read it: dread nation

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book quite as much as I enjoyed this one.

Dread Nation is an alternate history novel set in the Civil War era, but the War Between the States has been interrupted by the rise of zombies. It has a combat school, an ass-kicking heroine who isn’t afraid of kicking ass (and isn’t apologetic about it), and a running joke about corsets. And on top of all that, it delves into power systems, racism, and exploitation.

Things I totally love:

  • The characters are so well done. Jane, our heroine, is compelling and flawed. Her voice is strong and unique. She is unapologetic about what she thinks needs to be done, and she has strong loyalties to those she cares about (even if she doesn’t always want to admit she cares about them).
  • Throughout the story, Jane’s relationships to the (really excellent) side characters changes and strengthens. There’s no artificial conflict or breaking apart of allies for the sake of drama.
  • The chapter titles are a hilarious bit of subtext, and each chapter begins with excerpts from letters written by Jane or her mother.

The plot is very much tied to and driven by the characters, and it propels you forward. I read around a third of it before bed a couple nights ago and then finished it yesterday morning. Just couldn’t stop reading.

Right now, it seems like everything being published is some kind of trilogy or series, so this is the first of one of those. Some really interesting questions were raised (Gideon? Jane’s mother? Ida? Miss Duncan?), so I’m going to be on the look out for book two.

algorithms are weird

I log my reading pretty excessively. Originally, I started with the spreadsheet and the bullet journal. But then I was also trying out Airtable for it, and I couldn’t decide if I like Airtable better for it or the spreadsheet so I started using both. So now the logging goes into my bullet journal (in the form of a list and also small notes I make to myself), an Airtable, a Google Sheet, and Goodreads.

…I’m not obsessive, you are.

Anyway, the point of this aside is not to tell you about my excessive book logging habits. It’s to tell you about the weirdest Goodreads book recommendation I’ve gotten so far.

I actually laughed (well, chortled) out loud at this:

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Nothing about Nine Goblins says that I should read Game of Thrones in German. (I can only assume Die Herren von Winterfell translates to something like The Men? of Winterfell — I don’t speak German, but from context and a lifelong interest in languages, I can guess with some confidence that Das Lied von Eis und Feuer means The Song of Ice and Fire.)

I logged Nine Goblins by T. Kingfisher not too long ago. It’s an excellent little fantasy novella about a goblin squadron, an elf veterinarian, a war, and creepy magic. It has a high degree of both slapstick personality and appropriately horrific depictions of war/death. It is very T. Kingfisher slash Ursula Vernon (who is a favorite).

It is nothing like Game of Thrones. Like not even really a little bit. The two are not related. I would not go up to someone who really enjoyed Game of Thrones and was looking for book recommendations and say “Hey, you like epic fantasy that reads vaguely historical, have you tried this little novella? A unicorn gives birth in it and there’s a funny and graphic description of that process.” And  I wouldn’t do it vice versa either (although in my experience, it works a little better in the latter direction).

The reason I wouldn’t cross-recommend these things is because, well, it doesn’t make any sense. Unless your recommendations are purely just, you like this one super broad category so here’s another book that fits in that category even though it doesn’t have anything else in common with the first. It’s like if you told me you liked Dune, and I told you to go read a book about deserts. They are both interesting and good and have a lot of sand, but liking one doesn’t mean you have any interest in the other.

I probably wouldn’t even find this recommendation so funny knowing the fallibility of algorithms save for the “View all books similar to Nine Goblins” at the bottom. Hm. I should click that link and see what else it thinks…

read it: damn fine story

I’ve read a bunch of writing books. And if I’m going to be honest, I’m going to read a bunch more writing books. In part, it’s because there’s still a part of me that’s looking for the secret even though I know there isn’t one. (Except, write.) (But also, maybe it’s in this other book over here…) But mostly, it’s because I like to read writing books.

I like the memoir-y tomes that talk about the struggling novice writer and the eventual triumph. The ones that meditate on the inner life of writers. The ones that make me think, maybe these are my people.

I like the books that present yet another way to look at structure and plot and character and narrative. Anything to try to help me figure out my own thoughts on those things.

So. I read books on writing, and as I do, the magpie part of me likes to pull out the shiny bits from each of those books and collect them.

When I found myself furiously scribbling notes and collecting quotes for reading during the dark times, I figured it was time to just endorse this whole book: Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig.

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This pic ended up a little more holiday than intended.

If you’ve never read any Chuck Wendig, well, you should give him a try. He has a lot of books and a prolific blog and a hilarious Twitter feed — lots of different ways in which you can familiarize yourself with his writing. (Seriously, check out some of his Twitter exchanges with author Sam Sykes. One of them even became a horror movie.)

He has a very particular style, especially when he is talking about writing (or politics), that is equal parts hilarious, profane, and profound.

In Damn Fine Story, he breaks down the elements of a good story and tries to verbalize how to be a good storyteller. He goes through structure and character and theme, and uses a lot of Die Hard and Star Wars references to get his points across. The book is irreverent and joyful and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, in short, very much Chuck Wendig.

In lieu of just quoting the whole thing to you, you should go grab a copy and read it for yourself. And if you know any writerly friends, it would make for a good holiday present.

read it: the mere wife

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Wow.

Beautiful, lyrical, poetry in prose. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite a voice like this before. It’s gorgeously lush.

The Mere Wife is a modern retelling of Beowulf set in suburbia. I’m not quite sure how to categorize it — fantasy, contemporary fiction, magic realism? I’ve mostly settled on fantastical because that seems most apt. It focuses on women and the power women wield, the price of protection and love, and different kinds of monsters. It reads like two stories happening at once — the literal text read as is, and the story that the decadent prose is concealing. It’s hard to tell which one feels more true.

If you’ve read Beowulf previously, the parallels to and deviations from the text are fascinating. (I like the Seamus Heaney version though it’s been years since I’ve revisited it. It turns out Headley has a new translation forthcoming from MCD x FSG also — I might wait to revisit Beowulf until that’s out.) If you haven’t read Beowulf, that’s okay. You don’t need to in order to enjoy this book.

Some people will be turned off by the writing style — if you only like windowpane writing, this might not be for you; this text makes you work for it a little — but I urge you to give it a shot.

book blind dates

Went to Bookfest yesterday with a friend and wandered around the booths. While we were walking about, we came across a display of books all wrapped in brown paper. I’d heard of book blind dates before, but I’d never actually come across on in the wild. In exchange for a small donation, you got a literary surprise (one surprise for 3$ or two surprises for 5$). The hints on the cover ranged from the effusive to the hilariously concise.

Here are some of my favorites:

I went home with these:

Such a great idea for fundraising.

read it: the lady astronaut series

I first came across Mary Robinette Kowal about ten months ago when I started listening to Writing Excuses. I guess technically, I had a couple of her books from before that — I had already bought her book Ghost Talkers a couple months before, and her book Shades of Milk and Honey (the first in the Glamourist Histories, which she describes as Jane Austen with magic) a year before that — but I hadn’t read either of them yet, so it kind of doesn’t count.

On Writing Excuses, MRK quickly became my favorite speaker (sorry, Dan, Howard, and Brandon). She’s so analytical and relateable when she talks about constructing a story. She gives concrete tips and frameworks for developing plot. Her way of thinking about things just really clicked for me.

But still, I dragged my feet on reading her novels. Sometimes I do that when it comes to books or authors that I know will resonate. I don’t know if it’s because I’m savoring the anticipation or if I’m just wary of being sucked in. And I knew I was going to be sucked in – by that point, I had read several of her short stories and taken many of her writing/plotting/characterization insights to heart.

And I wasn’t wrong about that bit. Ghost Talkers was at least a standalone. After I read Shades of Milk and Honey, I immediately went and bought the rest of the series, breaking my 2018 book buying rule. Then I proceeded to forgo reasonable amounts of sleep for the next three days as I finished all the books.

All that to say: Mary Robinette Kowal is now one of my favorite authors. And I’m going to tell you to read her Lady Astronaut series.

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read it: so you want to talk about race

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Go. Buy. Read. Now.

I finished So You Want to Talk About RaceSo You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo this weekend, and it was great. But even more than that, it was (is) necessary. Essential. It is honest and clear and direct and kind. This book should be required reading for everyone everywhere.

If I had the means, I would buy a copy for everyone I know. But I don’t, so instead, I’m telling you to go buy it, borrow it, read it, and then tell everyone that you know. Then start having some of the hard conversations, with yourself, with others, with government officials coming up for re-election…

read it: a witch’s guide to escape

I was making the usual rounds through the spec fic magazines that I read and came across the story A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow in Apex Magazine. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the title made me think of Ursula Vernon’s (T. Kingfisher) no-nonsense gardening witches and evoked memories of Patricia C. Wrede and her practical heroines.

And, you guys, I totally didn’t expect it but this story brought me to the edge of tears from the degree of resonance I felt. The depiction of reading and the importance of books, the role of librarians and libraries – these things made me feel and remember (strongly enough that italics were warranted) aspects of my childhood that I hadn’t reflected on in a long time.

The story itself is beautifully written and told using card catalog numbers as a great little framing device. The idea of librarians as a secret coven of witches whose role is to make sure you have the right book at the right time made me think of all the best teachers I have had the fortune of learning from. There are book references and little pop culture jokes peppered throughout in the most unobtrusive way possible. It all flows together so nicely.

So nicely in fact that after I read it the once, I immediately read it again to just recapture the feeling of being lost in the stacks, sitting on the floor between aisles and reading for hours – to escape, to find something that I couldn’t articulate, to live. I want to imprint this story in my brain so that I can refer to it when I’m craving connection and understanding, so that I can remind myself that the magic of books is real and has touched other people too.

I’m still a jumble of feelings about it; there are things I want to examine as to why I felt so much when I read it. But in the meantime, you should definitely check the story out.

book of dust

It’s here!

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Okay, so actually it came out last Thursday. But my copy didn’t get here until today (I was a dummy and chose 5-6 day shipping because dumb reasons).

When I heard that Philip Pullman was writing a new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage, I was incredibly excited. The new trilogy opens with The Book of Dust and is set in the same world as His Dark Materials but ten years earlier. (Correction: The trilogy is called The Book of Dust, and the first volume is La Belle Sauvage.)

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) had a huge impact on my formative reading years. When I picked up The Golden Compass and met Lyra and Pantalaimon for the first time, I was a child (at a guess, maybe in 5th or 6th grade). I had never read something before that resonated with me so profoundly. As Stephen Koch says, “Whenever it strikes, it is invariably telling you something vital about yourself. …The shock of recognition is a moment of excitement that shakes the soul. It may be hard to describe, but like other forms of love, you will know it when you feel it.”*

His Dark Materials left an indelible mark on my reading psyche, and taught me about loyalty and honor, friendship, sacrifice, and independence. Reading and re-reading it helped me through a lot of struggle and dark times. To this day, I still rank the trilogy at the top of my favorites list though it’s been years since I lost myself in those worlds.

All I want to do now is slide into those pages and be warmly welcomed home. (I try really hard not to hype myself up too much, but I don’t think that’s working this time.)

Excuse me now while I go devour some words. I’ll let you know how it goes.

*From The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch