The Reads: 2017

I am almost incapable of relaxation. My default state is one of mental excitement, and this time, Christmas to me and “The Holidays” for some, is one of the few times during the year my mind signs off on its own disorder.

Apropos of none of that, here are my top 4(!) books of 2017.

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I greatly enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge feature. For one, they let rereads qualify this year. Mostly though, the organization and data is fun and useful for me, who is naturally bad at both. For a while I met last year’s goal of 50 books read and was at the same 54/50, and then for reasons unknown to myself, decided to read Crime and Punishment, my longest book of the challenge, and surprisingly one of the better ones.

Side-note: I read enough books in 2017 that were actually released in 2017 that my arbitrary top 4 will cover those.

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

aosLikely unsurprising, given that I had an actual entire post reviewing this incredible book. But I love it because it’s not your typical “borderline fantasy eating disorder queer YA” book–you know, that tired old genre. It doesn’t sugarcoat the world, but neither does it drown the reader in bleakness. I don’t read a ton of YA, but the books that I do read follows similar, if not predictable than perhaps publishable patterns, and it is endlessly refreshing to see a book break away from that to tell its own story, and tell it aggressively and unflinchingly. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

Sam J. Miller is already a stellar talent in the short form, and I was immediately excited when I learned of this book coming out. I pulled all the strings I had to acquire a review copy of this book–I failed. (Likely because I lack the strings.) Nonetheless release day came and I have been and will continue to be a champion of this book.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
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There are some writers whose prose will continually sink a hook into you and rip you along, regardless of the story they tell. Sometimes it will be easy going, sometimes not. With Kai Ashante Wilson, it’s not always a smooth journey, but I find myself craving every word published by this author.

A Taste of Honey is a novella following up, in world and chronology but not necessarily location or characters, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which stunned a few people but may have been undersung (it won the 2016 Crawford Award.) A Taste of Honey was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, rightly so. The story follows Aqib bgm Sadiqi and his affair with the soldier Lucrio. Aqib has family expectations. He is expected to marry the right woman, not some soldier passing through. He is expected to have a family, build a life.

It’s not just this tale, familiar and spun to be heartbreaking in its own right by Wilson’s storytelling, but the fantastical elements that once again bring the novella far above and beyond what is usually seen in high and even epic fantasy. It’s hard to go on without spoiling, but I will say I’ll read a story of any length set in this world, for the prose if not the characters, for the ideas if not the richness in detail.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 7.03.01 AMIt’s a rare book to make me fall back in love with a genre. Even rarer when that genre is post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy. Then again, when you’re Jeff Vandermeer, author of Wonderbook (which I read for the second time this year), and your post-apocalyptic biotech fantasy has a psychotic flying bear, I’m basically sold.

Thing is, I have particular reading habits. I’ll go through any (legal) lengths to acquire a book on Kindle or from a library, without purchase if necessary, and if I enjoy it, purchase the nicest copy to grace my shelf that I can find. The standout books are the ones I end up buying or acquiring twice. Rereading a book physically that was first experienced digitally has a great visceral feel; Borne, also, induces intense visceral feelings. This is a story of a horror-Ghibli-esque blob of biotech, of Rachel the scavenger, of hope and survival in a brutal and terrifyingly realized world–I couldn’t put it down and cannot wait to pick it up a second time.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 6.50.18 AMIn last year’s Reads post I was hesitant to review incomplete series. To me it’s hard to give a complete opinion of a story when I’ve only read 2 out of 3, or 4 out of 5, and so I excluded Ninefox Gambit, the Craft Sequence, and a series I have quietly fallen in love with, Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which conclude in The Sanctuary of Wings.

Being the last in a five-book series, it’s hard to specify what I enjoy about this book; I will say I applaud Brennan for developing a unique Victorian-style voice for her narrator and adhering to that voice while managing to develop it across the entire series. Isabella Trent’s world is also my favorite type of fantasy: palette swap (see also: Dragon Age). Scirland  is kind-of-but-not-exactly England, while other countries are similarly comparable to, say, China or Russia; the metaphor is used to highlight specific plot problems like the sexism Isabella faces when she tries to advance in arenas dominated by men, which allows for the reader to draw the right insight to real world cultures, without necessarily appropriating them.

Beyond that, it was good to have a series to come back to each year for a while. I enjoyed watching the lore and worldbuilding develop over five books, rich with adventure (and a little action), excellent characterization, and what is perhaps hardest to accomplish the longer a series goes on: a satisfying ending. I’ll miss it, but just the right amount.

Honorable Mention: Ursula K. Le Guin
I will leave this here, extracted from Goodreads’ handy reading challenge overview. In the same way the Top 4 is in no particular order, putting Le Guin at the end is not an indication of lesser or superior quality, but a special note. It would be hard to pick just one book of hers I read this year, although I will say I enjoyed the Dispossessed far more than I expected to–and I was expecting quite a lot.
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Another year, more books, and ever more on the way! Now my mind can relax a bit, and get into yet more words. But first–holiday music.

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Story Release! “Cut From Cracked Ice” out at IGMS

I’m beyond excited to have a new story out in the latest issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show. This piece, “Cut From Cracked Ice” has an interesting history, but first, let’s take a look:

This is a snapshot available to non-subscribers (an annual fee to see IGMS content)

The artwork is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story of hurt minds and healing, of the walls we build around ourselves, of problems deep but fixable. Anna Repp‘s illustration captures this so wonderfully.

I’m proud of this story, and glad it found a good home at IGMS. I’m also pretty attached to the character of Renei, who not only comes from a larger body of fiction, but is my Dragon Age 2 character. She’s a first, in that sense: the first time I made a character in an RPG who wasn’t modeled after myself (bearded white dude with my name, making the choices I’d make fitting my moral/social/emotional matrix). So what started as Purple Hawke with spells from the Elemental and Arcane trees, slaying fools as the Champion of Kirkwall in the name of love and large explosions, turned into one of the more cathartic characters to write.

But I’ll let her speak for herself. This story is behind a paywall, but there’s some truly great fiction in IGMS. For not that much, you get a year’s worth of reading and complete access to *all* of their content, past and present,  online or ebook. (Plus you can, you know, read my story.) In terms of dollar value, it’s probably among the best you can get from a pro venue.

My name, on a thing! Next to other very good stories!

At any rate, I hope you read it, and enjoy it. In the larger ‘verse of my short and long SFF work, this is Renei’s origin story. Those are still popular, right? Hopefully it’s not the last time you’ll see her.

Fragments Of

Hashtag Thursday thoughts, transcribed into late-Friday sustenance:

  • Recently finish reading If Not, Winter by Sappho (further praiselavishing down below)*
  • Be doubly bemused, as the least tech-literate millennial you’ll ever meet, at two new features of my constant Internet haunts: (1) That the Kindle Highlights page has moved to a new, mostly more intuitive layout.
  • (2)That now, after reading a book, Goodreads asks me if I want to share these highlights, start a discussion.
  • Ignore the latter as spam, as another way my (mostly opt-in) automation and integration processes are backfiring on me and no, Goodreads, only notify me when a real person is interacting!
  • Reconsider: I actually use Kindle Highlights… a lot.

While not necessarily the definitive mark of a book’s quality, as a reader with ADD, it’s fascinating to go back to a book, months or years later, and check its highlights (digital or otherwise) and see what jumped out to me at that point. Particularly for Kindle’s features, it tells you how many highlights a particular title has. And, again, this isn’t a mark of quality–I had to mark up a lot of Hemingway and James Fenimore Cooper and Systems Theory books for college, and they’re not on my top shelves.

Side-note: one reason I do try to keep my reading localized on one platform is to make things easier for me memory-wise, highlight-wise, and because I generally rent before buying. I’m a habitual window-shopper and thrive on my library. The fact that my Kindle notes stay when I purchase a digital copy is a great feature. And to me, the mark of a favorite title is getting that physical copy, to earn the privilege of tactile handling and further marking.

But I have nonfiction and writing books with dozens of passages I want to keep for later. Entire neighborhoods of words I knew I’d forget, or decided I’m not allowed to. The first time I read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, I didn’t want to know more than I needed to, about apartheid and South Africa and the TRC. At the end of the course, I had over 30 highlights. The same goes for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. 

If I were to use this metric to define quality, the big hitters would be Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia and Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, closing out their highlight counts with upwards of 60-70 passages. And both phenomenal books! I do go back to those collections of notes, regularly. Are they my favorites, though? Not really. I keep the information at a remove, ready for dissection. Where do I want to return? What stories and knowledge, in the moment, do I want to keep?

More to the point–compare these to novels. Books I’ll consume by the dozen every year, (short fiction, by the many hundreds): Typically speculative, with fully formed worlds, characters, histories, a plot baked in, prose that sings; and often (one hopes) these stories will either or speak to me, or at least entertain, or teach me something. But if you were to analyze them via highlights, it’s really just those passages that make me stop and go, “Ha, that’s neat.”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Plenty of fiction I’ve loved gets marked up out of joy and awe at so many talented authors. It’s only–the book that can do both is such a rare beast. Which brings me back to If Not, Winter.

Sappho’s poetry reminded me of that sensation. Starting a book uncertainly, unable to highlight or (like some animal) fold or write in the margins); I can only take phone pictures, I can only scribble the parts that speak to me. Until I wonder how many pictures and scribbles I have of this wonderful, haunting book of fragmented poetry, made not just from her voice, but of brackets and white space and aching emptiness I want to know more, I want to see within the bracketed white space. I want to meet this author.

I want to highlight across the distances, but can’t. In this age of information from places vast, infinite, instant, these missing pieces will always never be there. Anne Carson confirms it and I remain bewildered.

So I get to that point most serial borrowers will: realizing I’m just gonna buy this book, forever digesting that no amount of digital convenience or notes or ebook renewals can enrich the reading experience, can teach me anything  beyond this fragmentary perfection.

Review: The Art of Starving

Everybody should read this book.

This gut punch of a novel, from one of the best short fiction authors writing today.

This term typically makes me roll my eyes, but very quickly as I read Sam J. Miller’The Art of Starving, I felt like this was an “important” book. And it is. But it’s not just important in the sense that it might speak to readers who might resonate with some part of Matt: bullied teens, gay, with eating disorders, struggling for their place in the world. The Art of Starving is full of well-worded lessons that don’t read as preachy or cliche. And not all of them are comforting.

She thinks I’m a child who needs to be protected from the horrors of grown-ups, because she somehow forgot that the world of children has its own horrors. And that the world of teenagers holds the horrors of both.

Miller is in top form, and fans of his short fiction will feel at home in this world: one casually indifferent to the marginalized. I was particularly reminded of his award-nominated “We Are the Cloud” and his recently-published “The Ways Out”

As to the actual story: The “Art” of Starving is like the Art of War; there are rules, and this book will lay them out. This format makes the book highly readable, a semi-diary format that also tracks Matt’s calories, because he’s not eating. He’s not eating because he believes not eating gives him powers, and those powers will help him find his sister, Maya.

That one crucial word in the synopsis, “believes,” is key. The reader, sympathizing, follows Matt through a harrowing exploration of his abilities as he gains telepathy, astral projection, insight to the universe. The reader, empathizing, watches Matt destroy himself with the delusions concomitant with mental illness. Miller straddles this line well, but it’s not about the truth of Matt’s powers: it’s about, abstractly and overtly, what they reveal about him and his world, from his town to his family to the pigs being slaughtered for their meat.

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The Art of Starving is one of my most anticipated books of the year, and it did not disappoint. This is a book everyone should read. Maybe it was written for you, because you’ve felt that sharp, painful hunger, and you know it’s bad for you, but the gifts you think it brings you are worth it. Maybe you’ve felt the illnesses Miller describes, have been in those rooms, and can appreciate the writing. Maybe none of that is true. All the more reason you might need it.

 

Over thousands of years, the little differences between bodies add up to genetic drift, the differentiation of species. Evolution. So remember this the next time you curse some knob of fat or funny-shaped thumb, or sexual predilection for something society says you shouldn’t predilect: your differences might make you miserable, but they might also make you better.

also posted on Goodreads.

 

 

The Reads: 2016

Or, Top 5 Lists Are Arbitrary

This year I read 54 of my planned 50 books. I like to dedicate November and December to rereading, as a sort of holiday winding down time (and to diving into writing full swing.) Originally I wanted to do a sort of blitz review of all of the books I read, and I still might; I have the post on Medium drafted, with a paragraph of my reviews, or links to Goodreads, which I use as a convenient log.

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I don’t give star ratings because star ratings to me are a bit superfluous, yet I like reviewing books I love. A “top 5” of my 2016 books also feels arbitrary, and indeed, culling it down to just 5 is a very tough call. But here we are!

In no particular order:

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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While I will admit to jumping to read that was blurbed by Ursula K Le Guin, Dark Orbit resonated with me immediately. Deep space adventure with a planet like no other! a wide cast of characters! and the journey goes wrong immediately! …there are some apparently predictable tropes that turn into unpredictable territory before you know it, and some apparently predictable characters who reveal dimensions I did not expect at all. (I’m reminded of the recent article on Le Guin where she mentions writers who don’t understand the “rules” of sci-fi. Gilman knows the rules, and just where to bend them for the best effect.)

So: journey, problem, characters–planet. The planet itself hosts subterranean and therefore blind natives, and one of the crew is trapped with them. But that’s just the setup. The rich worldbuilding, bending time and space and memories to explore the dark cores of humanity. Which sounds like a platitude, and for spoiler-free purposes, it essentially is. But this to me is hard-to-find sci-fi: space opera that doesn’t obsess over the science, that gets into space and kicks the plot into gear, and takes the adventure over the action, while not forgetting to make me feel.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

arwa-coverFrom my Goodreads review: “Excellent premise. Vivid characters. Solid world-building, and a great example of how to plot a novel. And the best of kind of post-apocalypse: an introspective one. Plus, ghost fights and knives and stuff.” 

Which is all basically true! I don’t read enough YA, and I work hard to cultivate a reading list I know will treat me well. If every book I found was as good as Archivist Wasp, I’d never stop reading. The world is harsh and brutal, and for me (despite having written such a world in my debut novel), it’s so easy to screw that up and oversaturate it. The setup of capturing and archiving ghosts–and the plot this leads to, Wasp’s need to break the cycle of young women pitted against each other as well as uncovering the past of one embittered ghost–is done simply and effectively. A writer can learn a lot from this book, in terms of craft, on all the things mentioned above. But above all that, I put it on my list because when I look over the 50+ books I read this year, and think of the memorable ones, this one rises to the top.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

cdt-coverI mention Dark Orbit‘s ability to make me feel, and Archivist Wasp in that it’s memorable. Certain Dark Things does both. From my Goodreads review:

“Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s worldbuilding is phenomenal, and she does something I don’t see done as well or as often as I’d like: vampire-by-culture. The Mexico City in this book feels alive, to someone who’s never been there. You walk the streets and feel its history, and you feel like the cartels and clans have always been here, in a very real, chilling way. You feel the Aztec and Mayan influence in the varied vampire families, with differences nuanced and overt, and it comes together so deftly.”

If I ever wanted to write vampires in fiction, well, I’m glad that Moreno-Garcia has shown me exactly how it should be done. These are the vampires I’ve always wanted to see. The characters in Certain Dark Things are rich and dark and beautiful, have great dynamics, and you know where they’re coming from. Atl in particular, I think, is a great protagonist. She is not Strong Female Character incarnate, nor is she Manic Pixie Dream Girl-cum-Vampiress. She’s romantic but not romanticized. She’s not loveless. She gets to be as dark and brutal and nuanced and bloody as she wants and the narrative doesn’t punish her for wanting, as seems the status quo for “Dangerous Women.”

The only bad thing about this book is that I had to wait months for everyone else to read it.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

upr-coverFrom my Goodreads review: “If I had to pitch this in a sentence, I’d say “Magical Girl and Fantasy Doctor House solve increasingly complicated ancient mystery.”

Fortunately, I don’t have to pitch this in a sentence. It says a lot for the power of this book’s prose that the opening page stands on its own, that it’s is used as back cover copy to grab you in and get you to read the next four hundred or so. That it was up for this year’s Nebula and Hugo. “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” What else is there to say?

Uprooted is rich with pure fantasy subversion. Tropes abound, but it’s not about tropes. It sinks you into the world and characters and magic. It makes you care about Agnieszka, root for her, want to see her succeed. This book puts me in a mind of Robin Hobb, those near-doorstopper books that get into your heart and attain the power to twist or break it. (Robin Hobb, herself, loved the book, and that should be all one needs for a fantasy rec.)

It’s worth noting that, as stated, choosing only five of 54 books was a particularly difficult task. Many on the list are still extremely well-written or, as 2016 was a year spent almost entirely on revising and polishing my book, very helpful in that process of discovery or escape. That’s another reason I use November and December as time for rereading: to rediscover old loves, to see them in new ways, and to look at them from angles of craft study. In this respect, I look at the reads and rereads as two different categories, and so I look at this Top 5 list from an emotional perspective. I want to be thrilled about rereading a book, so when I look at a favorite set of books from a certain year, I look at which books might fit that criterion. This is a first round, so to speak. Next year, which books might I consider giving another read, if any? Which made me feel enough that another read will show me technique as well as that visceral emotion?

Which brings us to:

Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

lostOf all the books I read this year, I have to admit (and, at the time of writing, yes, I am wearing one of several Star Wars shirts, so possibly I am not biased, whatever that means), that this book hit me the hardest. Gave me the most, in modern parlance, feels. Romeo and Juliet in space, but Imperial space!

And not just Star Wars adjacent, but intersecting the movies and the newly-founded EU, giving us a much-needed lens of gray and difficult morality to the assault on the Death Star, to a glimpse of the battle above Jakku, to the smaller, more difficult insidious evils of the Empire. This quote, again from my Goodreads review, does a staggeringly good job of showing really chewy themes like institutionalized oppression, like children being taught hate and generations torn apart because of it, and, here:

“One of the local children had begun jeering at the Bodach’i. “That’s what you get! You think you can push the Emperor around? Showed you!” One of the stormtroopers nodded in approval, then patted the child’s head. That boy could be no more than seven or eight years old—the age Thane was when he’d decided to join the Imperial fleet. That was how evil magnified itself: it took root in the young and grew along with them. Each generation provided the next level of abuse. We’re teaching children to approve of slavery. We’re teaching them cruelty is a virtue. But the worst part was—Thane had been that kid. He’d sat in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle and felt proud. Felt big. All because he might be part of the Empire someday. He’d followed the path that led from there, and where had it taken him?”

There’s a lot to dissect in that one passage. About teaching our children to approve of slavery. About the life of that child and his family, about the stormtrooper. Their similarities to Thane and what it took for Thane to understand his distance from it. And none of that touches on the romance or the main plot: it could be in a different book, one that’s not Star Wars at all because that shit hits right at home.

So, yeah, I loved Lost Stars, even when it was taking advantage of me being an easy romantic. It’s my new benchmark for the EU, right up there with the Episode 3 novelization, and I suppose I should check out Bloodline as well.

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To answer the question posed above, of rereading: which books did I read in 2016 that warrant a reread? It’s hard to say. Sometimes the idea of a reread, or a book’s quality, can be shaped by others’ opinions. There’s also the matter of series, which constitute most of my rereads (more on that below). At the very least, I’d be curious what a reread of Uprooted and Lost Stars would reveal on the craft level, once I sorted through the emotions. As said in its review, I think Archivist Wasp has a lot to teach me, as well.

Two things worth nothing. First, that my arbitrary list is made further arbitrary by the fact that I deliberately exclude two series I fell in love with this year: Jo Walton’s Thessaly series, and Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, but since I wasn’t able to finish either, and can’t quite review them as a single body, I don’t want to give them a single spot in the top 5.

Second, with the exception of Certain Dark Things, which was an ARC this year, all my favorites were 2015 books. What does this mean? Nothing, really, especially not in the grand scheme. (It might reveal my poverty, that I was a library hound and thus was a cycle behind the publication schedule a bit). But it’s funny, in that sense, that my favorite books “of the year” were, for the most part, of last year.

The to-read list never ends. It’s hard to say that I won’t read any new books this year, and I’ve already got digital shelves on my Kindle lined up for next year if I keep my small promise of only rereading (or if I really want to finish the series I’m invested in, the two mentioned above and the Craft Sequence). There are, always, more books.

Wilde Stories 2016

I never blogged about this! Because I’m terrible at promoting myself, and this particular story has been a curious one. “What Lasts,” the flash piece accepted July of 2015 in Daily Science Fiction, was reprinted in August in Wilde Stories: Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. img_20160811_170212

The collection itself is put together by Lethe Press, who do incredible work. Here’s a link to their Patreon. Support their work! Without more support, they won’t be able to have more annual collections like this one, which is a total shame. The last thing the publishing industry needs is to become more homogenized and bland and have Year’s Best collections that don’t publish me.

As to the story. It’s a big source of impostor syndrome for me, for several reasons. The least of these is the incredible TOC! E. Catherine Tobler and A. Merc Rustad and Sam J. Miller and Haralambi Markov and agh! All fantastic stories, engaging and beautiful, and it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. So now PW has said of my story that “love transcends humanity,” which, you’re goddamned right.

Impostor syndrome, though. I can handle being in a big-named TOC. Totally fine with that. It’s a weird story because “What Lasts” is 800 words of flash sci-fi I riffed off at work. I love it, it’s a little gem, and it’s (loosely) part of my novel’s universe, but I wrote it in an ephemeral heat, showed it to no one, did no editing, and sent it to Daily Science Fiction. Which I say not to brag at all, but it threw me through a bit of a loop. Rejectomancy can be a confounding beast, so here’s Jared W. Cooper, with his more ambitious stories and plots and more rounded characters, his stories upwards of 3,000 words, and those are bouncing off with form rejections and lovely personals.

But I’m a slusher. That’s the game. I get that. Impostorism is not rational. So when I doubt, I just have to open this genuinely good-looking hardcover and see my own name.

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