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.

Strangely Beautiful, Vol 1 by Leanna Renee Hieber

Gothic” in the overwrought, melodramatic sense.

There’s some fantastic ideas in here, but it was tough one for me to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • People falling love notice everything about their beloved. If writing from the POV of a character falling in love, their thoughts will dwell on even insignificant details about their beloved.
  • Constant repetition of unexplained magical elements makes them annoying and boring. Conserve the magic, to make it interesting.
  • Use a deep dive into a character’s thoughts during conversation sparingly. Dialog should speed the story along, interrupting the flow with paragraphs of thought undercuts momentum and frustrates readers.

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Disturbing. Most of the characters are completely unlikable, especially the men: the worst are outright misogynists and racists, even the best act like superior assholes to everyone else.

Mamatas doesn’t pull any punches in exposing the sexism and harassment that happens at fan conventions. It makes for tough reading, both because the female protagonist is constantly experiencing it and because the male narrator, whose death she’s investigating, is one of the superior assholes it’s hard to sympathize with.

Worth reading, though, if nothing else than as a “Do I act like this?” check.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • – Can get away with very skimpy descriptions — or none at all — if you choose the proper perspective to tell the story from (in this case, a corpse’s).
  • Protagonist’s motivation for pursuing the mystery can be thin, if the reader’s interest is piqued enough for them to want to see it solved
  • Characters will always rationalize their behavior. Even when dead.

Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Beautiful. Simple, tight prose, telling a deeply moving story.

Can’t wait to read the next one.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • What a society condemns is just as important to making it feel lived-in as what it praises.
  • Characters don’t always have to be imposing their will on the world. They can show their inner character by the opportunities they take advantage of, as well.
  • In a world of bad choices and flawed people, heroes can be cruel and cowardly, and villains can show mercy.

On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories by Tina Connolly

A strong collection of stories. Connolly moves from near-future sci-fi to alternate world fantasy to present-day witches, populating each story with strong, unique characters.

Will definitely be picking up her novel, Seriously Wicked, which takes place in the same world as one my favorite stories from this collection.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • The thinner the story, the shorter the work should be. Don’t make the reader wade through lots of background or context just to get to the heart of events.
  • Writing in the present-day relieves you of a lot of world-building duties, lets you focus on creating great characters.
  • Even stories told via journal entries (or texts, or emails) can have a proper buildup to a climax.

Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

A cornucopia of female scientists and engineers that got left out of the history I learned in school.

It’s amazing how much these women accomplished considering how much was stacked against them. Time after time, in these biographies, I read how a brilliant scientist would be forced to work for free, because the university didn’t hire women. Often, they’d find employment in a German university, only to be kicked out once the Nazis took power and started firing Jewish scientists.

That kind of treatment would make me rebellious, want to stop my work completely and find something less important to do.

But these women persisted.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Grace Hopper was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in math from Yale. She invented the compiler, set the foundations for COBOL, and was considered so valuable to the Navy that she was called back from retirement to work another 19 years (!)
  • When Einstein needed tutoring in the higher math he needed to pursue his theory of General Relativity, he turned to Emmy Noether, the inventor of abstract algebra. Through the course of teaching Einstein, she invented the equations needed to set General Relativity on a solid mathematical footing.
  • Marie Tharp mapped 70% of the ocean floor, and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. She insisted that it was confirmation of continental drift for years (and was fired for it!) before theory became accepted.

White Horse by Alex Adams

Frustrating and disappointing. Adams’ writing is stuffed with metaphors, giving everything a dreamy quality that makes it hard to take anything seriously.

Didn’t help that I just came off reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which do a much better job of narrating a woman’s journey through a post-apocalyptic world.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • If readers already know the narrator survives a scene in a flashback, don’t try to wring tension out of their survival.
  • Readers need to know not only what your characters are doing, but why, if they’re going to care.
  • When writing a character from a different country, do several editing passes to be certain their dialog, analogies, and expressions all match where they’re supposed to be from.