Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

Keeping Score: January 1, 2021

We made it to a new year!

In the past, I’ve taken that for granted. One year rolled into the next, I got older, and the world kept turning.

Not this year. This year, reaching January feels like an escape, like ducking under a closing door just before it seals itself shut.

So a sincere Happy New Year to us all!

Novel’s at 19,864 words. I’m still butt in chair every morning, forcing myself to stay there until I hit my word count goal. Some mornings it’s easier, some it’s harder, but…I’m always making progress.

I’m actually starting to run out of runway on the research I’ve already done about the setting. Which means I’m having to make more things up out of thin air, and thus getting more things wrong. I’ve already had to revise a few scenes based on new reading I’ve done. That’ll happen more and more, I expect, until I can catch up.

I know that ultimately, I’ll need to do some heavy editing of this draft, once it’s complete. Not just to fix some inconsistencies, but also to ensure the things that are consistent are historically accurate. Or at least, as accurate as a non-specialist like me can get them in a fictional tale.

But since I know I’ll need to do it, it doesn’t scare me to get things wrong now. What’s important now, I think, is to get the emotional beats of the story right. If I can nail down the characters, and how they react to the things that happen to them, I can fix the details later. Even if those details mean I need changes to the events of the plot, that’s fine. So long as the emotional arc of things is right.

That’s my theory, at least.

I want to thank those of those you who’ve been reading me regularly through this hell year. You give me hope that someday, these novels I grind away at will see the light of publication.

And for my fellow writers, I offer a hope and a blessing: May your writing be a joy and comfort to you. May your inner editor take a vacation when you’re drafting. And may all your tales be true.

Onward to 2021!

Keeping Score: December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays!

I’m finally back in my office. All the house work we’ve had done for the last three months — while we lived, worked, ate, and slept sealed-off in the guest room — is over. Taking down the barrier between the guest room and the rest of the house was like opening a huge present; we were grinning like kids the whole time.

And the work all looks fantastic, and a little unreal. Like we’ve stumbled into someone else’s house. But no, it’s ours! And we can once again use it all.

So I’m back to watching the sun come up over the mountains just east of the city, hammering out words before the work of the day begins.

Speaking of which, the novel’s up to 18,000 words. So I’m putting out about 2,000 words a week, which is not bad, but does mean this draft won’t be done until looks away, does mental math sometime in June (?!).

Which is…fine, I suppose. That’s still a novel draft in less than a year. But if I only work on one project at a time, that means it’ll be six months before I get back to editing my last novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from my beta readers, and I’d like to incorporate it all before sending it out to agents.

Maybe I can keep working on the new draft during the week, and edit the other novel on the weekends? That’s technically not taking the weekend off, but it is taking a break from the current draft. And editing’s the kind of work that’s hard for me to track, in the sense of how many words I’ve covered. These editing passes I’ll need to jump around in the narrative, adding a bit of dialog here, changing a description there. It’s not linear work.

What about you? Do you work only one project at a time, even if that delays things? Or do you find a way to juggle multiple pieces at once?

Anyway, as we wind down 2020, I hope you and yours are coming through the pandemic safe. I hope the vaccine gets rolled out to where-ever you are soon, and that enough folks get it for the danger to pass.

Good riddance to 2020. I’ll see you all in 2021!

Keeping Score: December 18, 2020

Novel’s at around 16,400 words. I haven’t done today’s writing session, though, so I should finish out the week closer to 17K.

The deal is working, so far. Holding myself hostage, unable to go for my morning job or take a shower or have breakfast or anything until my writing’s done for the day, has been rather effective.

And I’m looking forward to the weekend again, when I can daydream and doodle and research and not have to worry about hitting a word count. That recharge time is proving important, for my mental health and for my writing.

Funny, I think I started this year by throwing away word count goals and the idea of penalizing myself for not meeting them. Here I am at the end of the year, once again setting daily word count goals and forcing myself to meet them. It seems not only do different techniques work for different people, different things can work for the same person at different times.

What about you? What previous writing habit have you brought back this year, if any? Or maybe there’s an old trick you’ve dropped?

Keeping Score: December 11, 2020

Novel crossed 15,000 words today!

My pace has slowed since NaNoWriMo, but I’m still managing about 2,000 words a week, which is pretty good for me. Puts me on track to finish this draft sometime early next year.

I’ve changed up my writing routine a bit, both to give myself more time to write, and to have a chance to recharge.

So I’ve made a deal with myself: I have to write in the morning, first thing, as soon as I get up. No news, no twitter, no email. Just writing, until the day’s words (at least 250) are done. I can take however long I want to set those 250 words down, but I can’t do anything else until I do.

Most days, I end up going beyond those 250. Once the pump is primed, the words keep flowing.

In exchange for this early-morning discipline, I only have to write on week days. Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are days off, now, just like they would be (I hope) if I were a full-time writer. If I did write full-time, I’d still need vacations. Still need days off. But I’d have no one to tell me when to take them, and I’d probably feel guilty if I did.

So I’ve made this deal. Treat writing like job, get it done first thing in the morning, and in return, I can take the weekends off.

Sunday was the first day I’ve deliberately taken off (from writing) in…months. I still did some research for the current book, digging up images and articles on Swedish manors built or renovated in the 18th century. I sketched some notes for future scenes. But I didn’t write anything, didn’t have to produce any words.

It was…incredibly relaxing. It was glorious.

And I came into Monday’s writing session recharged. Ready and eager to go.

This is the first full week I’ve been working under this self-made bargain. I’m looking forward to the weekend, having met my word count goal every day this week, first thing upon waking.

What about you? Do you ever take days off from writing? Do you feel guilty when you do, and if so, how do you handle it?

Keeping Score: December 4, 2020

So I didn’t win NaNoWriMo this year. It wasn’t even close.

But I’m not quitting on the novel. I’ve come too far not to see it through.

And NaNoWriMo has got me flexing my writing muscles again. After today’s writing session, I’ll have churned out almost 2,000 words in a single week. That’s not novel in a month pace, sure, but it’s a novel-in-a-few-months-pace, which is better than I’ve been able to achieve since the pandemic began.

Even so, I still feel pressed for writing time. I want to brainstorm for a bit, every day, before working on a scene. Or after finishing a scene, reflect on what might be missing from it, what I’ll need to add the next day. And that’s hard to do, when I’ve only got thirty minutes or so free to spend on the novel.

It’s good that I’ve got some vacation coming up at the end of the month, then. That’ll certainly give me more time in which to work.

But I want — I need — to carve out more time during a regular work day. Which might mean dropping some of my other hobbies (I’ve been brushing up my French, and learning Swedish) in order to make that time. Or maybe I’ll get up even earlier, so I can make that time at the start of the day.

Not sure what’s best. Gotta figure something out, though.

What about you? What do you do, when you feel like you’re not getting enough writing time?

Keeping Score: November 27, 2020

Did I say I could write at least half a day this week, free from distraction?

turns to self from last week: Oh my sweet summer child.

I’ve been able to put in a full day of writing just once. Once

Every other day, I’ve had my water shut off and construction going on in both the room right next to my temporary office (I’m currently working in the dining room) and above it. They’re grinding, sawing, singing, at random intervals, throughout the day.

It’s…impossible to concentrate.

Still, I’ve managed to squeeze some words out. Crossed the 11,000 word mark on the novel yesterday, which felt good.

But I’m nowhere near close to hitting 50K by the end of the month. According to NaNoWriMo, at my current pace, I’ll be lucky to finish by end of February 2021 (!).

So while I’m bummed about not “winning” NaNoWriMo this year, I’m still glad I did it, for two reasons.

First, because I was doing it, I was able to convince a friend to take the plunge, and try his hand at his first novel. And he’s won! He’s well past 50K at this point, and is on track to wrap up the first draft of his first novel. I’m jealous of his word-count, true, but I’m also overjoyed that he got it done. Can’t wait to read it, when (if) he’s ready for beta readers.

Second, because the time pressure for word count did push me to stop using outlining as an excuse, and just start writing. I was terrified of getting lost, of not being able to write it if I didn’t know where I was going.

I forgot that I’ve written all of my other novels without an outline. All of them. Short stories, as well.

I’m not a full-on pantser, but I do discover things while I’m writing that I don’t seem to think of when simply outlining. I need a plan to get started — characters, situation, possible ending — but once I’m in it, the plan gets altered so much that a detailed outline would be pretty much trashed by the time I’m 5,000 words in.

Outlining, for me, comes later. Once the first draft is done, and I’ve mapped out all the place I want to go, all the things about the world I want to see. Then I can pull together a detailed outline, find the weaknesses in the story, and use an updated outline to produce the second draft.

So I’ve learned a bit about my own process. It takes longer, this way, I feel, but at least it happens. Better to charge ahead and produce a draft that can be edited, then to spin my wheels creating an outline that’s going to get thrown out once ink hits the page.

And what about you? If you did NaNoWriMo this year, what did it teach you about your own writing process? Do you write better in the morning or evening? Do you need to outline it, or do you need to wing it? Can you write through distractions, or do you need a calm place in which to work?

Keeping Score: November 20, 2020

Slow but steady.

I’m at a little more than 7,000 words on the new novel so far this month. Behind where I need to be to finish NaNoWriMo, but further than I was a few weeks ago. That’s got to count for something, right?

Writing during the week has been difficult. Work has been…stressful, and I’ve needed to come in early and stay late, just to keep up. That’s obviously cut into my writing time, but it’s also drained my batteries before I even have a chance to sit down at the keyboard for the day’s words.

As a result, while on the weekend I built up to around a thousand words a day, during the week I’ve fallen back to a few hundred. Sometimes. If I’m lucky.

There’s light at the end of this tunnel, though. I’ve got a week of vacation coming up. A full week, when I can write at least half the day, before house and family obligations pull me away.

It might not be enough time, even then, for me to catch up to where I need to be to reach 50K by November 30th.

But I’m going to try for it, nevertheless.

Hope your own writing is going well, and if you’re trying NaNoWriMo, that you’re slaying each day’s word count, day by day.

Onward!

Keeping Score: November 6, 2020

I thought writing during a pandemic was hard.

Turns out, writing during a tight election where one of the candidates has spent the last several months shouting “Fraud!” at the top of his lungs whenever someone mentions mail-in voting (while casting his own votes via mail) is even harder.

So I did start working on a new novel this week, for NaNoWriMo. And I have worked on it each day.

But I’ve made very little progress. Only 1,424 words to date.

I’m trying not to stress about it. I have enough to worry about already, from work happening on the house to day-job deadlines looming next week to the pandemic getting worse in my city to trying to help my wife convince her mother that no, in fact, Biden will not come personally to her house to confiscate the guns she doesn’t have and disband the police department.

It’s a lot.

But I want to tell this story. I’ve been thinking over these characters for a few months now, and I want to see where they go. I want to show you their world.

I just have to build it first.

What about you? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, how is it going?