A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Another classic that I just never got around to reading before.

And it’s deservedly a classic. Dickens absolutely skewers the ruling classes of three societies: his native England, pre-Revolutionary France, and the post-Revolutionary Terror. The snarky political commentary makes his dips into melodrama excusable.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can write in the third-person POV without insight into any characters’ thoughts or feelings at all, only their actions and words.
  • Admitting that there is a narrator telling the story (while standing outside of it) gives you a chance to comment on the action, not just tell it.
  • Even if readers can anticipate a turn in the story, if the characters don’t know it’s on its way, you can generate tension just in putting off the moment that that event happens.

Tubes by Andrew Blum

A nice, quick intro to the physical infrastructure of the internet. Doesn’t really go into how all those pieces work — there’s no discourse on the technology behind a router — but does build a mental image of the boxes, buildings, and people that keep the world connected.

Three things I learned:

  • ARPAnet’s first Internet Message Processing machine was installed at UCLA in 1969. The machines were manufactured on the East Coast, but only West Coast universities were open to the idea of the network at the time.
  • In 1998, The Netherlands passed two laws to pave the way for fiber everywhere. One law required landowners to give up right of way for holes to be dug, second law required any company digging a hole to lay fiber to also let other companies lay their own cable in the same hole and share the costs. The one-two punch made it cheaper and easier to lay fiber, and also blocked anyone getting a monopoly.
  • The busiest route in the world is between London and New York, with more internet traffic than any other line.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Fantastically well-done. Weaves together magic, fairies, Great War trauma, romance, sisterly rivalry, and the treatment of special-needs children into one cracking good story.

So very happy to discover there are sequels.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Dribble out your backstory. At the start, offer just enough to explain the choices that brought the character to that point. Introduce the rest later, as needed for the story.
  • You can get away with a romance between two characters that have little in common if you make their raw attraction clear and compelling.
  • Sometimes the greatest climaxes (or turns in the story) happen when the protagonist realizes something about themselves that they didn’t know before.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

Another strong portrayal of a villain from Grossman.

Avoids the trap of completely rehabilitating Nixon. He’s sympathetic without being likable, and interesting to follow without the reader always cheering them on.

Loses steam in the second half. There’s plot lines that go nowhere, scenes that could have been cut without changing anything, and the climax happens completely off-screen, with no buildup or release of tension.

Still, I learned a few things about writing:

  • Delivering most of your plot via dialog — so long as you’re not data dumping — can be a great way to keep the story moving.
  • The best villains think they’re the hero.
  • Restricting your book to one POV can be too confining. Multiple POV can let you explore other aspects of your world, which you might need if your story takes place somewhere very different.

Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

A 1990s trenchcoats-and-mirrorshades action film published in the 21st century with 1950s gender roles. An odd, frustrating, throwback of a book.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Be careful when porting an old genre to a new skin. Bringing along the social mores along with the other elements will make your book feel dated from the start.
  • Taking an otherwise-competent character and pushing them out of their element is a great way to both explore a new world and make it challenging for them.
  • In sci-fi, it’s not enough that the names of things — computers, cars, etc — change. Our relationship with them needs to change, too, or it’s just window dressing.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Basically perfect. It’s low-key, character-driven sci-fi, stuffed with cool ideas and diverse cultures. Completely scratched my Firefly itch, in a good way 🙂

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Can think of chapters as episodes of a TV series, with cuts between multiple points of view, similar beats, and cliffhanger endings.
  • Having the Shit Go Down at the end of the book rather than the beginning gives the reader time to know and care for the characters, making it more tense.
  • You can get away with an infinite amount of info-dumping if it’s a knowledgeable character explaining things to a clueless character.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Disappointing.

Starts out well, action pumping and character backstories fleshed out just enough to make you care, but not enough to stop the flow of the story.

But the world around them never congeals for me, and the atmosphere of threat and double-cross the story needs can’t happen without it.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Switching perspective characters early on is a great opportunity to give more context to what’s happening, since it’s another angle on the world
  • In a modern setting, you really can cut descriptions down to the bone, to put the focus on dialog and action
  • Can do character backstory in a single chapter, covering years of someone’s life, with breaks in-between

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

Fantastic. Absolutely nails the smugness and insincerity of the South, along with the surprise of finding help in unexpected places. Protagonist is a perfect mix of insecurity and snark.

Thank the gods it’s a series; can’t wait to read the next one.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Narrating a character’s internal debate in long-form is fine, so long as it’s in the right place: when the character is away from other people. Don’t do it during dialog.
  • You don’t need dialect to write Southern characters. Getting their facial expressions and hypocrisy right is enough.
  • Finding a real-life struggle that mirrors the fantasy one is a good way to ground it.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Masterful. Incredibly well-crafted series of nested narratives that simultaneously did a deep dive into Dracula lore and sucked me into a single family’s generations-long saga. Just…wow. So well done.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can use flashbacks to cover over narrative time that would otherwise be boring, like train (or plane) travel
  • To make an old myth feel fresh, look for the side that’s not usually given a starring role (like the Turkish side of the Dracula legend), and explore it.
  • Journals and letters are a great way to both nest stories, and keep each story personal, told by the person that lived it

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

It’s got an elderly kick-ass demon-assassin, zombies that can think, and a death goddess working at a small press. For that, I can forgive the continuity errors and the occasional odd plot point.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Watch out for the vague “some”: “something made her”, “something told her”, “some sort of sense”…it gets overused too easily.
  • Where you start your story affects how sympathetic your protagonist seems. Start it when they’re under stress, and readers automatically feel for them. Start it with them relaxed but complaining about how rough they’ve got it, and readers might not be as charmed.
  • Vivid, brief descriptions and snappy dialog can pull a reader through the roughest parts of your story.