I’ve been talking to people lately about how I feel that if I write to my strengths, I’m cheating. I’m amused when readers, after several stories, get ahold of one where I went the easy way. They get a look in their eyes: “Why’ve I been reading crap from you when you can do this?” Their critiques are wildly complimentary. They suddenly realize I actually can write, when I put my mind to it. (Except I’m always putting my mind to it, see, even when it sucks.) Everybody thinks I’m crazy when I say I avoid writing what I’m good at. Of course you write what you do best, they say. Well, no, I try not to, I say. And I’ve had a hard time explaining why that is, why it feels like cheating. Maybe it’s just arbitrary constraint setting or fear of failure, but I think it’s something else. Reliance on what I’m already good at doesn’t help me get good at anything else. In fact, reliance on what I’m good at (narrative voice, primarily, though I’m fair to middling at setting and sensory details) can carry people along in a way that obscures other flaws. So I write three person fights in a closet, and clumsy trying too hard omni, and action scenes that come across as brittle and unrealistic. I avoid first person, which I do well, in favor of painfully constructed plots, which I do poorly. Because I want to be able to write every kind of story there is. I’m overly ambitious, and don’t want my smidge of talent in my way. And it’s not just all the shiny techniques I long to master, either. Ultimately, I get tired of writing the same way all the time. If I forbid myself the easy first person pull-you-along narration most of the time, then when I use it, it’s still fresh and pleases me. And I know I’m choosing to use it, not just falling back on it. It is a weirdness, and perhaps a flaw, but it’s what I do. Right now, for example, I’m working on two basic things: non-linearity and subtractive writing. I’m usually a classical unity girl, and while I love that and will still use it most of the time in short stories, I’ve also started breaking away from unity of time. I have been consciously putting in flashbacks, and writing things out of order, even if I rearrange them later. Usually I prefer an intensity that stays in the moment and goes always forward, but there are stories that need to be told out of order, and I want to do that kind too. Right now my cutaways are pretty stilted and obvious, but eventually, one hopes, I’ll get better at them. Subtractive writing is an experiment in methodology and probably merits its own post, when I’ve seen more results from my attempts.

As for my will to submit, I sent out two stories before the one I was panicked about bounced (and two days after I made the PANIC post, so I guess we can count it as accountability instead of procrastination – GO TEAM ME!), then turned the bounced one around not once but twice because I sent it to the fastest market ever, and got the one day rejection. So right this second I have four things out, counting the piece that bounced back to me from the “Haunted Legends” anthology. (So sad. But ehh, what you gonna do.) I dusted it off and sent it out again. It ended up being called “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” because apparently you can’t copyright song titles. Sorry, Gardel. I’m pretty proud of it, even though it didn’t make the cut for the anthology. I’m not saying I didn’t hate it for a while. I spent – oh, I don’t know – three or four days playing Civ III and pretending it didn’t exist and trying to talk myself out of sending it for the antho. But in the end, I sent it to collect its rejection. GO TEAM ME x 2!

So one could say I am down to 13 things needing rewrites, because I made good on “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” (though not without dithering and wailing). However, I just finished a new story (tentatively named “Ephemeral Marginalia”…I’m not totally sold on the title, it may be too librarian geeky and the story’s not about geeks or librarians), so I guess my inbox is back up to 14. Yes, I am uniquely positioned to make work for myself. At any rate, two of the currently out stories are nearing the last leg of their journey before surcease, so I need to revise at least two replacement things and get them out the door in the next six weeks. This is doable, as they say. Ideally, I suppose, I’d get another two things out in addition to the first two and then be looking at something like six subs out, a new record for me. And that would leave my to edit pile at around ten. If I can lop off one more I can reduce my stack to single digits. Whoa. Still, my track record on edits is abysmal, so let’s just wait and see how I do in the next six weeks before getting too optimistic.

Also there’s research for the new novel to engage in. Ha. Yes, I have a new idea I’m poking around at. In fact one of the 14 stories waiting for edits is set in the shiny new world of the maybe next novel. I wrote it the easy way, as a get a feel for it exercise. People like it and keep telling me to fix it and send it out. Take a number, story, get in line.

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  • I’ve been neglectful in noting my dreams lately (and I’m going through a patch where I don’t remember them as well) but earlier this week I dreamed that Kurt told me Evo Morales had died and I said ‘but I just saw him on the television arguing with the opposition’. Then I realized that having seen him on television did not mean he wasn’t dead (kind of like that Pixies song “a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead”) and I felt sad, because I like Morales, even though he does some shady stuff, because he’s indigenous and it’s about time.
  • On Thursday I opened up one of those big boxes of matches and realized it was almost empty, maybe 20 or so matches left in the bottom. I couldn’t quite get at them because there was this slip of cardboard in the way, so I pulled the slip of cardboard out. It was a coupon. That expired on Dec 31, 1999. Even if I bought the box of matches on the day the coupon expired (unlikely), I’ve still had this box of matches for eight and a half years. That’s at least four moves. Who expects a box of matches to endure near a decade?
  • We’ve been slumming lately. A couple of weeks ago we made our first visit to Aldi, a rock bottom pricing grocery store. We’d never been before, and had no idea you couldn’t pay by credit card. They take cash and debit cards only (and apparently the debit card thing is pretty recent). So we stood in line debating whether we knew the pin for our credit/debit card (“Try your ATM pin”, I said, with a shrug) and the people in line behind us all looked at us like we were McCain — ignorant of how many houses we owned. It’s also apparently pretty common to get “cash back” on your transaction, using Aldi like a glorified ATM, and we both blinked, nonplussed, when the cashier asked us whether we wanted cash back. By the time we’d recovered enough to say, “NO.” the guy behind us had already said, “I’ll take their cash back!” The woman with him looked like she was strung out on meth. They were buying one tube of pork sausage. Also, our washing machine broke, so we went to the laundromat. Man, laundromat tech has really come a long way in the fifteen years since I last had to use coins to wash. It’s largely HE washers, and it was pretty cool, since we’re in the market for a frontloader. Still, it’s clear there’s a socio-economic gulf between me and the average laundromat client. Not a scary gulf, I didn’t think I was going to get shot or anything, but yeah, I’m very much not a college kid or a retired woman on a fixed income or a blue collar guy. It’s easy to forget how many things in life well-to-do smoothes over for you, even if you only have the one house.
  • I’ve got some things to say about writing, but that’s (mostly) another post. All I want to say here is: I love finishing a story draft. It gives me a buzz. I’m a little surprised about the intoxicating neurology involved, I always thought (judging from how little I finish) that completion thrill was something that happened to other people. Must figure out a way to exploit this to finish more things.
  • This week’s story recommendation is neither its own post, nor something to read. It’s something to listen to: Podcastle 14 – The Grand Cheat. Wonderful story in all kinds of ways. Beautifully read. Enjoy! Hillary Moon Murphy’s other Podcastle offering (Podcastle 3 – Run of The Fiery Horse) is good too, but if you’re only going to listen to one “The Grand Cheat” is the way to go. As Adrian Monk says, “You’ll thank me later.”

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