media consumption update

January 23, 2020

I’ve just finished reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I love Conrad’s writing and there are still a number of books of his I haven’t read. I’m working through them. This one is slow, but great, if that makes sense. So one of the things I love about Conrad — he’s been elevated to the canon, he’s considered a classic, literary author. But that wasn’t how he published. He was a contemporary of folks like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was writing the same kinds of things they were — adventure stories, mysteries, and so on. I mean, he’s such a good writer and his work is complicated and deep. . . but read him back-to-back with Haggard and you suddenly realize that Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are adventure thrillers. I love that.

The Secret Agent is a crime novel. It’s also a whole collection of character studies. But the chapter where it all comes together, the murder that marks the climactic moment. . .it’s masterful. Whew. I’m taking notes.

Moving on to my current obsession, The Witcher, which I have now watched through twice. How long do we have to wait for more? Hrm.

Wanting not just a fantasy fix, but the very specific fantasy fix I feel like The Witcher offers, I rewatched Dragonslayer.  I know I’ve sung the praises of this 1981 movie before. But it’s still great!  And it really does push the same buttons as The Witcher, which made me happy. I’m trying to figure out what makes this kind of fantasy tick. I think Willow and Ladyhawke fall into the same category.

What I’ve got so far:

Likeable, competent characters who are basically good people trying to do good. Even if they are wearing black leather.

Magic that is commonplace but also wondrous. That is, this is a world where there’s a kind of standard magic technology — but that only makes it all the more surprising and inspiring when someone pulls out some real genuine badass wild magic. It’s about pushing past what the characters think is possible.

The world may be grimdark, but the characters aren’t. The protagonists coming together to look out for each other in a grimdark world is one of the great appeals of this kind of story.

Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jokes are allowed. Poking fun at itself is allowed. Silliness is allowed.  Something Connie Willis says about romantic comedies — for a romantic comedy to work, the story can make fun of everything except the feelings of the main characters for each other. Mock and satirize whatever you want — but that relationship has to be real and genuine and honest.  I feel like there’s something similar going on with this kind of fantasy.  It can be funny, it can be cheesy. But there’s a core to the story — the goodness of the main characters, the power of magic when it’s used unselfishly — that has to be in earnest.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.

 

reading review 2019

January 6, 2020

I read 48 books in 2019. This includes novellas and graphic novels — if you take out the novellas especially, I didn’t read that many books at all. But there’s some really good work being done in novellas right now, so why not?

Eleven of these were re-reads, which seems like a big number. A chunk of that is the Ursula K. Le Guin collected Earthsea novels that came out last winter — read the whole thing, most of which I’d read before, and I decided to count those separately rather than as just one book. Several were revisiting books I read as kids, because I’ve been interested in getting a handle on my teenage/preteen reading aesthetic. I really liked short zippy adventure stories as a kid. I feel like this explains a lot about me.

Ten of these were non-fiction.

Four of these were Robin Hood novels, not my own. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Robin Hood novels out there — four new ones, not my own, came out just this year. I’m debating whether I should try to read more. This is a subject where everybody has wildly different takes. It’s fascinating.

My Robin Hood is completely different from any of the others I’ve read. Completely. As I said, it’s fascinating. You know, I do think I want to read some other takes on him. . .

 

books everywhere

November 20, 2019

I’ve got a bunch of books on my coffee table at any given moment. Just stuff I’m going over and want to have on hand. Or stuff I want to go over, or keep meaning to look at, and so on. This is also a pretty good snapshot of what’s happening in my brain most of the time. Which is why I’m usually distracted by five or ten or twenty different things. I don’t really mind so much. I usually manage to get stuff done, and I’m never bored.

Here’s what’s currently on my coffee table:

Marvelocity, Alex Ross. My favorite comic artist’s retrospective of his work with Marvel heroes, plus talk about his journey as an artist.

The Company They Keep, Diana Pavlac Glyer.  An academic examination of collaboration between the various members of the Inklings.

Jane Austen In Style, Susan Watkins. Survey of the fashion, culture, and manners of the English Regency period. (Yes, I want to write more Regency werewolf stories.)

Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, Ian Brodie. For possible New Zealand trip.

Respect the Spindle, Abby Franquemont. Because I’m trying to actually learn more about spinning rather than just doing it.

Handspindles, Bette Hochberg. Ditto.

The Book of Kells. The guidebook from the Trinity Library exhibit, just because.

Celtic Heritage, Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees. Still in absorbing mode from various early Ireland research.

Early Celtic Art in Ireland, Eammon P. Kelly. Ditto.

This will probably all change in a couple of months.

 

 

I’ve recently had a chance to dive back into one of my favorite space opera universes, C. J. Cherryh’s Merchanter series. There’s a new book out this year co-written with Jane Fancher, Alliance Rising: The Hinder Stars, with the hope of more to follow.

I finished it and immediately had to re-read the first book in the series I ever read, Finity’s End. They’re tied together in some pretty big ways. Some epic ways. The ship Finity’s End features in both, but in Finity’s End we’re at the end of Captain James Robert Neihart’s career. In Alliance Rising we’re at the start of it. One of the main characters in Finity’s End is Fletcher Neihart, and a big deal is made of the fact that he’s named for one of the heroes in the ship’s history. In Alliance Rising, we meet that heroic Fletcher — before the self-sacrificing heroism became necessary. And ugh, we’re in for a ride in any future sequels.

You see why I had to immediately dive back in to the earlier (chronologically later) novel to get my bearings? It’s a bit of a gut punch and I’m emotional about it all over again.

I’m trying to figure out why these books draw me in so hard and why I get so wrapped up in them, because on the surface, technically, they shouldn’t work. They’re full of exposition. Long chapters of nothing but exposition, with a few observations from the viewpoint characters. I thought maybe it was just Alliance Rising, that the writing was maybe a bit stilted after so long away from the world, but no, Finity’s End does the same thing. I remember being swamped by exposition in Downbelow Station and Cyteen. These books dive deep into the four-way politics of merchant Families, stations, Earth, and Union. We get lots of descriptions of trade routes and why everyone is suspicious of Cyteen and why the sovereignty of the Family ships is so important and why some stations are rich and others aren’t, and what Earth has to do with it all, and how hyperspace works, and, and…

And then, just when I think I’m getting bored, I get to a chapter with a sharply drawn character moment and I start crying because somehow, all that exposition and the people involved with it have hooked me and I’m emotionally caught. Ross Monahan and the Galway, you guys. Broke my freaking heart.

I think Moby Dick does something similar. That one gets dinged for all the exposition, the seemingly endless details of whaling. But you need all that to understand what’s happening. By the time you’re neck-deep in the climactic battle, the story doesn’t have time to stop and explain — and it doesn’t need to. The book was teaching you how to read itself the whole time. I think the Merchanter books do the same.

Writing workshop are always telling us to avoid long passages of exposition.

But then I’m reminded of the primary, number one, rule of writing, as told to me by John Crowley:  Whatever you can get away with.

You’d just better be sure you can get away with it.

 

I took a break from Robin Hood this weekend to see the new biopic Tolkien; the Longmont Theater Company’s production of Chess, which I had never seen despite knowing the music from it; and to finish reading Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and then watching the TV version with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter (who also played the very sympathetic medic who soothes Chewbacca’s ego in The Force Awakens, which is just wonderful, isn’t it?).

Tolkien:  This is about J.R.R. Tolkien’s formative years, his boyhood friendships, his romance with Edith, and his time in the war. It’s very beautiful and heartfelt. I have some quibbles, and not with the bio part of it but with the story part — it really needed another scene with Ronald and Christopher after the war. I personally also could have used a lot more of Nicholas Hoult reciting Middle English but I’m sure that’s just me. I’ve got a long review of this coming up from Lightspeed.

Chess:  Much more operatic than I was expecting. The local talent is very good, the music is very good. It moves very fast. And the characters are all just really unlikable, aren’t they? I want to see it done as a solid period piece — this one wasn’t, which is fine, but it felt wonky.

Gaudy Night:  All right, I’m completely smitten with Peter and Harriet now. Why did no one tell me just how ragingly feminist this novel is? It’s great. Rwaor.

 

Hugo Nominations

March 12, 2019

This week is the deadline to get your Hugo nominations in, if you’re eligible to nominate. I posted my own work from 2018 a while back, for your consideration.

I didn’t read a lot of new stuff last year, which pretty much goes along with all the other stuff I didn’t do last year. But I do have a couple of recommendations.

I’ve talked before about C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, which has been nominated for a Nebula and is one of my favorite reads from the last couple of years. It’s Edwardian-adjacent, alternate-world fantasy, and full of heart.

The Best Series category has only been around a couple of years but it’s often contentious. I like the category because it rewards sustained work over a length of time. Having done writing like that myself, I know what an accomplishment a good series can be. Once again this year I have to recommend Wild Cards, not just because I’m one of the writers but because this is perhaps the longest-running, most involved and complex series in all of SF&F and I think it deserves the recognition. The new installments this year include Low Chicago, Texas Hold’Em, and a number of shorts.

I’m also nominating the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers, which I’m not sure is eligible but I’m nominating it anyway. I find myself recommending these books all over the place, especially to people who don’t think they like science fiction.

There’s a special category for Best Art Book this year, just in time for Alex Ross’s Marvelocity, a massive compendium of a bunch of the work Ross has done for Marvel. Alex Ross is one of the greatest comics artists of all time, and this book is breathtaking, both in showcasing his work but also in demonstrating the care he takes with the entire legacy of Marvel comics and its heroes. He’s amazing.

I’m putting two episodes of The Expanse on my ballot for Best Dramatic Short-Form:  Ep. 3.7 “Delta V” (RIP Maneo!) and Ep. 3.11 “Fallen World.” (Confession:  Abaddon’s Gate is one of my favorite of the books in the series because of what happens in the Ring and the slowdown and all the rest. It’s super, super traumatic in the books — and the TV show nailed it. Just perfect. These two episodes pretty much bookend what I love about that particular book and are great adaptations.)

 

favorite authors

January 31, 2019

Confession time. Every now and then, someone says I’m their favorite author or one of their favorite authors. First off, this is hugely flattering. I know how I feel about my own favorite authors, and to be able to do that for someone else? That’s amazing. It’s a gift.

But… I also think, “Oh no, you must not have read [my own favorite author] yet! Because they should really be your favorite author, not me!” I want to give them Robin McKinley, Ray Bradbury, Lois McMaster Bujold, and a dozen others. The real favorite authors, you know?

I’ve learned not to say that out loud. But I’m almost always thinking it.

 

Conundrum

January 25, 2019

I’ve spent all month reading The Books of Earthsea, the wonderful compilation of everything Le Guin wrote about Earthsea all in one volume with illustrations by Charles Vess. It’s great, because reading everything back-to-back means making connections and seeing how it all fits together and how Le Guin’s approach to the world changed over the decades she wrote the stories.

My conundrum is this:  In my reading log, do I count this as one book or six?  I mean, it would sure look spiffy to already have that many books recorded, and they were all originally published separately, and…and….

 

2018 reading

January 4, 2019

First, a reminder, that in a couple of weeks I’ll be Guest of Honor at COSine in Colorado Springs. See you there?

I read 50 books in 2018, which is way up from the previous few years’ totals and about where I like to be, to make the most of my reading speed.

Eleven of those were nonfiction. Bad Blood by John Carryrou, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee, and Birding without Borders by Noah Strycker were standouts.

Eight of those were re-reads — 2 McKinley and 3 Bujold. Comfort reading has become really important, in much the way that re-watching MCU and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings feels like spending time with old friends. That was also a big part of how much I was able to read — discovering a couple of new authors I wanted to devour. You know, the “Just one more chapter” authors, and three hours later you’ve read the whole thing.  Regency romance author Cat Sebastian shows up on my 2018 list a lot. She’s a really good writer and her characters are delightful. Also space opera by Becky Chambers and Martha Wells. Full disclosure:  I’ve been counting more novellas as books, which definitely helps the total. More authors are writing novellas, it seems like. The “just one more chapter” impulse really makes novellas fly by.

One of my re-reads was Witchmark, by C.L. Polk, which just came out this year, but I first read it a year or so ago when I got the ARC for a blurb. Remember when I was talking about “personable fantasy,” with characters I like spending time with in an engaging story with stakes that may be high but are more about the people than an epic sweep?  This.

Another reason I read more this year:  in keeping with the idea of comfort reading, I’ve embraced taking a couple of hours some afternoons to just sit on the sofa, drink tea, and read.  If I start to feel burned out or I hit a wall in the afternoon, instead of staying at my desk and hating myself — go read something, pick up a favorite Bujold or McKillip and just read.  My usual reading time is the hour before bed, but this past year I’ve really gotten a lot out of a long afternoon of reading, every now and then.  I need to remember that.

My first read of this year is a re-read:  for Christmas I got The Books of Earthsea, a massive edition of all of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, illustrated by Charles Vess. This is a good way to start the year, I think.

holiday reading

December 14, 2018

After my massive, massive month-long research binge, I’ve been saving up fun reading for the holidays. Some of my favorite new series have new installments.

I’m very excited to curl up and just READ.  Oh, and I’ll probably add Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood to the list to clear the palate after that movie.