Sign up for my newsletter to receive news and updates!

Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Spark of Life: D.B. Jackson on TIME’S DEMON

A while back, I started up a series of guest blogs called “Spark of Life,” where authors could talk about one of my favorite parts of writing: those moments you didn’t plan for, where it seems like your characters or your plot have taken on a life of their own. I got busy and fell out of arranging these posts, but I’m reviving it now — starting with a post from D.B. Jackson that resonates so hard for me. In my case it was a line earlier in the same book, rather than a previous one . . . but I seriously don’t know how I would have pulled together the final confrontation in Warrior if it weren’t for a totally unexpected line I’d written a couple of months before.

***

David says:

cover art for TIME'S DEMON by D.B. Jackson The Spark of Life moment I had with my newest book, Time’s Demon, the second volume in my Islevale Cycle, actually began with a throwaway line in book one, Time’s Children. The circumstances take some explaining, so please bear with me.

The Islevale novels are time travel/epic fantasy. They are set in an alternate world that is home to Walkers (my time travelers) and humans who wield several other sorts of magic. As the title of book II suggests, it is also home to various sorts of demons – Ancients, as they prefer to be called – including Tirribin, or time demons. Tirribin appear as children, though they live for centuries. They feed on the years of humans, and since they consume years as they spend them, they never age. They are predators – canny, dangerous, but also childlike in their capriciousness, their curiosity, and the fact that they can be distracted from the hunt with a riddle. Better make it a good one, though . . .

Walkers and Tirribin share an affinity for time, and so Walkers don’t have to fear time demons quite the way other humans do. Early in book I, when one of my heroes is still training to be a Walker, she befriends a Tirribin named Droë, and mentions this to one of her instructors. The instructor warns her of the dangers, even for a Walker, of interacting with any Ancient. “You know Tirribin can be dangerous. One is said to have killed a trainee many years ago, before I came to Windhome.”

That’s it. That was the line. I had no particular incident in mind when I wrote it, although I believe that somewhere in the depths of my hind brain I knew that I would use the thread later.

Skip forward to my work on Time’s Demon, the second book. I knew that I wanted Droë to figure prominently in this novel – hence the title. I also knew that I wanted to give some vital back story on one of my other key characters: the assassin, Quinnel Orzili. Orzili is not a Walker, but rather a Spanner, someone who uses magic to travel great distances in mere moments. Spanners, like Walkers, are trained in Windhome.

The problem was, I had too many plot threads and I wasn’t sure how they all connected. I was still following my heroes from book I, including the young woman who receives that warning from the instructor in Windhome. I had Droë’s story. And I had Orzili’s narrative threads as well – the backstory and the “present” story. All of these plot lines needed to be included in the book and I knew that for this middle volume to work, for it to feel complete and at least somewhat self-contained, all of its disparate storylines needed to cohere in some way.

As it happens, all of the Islevale books, including the third volume, Time’s Assassin, which I am completing now, have defied my attempts to outline them. I’m a plotter – I like to plan my narratives in advance. I always write with an outline. Or I did, until this series. It’s ironic in a way: Here I am writing time travel, which is incredibly complicated on its own, in a sprawling epic fantasy with multiple plot threads and point of view characters. If ever I needed to outline any set of novels, these were the ones. And I just couldn’t do it. To this day, I’m not sure why. Different novels demand different approaches, and these books demanded that I wing it.

So I was writing the early chapters of book II, in which I explore Orzili’s backstory, and Droë shows up. I hadn’t planned to write her into this part of the series, and I still don’t know what made me do it, but the moment I re-introduced her to my readers, I knew: Droë was, in fact, the Tirribin who killed a trainee, and that trainee was Orzili’s friend. The boy’s death at the hands of a time demon sets in motion the key events that lead to Orzili becoming an assassin. That event, first mentioned in a throwaway line in the first book of the series, becomes a key moment in my story arc – the nexus connecting my heroes in book one, my title character for book two, and the key villain for the entire series.

Plotting a novel, or a series for that matter, is an inexact undertaking. Even when we can outline, even when we think we know precisely what should happen, our characters have a way of surprising us. That is both the joy and the challenge of writing fiction. We want our characters to do and say the things that advance our narratives, but we also want them to act and sound and feel to our readers like real people. And often that means allowing them the agency to do and say things we don’t expect. I hadn’t known that Droë would show up when and where she did in Time’s Demon. But when she did, it breathed new life into the entire novel. It was the spark I needed to make my plot points come together.

***

From the cover copy:

Fifteen-year-old Tobias Doljan Walked back in time to prevent a war, but instead found himself trapped in an adult body, his king murdered and an infant princess to protect.

Now joined by fellow Walker and Spanner, Mara, together they much find a way to undo the timeline that orphaned the princess and destroyed their future. But arrayed against them are assassins who share their time-traveling powers, and hold dark ambitions of their own. And Droë, the Tirribin demon on a desperate quest for human love, also seeks Tobias for an entirely different reason.

As these disparate lives converge, driven by fate and time and forces beyond nature, Islevale’s future is poised on a blade’s edge.

D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and as many short stories. His newest novel, Time’s Demon, is the second volume in a time travel/epic fantasy series called The Islevale Cycle. Time’s Children is volume one; David is working on the third book, Time’s Assassin.

As D.B. Jackson, he also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. As David B. Coe, he is the author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, as well as the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy; the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood; a contemporary urban fantasy trilogy, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson; and most recently, Knightfall: The Infinite Deep, a tie-in with the History Channel’s Knightfall series.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

You can find him on Twitter @DBJacksonAuthor, or on Facebook as DBJacksonAuthor or david.b.coe.

The return of THE GAME OF KINGS

It’s no secret that I love Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles: a historical fiction series set in mid-sixteenth century Europe, starting off with English and Scottish politics, but eventually ranging farther afield to locations like France, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. I blogged my way through a re-read of the first book, The Game of Kings, some years ago, inviting people who had read the whole series to join in on the analysis and enjoyment; I’ve written two articles for Tor.com on her work, one a brief squee about a duel in that book, and one about what epic fantasy writers can learn from Dunnett. In Writing Fight Scenes I use the aforementioned duel as a case study in excellent craft. Dunnett, I often tell people, is the one writer who just makes me feel abjectly inferior about my own work: she’s just that good.

The problem is, finding her books has been easier said than done. The editions I have were published in the late ’90s, and they were getting increasingly difficult to acquire.

But sometimes it seems like you can’t throw a rock in publishing without hitting somebody who imprinted on this series hard. So recently I got an email from Anna Kaufman at Vintage Books, who is in charge of re-issuing the entire series in new editions, asking if I’d be interested in a copy of the first book, in exchange for helping spread the word that, hey, they’re coming out again with shiny new covers etc.

WOULD I EVER.

cover art for THE GAME OF KINGS by Dorothy Dunnett

So if you’ve ever heard these books recommended, or you read them years ago and don’t have copies but would like some, or you’ve owned them for long enough that pages are starting to fall out, I’m delighted to say that the entire series is out as of today. Six books of amazingly good historical fiction, with some of the most unforgettable characters and events and prose I’ve ever encountered. Dunnett’s writing is not always easy to get into — it takes a little while to get the hang of reading her work, since she has a habit of doing things like describing stuff around the key element in the scene and trusting that the penny will drop for the reader in due course — but it’s amazingly rewarding once you do. And I aspire to someday write both intrigue and interpersonal conflict as well as she does.

Books read, March 2019

After February’s enormous binge, I read much less in March.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Cory Pietsch. You pretty much can’t be a gamer these days without having at least heard of The Adventure Zone, but I have no good space in my life for listening to podcasts. An episode here and there, sure, but not hundreds of them. So friends recommended I try the graphic novels they’ve started putting out, which also have the benefit of condensing the story — I know from my days studying RPGs in grad school just how diffuse and wandering things can be during actual play. I wasn’t impressed by the first half of this volume, which felt more or less like a typical D&D adventuring party (all male, though one of them is gay) doing the adventuring thing and failing to take anything seriously. It picked up more in the second half, though, and got interesting right at the end, when the characters get introduced to what looks like the real plot. (And, encouragingly, the improvement in the story coincides with female characters showing up.) I’m definitely willing to give the second volume a shot, as I understand the challenge of getting an episodic story moving properly in its first installment — especially one based on the hot mess that is most RPG narratives.

The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson. Read for review with the New York Journal of Books. I loved the setting of this one — at the tail end of the Reconquista, from the perspective of characters in the last Muslim state in Spain just as it falls to Ferdinand and Isabella — and the handling of religion, with multiple levels of piety from characters on both sides of that conflict and an antagonist who genuinely believes that it’s more compassionate to torture someone into converting than to let them burn in hell. The plot didn’t work as well for me, though. The central conceit of magical maps wound up being much less central than the cover copy led me to expect, and the whole business with the Bird King’s island felt to me like the kind of thing where either the elliptical approach is going to click for you and be amazing, or it’s going to fail to cohere much at all. For me it was the latter, especially when a threat reared up out of nowhere essentially saying “Remember me, from two hundred pages ago?” To which my answer was, “not really.” Not a bad book overall, but it didn’t hang together the way I was hoping.

Unraveling, Karen Lord. Also read for review with the New York Journal of Books. Speaking of things that are weird and elliptical . . . but in this case it worked for me. Several of the characters are not human (or at least mostly not) and don’t interact with time the way we do; much of the plot takes place in what amounts to a series of dreams or visions of what might happen. It’s a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, which I didn’t realize until after I was on a plane to Florida with Unraveling but not Redemption in Indigo in my bag; based on that, I can say that Unraveling works even without knowledge of the prior book, though it might read less weirdly with. And now I should go get Redemption in Indigo off my shelf, where it’s been sitting for far too long, waiting for me to read it.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories, Kat Howard. Freebie book at ICFA, read on the plane home. As the title suggests, a large percentage of these stories riff off folklore in some fashion, and specifically off northern European folklore. The other running theme in them is Women Done Wrong By Men, which will probably speak deeply to some readers, but I am not one of them. The stories that wandered in a more New Weird/surrealist direction often didn’t click for me, but on the other hand I really enjoyed “Once, Future” (novelette at least, quite possibly novella-length), with a group of college students whose class assignment causes them to begin incarnating Arthurian legend, and also “The Calendar of Saints,” set in an alternate history where figures like Galileo are saints of the church, and following a female duelist who winds up at the center of a challenge to the holy Laws of Science.

Books read, January 2019

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Not even when it’s my second read-through in as many months.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Re-read, if I can call it that when I don’t think I’ve read this since I was twelve. I was trying to remember Scrooge’s dismissive description of Marley’s ghost, and wound up deciding to read the whole thing — starting before Christmas, but I got interrupted and didn’t finish until early January. I’m struck, as a recent article which I have now lost pointed out, by how non-religious the book is: yes, Christmas, and there are some passing references, but this is very much the Victorian “social gospel” rather than anything overtly Christian.

Deep Wizardry, Diane Duane. Second book in the Young Wizards series, and it’s been fun to see people’s expressions when I tell them the protagonists spend most of the book as whales. 😀 Beautifully-done observations of different whale types; I can’t judge the accuracy, because I don’t know enough to do so, but they stood out as very vivid. And oh, the shark. I told my sister, who adores sharks, that it’s the best shark character I’ve ever seen — not in the “cute and cuddly cartoon animal” way, but the cold and yet necessary killer.

By Fire Above, Robyn Bennis. Sequel to The Guns Above. Her airships continue to be flying deathtraps, and I wanted to rip my hair out when the characters have to follow absolutely moronic orders because that’s the way the military works. But after a slow-ish start involving social politics, we get insurrections in an occupied city, and clever aerial maneuvering winning the day, both of which are fabulous. This book gets pretty dark — some characters make horrifying yet necessary decisions, and some turn out to be kind of awful people — but not unrelentingly so; the plot drags you down and down but then back up again at the end. And there is also still quite a bit of humor.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North. The conceit of this book is that it purports to be a repair manual for a time travel machine, only the manual says “sorry, you can’t actually repair this, so instead we’ll tell you how to re-invent a lot of basic technologies so life can at least suck less in whatever time period you’ve been stranded in.” The tone is overall hilarious, in a voice that reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s blogging, though the puns that subtitle nearly every chapter started to wear thin after a while. It’s chock-full of interesting trivia (like every avocado you’ve ever eaten descending from a single tree with a backstory that genuinely makes you ask “are you sure time travelers weren’t involved?”), and makes it clear both how many technological advancements were more a matter of figuring out the relevant ideas rather than having the material capacity to create them, and how often things got invented and then either forgotten or not used for their real potential.

Having said that, although its explanations of how to build everything from a simple smelter to a battery using basic technology are remarkably concise, don’t try to hold this book to too high of a standard: yes, it sort of tells you how to build these things, but successfully building them would require a lot more instruction than this book provides, or else a lot of trial and error. Also, while I’m sure everybody who reads this has a list of technologies North didn’t include and should have, I’ve got to REALLY side-eye the lack of looms. He tells you how to build an efficient spinning wheel, then blithely says this will help you make “thread, which you can sew into clothing!” Uh, no, dude — there’s kind of a vital step in the middle there that you just waltzed straight past. That’s the one thing I truly feel he should have included, and didn’t.

Kingmaker: Stolen Land, Tim Hitchcock, and Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, Rob McCreary. Two modules in the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, which are pre-written materials for running an RPG campaign. I read these two because I wanted to know what a Pathfinder module actually provides to a GM, and since we already played through these two in a campaign, I wasn’t going to spoil myself for anything (I skipped the “campaign outline” in the first one) and could also compare it against my actual experience of it in play.

On the whole . . . eh? I admit I want more interconnectedness, instead of a main plotline and then a bunch of random side quests, but I also recognize that’s not what these set out to provide. Mainly I’m grateful to my GM for noping right out of the NPC backstory where the guy is in exile because his lover falsely accused him of rape when her husband found out about the affair, because that’s some straight-up bullshit. There’s more other bits of incidental sexism along the way that grated, too, like the “flirty” female NPC described in a single sidebar who offers a cloak of resistance +1 and a “kiss . . . or possibly more” in exchange for completing a quest. (Also one bit of stealth gay — a dead male bandit who told “his lover” about a cache of treasure, but said lover died in “his attempt” to retrieve it — for what little that’s worth.) But I straight-up loathed the fiction being told in installments across the modules. In the first installment, written by James L. Sutter, the protagonist is an arrogant and unlikeable asshole who evaluates the few female characters on their attractiveness and probability of him getting them into bed, and then the story goes out of its way to reinforce how fat and gross and disgusting the villain is. The second installment, written by Richard Pett, almost manages to be funny with its militant convent of Iomedae — with nuns holding titles like the Mistress of Improvised Combat Using Common Kitchen Utensils — except that a) they take a “sworn oath of chastity and violence toward men” and “horribly punish any man who dares touch them, think impure thoughts about them, or look at them. They don’t even have candles in the convent — too phallic,” b) they are insanely and pointlessly abusive toward their novices (including, of course, our cross-dressing male “heroes”), and c) at the end of the story it comes out that they’re too stupid to realize the male kobold they randomly decided is “the embodiment of purity and goodness” and is therefore allowed to stay in the convent is systematically robbing them blind. Plus half a dozen innocent people get murdered by assassins chasing the main characters, which I guess we’re supposed to think is funny? Because the idiot protagonist thinks they’re all dropping randomly dead of heart attacks?

If I wind up reading through the later modules in the path, I’m not even going to bother looking at the fiction.

High Wizardry, Diane Duane. Third in the series, and it turns out I’m not reading the updated versions, going by the DOS prompt on the Apple IIIc Dairine is using, which means I’ll probably want to pick up something other than the library ebook for A Wizard Alone — I believe that’s the one with the autistic character. I feel like I started to slightly lose the thread of what was going on metaphysically toward the end, probably because I was reading too fast; I’m also a little surprised Dairine didn’t take some harder lumps for her flaws and mistakes along the way. (I actually expected, based on early stuff, that the Lone Power would manage to temporarily fool or sway her, and Nita and Kit would have to give her a wake-up call.) But still: very good reading.

A Wizard Abroad, Diane Duane. Fourth in the series, and I see why people generally say this one is weaker. It gets off to a slow start, its exposition thuds down in somewhat less digestible blocks than usual, and in the end Nita and Kit are just kind of along for the ride; they’re not the linchpin of resolving the conflict, and the role Nita plays in facilitating that resolution isn’t all that compelling, because the buildup to it didn’t really hook me. (It felt like anybody else could have yelled “Do it!” and that would have been just as effective.) On the other hand, as somebody who’s actually familiar with the Lebor Gabála, I like seeing a story that doesn’t just deal with Irish mythology on a surface level but gets down into the guts of it, and I liked the overall feel of what Duane was doing with the Sidhe etc, and the Powers loving Ireland too much to leave it alone the way they did with other parts of the world.

Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, A. Zee. More research on Chinese food. Zee’s approach to talking about language kind of grated; I recognize that he’s trying to counteract the Anglophone “ermahgerd, Chinese is impossible to learn!” way of thinking, but I kept reading his “see how much you’ve already learned! It’s so easy!” comments in the kind of voice one uses towards a toddler. (Especially when he burbles happily about “see, if you know the water radical, you can tell these characters have something to do with water — isn’t this easy?” and then later on just kind of mutters “oh, ignore that water radical, it’s only there for phonetic purposes” and sweeps it under the rug.) But there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about food and folklore and culture, and I liked it best when it got away from trying to persuade me I could totes learn Chinese and instead dove into poems and drinking games and the like.

Books read, November-December 2018

The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon. Read for blurbing purposes, and my copy was provided by the editor; it’ll be out in February. This is epic fantasy; if I attempted to summarize its plot it would sound dreadfully cliche. (An ancient evil dragon called the Nameless One is breaking free after a thousand years of imprisonment, and people must band together to defeat it.) But when you look at the actual story, it doesn’t read like that at all — for reasons that have a great deal to do with the worldbuilding, which I adored. The two main locations are clearly based on England and Japan circa what in Europe was the Renaissance and in Japan was the Tokugawa Era (closed-country policy and all), but there’s more going on with Inys and Seiiki than a mere name swap; among other things, Shannon does a brilliant job of coming up with a religion for Inys and its neighbors that feels believably European without being any form of Christianity. She also does something I love, which is create a situation where lots of people think they have the truth of what happened in the past, and none of them are entirely right — or entirely wrong. I felt the second half rushed a bit, losing the fine attention to detail that I’d been admiring so much in the first half, but it’s still excellent reading. A review will be going up at the New York Journal of Books closer to the pub date.

The Queen of Swords, R.S. Belcher. Read for the NYJB; full review is here, since I was reviewing for the paperback publication date, and the hardcover came out a while ago. I didn’t actually realize, when I requested this one from the queue, that it was the third in a series; I haven’t read the first two, which almost certainly colored my reactions here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard. A very, very loose novella-length retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in a post-apocalyptic world where the Beast is a female dragon — of the Asian rather than European variety. The worldbuilding here is incredibly dense, enough so that I actually wound up disoriented from time to time; the Vanishers and their relationship to the world, and the nature of what they left behind when they vanished, is complicated enough that I could have used a lot more time to explore it.

The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit. I can’t remember anymore where this title came up, but it made me think “huh, I’ve never read that much Nesbit,” so I picked it up in Gutenberg ebook. Reasonably enjoyable, but I’m honestly a bad audience for a story in which kids screw things up constantly because they’re kids and don’t realize how terrible their ideas are; I wind up getting frustrated at them. Some amount of that, I can cope with, but this book is basically a series of that happening over and over again, which meant that I went “argh!” a lot. But Nesbit’s writing is charming nonetheless.

The Storm Runner, J. C. Cervantes. Second book from the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which is basically “Rick Riordan uses his name to help promote authors of color telling stories like the ones he tells, about their own mythologies.” I was very much looking forward to this one because Mesoamerica is one of my random nerderies, and I loved when it got past the kind of standard-issue Rick Riordan “kid finds out he’s half-divine” setup and into the guts of Maya myth. (White Sparkstriker: not high on the list of mythological figures you hear about if you haven’t gone diving into the Popol Vuh.) But overall, it’s a bit like the Nesbit above; I’m not the best audience for a middle-grade book, and occasionally found myself impatient with the middle-grade-ness of it. I had the same feeling about Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book from the imprint. On the other hand, the list of upcoming titles is essentially a giant pile of catnip for me, so middle-grade-ness notwithstanding, I’m likely to go on reading these.

Sekrit Projekt R&R My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count. Even when half the book in question was written by Alyc.

The A.I. War, Daniel Keys Moran. I may very well write a whole blog post about these books later, because reading this reminded me how much I enjoy the series, despite its unfinished and pretty much guaranteed never to be finished state. This one came out in (I think) 2011, and I bought the ebook at the time, started reading it, and . . . I don’t know. Got interrupted somehow, and I’m not sure why it took me this many years to get back to it, because once I picked it up again I devoured it in a couple of days. Moran reminds me somewhat of Neal Stephenson in that I could not in good conscience recommend that any writing student of mine imitate some of his techniques, but they work, even though they shouldn’t. And I really appreciate that Trent goes out of his way to save the lives even of the people who are trying really hard to kill him, and that he keeps his sense of humor no matter what’s going on.

Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters, ed. N.X. Sharps and Alana Abbott. My own work doesn’t count, but that’s only one story in this volume. Kaiju! Smashing things! Or sometimes not! Unsurprisingly, my favorite stories in this one were the ones that got the furthest away from the mode of “giant monsters are destroying things and people must defeat them.” But all of them have giant monsters of one sort or another, because that’s the point.

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas O. Höllmann, trans. Karen Margolis. File this one firmly under the header “very broad overview of the history of Chinese cuisine” — it’s only about a hundred and fifty pages long. But overviews have their place, and I found this one extremely useful for research purposes, as it covered everything from ingredients to implements to cooking techniques to restaurants. The one place where I felt like the overview-ness became a bug rather than a feature was when it came to the twentieth century; the upheavals from both technological and political change are huge enough that they really can’t be lumped in with the previous two thousand years, and trying to do so means the text skips like a rock off of some things that even I, with my extremely marginal knowledge of modern Chinese history, can tell needed way more unpacking than that. Everywhere else the summary nature felt like a good orientation, but not there.

It Happened at the Ball, ed. Sherwood Smith. Ditto above re: having story in here, except replace “kaiju” with “dancing.” (Er. Not that dancing is destroying things and people must defeat it. You know what I mean.) Lots of historical fiction in here, because the theme of the anthology is balls or other events that feature dancing, but not all of it is historical, and some of the dancing is more alluded to than shown. Which is good, because I tend to glaze over at anthologies where the theme is so narrow, and/or authors observe it so narrowly, that every story winds up feeling the same.

Books read, October 2018

Shadow of the Fox, Julie Kagawa. YA epic fantasy with a Japanese-inspired setting, reviewed here at the New York Journal of Books. I liked the premise of this one, but it didn’t really deliver on the character front, which was a pity.

So You Want to Be a Wizard, Diane Duane. Somehow I missed these books back in the day. I’ve been hearing about them for years, but only just recently picked up the first one. It reminds me a lot of Madeleine L’Engle — a similar feeling to the magic, a similar vibe to the cosmological threat, and a similar impression of kindness and compassion on the character level. My library has all of them in ebook form, which really facilitates mainlining the whole series; I anticipate reading at least several more, though I’ve gotten the impression from friends that there’s a point at which the quality really tapers off.

(I’m also given to understand that the books were revised in recent years. Since I’m reading ebooks, I’m pretty sure it’s the revised version, but I don’t know what changes were made.)

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa, trans. John Bester. Another one read for the New York Journal of Books, but that review isn’t live yet. It’s a collection of short stories by an author who lived in the early twentieth century; most of them have the feel of animal fables. On the whole I found them fairly slight, but as with the Duane, there’s a feeling of compassion that was very pleasant spend time with.

The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang. First in a series of epic fantasy novellas. I really liked the setting in this one, and the overall shape of the story, but . . . it read to me like the Cliff Notes of the story itself. There were so many things that got disposed of in a single scene, with no setup beforehand or development afterward, and things that got dropped in without prior context — like when one of the characters had to fight someone from their past, except this was the first we’d ever heard of that person, so it really didn’t carry much weight. The plot here elapses over a period of decades, and there’s enough raw material that it easily could have filled a novel. I didn’t dislike the novella, but that’s the problem: because I liked it, I wanted to see all the things in it get properly developed, rather than done on fast-forward.

A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny. Been meaning to read this one for ages, but I’d gotten it fixed in my head that I had to read it in October, and furthermore that I had to read it in “real time” — each chapter takes place on a different day in October, and I wanted to read it at that pace. Which is silly and unnecessary, and in fact I screwed up a few times and had to read two or three days’ worth in a sitting. But on the whole I (finally) accomplished what I wanted to. And I enjoyed the book; as my husband says, it does a lovely job with its canine protagonist (and does so while also having a decent feline character, which is a thing not all authors can manage), and I was glad it kept the Lovecraftian stuff mostly alluded to rather than shoving it up in your face. There were some amusing twists, too. And now I have read it, and there’s that small life goal checked off the list.

Books read, August-September

Writing has left me with relatively little time for reading, the last couple of months, and it hasn’t been helped by the sheer size of some of the things I’ve been reading. But I’ve managed to finish a few:

The System of the World, Neal Stephenson. YOU GUYS YOU GUYS I’M DONE. It only took me about five and a half years. Not for this book alone; I apparently started Quicksilver in April 2013, finished it in February 2014, and completed The Confusion some time in mid-2015 (July, August, or September; I lumped all three months together in my post). I was bound and determined to finish this one before September, so I could tell myself it had only been less than three years in the making.

What I said about the previous two persists here: as a novel I don’t think it’s very good, because honestly half the time I had no idea where the story was going. But I enjoyed reading it, which is a different measuring stick entirely. In fact, I kept reading bits of it out to my husband and sister, because there were so many funny moments and hilarious lines. And only Neal Stephenson would make one of the two climactic sequences of the ending a frickin’ Trial of the Pyx.

An Illusion of Thieves, Cate Glass. Read for blurbing purposes. Epic fantasy in a world where magic is illegal, with a main character trying to keep herself and her brother alive and their magic hidden. There’s clearly more being set up here for the long term; the characters resolve the immediate problem, but there’s a bigger question of attempts to reform their society, which are going to take longer to deal with.

Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. Superhero urban fantasy, with Asian main characters, set in San Francisco. There’s a certain pleasure in reading something that takes place in a place you know; there’s also a lot of pleasure in Kuhn’s writing. The main character is actually the assistant to a superheroine, handling her marketing and PR and so forth, but she has a superpower of her own that she’s reluctant to use. I found the climactic plot developments the least satisfying part of it, but the relationships are the real driver here: not just of the romantic sort, but also familial and the friendship between Evie and her boss, which goes back to childhood and has fallen under increasingly untenable strain now that Annie Chang is Aveda Jupiter, Protector of San Francisco. If you can survive wanting to drop-kick Aveda through the back cover, those problems do eventually get addressed; I still want more out of that, but since the second book in the series focuses on Aveda, I suspect there’s more growth coming.

Important Beyond All This: 100 Poems by 100 People, ed. Larry Hammer. I’ve been following Larry’s weekly poetry posts on his blog, and enjoying his selections often enough that I picked up this collection. I didn’t like everything in it; in particular — and to my surprise — I found some of the longer narrative pieces especially hard to get through. They’re of course much shorter than novels, but the ways in which poetry can digress into description etc. meant I kept losing the thread of the story, and wound up feeling like “ugh, why are you using so many words.” But some of the other narrative poems worked fine for me, and I found a number of shorter works that were new to me and quite engaging.

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. Picked this one up on the recommendation of Marissa Lingen, who said “I didn’t want to be the progressive white woman who was all ‘oh I don’t need to learn any of this stuff’ and definitely needed to learn this stuff.” Since that was a sentiment I could identify with, I read the book. And while I did know some of it, there were parts that were new — and I especially found it useful to see how Oluo uses the language of abusive relationships to talk about white supremacy and racial prejudice. I can think of ways to use that in explaining concepts like microagressions across to some people.

From Zero to DNF in 3.6 Seconds

There’s a book I was almost done with and about to put on my list of Books Read — until it managed to drive me off in no time flat. And I want to post about why.

Content warning for sexual assault, including upon dead bodies. Which right there is the tl;dr of why I stopped reading, but I want to unpack the situation a bit more.

(more…)

Books read, July 2018

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini. Exploration of the principles and techniques used by what Cialdini calls “compliance professionals” — anybody whose job is to get you to go along with them. Salespeople, fundraisers, advertisers, interrogators, con artists, etc. I have to admit it’s a little creepy reading this book, identifying all the knee-jerk reflexes we have and how they can be leveraged against us . . . but also very useful for a writer, because it gives me a more solid grounding for figuring out how to get one character to manipulate another. The six broad categories Cialdini identifies are reciprocity, consistency and commitment, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity; he says up front that he’s leaving out material self-interest because it’s straightforward and self-evident. Just ignore the part in his introduction where he tries to explain participant observation (a bedrock of anthropological fieldwork), because omgwtfbbq no, it isn’t “spying” or “infiltration.”

(more…)