Sunday, Briefly

Feeling: Like my old self again. AT LAST.

Doing: Catching up on all the things. Working overtime at the day job, teaching my Plotting workshop, and editing for freelance clients. Plus, started costumes for DragonCon…

Not sleeping enough still, but it’s getting better.

Listening to: Cassandra Wilson, BB King (may he rest in peace), Sinatra.

Watching: I saw…

Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) Indian film somewhat (self-referentially) in the Bollywood style. Cute, happy, gorgeous colors and a focus on food/cooking. At the same time, it dissects the very serious problem of arranged marriages, dowry, and independence. Bonus for looking at it not just as a problem for women, but also for men: young men from “better ” households are essentially auctioned off to the highest bidder — the girl whose family can pay the most in dowry (generally presented as “wedding gifts”, though agreed to in advance between the parents). Change comes as much from women saying “I deserve to be valued for who I am” as men saying “I am not an object to be purchased or sold; I deserve love, too”. 5/5*

Nightcrawler (2014) Props to Jake Gyllenhaal for throwing himself into the character; if you’ve never been in the presence of an extreme narcissist — not the charming kind, but the disaffected, disassociated, bordering on sociopath without realizing most everyone around them sees that is something is just “not right” — then this movie might be worth watching. I turned it off three times, kept turning it back on and then giving up again. The main character was simply and purely unlikable. He was a bad guy. He was cold, violent, a thief and a liar. He didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise; he pursued what he wanted, as if he deserved it no matter who he hurt in the process of getting it. He had, potentially, a few redeeming qualities that you could maybe make out if you squint hard enough, but nothing to show that he was capable of any sort of arc. By the halfway point it in the movie it seemed clear that he was going to be the catalyst for bad things happening to other people, and if he did suffer any consequences, it wouldn’t change him, only be seen as another setback, until he could steal another chance at his American Dream. (I blame the writing/directing here, not the actors, who gave good performances in the limited way they were allowed.) 2/5*

Wayward Pines (ep 1) A dull, Twin Peaks-flavored show without an original bone in its body. Don’t bother with this one unless you’ve never ever seen or read anything about a small town that isn’t what it appears to be in the first ten seconds. (Though this show is obvious from about ten seconds in.) 1/5*

Maggie (2015) Subtle, understated, purposefully anticlimactic (to be discussed further) story about a dying girl in a zombie-infected America. Notable for its stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gives an excellent performance, even given that I was somewhat distracted by someone else cracking up over the incongruity of a couple of Arnold’s lines. I will probably review this in depth later, depending on whether Don gets there first. (You want his review, honestly. It will have a lot more sarcasm.) Worth watching, so go watch it. 5/5*

Reading: NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES. Non fiction, reading based on Don’s recommendation. Go read his review here.

Writing: … Nothing, lately. I wish, but there’s too much else to do. Some day soon, I will be able to afford to cut down on freelance work and set aside time for my own writing again. Until then, I’m sneaking in bits of writing time wherever I can, and the last few weeks, there hasn’t been an opportunity. I’m hoping to finish revising a story I wrote a couple of months ago, this week, if the day job isn’t too hectic. (Half our admin staff is out for training, I’ve had to give up lunch breaks and am working late on top of it, so it will just depend on how much paperwork gets dropped on my desk before everyone else returns.)

What are you into lately?

Reading, better.

Recently, a friend emailed me about a job opening for a book reviewer position, “since I think it’s aligned to your career path right now”.

Every week I get emails from companies that want me to read, review, and promote their books, though most aren’t at all like what I really read.

Even without adding in my work for SF Signal, I write more words about books than I write any other kind of non-fiction.

And it’s all making me want to bang my head against the wall.

I read because I love reading, and because it’s part of the process of becoming a better writer. For me, reading is a step on a path toward my goals, not the end of it. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a book reviewer, but I admit that there are times when the bulk of what I post here is me talking about the books I’ve read. Lately I’ve written long, detailed summaries, because I’ve already had that conversation with myself in my head, so why not share it with you? Maybe someone else is looking for a book that does a thing the book I just read did, and my review will help them to find it.

But I’m not a book reviewer. My aspirations don’t include simply being a consumer of literature – I am and will continue to be a creator of it. Reading and then thinking about what I read is part of the writer equation, and by posting reviews here I’m just showing my work.

There is no possible way that I will read everything I want to before I die. It’s never going to happen. The best that I can do it to devote as much time as I can to reading and accept that there are stories I won’t get to. More and more I think that spending time writing a straight review is taking away from being able to read or write something else, but… I’ve been hesitant to talk about books the way I want to because I wasn’t sure if anyone else would care about my deeper thoughts on the book I was discussing, beyond “is it good or not?”

I wondered: Do I know enough to have my opinion respected? Am I well read enough to make the right connections, the right correlations? There’s very little mainstream junk-food reading in my reading list for this year; it’s just not my style. My to-be-read pile includes some genre classics, a lot of small press, liminal or interstitial work, non-Western fiction, poetry, non-fiction essays, and non-speculative literary fiction. Does anyone else even want to hear about the titles that I most love to read?

And then I remembered that I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m going to read what I like.

I will still mention some of the books or stories I think you should read, in brief. I’m more interested in talking about how I was influenced by a particular work, how books are connected, or whether I agreed or disagreed with a certain author. I hope you stick around, because I’d like for my readers to be people who have read or want to read the kind of books I’m reading. I’d like more comments, more discussion. Tell me what you thought of it, ask questions, suggest something for me to read next. Let’s read deeper.

Let’s read better.

A Few Thoughts On Reviewing Books

I review, on average, 3 books or magazines a month. I talk about what didn’t work for me but mainly I talk about what did, because my goal is to share something that I think you should be reading.* If I read something, and I don’t like it at least enough to suggest you might get something out of it as well, I don’t review it at all.

Why not? Because I’m not a book reviewer.

There’s nothing wrong with being a reviewer, someone who reads a lot of books and shares their opinions with an audience. Depending on who it is, they’re going to be looking for different things in a story, but the overall goal is to take in a lot of reading and produce an opinion about what is good and what isn’t. Their reviews are incredibly useful for people looking to read a new author or a new book, and hoping for recommendations.

As an author and publisher, I love book reviewers who are dedicated solely to this task.  A good reviewer can convince you to read something just as much as they can turn you off of it, and (most importantly) doesn’t just recommend everything they read. Their followers can trust that when the reviewer says they liked an author’s work, they genuinely did. If that reviewer like your book, chances are good their audience will too. That’s new readers for me, increased sales, and the satisfaction of knowing that someone else got what we were trying to do.

But for me, reviewing is a byproduct of reading critically, not the goal. I read because I am a writer, first and foremost, and reading teaches me. I learn more about what I like, what I want a story or sentence to sound like, what feels smart or emotionally true or creative. I learn just as much from what I don’t enjoy, because over time you start to recognize patterns in the things that turn you off and then you can learn to avoid those things in your own work.

Even when a book is awful, I learn something.**

When I share my thoughts on a book, it’s because I want to support an author, magazine, or publisher that shared a great story with me. It’s also because most of the people who read this blog are also writers, and if I learned something cool, I want to share that with you too. Lastly, I review books because if I can get you to read something that I loved, or even liked, there’s a better chance that magazine or that author will create someone new in the future, and then I’ll get to read that too.

As far as I’m concerned, my discussions of what I like and don’t like are the same as when a group of us writers sits in a bar at a convention, talking about whose work has made an impression on us since the last con. (Yes, we do that.) I’m talking to you as part of my peer group. Here, come and take a peek at the conversation being had by people who are involved in making books. You’ll see it’s exactly the same as the ones readers have all of the time, too.

Authors should always be readers anyway.

So if you recommend a book to me (or send it to me, or you know that I bought it) and I don’t review it, it means that either I haven’t gotten to it yet (but plan to, if I can find the time) or that I didn’t have anything good to say about it. It could be either one, and you shouldn’t assume that you know which it is. Most of all, don’t ask me to tell you which books I hated this year, or why I didn’t like something. For the most part I can see when a book is well written, but just doesn’t appeal to me. I know my tastes aren’t the same as everyone else’s, and I’m not going to turn you away from a book you may love just because I couldn’t get through it. (I will say, if asked directly, that I wouldn’t recommend a book, because I won’t tell you to read a book I couldn’t get through either.)

When I review a work that fits within the kind of literature I talk about here, I’ll post that review to this site. If I read something that I enjoyed quite a lot, and is very entertaining, but doesn’t teach me anything, I usually post that review other places (like Functional Nerds or SF Signal). Those books are still great, but there’s a difference between “wow that’s brilliant, I should write like that” and “wow that was crazy fun I’m so glad I spent my evening reading that”.

Any questions?

* Most of my reviews are labeled Books I Recommend or You Should Read for that reason.
** Mostly, “Do not try this at home,” but hey, that’s learning.

Book Spine Poetry

In honor of National Poetry Month, and inspired by Brainpicking’s book spine poetry, may I present my latest masterpiece?

*steps up to the mic*

Ahem.

FRIDAY

Dreams of decadence
Strange men, in pinstripe suits
Pretty monsters …
Alien sex!
I am legend.

Thank you.

*walks off stage*

You can make your own. Find poetic genius amongst the titles in your personal library, or go out into the world and disorganize a bookstore, creatively! (Just remember to put everything back where you found it.) These are from my bookshelves at home:

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Current State of the To Be Read Pile, April 2012

I read some of the books from my November 2011 list, I got rid of a few I knew I wasn’t that interested in, and I gave a handful of titles away to people who really wanted them. Of course, since I then had room on my bookshelves …

The following list is broken up into a few categories, and the ones with an * after them are the books I’ve started but never completely finished. As of now, here’s what I have left to read:

Fiction, Short Story Collections:

  1. The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, ed. by Kelly Link & Gaven Grant *
  2. Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits & Other Curious Things, Cate Gardner
  3. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, ed. Kate Bernheimer *
  4. The Complete Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (facsimile of the original 24 stories from THE STRAND MAGAZINE)
  5. The Book of Cthulhu, ed. by Ross E. Lockhart (one story, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Flash Frame”, first appeared in Cthulhurotica, which I edited) *
  6. The Living Dead, ed. John Joseph Adams *
  7. The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics, ed. David Kendall *
  8. Evolve, ed. Nancy Kilpatrick
  9. Other Worlds, Better Lives, Howard Waldrop
  10. Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link *
  11. The New Weird, Ann & Jeff Vandermeer *
  12. Year’s Best SF 15, ed. Hartwell and Cramer *
  13. Brave New Worlds, ed. John Joseph Adams *
  14. Shock Totem #2 (2010)
  15. The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein *
  16. Push of the Sky, Camille Alexa *
  17. Tales of Ten Worlds, Arthur C. Clarke
  18. Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison
  19. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
  20. The Decameron, Boccaccio
  21. Stories From the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling

As you can see, I tend to read collections a bit at a time and then move on to something else. Continue reading