2017 reading update!

Last time I had a baby I powered through a ton of books during my maternity leave. Breastfeeding: it’s constant and it’s kinda boring!. This time around I prepped my TBR pile in advance, greedily envisioning the months of fiction absorption ahead of me. Remember the Christmas haul?

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sweet, sweeeeet Christmas haul

I’ve made progress! But not anything like last time! Granted, I’m only 2.5 weeks into these early baby months, but I can already tell that my time isn’t going to be spent in nearly the same way as it was before. That’s partly due to the presence of my toddler, who proooobably won’t tolerate me reading and dozing in a rocking chair for an hour at a time once his dad goes back to work. It’s partly due to my inability to stop buying new books (but… book club! new releases! all those damn recommendations from the Barnes & Noble scifi blog!). As of right now I’m up to number 27 on my Reading 2017 list and way too many of those titles are not from the Christmas haul.

But there is another, far more exhilarating factor, and it is this:

My brain. It isn’t 100% mush.

!!!!

Last time I power-watched the entirety of Parks and Recreation plus a bunch of Netflix shows (Daredevil! Sense8! Orange is the New Black! The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!) and still read a ton of books. Baby was asleep? I was vegging in front of a show. Baby woke up? I was reading while breastfeeding. My brain couldn’t handle anything more.

This time around the newborn transition hasn’t been nearly so debilitating. I’ve already adjusted my daily life around having a kid, so there’s no culture shock to my routine. And I’ve already been sleeping in cruddy, non-consecutive increments for the last two years, so I’m as tired as I ever was, but now I have two years of coping mechanisms in place!

[Ask me again how those coping mechanisms are working in a couple weeks, when my husband goes back to work. This could very well be the delirious optimism of a woman who gets to take mid-morning naps.]

All of which is a long way to say: I’m not just reading and watching TV this time. I’m actually writing again already. Not a mind-boggling amount, but I’m editing the book I finished this spring, and submitting some short stories, and brainstorming some new ideas (though lord knows when I’ll have time to work on them). I’m feeling really good! Except between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m., when this baby likes to groan continuously in her sleep, and the cats start fighting, and the sun rises way too early and perks me up…

This post was supposed to be a reading update, so let’s move along with the recommendations now.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: A very humorously written prose retelling of some core Norse myths. I read the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda in college and loved them. They’re some of my favorite bizarre pre-modern stories. My only caveat would be that Gaiman captures the humor of Norse myth but not the fatalism. For me, part of the allure of Norse storytelling is its humor in the face of pending doom–Ragnarok is coming, nobody can stop it, and they’re all going to die. But hey in the meantime let’s laugh at Loki for getting impregnated by a horse.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: A book club pick. It was a little dry but very detailed, and I love reading about civil rights and people carving out spaces for themselves against the status quo, especially not in the 1960s. The 1960s had a lot going on, but according to Hollywood everything was perfectly stable through 1959 and then all of a sudden out of nowhere everything changed in the 1960s. That isn’t how history works! This stuff was brewing for decades! So anyway, you can imagine my discontent when the movie adaptation rearranged everything and shoehorned the women’s stories into the 1960s. And then made it seem like their coworkers were all racist assholes. Like, you’re actively denying these women recognition for earning the respect of their colleagues in the 1940s and 1950s, ignoring the legacy of WWII on the civil service workforce, and failing to give the scientific community credit for being more progressive than the society surrounding it, just to tell the same civil rights story you’ve told in a hundred other movies…

Moving on.

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah: Another book club pick. Apparently, I didn’t know nearly as much about apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa as I thought I did! Also, it was really funny! Also, it made me cry! Also, I’m a sucker for stories about people who love their mothers!

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett: The final volume of the Divine Cities trilogy. It was just as good as the first two (City of Stairs and City of Blades). The end made me very sad. Anyway, that’s a terrible blurb but trust me, go read them.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells: The first novella of The Murderbot Diaries. I’m suddenly reading and loving novellas, after long considering them a weird useless length in between short story and novel. This one was very entertaining. A security bot has become self-aware but keeps going about its normal duties so as not to frighten the people on the science team it works for. Oh and other people are trying to kill them.

Grunt and Packing For Mars by Mary Roach: Extremely entertaining non-fiction by a popular science writer. The first is the science of warfare (everything but weaponry) and the second looks at the incredibly detailed planning of the space program. I was absolutely convinced I had read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and loved it, so I put these on my wishlist. Anyway, it’s a good thing these were great, because it turns out I never read Stiff! I read a different humorous book about death and cadavers: The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson, also highly recommended. Anyway I guess now I’ve got to buy Stiff.

The last two Fairyland books, The Refrigerator Monologues, and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente: Just read everything by Catherynne M. Valente.

2016 in review: reading edition

It definitely feels like cheating to spend the entire month of January reflecting on the previous year.

But let’s continue!

So. Life is a balancing act. There are a limited number of conscious, capable hours in each day, a limited number of days per week. Where one priority rises, another must yield. The sun rises and it sets. The tide ebbs and flows. The–

Okay, this is a really obnoxious way of acknowledging the fact that my startling productivity in 2016 writing word count corresponded with a regrettable drop in reading time. Something must yield! I always start off striking a good balance (say, naptime is for writing, bedtime is for reading), and then my workaholic zeal takes over and EVERY FREE MOMENT MUST BE THE WIP! COME BACK WITH YOUR WIP OR ON IT!

My goal is 52 books per year. One story absorbed into the noggin per week. It’s an eyebrow-raising goal if you’re not into reading, but exceedingly modest in the world of voracious SFF fans. It’d be plain laughable in the even more voracious world of romance. But, as I said, I try to strike a balance. I need the bulk of my free hours devoted to writing, but reading is the reason I write! 52 times a year I get an opportunity to pick apart something unsatisfying and figure out why it didn’t work for me, or to rage in good-natured jealousy at something superb and try to figure out how to steal their magic tricks.

I even give myself cheats. The goal is stories, not page count, so I include graphic novels and some novellas right alongside my doorstop fantasy tomes.

On to the analysis! In the menu you’ll find my complete list of books by year under the READING tab.

I made my goal in 2015 with 54 books read. Funnily enough, the condition that dashed my word count that year (the horrors of newborn baby care) gave me ample time to read. When you’re breastfeeding for half an hour every three hours all day every day, you keep a stack of books on your boob supply shelf and power right through them!

In 2016, on the other hand…ehhh. 45 books. And that was with a post-Christmas graphic novel cram session cheat. That’s nearly two months of not reading! And you know what? Those months were November and December. Wowza but they wrecked my stats. I always kind of admire the tenacity of NaNoWriMo writers, because November is my absolute most unproductive month of the year. More power to you!

Some highlights from the 2016 book pile!

I came very late in the game to the Hellblazer comics this year, and very much want to continue reading them. I’m always strapped for comic cash, so they will now grow agonizingly slowly on my shelves along with Hellboy. I really need to start finishing series before I start new ones.

It was a year of great essay and memoir, including Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day, Yes Please by Amy Pohler, and Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley.

I also began or continued some very fine fantasy series, with installments including City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (the conclusion is coming out this year WOOHOO), Updraft by Fran Wilde, The Awakened Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin, and The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, I discovered the comic series Bitch Planet, which everybody knew about but me, and why didn’t anybody tell me before?! It’s a glorious mashup of 80s apocalyptic action movies (think Running Man) and 70s badass bitch exploitation movies. I need mooooaaar!

Except, oops, I’ve got 44 books on my TBR pile to get through first.

Happy reading, 2017!

ALCHEMY TO YAMADA: the 2016 book haul is here!!

They’re here! THEY’RE ALL FINALLY HERE!

By which of course I mean my birthday/Christmas book haul, the most important haul of them all! This really is my favorite part of the new year: stacking up my new books and daydreaming that I’ll have time to read them all before next January.

And this year I–haha, heehee, hoohoo. Oh my.

Between direct gifts and gift money, I acquired 44 new books.

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BUT AREN’T THEY BEAUTIFUL??

Believe it or not, I showed remarkable restraint! I combined nearly all of my gift cards and gift cash, yes yes, BUT I also had a big Target gift card, and even though Target sells books I used that for desperately needed winter wear, which I’ve needed for two months but kept putting off in favor of buying books.

“See?” I told my husband, “See how much money this will save us all year?? Now I only need to buy book club selections and also a few things I have on pre-order!”

I’ve gotten really good about reading from my existing TBR pile, so I only had 3 or 4 left from before. Close call! I nearly ran out! Considering I’m lucky if I have time to read 50 books in a year right now, and considering the aforementioned book club and pre-order situation, there is a crow’s throw’s chance in hell I’m finishing these in 12 months. It’s really tragic. I need to have another baby and pack in that primo boring breastfeeding time. “Husband! Feed our toddler! I have to breastfeed yet again and finish this chapter.”

Another option would be to convince my book club to pick things off my pile, I guess.

Anyway, what exactly is in these glorious stacks? Take a gander, look some of them up, and read along with me this year!

Fantasy/Scifi (stand-alone)

  • Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
  • The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
  • Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
  • Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Fantasy/Scifi (series)

  • The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente
  • The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
  • The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey
  • Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb
  • City of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  • Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  • Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik
  • Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
  • Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik
  • League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
  • Rebel Angel by Libba Bray
  • The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Fantasy/Scifi (short story collections)

  • Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
  • The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks
  • Classic Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson

Comics/Graphic Novels

  • Meanwhile by Jason Shiga
  • Astonishing X-Men vol. 1: Gifted
  • Batman: Year One
  • Bitch Planet book 1: Extraordinary Machine
  • Lumberjanes vol. 2: Friendship to the Max

Other Fiction

  • Overqualified by Joey Comeau
  • Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America by Leslie Knope
  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Nonfiction

  • The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
  • Grunt by Mary Roach
  • The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

 

*hyperventilates*

This is not a drill, you guys. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Okay, my writing blog is going to be ESPECIALLY writing-y until I settle down into my next long-slog project, because at that point it would be too boring to blog “yup, wrote more words, still got a lot to go.”

Until then, deal with my flailing panic because I’m even more of a nervous over-thinker between projects than I am during one. (I’m a wonderful person to live with, I assure you.)

I recently finished the rough draft of my western fantasy about ghosts and mermaids and a wild land that definitely takes sides. I set it aside to cool because lemme tell you… the first draft was a hot mess. The second draft drastically improved matters, but I’ve got a couple more tweaks to work on before I send it to my long-suffering beta readers.

To take my mind off the western, I outlined my next book (a third world fantasy about the rise and fall of a winged mecha-warrior in a city where the gods may or may not be gods). It’s the easiest I have ever outlined anything in my life. I know the structure and basic action of every chapter. And hallelujah I even learned my lesson from the last couple books and planned out the plot reveals instead of assuming I’d figure it out on the way.

(Silly Sam. You never figure it out on the way.)

I wrote the first chapter and loved it. THEN I got suspicious. Why so easy? I better let the outline cool off a bit and look at it with a critical eye, just to make sure I’m not missing something.

To take my mind off the western rough draft and the mecha-warrior outline, I wrote a short story (a scifi bit about a first contact mission going wrong, and also about the regrettable lack of female crewmembers in classic scifi). It might be good but it also might be a mess, as you can imagine at this point I’m just throwing my hands in the air because I need some sleep!

Okay but that’s not the end of my mania. I’m going to clean up the short story because editing 10 or 15 pages isn’t so bad. And I am on the verge of conquering the western edits, so I feel good about that.

But to take my mind off the western rough draft and the mecha-warrior outline and the scifi short, I paused to read a book this week. A recent award-winning book by an author whose other books I have greatly enjoyed.

And.

You guys.

The structure is alarmingly similar to the book I just outlined (following multiple timelines, when the main character is younger and training versus older and jaded). And the character naming convention is similar (based on your location and work). And one of the relationships is similar to that of my secondary characters.

*HYPERVENTILATES*
*FALLS OVER*
*TELL MY SON HIS MOTHER MEANT WELL*

There are obviously major differences in the character building, plot, setting, and themes. And the latter couple things are superficial enough. But I keep agonizing over those structural similarities because as a reader I would go “uh huh, somebody really liked Book Title by A. Better Author.”

I know it’s silly to compare. There are loads of books with dual timelines (though most seem to be historical fiction and therefore timelines about separate characters, according to my Googling). I think the first one I read was IT by Stephen King and it blew my 11-year-old mind. And that’s a whole cast of characters embarking on a parallel nightmarish mission as children and as adults, so yeah, it’s doing the “follow the same people before and after” thing.

Which is all to say: I’m calming down. I’ll write the book anyway, because I really want to and I think it says a lot. It was just bad timing that I read this one this week. In the very slim hypothetical future in which I sell the book and readers draw comparisons, I will cringe but still be happy I sold it. If nothing else, I’ll console myself with the fact that, in terms of the themes and styles that are currently top of the SFF market, I’m only a step or two behind the big leagues. In the end, it all boils down to execution anyway.

*BREATHING SLOWS*
*WISDOM PREVAILS*

Now. Back to edits.

diversity in fiction

There’s been an ongoing discussion about diversity in fiction for years. I’ve been following along, taking notes like a good little researcher. I’m invested in the SFF field in particular, but I catch ripples through the blogosphere when something blows up in realistic fiction, which is frequent.

I saw one going around this week about a blogger who (very politely but very stubbornly) insisted that diversity is cool and all, but it’s not cool to ask writers to diversify their casts if they don’t want to, because they should write whatever they want and it’s better to leave people out than write them poorly (oh and also if anybody tried to debate her she’d auto-block them). This kind of statement crops up a lot, and I think I even had a knee-jerk reaction like that when I was a teenager and first tip-toeing into writing discussion boards (“but what if I do it wrong!!”)

But then I read more about it. And also I grew up.

Fiction writing is a weird profession. Unless you are writing solely for yourself with no intention of publication, there is always a second party invested in your work: the audience. So as a writer you’ve got to be totally passionate and put your heart and soul into your work… AND you’ve got to be willing to let it go afterwards, to calmly assess criticism, and, if you want to appeal to your target audience, to listen to what they want.

I see some writers getting up-in-arms defensive about the lack of diversity in their work, but if you took away the political climate surrounding race (you shouldn’t, it’s important, but if you did), then what makes this different than any other constructive criticism? Are you opposed to all writing advice, or only writing advice about character-building? It’s a very odd blind spot, to me.

Consider this way of couching the same critique: “All of your characters are very similar and it makes for a bland read.” This should concern you. It is very lazy writing. Everybody in your book shouldn’t sound the same and have the same background. If you’re intent on improving your craft, one of the vital areas is characterization.

This applies to both realistic and fantastic literature. Your book takes place in New York City, but everyone is white? Um, unlikely. Your book takes place in Georgia and everyone is white? Come on now! If you can research the geography and the food and the history and the sights, you can spend some time researching who lives there. I guarantee it’ll result in a more engaging, authentic environment.

As for fantasy, you can make up whatever you want! You aren’t even in the situation of respectfully portraying a real culture, so all you’ve got to do is have basic awareness of the tropes surrounding color and then be a good creative writer and use your imagination to come up with something else. “Be creative” is basically the job title, after all. You actively choose every element to include or exclude.

And if you understand all of this, and you go out of your way to set your story in a very specific time and place that has an isolated white population that never interacts with anybody else–well, okay, that is definitely your prerogative. But maybe ask yourself why you’re going to so much effort to set up a situation in which, oops, it would be “unrealistic” to include anyone else.

This is how representation begets representation. I’ve never heard a female author whine that she doesn’t like to write male characters because she isn’t a man and doesn’t want to portray them incorrectly. There aren’t panels about how to write three-dimensional men. Why? Because there are already so many examples to mimic. Anybody who reads books can cobble together a male character without breaking a sweat, simply by mix-and-matching characteristics they’ve seen before and then adding a little backstory. What makes diversity challenging for some is that it means extra effort, extra research, extra reading.

When people say they wouldn’t know how to do it, so why do it at all, to me that’s code for “Not only do I never write outside my comfort zone, I never read outside my comfort zone.”

And if we’re not doing this because we like reading and we want to contribute new stories for other people to read, what’s the point?

baby bookapalooza

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Somebody wantee

I went up to my mom’s last weekend and picked up 133 baby and kid books from the family storehouse. Each of us had some books of our own, especially once we were in the elementary reading range (think Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps level reading), but most of the learning-to-read books were just passed kid to kid. Why rebuy?

Anyway, my kidlet is years away from using most of these, so I’ll probably share around the cousin network for a while, but it was a hoot to go through the storehouse and pick them out. There are some real gems, let me tell you! Let’s go through in categories.

First, of course, there is the “everybody had some of these!” category. Your Clifford the Big Red Dog, your Little Critter, your Richard Scarry. Oh, and of course your BerenSTAIN Bears, which everybody in the universe remembers as being BerenSTEIN but what do I know.

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I’m sorry this is clearly a prank by a time-traveler, it was definitely STEIN when I was a child

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Oh and while we’re here let me say I think somebody needs a swift slap on the ass

Next, of course, there is the “brand tie-in” category which is now generally dominated by Disney/Pixar. I’m not knocking Disney/Pixar, I’m just saying that my nostalgia button is hit much harder by Duck Tales, The Muppets, and Super Mario Brothers! 

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Okay Duck Tales is still Disney but c’mon

That Mario Brothers book is particularly great because they fully incorporated the magic mushroom element but also carefully backpedaled to discourage children from eating random sewer mushrooms.

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“Great gobs of purple pasta!”

Next up we get the “only nostalgic for me” category, which includes the fantastic story of The Little Red Hen. In this story the titular hen is trying to bake a loaf of bread. She goes around to her lazy friends asking for help at every step of the process, and at every step of the process her lazy ass friends make up shitty excuses and refuse to help. When she finally finishes her bread they all come snooping around and want to eat some. And what is the lesson here, kids? Say, “AW HELL NO YOU LAZY SHITS, I MADE IT MYSELF AND I’LL EAT IT MYSELF!”

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THE END

Also in this category we get the Strega Nona books by Tomie de Paola, about you got it, an old Italian witch grandma!

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Yep that is a boy disguised in girl’s clothing in the back. He just wants to learn Strega Nona’s magic!

Finally, there is the true reason for me cackling to myself all morning and writing this blog post. That would be the “wow THIS isn’t in print anymore!” category. I can’t get rid of any of these, because how would I ever find them again? There are a few different factors at work here. Firstly and dominantly there are all of the fairy tales and fables with gruesome plot lines, which have generally been Disneyfied over the years and spat back out in more kid-friendly versions.

But the “NOW YOU CAN READ!” series did not pull its punches. The vocabulary was simplified for first time readers, but those stories remained the same. Witness the horror that is The Little Mermaid.

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Suggested murder and suicide, cool

There is even this amazing page at the back encouraging children to make their own stories with all these new words they’ve learned.

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KNIFE

The Illustrated Classics that I have stacked up at the top of this post were another glorious series simplifying literature for new readers. Again, the vocabulary is brought down but the stories are the same. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame and then running, sobbing, to my mom because Esmeralda was executed and then the hunchback crawled onto her grave and died of grief.

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So long, Esmeralda

They even did a Tales of Mystery and Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, which resulted in this fabulous children’s illustration of Fortunato being buried alive in The Cask of Amontillado.

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The moral, kids, is don’t insult a Montresor

My final pick for the evening is the other type of “wow THIS isn’t in print anymore!” book. It was content originally written for children, as opposed to the simplified classics, but ummmmm I’ll let you see for yourself.

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Tomie de Paola strikes again

I do love this one. Oliver likes to dance instead of playing sports, so his parents send him to dance school. By the end the other kids stop making fun of him because they realize he is so good at dancing. It’s just a little story about acceptance and that it’s okay not to conform to gendered expectations. But you know. Woof. That title. That is some 1979 right there. I especially like all the Amazon reviews that say the book is unrealistic because bullies will only bully you worse if they watch you perform. But what are you gonna do? Dance on, Oliver.

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Oh Oliver

that f***ing rat!

When reading the same set of board books to my baby over and over (and over), I find myself making up new narration to entertain myself. I mean, hey, it’s not like he is anywhere close to learning to read yet! He doesn’t know what the book really says!

It reminds me of when my dad read to us when we were little. Because he was an ex-Navy man with the salty vocabulary to show for it, he entertained himself (and us!) by inserting curse words throughout. IT WAS THE HEIGHT OF COMEDY, YOU GUYS. Nothing is more thrilling to young children than the use of forbidden words. My particular favorite was some obnoxious little picture book about a bear that was afraid to go to sleep. A ‘sniveling shit,’ as I recall.

And THAT train of thought reminded me of the time I continued the grand tradition by sending my college-dwelling sister a modified children’s book for her twentieth birthday. This week, instead of anything funny or insightful, you get a picture book: the charmingly titled, That Fucking Rat!

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