Reading Railroad: April’s Reading

Everything I read in April! 6 books total.

Novels

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published in 2012. A childless couple, Mable and Jack, move to Alaska after a terrible heartache, hoping to make a new life for themselves. On one wintry evening they build a snow child, and the next day a real child appears. Is this the daughter they’ve longed for? The Snow Child is a lovely fairytale retelling, and an amazing first novel. There are many variations of this fairy tale, which you can read here. I especially like the first one. Ivey writes lyrical, simple prose that sets exactly the right tone for the novel. “November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought — cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between cabin logs. But most of all, darkness. Darkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked.” Shiver. Though set in the 1920s, the writing style is modern. There’s only a little bit of magic thrown in off and on, but despite that, the novel feels perfectly magical. 4.5/5

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Published in 2016. This book, I assume, hardly needs a summary at this point. It was next on my stack when it won the Pulitzer Prize. In case you don’t know, The Underground Railroad traces the path of escaped slave Cora as she flees across the South. Each state has unique ways of treating blacks — from Georgia’s cotton-picking violence to South Carolina’s weird eugenics to North Carolina’s lynching to Tennessee’s remnants of the Trail of Tears to Indiana’s supposed utopia. And yes, Cora uses the underground railroad, but in this novel, it’s literally a railroad. Whitehead weaves hints of magical realism and absurdist horror into Cora’s narrative, and also gives other stories between each of Cora’s sections: Ridgeway, a runaway slave hunter; Ethel, a white woman with a hypocritical ‘savior’ complex; and many others. What makes this novel unique compared to other fiction about slavery is the use of the horror genre and bits of magical realism. He doesn’t go over the top with either; it’s very subtle. I had a weird reading comprehension issue with it. A ton of character names begin with C or R. I found myself struggling to keep track of all the characters, which did improve the last third of the novel. Also, sometimes the characters were introduced in weird ways, so it would take me a while to realize ‘that person’ or ‘someone’ was a named character in the next paragraph. I would then have to reread the first few pages. Keeping track of characters isn’t something I normally struggle with. It’s also more emotionally distant than I expected, but I think that was on purpose. Even as I was disgusted by some of the events unfolding in the novel, it was more an intellectual disgust versus a physical one. It’s almost like a list is being ticked off of all the horrific ways the US has treated black Americans, though if that were true the novel would be much longer. It’s definitely worth reading. 4/5

Nonfiction

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean Matthews. Published in 2004. I’m continuing my research of the suffrage movement for a writing in progress. This book gives a broad introduction to the movement. I appreciate Jean Matthew’s attention to the disenfranchisement of black women in the movement while also highlighting important black women figures. The scope of the book is much broader than that and covers the entire movement, but every chapter highlighted black women to some extent, and in a movement that was often racist, addressing the accomplishments of POC was refreshing. It’s also very readable. 4/5

 

Myth Collections

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Published February 7th, 2017. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman collects a selection of Norse myths, adding a modern tone and some of his sense of humor to the dialogue. These are not fictionalized variations of the tales. Do not read this expecting American Gods or Odd and the Frost Giants. It’s more along the lines of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version selected by Philip Pullman. I like Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas a bit better, but Gaiman’s collection would still make a good entry point into Norse myths. Ultimately, I’m just not a fan of Thor and Loki. They seem like college frat boys in a bad comedy movie. Who also like to kill things. It’s probably not fair to judge an entire mythology on two characters. Eventually, I need to read The Prose Edda so I have a better idea of the mythology. I do really love the tree Yggdrasil, though. 3/5

Short Story Collections

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Published in 2002. The movie Arrival is based on the title story, “Story of Your Life,” which is the best piece in this collection. Better than the movie. In most of these short stories, Ted Chiang combines hard science with complicated, questing characters. Not questing in the usual fantasy sense, but questing as in lonely souls trying to find meaning in the world while struggling with a scientific concept that changes everything. The stories are weakest when they rely too heavily on a scientific concept and lack the character and plot building to support the story. But there were only a few of those. Most were complex and interesting. Oh, and Ted Chiang describes his writing process for each story at the end. I wish every author included these in their short story collections! You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 15: March/April 2017 edited by Lynn M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. A wide range of stories. My favorite by far is “And Then There Were (N – One)” by Sarah Pinsker, in which Sarah Pinsker goes to a multidimensional conference of Sarah Pinskers, and then there’s a murder to solve. Very fun. All of the essays are quite good, and for the most part concern surviving and resisting in an oppressive political climate. Very timely. My individual reviews of each story, poem, and essay can be found here. 3.5/5

Several of these reviews originally appeared on Book Riot, on my Inbox/Outbox Post.

Book Review of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Title and Author: The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Publication Date: March 14th, 2017

Genre: Short Stories across the spectrum of genres

How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and Rebellion Publishing for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:
“When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire.”–Mahvesh Murad, from the Introduction.

This is a really wonderful short story collection. I’d no idea so many variations of djinn existed — good or evil, mischievous or kind, religious or deviant, and everywhere in between. The sheer variation of interpretation is what makes this a superior collection, as well as, of course, the superior writing. There’s not a single poorly written piece in this collection. They’re all nuanced, well-thought, character driven stories. It’s also a great mix of authors I know and ones I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be checking out some of the authors that were new to me to see what else they’ve written.

I had three absolute favorites. First up is the opening poem by Hermes, which gave me goosebumps: “A djinn I am. / My fetters may be broke but / still they wrap round wrist and ankle: / every djinn’s possessed.” The poem sets the tone for the anthology, though If there’s one downside to opening with it, it’s that I then expected more poems, but, alas, this is the only one.

Then there’s the wonderfully creepy “REAP” by Sami Shah. It’s going to stick with me. In “REAP,” a group of soldiers spying on a possible terrorist’s home in Afghanistan with the use of a drone see something completely unexpected and super creepy. It’s my first time reading Shah, so I’ll be seeing what else he’s written. Wait…I just looked him up, and he’s a comedian??? There’s nothing funny about this story! That’s weird.

I also love “Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman, an excerpt from American Gods. I still remembered it from American Gods, but it remained good. I’m actually not a huge fan of American Gods, yet, this chapter was my favorite from it, and it works perfectly as a short story.

A close runner up to my favorite’s list is the first short story — “The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie, another author I’m unfamiliar with. This one is steeped in Islamic culture, yet very accessible to me, someone unfamiliar with the culture and religion. In fact, that’s one of the best things about this collection, it’s diversity, accessibility, and variation. Anyone should be able to find stories they like in this collection, no matter your reading taste.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves short stories, particularly if you’re looking to read a diverse collection, and like a bit of magic in your fiction.

Imam Ali Conquers Jinn, unknown artist, Ahsan-ol-Kobar (1568)

Here are my reviews of each story:

Hermes (trans. Robin Moger) — “The Djinn Falls in Love”: Ooo, lovely poem. 5/5

Kamila Shamsie — “The Congregation”: A young man visits his family’s mosque late one night, to find jinn worshiping there instead. One jinn in particular enraptures him. Loved the immersion of this one. 4.5/5

Kuzhali Manickavel — “How We Remember You”: A man remembers how as a teen he and a group of friends did something they’ll regret the rest of their lives, to another friend who’d begun growing wings on his back. 4/5

Claire North — “Hurrem and the Djinn”: Davuud is asked to discover what foul djinn Hurrem — the sultan’s favorite wife — consorts with. Things get out of hand. Men can be stupid. 🙂 This novelette is predictable, but well written. I love all these different takes on djinn. They’re so different from tale to tale — in appearance, temperament, powers, etc. 3.5/5

J.Y. Yang — “Glass Lights”: A woman whose grandmother was a djinn struggles in the contemporary world with loneliness. Good writing and character, but lacking in plot. 3/5

Monica Byrne — “Authenticity”: A young woman searches for authentic experiences, and sex is one way to find those experiences. She gets with a young man who is filming a porn movie later. But are either of them what they seem? 3/5

Helene Wecker — “Majnun”: A jinn, once the lover of a beautiful jinn ruler, has a religious crisis and becomes an exorcist. Very interesting story. 4/5

Maria Dahvana Headley — “Black Powder”: A hunter, a kid, a pawnshop owner, and a priest become entwined in a story about a jinn that lives in a rifle. Not sure I exactly understood the end, it felt like a retelling of a story I’m completely unfamiliar with, but the writing and relationships are well done. 4/5

Amal El-Mohtar — “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds”: Magicians hunt reincarnations of birds. No strong djinn connection, that I can tell. Not a big fan of this, though I usually love El-Mohtar’s fiction. 2/5

James Smythe — “The Sand in the Glass is Right”: A man tries again and again to get his wish right, but what does he lose in the process? I liked the theme of consequences. This is one that would probably be best on a second read. 4/5

Sami Shah — “REAP”: A military unit watches a group of houses in Afghanistan with the use of a drone, and see some pretty disturbing stuff. This story is excellent. It will stay with me for a while. 5/5

Catherine King — “Queen of Sheba”: A twelve-year-old girl celebrates her first Christmas with the adults, but as she’s ironing a tablecloth, she sees visions. Good story, though without a plot. I’m still buzzing from the last story, so that may have affected my read of this one. 3.5/5

E.J. Swift — “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice”: A spaceship set for Ganymede has an unexpected hiccup when it becomes infested with djinn. I would think sci-fi and djinn wouldn’t mix well, but this is a solid story. 4/5

K.J. Parker — “Message in a Bottle”: During the Middle Ages, a scholar tries to determine if a previous now dead scholar’s bottle labeled “For the plague” is a cure, or a new strain that will wipe out humanity. Well written, but couldn’t he test it on people in confinement? 3/5

Saad Hossein — “Bring Your Own Spoon”: In a post apocalypse where food is scarce, a man decides to start a restaurant with the help of a djinn. 3.5/5

Neil Gaiman — “Somewhere in America”: An excerpt from American Gods, and one of the few chapters I remember completely. It works really well on its own. A man is sent to America to sell his brother-in-laws cheap nic nacs, and finds an unexpected friend in a cab driver. 4.5/5

Jamal Mahjoub — “Duende 2077”: There’s a murder, and the detective trying to solve the case runs into some complications that herald to his past. I never understood exactly who the murderer was. 3/5

Sophia Al-Maria — “The Righteous Guide of Arabsat”: In the contemporary Middle East, a sexually repressed guy marries what his mother claims to be a ‘good girl.’ But after discovering his new wife knows more about sex than he, he decides she must be possessed by a djinn. Reminds me of Victorian era attitudes toward sex. A disturbing story. 4/5

Kirsty Logan — “The Spite House”: A half djinn/half human woman takes the leftover junk people leave in their yards, but when a woman confronts her about this and makes a wish, she feels a power overtake her. But is she the one with the power? I liked the switch in dynamics here. 4/5

Usman Malik — “Emperors of Jinn”: A group of rich children become obsessed with a spell book that calls djinn. These are some truly evil brats. 3.5/5

Nnedi Okorafor — “History”: A superstar singer prepares for a televised concert, and reflects on a childhood spent in Africa, and the magic she learned there, and the bush baby she caught that lives in her mirror. I really liked this story, but it felt like it was referring to something else — maybe a novel Okorafor has written? Felt like a small part of something much larger. 3.5/5

Rating: 4/5

 

Favorite Short Stories of 2016


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This almost seems impossible, but I read around 150 short stories in 2016. It’s my first year keeping track, and I was really surprised by how many I read! I read short stories in a variety of formats: in collections by individual authors; in edited collections with multiple authors; I have a subscription to Uncanny Magazine; and I read random stories recommended on Twitter published in a variety of free, online platforms. I switch back and forth between recently released short stories and older stories, and keep two separate folders to keep track of the ones I want to read.

So here are the top 10 short stories I read in 2016. Just like last week in my best novels of 2016 post, these are in no particular order. I’ve linked to the stories whenever they’re free to read online, so happy reading!

  1. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Published in 1998 in Stories of Your Life and Others. This novelette asks, In what ways can language shape cognitive functions? Oh, the tears snuck up on me in this one. This is what the movie Arrival is based on, which I will eventually see, especially after loving the story so much.

 

 

  1. The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman. The illustrated edition I read first was published in 2014, but it’s been published multiple times. It’s a wonderful novelette that turns the passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty princesses into not so passive agents of their own futures. And the illustrations are so lovely — definitely worth buying the special edition.

 

  1. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman. Okay, so I really love Gaiman’s short stories, so he has 2 on this list. The edition I read of this one is in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (full review) published in 2015 (“Sleeper in the Spindle” appears in this collection as well), but it’s also been published multiple times. In this novelette, a dwarf asks a farmer to show him the way to a cave in the mountains that holds gold, gold that comes at a price. I broke out in goosebumps when I realized what was going on.

 

  1. “Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal. Published in 2015 in Uncanny Magazine Issue 5. The kingdom is cursed, but some curses are ultimately good. Can a nameless queen distract a questing prince in order to keep her kingdom’s curse? Mary Robinette Kowal always writes great short stories, and this is my favorite of hers (so far).

 

 

  1. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” by Patricia McKillip. Read in Dreams of Distant Shores (full review), published in 2016 though the novelette is a reprint. A painter struggles with his craft and obsesses over another painter’s model when one day he paints the model’s lips on an unfinished painting of another model, a model who earlier disappeared and he’s been searching for ever since. And the painted lips speak. A lovely story reminiscent of Charles De Lint.

 

  1. “Tear Tracks” Malka Older. Published on Tor.com in 2015. Flur is chosen as an ambassador to Earth’s first alien contact on another planet. She has only a few hours to convince the aliens to sign a treaty, but the lack of similar social cues throws her off. Yep, you guessed it, I cried. This was the first thing I’d ever read by this author, but since then she’s published her first novel — Infomocracy — which I hope to read soon.

 

  1. The Creeping Women” by Christopher Barzak. Published in Uncanny Magazine Issue 8 in 2016. A retelling of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman! I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say anything else.

 

 

 

  1. “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss. Published on Tor.com in 2016. A kitchen maid dreams of being in a fairy tale, and when one night a woman collapses at the kitchen door, she knows a princess has come in disguise. Such a perfect short story.

 

 

  1. “The Animal Women” by Alix E. Harrow. Published in Strange Horizons in 2015. A little girl in the 1960s south makes friends with a group of mostly ‘colored’ women that live near her home — and occasionally she captures pictures of them that show something more than human about them. Also a lovely novelette.

 

  1. “Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR in 2016. A 13-year-old goes to interview his 90-year-old great grandfather, who tells him a strange story about another dimension and an endless supply of cookies. While I no longer keep up with Stephen King’s books, I still read his short stories periodically. He really is an excellent writer.

Runners up

What were your favorite short stories?

Book Review of Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


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Title and Author: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Publication Date: February 2015

Genre: Short Story Collection, Speculative Fiction

How I got it: Bought from Amazon when it went on a kindle daily deal

 

Review:

Trigger Warning is full of the creepy and unsettling. With a few exceptions, these short stories and poems give voice to characters who are often voiceless—children and elderly, dwarfs and statues, fairytale princesses and imaginary friends. Even with those few stories that depict an already well-voiced character—such as Sherlock Holmes in “The Case of Death and Honey”—Gaiman does so in unique ways. For instance, the aforementioned story mixes the voice of a retired Sherlock Holmes obsessed with beekeeping with that of a rural Chinese beekeeper who isn’t very popular in his village. It’s an unusual combination, that absolutely works.

Here's an illustration from the print version of this tale by Eddie Campbell.
Here’s an illustration from the stand-alone print version of this tale by Eddie Campbell.

If I had to pick a favorite in the collection, it would be “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” a heartbreaking, morally ambiguous, treasure hunting tale. This is a reprint, but despite having read 2/3rds of the stories in this collection, I had somehow missed this one. The story opens with a dwarf going to a farm, and asking a man to be his guide to the cave in the black mountains that’s filled with treasure. But what seems like a fairly straight forward treasure quest is anything but, and Gaiman’s melancholy tone sets that up from the very beginning, before the reader knows what’s going on. I’m not often surprised by twists, and I did figure out the twist before the climax, but it still made my stomach flip, in a good way. This is the kind of story you’re going to want to discuss with someone else after you’ve read it (thankfully, a coworker who’d read the collection obliged).

Apparently, Gaiman has read this story with an orchestra and illustrations. I would love to listen to that! He’s a wonderful reader. When he came to Nashville, I went and heard him read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was a stormy night, and his voice combined with the thunder and the passage he read gave me goosebumps. If you’ve never heard him read before, go listen to some YouTube videos. Here’s him reading “Click Clack the Rattlebag,” another scary story from this collection.

Many of the stories are reprints, and one I remembered quite well from the first time I read it is the super creepy “Feminine Endings,” which I originally read in Nightmare Magazine. And it’s still just a creepy. In this story, a man who works as a human statue writes a love letter to a woman he sees in the park, and boy is this one love letter I NEVER WANT TO RECEIVE. I love Gaiman’s horror because he doesn’t go for the sudden shock, but rather the gradual build-up of unease. Despite having read the story first many years ago, I still remembered practically every detail. Shiver.

Another reprint I had not yet read is “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” a fairytale retelling that turns the passive fairytale princesses Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into not so passive agents of their own futures. It’s absurd this was my first reading of it, since I’m such a fairytale fan(atic). When I got to this story in the collection, I decided to read the version illustrated by Chris Riddell, and the illustrations are lovely. The story is A+, but it’s definitely worth checking out the illustrated version. I bought it when it came out, but when I read Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, which is essentially a translation of the tale versus a short story retelling it, I assumed “The Sleeper and the Spindle” was the same. But I was quite wrong! The story is utterly original and empowering, and the art intricate and memorable.

There were many more I loved. I’ve already mentioned the Sherlock Homes story, but there’s also a Doctor Who one (oh, nerdy delight!), and I also enjoyed “Black Dog,” which features Shadow from American Gods, I loved this novelette.

Obviously, with so many favorites, Trigger Warning is an excellent collection. Even though I’d already read many of the stories, I enjoyed revisiting them. Neil Gaiman is a master at short stories. While certainly those who already appreciate Neil Gaiman’s fiction should read this, it would also make a great entry point for those unfamiliar with his writing.

Rating: 4/5

Writing from Experience, or Exploring Something New


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A path I walked at Smoky Mountains National Park

Several friends and I have recently discussed whether writers can and should write outside their experience. For me, becoming someone else, experiencing the world through different ways of perceiving, is what makes writing a joy. But my friends argue that only those who have experienced something can write truly about it, and that the best writing comes from experience.

Ultimately, I feel like every writer is different. Some writers write to discover more about themselves, and their experiences, and how those relate to the world. Other writers write to explore other people, how their minds work, how they experience the world differently. And probably most writers are somewhere in between.

This idea applies to reading as well. Do you read to understand yourself and your experiences better, or others? Do you prefer to read about characters that mirror your own ideologies and cultural backgrounds, or do you prefer characters that are quite different from you? Or somewhere in between?

All readers and writers sift things through their own unique way of perceiving, so in that way, all reading and writing comes from experience, in that our experience dictates our perception. But I do disagree with the idea that categorically writers can only write well and truly about things they’ve experienced.

An example that comes to mind of writing outside experience is Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, an incredibly disturbing novel about necrophilia. Assuming that McCarthy has no experience with necrophilia (it’s safe to assume that, right?), he creates a disturbing, spine-crawlingly necrophiliac character, from his imagination. I can’t imagine the empathy that must’ve gone into creating a character like that. Yes, empathy. To create a person, to write a person, requires sustained empathy, particularly if you’re writing outside your experience. And to read a character like that requires empathy as well, which is what makes that novel such an uncomfortable read.

To shift ideas a little, cultural appropriation can be a possible problem with writing outside of experience. When is it, for lack of a better word, colonizing other people’s lived experience, and when is it creating a diverse cast of characters? I don’t have an answer. I only know I must read and write what comes to me, and make damn sure to do my research.

Here are some other writers’ thoughts on reading or writing what we know versus venturing outside the known. 

 

–Terry Tempest Williams. From Terri Windling’s blog post “Writing from the Center” 

“The writers who touch me, who move me, are the writers who are generous not just with what they know, but also with what they don’t know….It’s that kind of honesty, that generosity of spirit that I ask of writers. And it’s difficult, because you have to be thoughtful, taking nothing for granted, and you have to be willing to risk everything, to write against your instincts.”

 

–Zoe Heller, from the New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” 

“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.”

 

— Mohsin Hamid, from the same New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?”  

“It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know. But I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded. I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.

In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.

A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.”

 

–Jim C. Hines, from his blog post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other” 

“It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong.”

 

–Malinda Lo, from her blog post “Should white people write about people of color?” 

“This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.”

 

– Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a New York Times article “Bring Moral Imagination Back in Style.” The post is about politics, but seemed relevant anyway. 

“It didn’t occur to me that imagining the humanity of people other than myself was my responsibility. And yet the root cause of so much grief is our failure to do just that.

Edmund Burke called this the “moral imagination,” the idea that our ethics should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.”

 

–Jonathan Franzen, from an interview on Slate

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”

 

— Beryl Bainbridge, from The Guardian article “On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft”  

“The only reason I wanted to write was to write down my childhood, to write about things I knew, the people I knew . . . I don’t believe anybody makes anything up, there’s no such thing as the imagination. I mean people may say they don’t know where the story came from, but they must do . . . there’s nothing you can make up. In general, you’re recalling memories I think, and that’s the only thing that interested me about writing.”

 

–Mary Robinette Kowal, from her blog post “Bad Writing Advice explained”

Write what you know

  • What people think it means: People think this means that authors should stick to subjects they have personal experience with.
  • What it actually means: When you don’t know a subject, such as what it’s like to live on Mars, you extrapolate from your own personal experience. Never lived on Mars? No. But I have walked in a dusty place and seen the clouds of dust kick up around me. I’ve worn thick winter gloves, and know how hard it is to pick things up. I’ve been far away, without the ability to call home. When I combine what I know, with research, writing what I know can make a story more compelling.”

 

–Neil Gaiman on reading, though I think it also applies to writing. Found on Brain Pickings

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

What do you think?

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Reading Railroad: July’s Reading


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Everything I read in July. 

Novels

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Published in 2009. A pretty darn adorable middle grade novel that’s also illustrated by the author. It would be perfect for reading aloud to 6-10 year olds, but it’s also a lot of fun to read as an adult. It’s based on Chinese folklore, and tells of how Minli travels to find the Man on the Moon to discover how to make her family a fortune, and on her way rescues a dragon, frees a talking goldfish, and meets a king, among other adventures. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4.5/5

 

The Book of Heaven by Patricia Storace. Published in 2014. This book has a wonderful premise — feminist retellings of women in the bible, yet, if it weren’t for the synopsis, I would have no idea that these tales were from the Bible. Also, the 4 parts lack development, though there is some interesting and well written stuff. Read my full review on Goodreads. 2.5/5

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. Published in 1993. What a page-turner! It’s a post apocalyptic novel about a minister’s daughter, Lauren, who creates a religion and decides that surviving is more important than prayer. I’m surprised more people haven’t read this, with survivalism being such a hot theme. It’s such a compulsive read, both thought-provoking and energetic. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4.5/5

 

Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint. Published in 1998. According to some Native American mythology, the world began when Raven stirred his pot, pulling out the earth, the sky, and the animal people. In Newford, the animal people still walk the earth. And some humans have animal people blood running through their veins. A complex urban fantasy. Note that while this is book 5 in the Newford series, they can be read in any order. Read my full review on Goodreads. 4/5

 

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. Will be published in September 2016. What happens when the mythic intersects with the mundane? It changes everything, of course. Full review coming soon.

 

 

 

Nonfiction and Other

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey. Published in 2007. Poetry collection. The poems in this collection were hit and miss for me. They’re much more, well, modern than I’m used to, lacking the nostalgia (both in terms of form and content) of most collections I read. Obviously, given the title, that was Harvey’s intent, but honestly, a poem about ham flowers? (Look it up if you don’t know.) But there were some really intriguing poems in here as well. Harvey is certainly an inventive writer, and I’d read more from her despite feeling mostly iffy by the collection. Read my full review on Goodreads.  3/5

 

Short Stories and Collections

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Published in 2015. Wonderful novelette that turns the passive Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into not so passive agents of their own futures. Chris Riddell does the artwork, and it is lovely. 5/5

 

 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman. Published in 2015. Short story and poetry collection that’s full of the creepy and unsettling, but also some fantastic characters. It would make a great entry point for those unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman. For a more detailed review discussing favorite stories, check out my Goodreads review. I may post a more detailed review on this blog as well. 4/5

 

Uncanny Magazine Issue 11. Published in July 2016. Usually I notice a thread between stories in Uncanny’s issues, but I didn’t notice one this time around. My favorite pieces were: “Travels with the Snow Queen” by Kelly Link, a popular fairytale retelling I’ve read many times; “So you want to run a podcast” by Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, an essay about podcasting; and an unsettling poem about witches and neighbors by Jessica Wick called “Good neighbors”. This may be my least favorite issue, but I still enjoyed reading it. Read my full review on Goodreads. They’re also running a Kickstarter right now. I highly recommend the magazine. 3/5

 

“Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Read free online in Clarkesworld Magazine. Published April 2016. A father gives his son a paoxiao for his birthday, a creature that mimics others. The boy and his friends abuse the paoxiao, but when the boy becomes an adult he defies his father by becoming a scientist and the paoxiao becomes central to his research. 2.5/5