This Week, I Read… (2020 #28)

#106 – Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

  • Read: 7/16/20 – 7/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 95/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book under 300 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

A startlingly different picture of a Utopian society and what the ultimate fate is for mankind. I’ve read things like part of it–I can see traces of this story sprinkled throughout modern science and speculative fiction–but never anything approaching its whole. This was a unique experience, and that’s most of why I like it so much, despite some obvious flaws.

Discussing everything I found fascinating would make this review into a dissertation, so I’ll limit myself to highlights.

Framing the early part of the story through Stormgren and his “friendship” with one of the alien Overlords was a charming and inventive way to assure us of their relative benevolence. Usually when a story talks about the world uniting in peace, it’s against an alien threat, not under alien guidance. The Overlords are undoubtedly dictators, and but once you know their role in the full story they’re both morally questionable and ultimately sympathetic. So establishing this aura of reluctant power early was key in driving the mystery of “what the heck is going on here?”

Choosing to leave that POV character behind and time jump forward for the middle part of the book left me briefly reeling, but after a quick overview on how the Overlords restructured society, we get new characters to keep us entertained with how both like and unlike us (now) they are. For a book written nearly seventy years ago, I was genuinely surprised by how many things Clarke predicted for his Utopian society have actually happened in real life, unaided by aliens. His view of those changes wasn’t perfect, of course, limited by the technology and social patterns of his own time, but especially compared with other classic sci-fi I’ve read, this one is eerily prescient.

But this is also when I need to address the elephant in the room. For a good chunk of that Utopian description, I was wondering how he was going to deal with racial equality, or if he was going to address it at all. His thinking on what it would look like manages to be both progressive for its time and woefully naive. He explicitly has a POV character reflect on how his skin color doesn’t matter now but would have limited him in the past, okay. But in describing the few characters of color in the story, he uses terms that are frowned upon now (but language does evolve, so…) And, he manages to exoticize one of those characters by emphasizing her beauty, but she’s explicitly mixed-race, so part of her beauty is apparently whiteness. Not ideal. The real kicker, though, is that his ultimate marker for the success of racial equality (for black people, anyway) is the reclamation and destigmatization of the n-word, which yes, he did include in full. Really? That’s the high bar you set?

And on top of all that, no other races are even mentioned. This utopia fixed racism against black people, so let’s clap our hands together and say “that’s that, then” and go home happy with ourselves.

Progressive for the time, but still woefully naive.

Moving on the ending–well, I didn’t see that coming. The foreshadowing offers enough clues to make sure you feel like you don’t have the whole picture, but when that picture is revealed, it’s a real doozy. Normally I’m lax about spoilers in reviews, but I don’t want to give this away, because it was so out-there, so “this could only happen in classic sci-fi, it would be laughed at now.” I’ve skimmed other reviews and I almost can’t blame readers who felt like this was a curveball, too much, too silly, too strange. But I loved it. I loved it because I’ve always had a soft spot in my daydreaming brain for (view spoiler) and it’s so rare these days to see those taken seriously, they’ve really gone out of vogue.

I definitely recommend this for classic sci-fi fans who might have missed it (I mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey is by far Clarke’s best-known work these days) and anyone who wants a bit of a brain stretch they’d never find in modern fiction.

#107 – The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice, by E.S. Barrison

  • Read: 7/18/20 – 7/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Bear with me, this is going to get complicated and go to some uncomfortable places, but there are good things along the way, too.

A few months back I came to the realization that in a lot of cases I don’t like what seems to be a “good” story because its priorities don’t match mine. This story has good bones. This story as a debut makes me think this author is going places, because the concept and world-building feel fresh in recombining ideas I’ve seen before (and in some cases, that I love) into something original.

But the text itself prioritizes plot over character over lore. That doesn’t match my priorities, and that’s certainly not the author’s fault. But I also don’t believe it’s the right balance for this story.

Massive, massive spoilers ahead, and I’m not going to mark them all because it would look like I’m trying to leak a classified document. Stop here if that’s not what you want from a review, and take away from this that the book is good enough that I wished it were also better than it is.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I love that the core of this story is about the love between two people becoming the strength they need to defy a world order that would stifle them both into nothing. Sign me up, I am on board. What I don’t love is that Brent and Bria love each other because. There’s no romance, there’s no growth of their relationship. They were in kiddie love before the story starts, then circumstance and a few poor choices separated them, then they were in love again; it’s all tell and no show.

I love that Brent is an atypical, clumsy, bumbling, endearing protagonist. He is a disaster and I want good things for him. But I don’t love that he never finishes his sentences because of an overuse of ellipses in dialogue (not limited to him but worst with him.) I love that the story puts his mind and identity at risk, because that’s an interesting type of danger, but I don’t love that it means Bria has to keep dragging him back to reality (constant emotional support) when I don’t see evidence she gets equal support from Brent.

That leads to my next issue: just how often is it really necessary to have Bria nearly raped? I’m not opposed to sexual violence being included in a story, but this casual and repeated treatment of it just hurt to read. I have actually lost count of how often it happens, and in nearly every case, she’s pretty much fine in the next scene–no one does much to acknowledge what has happened to her (aside from Caroline remarking that one of her assailants deserved his fate, I did appreciate that.) The story moves on as if it weren’t a traumatic event. This is in pretty marked contrast to the treatment of the little girl’s soul that Brent releases–she was molested, and when Brent loses his identity in hers, he experiences some of that horror, and it’s taken seriously. It’s just not a good look that rape matters when the male suffers it vicariously, when the female lead can’t take ten steps without somebody trying to assault her, but don’t worry, she’s fine. (This is, by far, my biggest complaint about the book.)

As for the relative lack of attention to world-building, that’s really an odd choice here, because there’s plenty of magic, and it gets explained and structured well enough I could mostly follow it, yet there’s very little sense of place. The settings for scenes rarely get described beyond the most basic, and since the tunnels can take B+B anywhere, distance doesn’t matter and nothing feels grounded. So that’s weak, but on the other hand, I love that the structure of the world is “here’s these two apparently opposed systems, the Order and the Mist Keepers” and you’re meant to think Brent should be a Mist Keeper, except they’re actually both bad? The Mist Keepers are actually sort of awful people who hate magic that isn’t like theirs? I love it! I love that the whole system of Brent’s world is “evil” and he and Bria escape for a while to a distant city where magic is accepted and they can live peacefully for a bit! I love that Brent reinvolves himself in his former world because he feels responsible for the monster he accidentally let loose! I love that he (apparently) sacrificed himself to defeat it! It’s a solid cliffhanger ending. What I don’t love is that I could rarely “see” the story in my head because it took place in settings given only the most generic of descriptions.

So to bring it back to my original hierarchy, this book is plot-based, and a lot about the plot is solid and interesting. But by focusing on moving the action briskly from one point to the next, we lose out on character development and sense of place, both of which I think would enrich this story more than having some of the subplots or minor characters that are squeezed in.

I do want to know what happens, though. Cautiously optimistic for the eventual sequel.

#108 – An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

  • Read: 7/21/20 – 7/24/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the New York Times ‘100 Notable Books’ list for any year
  • Mount TBR: 96/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Though I didn’t pick it up specifically because it was an Oprah pick, this is an incredibly “book club” book. What I mean is that I’d rather talk about what it wants to say rather than what it actually said.

Though Roy’s arrest and trial happen at the speed of light, barely a single chapter, the shadow it casts over the story is inescapable. The point isn’t the process; the point is the aftermath. And on the surface, yes, it’s awful and I’m queueing up books about prison abolition so I can learn more about it.

But for a book with this little plot, a book that should be a character study while we watch the shifting relationships unfold, I don’t like any of the characters. Not even Roy, by the end, whom I felt incredible sympathy for throughout most of the book.

I thought–I hoped–that this would give me a more nuanced look at infidelity by approaching it from the incarcerated-husband angle. I hate books about cheating, and I inevitably hate cheaters. I don’t think infidelity is interesting, but usually when I’m decrying it as the central plot point or theme of a work, I’m railing against some Old White Male Author whose literary “brilliance” is an excuse to write a blatant self-insert protagonist who gets to have an affair with a beautiful, often much younger woman. Whether the story is autobiographical or merely a fantasy of what they wish they could get away with, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and a twisting stomach.

Here, it could have been more interesting, and I’m truly disappointed that it wasn’t. Roy was sympathetic until he got out of prison and fell into the arms, kitchen, and bed of the first woman he recognized from high school. (And I don’t understand her motivations at all, having a brief fling with a guy you haven’t seen in years and don’t really know, then acting like he should move in and forget about trying to go back to his old life.) Also his treatment of Celestial at the very end; telling her he could rape her if he wanted to, then expecting brownie points for not raping her. Absolutely disgusting. I tried to keep an open mind about Celestial, but even if I could forgive her the loneliness of being separated from her husband for so long, she was selfish about everything else in her life too, so why would I think for a second that she wouldn’t end up cheating? And Andre was a placeholder, a trope, the best friend. Andre was the biggest disappointment of the whole book, not even because he knowingly got involved with a married woman, but because he never managed to convince me he mattered.

The central problem I have with this setup is that none of the main characters, at any point, actually seemed to love each other. I’m not expecting romance-levels of devotion or high melodrama. Roy and Celestial never had a marriage worth saving, but Celestial and Andre were even worse. There’s no on-page evidence that they actually care about each other, Andre isn’t even believable as the best friend. Andre’s constant close-lipped, “this is how it is, accept it” attitude gives him an out from actually having to say to Roy that he loves Celestial, and I simply don’t believe that he does, because he has the least personality of anyone in the whole book.

The only character I believe actually loved their spouse was Big Roy. Big Roy is a treasure.

If I’m supposed to be invested in the outcome of this tangled set of relationships, shouldn’t the characters be worth caring about? Shouldn’t there be love present, shouldn’t I either be rooting for Roy to win Celestial back, or even Andre to stay with the woman he loves? But neither side of this “love” triangle is worth investing in, because the point was never the love, it was the struggle.

Alternately, if the point of the book is “you can’t go home again”–because that’s definitely the message I got from the ending–then why isn’t this just Roy’s story of getting out, finding that his wife has essentially left him, then reintegrating in society with a new woman and a new job, as he does in a one-page letter in the epilogue?

As usual, I’m coming out of a book about cheating thinking that everyone involved is a bad person in some way. I know that doesn’t align with popular opinion, but if this book made me angry about our broken justice system (and it did manage that!) it didn’t get me invested in the fallout of justice’s failure. I still don’t find infidelity compelling enough to carry a story. Morally gray characters will only keep me going if there’s something believable or interesting (like love!) to make me want to examine their “hard” choices, but here, the emotions are simply too shallow or not even present at all.

The Joy of Buying Used Books

Ella Minnow Pea Contents

An old post of mine on Tumblr started making the rounds yesterday for some reason–who ever knows why something random gets attention there? But I don’t think I ever shared it here: it’s the photo of everything I pulled out of my used copy of Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters when I read it last January. Eighteen post-it notes with annotations and some pressed leaves.

Once upon a time, I only bought new–that is, unused–books, and because of the price I bought them infrequently and reread them often, some of my favorites over a dozen times over the years.

But right around the time I started my blog, my social media platform, and my side-gig career as an author, I also discovered the thrill of used book sales, especially those held at all the libraries across my county. (There are so many! It’s wonderful!) It didn’t take me long after that to discover Thriftbooks as well, so now most of the books I buy in any given year, by far, are secondhand.

This has led to some interesting finds.

  • Bookmarks. Obviously! Someone was reading these books at some point, and they left their bookmarks behind. My personal favorite was a shop bookmark from a indie bookstore in Ontario, it was a lovely shade of green, but I used it until it was tea-stained and tattered, so it’s gone now. (/sadface)
  • Improvised bookmarks. I’ve found candy wrappers and library checkout receipts and supermarket receipts and random strips of paper and subscription cards for magazines, but the best one of these (and I’m sorry I don’t have photographic evidence) was an airline boarding pass from 2003–and neither end of that long-ago journey was in my state, despite me finding the book at a local sale, rather than buying it online.
  • I found a folded page of someone’s algebra homework just inside the front cover of a used book once. So, not precisely an improvised bookmark, probably happened by mistake. At least the dog didn’t eat it.
  • Pressed leaves and flowers. It only happened one time other than Ella, and the flowers crumbled as soon as I took them out, but it still made me happy.

I still have over a hundred physical books in my TBR collection, almost all of them used, and I don’t leaf through them ahead of time, so all of them are potential adventures in mystery finds waiting to happen. And I think I will be far better in the future about taking pictures when something interesting shows up!

End of the Month Wrap-Up: April 2020!

kinga-cichewicz-5NzOfwXoH88-unsplash

I’m going to keep this short; as I’m writing this, I’m in the process of recovering from Covid-19, and even if I’m not suffering the insane levels of fatigue I did at the start, I still get worn out pretty easily.

(Yes, I have it, and yes, it’s a mild case. I am able to isolate, I haven’t required medical attention, and though I won’t be tested unless something new goes wrong, I’m 99% sure that’s what sent me to bed for most of this week.)

I read 16 books in April.

I made no significant progress on any of my writing projects (including keeping up with blog posts that weren’t my book reviews.)

I was doing great at exercising, running three times a week, until I got sick. I hope to resume that soon, but I know I’ve got to give my lungs some time to rest first. In a few days (hopefully) I’ll meet the CDC criteria for ending my isolation and can at least start taking walks.

I have also done a lot of knitting and watching TV.

May Goals: Read lots–the TBR post is coming Wednesday. Keep knitting. Try to write again, ideally on Fifty-Five Days, because it’s frustrating to be so near the end of a project (or at least one of its stages) but not have the mental energy to work on it. Get back to walking/running. Bake more things!

Flash Fiction #8: Apparently My Brain Wants to Write a CEO/Assistant Romance

[This is a scene from a plot bunny I’ve been writing down, in between working on Fifty-Five Days, so that I won’t forget anything until I can go back to it later, maybe. Who knows if this idea will bear fruit?]

Piper Kearns hated sleeping on her back. She was a stomach sleeper, despite all the click-bait articles insisting that sleep position was the worst for your spine (which she believed,) your digestion (which seemed more questionable,) or your fertility (which seemed completely unrelated and was not a particularly high priority for her at the moment anyway.) She would roll onto her belly, tuck one knee up to the side slightly to keep her legs from feeling glued together by her heavy blankets, and tuck the hand from the same side under her pillow. Whenever she posed herself that way, sleep was instant; whenever she tried to train herself to sleep on her back, or even on her side, for the supposed health benefits, she tossed for hours until she gave up and rolled over anyway.

All of that made her unexpected hospital stay more miserable than it had had to be. So did not coming fully into awareness, out from under the fog of sedation and pain medication, until long after she was supposed to be at work. Her phone sat on the tray in front of her, and it had messages waiting. Not as many as she had expected, honestly, but her boss was a busy man, and she knew there would be one from him wondering why she had not come in on time, nor called in properly. But there were actually three, spaced exactly an hour apart, as if he had set an alarm to remind him to check up on her.

If the pattern held, he would be calling again in seventeen minutes. She had that long to figure out what to say to him.

She knew she wouldn’t be in trouble. “Hi, I couldn’t call because I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital last night and I only woke up half an hour ago,” would solve any possible repercussions from her breach of policy. Mr. Perkins was strict in many ways and had high expectations, but he was no monster.

But that line left her open to questions about why she was in the hospital. Questions that were perfectly understandable from a place of concern and surprise, and questions that were illegal when coming from her boss. He knew that, and he wouldn’t ask. But if he did, if, she had to be ready with some bland explanation, because invoking the illegality of those questions about her personal medical situation would only imply she had something to hide.

A car crash? That wouldn’t work. Her car was fine, and not using it “while she got it fixed” would be too much of an inconvenience. Her injuries weren’t at all consistent with being a pedestrian or even a bicyclist hit by a moving car. Even at the low speeds that wouldn’t simply have killed her. She couldn’t make that make any sense.

She flexed her left hand and felt a wave of gratitude that it was only sprained, not broken. It was still swollen badly and the brace holding it was uncomfortable, but it would heal far more quickly and cause her less aggravation. What lie could account for a sprained wrist, badly bruised ribs, and a split lip? Those were the injuries she couldn’t hide, because they were visible, or in the case of her ribs, because she couldn’t breathe deeply yet and had to move cautiously. She’d already been up to the little bathroom in the corner of her hospital room once, and walking normally had been impossible. She was reduced to a shuffling gait, half as fast as usual.

She had to call him back but hesitated, because she couldn’t come up with any lie that sounded as reasonable as the truth, and she wasn’t a particularly good liar. She was good at keeping her opinions and thoughts to herself, which the same thing at all; when she tried to deliberately say something untrue, her brain balked and her tongue stuttered.

Mr. Perkins joked sometimes about inviting her to the monthly poker game he threw for his friends and some of his more important subordinates. She knew it was a joke because there was a special version of his smile reserved for jokes. And because it was obvious to both of them that she would get fleeced if she went.

Thirteen minutes. It would be better if she called first; it would put her in a position of greater power. She still wasn’t ready, though.

She hadn’t listened to the messages yet; she knew what they would say, and she was afraid if she heard Mr. Perkins being angry at her, she would start to cry again. But, on the other hand, she would look like a fool if she called in without listening first and being prepared for his mood, without knowing what he had already said to her.

The first one was exactly what she expected, short and gruff and word-for-word from the company policy on tardiness. “Miss Kearns, it’s five after nine, and your desk is empty. Please arrive as soon as possible or contact me with your ETA.” Normally it would be a department chair making the call about one of their juniors, but her only direct superior was the CEO himself. The other officers were her seniors, certainly, but they had their own assistants and she didn’t answer to them. Just to Mr. Perkins.

He had never had to make that call to her before, and he sounded annoyed he needed to take even the thirty seconds it had required.

The second message had come one hour and one minute later. “Miss Kearns, in the three years you’ve worked for me this has never happened. Please call me and let me know what’s going on.”

Short, but completely off-script, and more concerned than annoyed. That message shook her a little, because she had imagined him growing increasingly frustrated by having to answer his own phone and make his own calls and wade through–what was on the docket this morning? She honestly didn’t remember, and that should have concerned her, but the minutiae of her job seemed distant and fuzzy this morning.

The third message was only fifty-nine minutes after that–had she been wrong about the timer? Or had he been staring at it waiting for it to go off, then given up early? “Piper,” he began. “Now I’m honestly worried. You’ve never pulled a no-show and you barely ever call in anyway. Are you lying in a ditch somewhere? Did your apartment burn down? I’d have called the police already if I didn’t know they would laugh at me trying to report a missing person after two hours. If I don’t hear from you by lunch, I think I’ll start making calls anyway. Where are you?”

Her hands shook so hard she set down the phone before she dropped it, because retrieving it from the floor was utterly beyond her at the moment, and calling a nurse in to do it would be a bother they didn’t need. She gave herself a few minutes to cry, then a few more to calm down enough to pick the phone back up.

He answered on the second ring. “Piper?”

He hardly ever used her first name, as they were a very formal bunch at work, and hearing it for the second time that morning in his voice nearly made her cry again. “Mr. Perkins, I’m sorry. I’m–I’m in the hospital. I only woke up a little while ago, and the doctors needed to go over everything with me. I couldn’t call any sooner.”

“Oh, thank god you’re okay. I mean, are you? Okay?”

She swallowed painfully, her throat still swollen from crying. “Injured, not dying.” She bit her lip against the need to explain. “They’re discharging me soon. I can be in after lunch.”

“No!” There was a pause where Piper imagined Mr. Perkins forcing himself to calm down, to lower his voice. He really had been worried about her. “If you need time off, you can take it. You haven’t used a single sick day in months. Just have the hospital fax your work return forms and I’ll authorize them.”

“I can work, sir,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not that bad.” And she didn’t want to go home and lay around doing nothing for three days, or however long the doctors would tell her she needed to rest.

In truth, she didn’t want to go home at all. But she was already forming a plan, and she would need to return to get her things, at least enough for a few days. Maybe a week. She wasn’t sure how long she could pull this off without anyone knowing or suspecting. Her organizational skills went into a sudden overdrive, creating a list in her head of the items she would need to pack and the things she would need to do, which meant she zoned out while her boss replied.

“I won’t pretend I can’t use you here if you’re well enough, but your health comes first.” He took a deep breath. “Do as you think best. I trust you to make that decision for yourself. But don’t be afraid to take shorter hours while you’re recovering, if you need to.” This is where her brain reengaged in the conversation, and she was about to launch into an entirely separate list of everything she needed to get done in the next week, which doubled as the list of reasons why she needed to work. But he either heard her indrawn breath, or he knew her well enough to know what she was going to say. “I can handle things for a while without you. And if I can’t, there are other people I can lean on, okay?”

“Okay.” She vowed privately that she was still going to put in her hours, maybe extra overall, though possibly with more breaks. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

He chuckled softly. “I don’t know why I thought you would listen to me, but fine. Come in this afternoon. But I reserve the right to send you right back out if you collapse on your desk.”

“Fair enough, sir.” She ended the call and opened the note app on her phone and started a checklist, to fill the time until she got her discharge sorted out.

Flash Fiction #7: The Book of Crows and Fire

the book of crows and fire

So these post get passed around Tumblr all the time, taking a light-hearted poke at the trend of fantasy YA book titles that’s been going strong for the last several years.

I usually play along by reblogging with the title it gives me, and they’re usually not that great, because that’s the joke.

This particular one, however, generated The Book of Crows and Fire for me, and I immediately got an idea. So I spent an hour typing furiously into the Tumblr post editor and ended up with a 1700-word origin myth, which is also a bad wordplay joke, which is also wildly inaccurate. But it was fun to write, and sometimes that matters more.

Piqued your curiosity? I haven’t posted a flash fiction piece in three full years, so I might be rusty, but here goes:

In the beginning, the day was hot and bright, but the nights were bitterly cold. All the creatures of the earth whimpered in their burrows and dens, huddled together for the meager warmth they could provide each other. The wolf pups shivered, the squirrels fluffed their tails as large as they could to hide beneath, the muskrats coiled themselves around each other and waited for morning to bring back light and warmth to the world.

But the crows sat together high in the branches of the trees, and they did not shiver or whimper or wait. They plotted.

It took time to observe, and time to plan. The crows risked nothing for many days, watching the sun move across the sky. When the first crow tried to catch it, she returned limp and exhausted in the deepest part of the night. “It is too fast,” she said. “I could not keep pace with it.”

Her murder gathered around her to listen to her tale, to the distant lands she had seen in her pursuit of the sun, the territory they had never before encountered. A few days passed while they sent scouts to investigate; perhaps those lands, closer to the sun, would be a more hospitable place to live. If they could not catch it, at least they could settle where it shone more strongly.

In this new place they thrived, and a new generation hatched, and the chicks tested their wings in flight. One young crow looked up at the sun, after hearing the stories his elders had told of how they had chased it, and how it had brought them to their new home, and wondered. Most of the others had given up on the dream of having the sun for themselves, but he saw something they had overlooked. As soon as he had grown into his adult size and strength, he left the murder asleep in their trees and flew swift through the night.

It wasn’t that the sun was too fast, he deduced on his own, but that it was too far. He had to leave much earlier to meet it in the sky when it rose.

He was a strong bird, and a smart one, and as fast as he flew, the night still seemed very long and exceptionally dark. He, too, like his mother before him, saw many strange things beneath him on the earth, creatures that did not live where he lived, trees that did not look like his trees, and even vast expanses where there were no trees, only grasses. That emptiness unnerved him, so he fixed his gaze on the horizon, where he knew the sun would come up.

When it did, he landed, weary and disappointed. He was still too far away, and he knew from his mother’s stories that he could not catch up to it. He might be stronger and faster than her, but he did not think he was strong or fast enough.

He drank from a stream that cut through the grass and feasted on a small rodent he found nearby. It was strange to him, but tasty still, and he had not gone so far from the edge of the forest that he could not fly back to it for a safe place to roost while he slept. The next night, he returned to his murder and told them of his journey. Many of the elders were too old and tired to make the migration, but most of his brothers and sisters and cousins decided to go with him when he returned to the grasslands. His mother did as well, and declared herself pleased to see the new hunting grounds her brave son had discovered. They lived many turnings of the moon in peace and safety, growing bigger on the rich feeding they found, and the next generation of chicks broke free of their eggs sooner and more vigorously than any hatching before them.

The twin daughters of this new crow hero were proud of their heritage, whenever the elders told the stories of his journey, or their grandmother’s. They had never known the deepest coldness of the night as the rest of their family had, but they saw no reason not to devote themselves to improving the lives of their murder once again. They took turns scouting the lands around them as soon as they fledged, bringing back so many tales of strange places that some of the murder suspected of making them up. Surely there were not places so hot and dry that not even trees could grow, that the ground was covered in sand, like the banks of streams, but everywhere? Surely there were not places where stone thrust up from the earth in piles so huge they seemed to touch the sky itself?

But their father believed, for hadn’t he been the one to see strange new lands himself? He encouraged his daughters to fly together to the tallest peak in the sky, and from there, after a good rest, perhaps they could finally catch the sun.

When the twins searched for shelter on that mountain, they met a bone-breaking cold and a biting wind like they had never known before, and wondered if this was the death that their ancestors fled from. They squeezed themselves into a tiny niche in the rock and held tight to each other, sleeping as best they could in that terrible place. In the morning, when the sun rose, they winged into the sky to meet it. They were young and small, but swifter on the wing than any crow that had come before them, even their heroic father. They followed the sun across the sky, and soon enough, the air grew warmer around them, even though they continued to ascend.

The sun’s path led them to a strange peak, even stranger than the one they had sheltered on. The top of the mountain was a great lake of fire, bright and burning, and it overflowed so that liquid fire trailed down its sides in great rivers. There was smoke in the air that made the twins cough, but soon enough they found the clear space where the air currents carried the smoke away, and it was safe to fly. When they first landed, the stone burned their feet and they had to jump away, back into the air. But they tried again, farther from the lake, and found a place cool enough to land but warm enough to make their feathers fluff in happiness. They had flown so far that they immediately slept again, lulled by that heat and their exhaustion. When they woke, deep in the night, the light of the burning lake brightened the darkness around them, and they thought there was surely no better place to live than this. They had not caught the sun, but they had found a place where the sun lived on earth, and that was better even that the warm grasslands of their childhood.

This migration was harder on the murder, though, and when those who had chosen to go with them reached the volcano, they cried in dismay. “But nothing lives here! Yes, we are warm, but what will we eat?”

The twins looked to their father for advice, but he only shrugged. This was their idea, so it was their problem to solve. Until they did, the others would either wear themselves out in flight searching for food, or go hungry. Intense investigation turned up some very small creatures did live on the slopes of the volcano, but there were not enough to feed everyone, and their meat was tough and meager. Some of the elders died, and the twins began to fear they had led their murder to ruin.

But one of their cousins seemed to be growing healthier every day, while the others all wasted away. His eyes were bright and his feathers were glossy. They begged him to share his secret.

He looked away from them in a gesture of embarrassment. “I didn’t say anything, because I thought it was stupid. But I was so hungry one day, so desperate to feel something in my belly, that I started eating pebbles. And then I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t die, so I did it again the next day.”

This wonderful news came too late to save some of the weakest of them, and the ones who did not believe that eating stones would work and refused to try. But as soon as they told him, their father leapt down from his perch to scrounge for small stones and scooped them up in his beak. “Not much different from eating large seeds,” he said. “And I do feel better.”

They waited until the next day, to see if their father died, but he looked much improved. Then they ate some pebbles themselves, and felt better. They had enough energy to fly about again and explore, and when they tried to land close to the lake of fire again, they found their feet didn’t hurt so much on the hot ground.

They grew into adults there, and laid their eggs, and raised their chicks, all on a diet of those small black stones, some gritty like dirt and others as smooth as glass. With each generation their beaks grew larger and harder, the better for chipping stone off the cliffs. Their wingspans broadened for catching the warm updrafts that rose from the lake. Their feathers, already that beautiful glossy black, darkened further with the blackness of their food, and gained a subtle sparkle from the rich minerals. They were the proudest and biggest and most beautiful crows the world had ever seen.

It was only many years later that humans found them and did not recognize them for what they had been. Foolish humans who could not fly to chase the sun, who had to walk, creeping slowly across the landscape trying to find the best place to live, where the crows had been able to fly and find it first. They could not live here, those humans. The crows would not let them in. The humans were too stupid, even, to know them by their right name, for when the curses flew at them alongside the puny arrows they did not fear, the humans called them rocs, not crows.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #1

 

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I made my first (self-enforced) deadline!

As of yesterday, I have 12K worth of notes taken on #rockstarnovel, broken down into general stuff and chapter-specific, plus a transitional first-to-second draft outline, showing how many chapters are switching POVs (ten,) how many are getting cut (seven,) and how many I have to write new (five, so far.)

I also have a 55-day, 44-show tour schedule in a text file, cobbled together from five different actual tours across the continental United States from five artists across several decades. No, I’m not worrying about the actual venues (some of which might not even exist anymore) but I did want to use real-world resources for dates and cities and thus, actual travel times. I strung together logical pieces based on location, but didn’t mind the weird spots too much because this band’s tour was put together close to the last minute and so can be a little scattershot, based on what venues were even available on those nights. (Also, in researching the existing tours, a lot of their dates and jumps between cities don’t make “sense” for efficiency, so it’s not like I don’t have a realistic basis for the occasional weirdness in the schedule. One band took a two day break to travel from Louisville, KY to freaking Toronto, in Canada, then had another two-day break to get to Newark, NJ. That happened, it’s real, but like, you didn’t stop over in Detroit or Cleveland or something on the way up, or anywhere in New York State on your way over to New Jersey? Probably because there were no venues available.)

So the prep work for the second draft is done, on time. As for how long I expect the rewrite to take…hard to say for sure? A lot of the notes I have for individual chapters amount to “this is basically fine story-wise but needs a few details changed for consistency.” So there are chunks that hardly need work at all. But I’ve got those ten chapters that are getting rewritten from a different POV character, and at least five new ones to write, and honestly speaking I’ve never taken less than two months to finish a draft of any full novel at any stage except line-editing.

I’ll be generous with myself and say I need to have this draft finished by the end of March. That’s two and a half months, starting today. But I’ll check in at the end of February to reassess my progress. See you then!

Getting Serious About Series 2020 #1

I won’t lie, my old format for the posts tracking my series-reading progress got really complicated, really quickly, and focused far too heavily on whether or not I owned the books in question, so I ended up with far more categories than I needed.

This year, I still want to track my progress, but I’m going to try to streamline it.

The first category, though, sadly, stays the same:

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published (still)

The next category is all the series I have in progress that I could keep reading because more books do exist (whether or not I own them yet):

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

And the “I should get to these soon” series:

I Own The First One (or More) But Haven’t Started Yet

Then, because I regret not doing this last year, a list of every series I’ve completed (or abandoned for whatever reason) since starting the tracking:

Off My List in 2020

  • [nothing yet]

I still intend to come up with a system of color changing text, or possibly just using boldface, to mark items that have changed, but this is the baseline for the start of the new year, edited from my list last summer. There are items missing here, compared to that one: I ditched one series without reading it due to author shenanigans I couldn’t support, another I started and DNF’d the first book because it was that bad, and so forth. But clean slate this year, here’s where I’m starting.

As for overall series goals, I often pick one big series a year to make sure I finish (The Dark Tower back in 2017, for example, and Saga in 2019 when I meant to do the James Bond books but had to ditch them because I hated them so much by the end of the second book.) In 2020, the top-priority series is Robin Hobb’s Realms of the Elderlings, which I am just shy of halfway through. They are all big, dense fantasy novels that generally take me a solid week to read, even at my fast pace, so that’s about two months of my reading time spoken for already. I’m hesitant to pick a smaller series to go with it right out of the gate, but I’m sure I can knock off at least a few other easier goals as well.

 

 

End of the Month/Year Wrap-Up: December 2019!

 

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The breakdown for this month: I read nine books. (Or more, by now. I’m writing this pre-vacation, on the day I finished that ninth book.) I finished the first draft of #bridgesnovel, which I started last month during NaNoWriMo. I completely fell off my exercise plan due to getting a serious cold, and then the busyness of the holidays. Not the first time, won’t be the last. I had an excellent Christmas with one half of my family, and by now I’ve probably had an excellent second Christmas with the other half.

The breakdown for the year is more complicated.

I started off with big plans to rewrite, beta, then rewrite again and publish #spookyromancenovel. I made it halfway through those plans, but by the time the beta feedback trickled in, I was thoroughly burnt out on that project. It’s still all there waiting for me to get back to it–nothing is lost, nothing is ruined. But I set it aside in favor of other things, one of which became the NaNo novel this year.

I set out at the beginning of 2019 with a firm belief that I could stop my one year of non-publishing from becoming a two-year streak, but I failed in that. The base reason behind it though, is not only a valid but a great one–I got a new job. A better job. A job where not only do I make more money (which is good) but where I also feel valued and appreciated for my hard work, a feeling I rarely if ever had at the old job (which is awesome!) It has completely been worth the upheaval such a major life change caused in all other areas of my life–sleep, hobbies, writing, and so forth.

So I’m starting 2020 with big plans: for writing, for reading, for making art. I honestly think it’s going to be a great year.

New readers, thanks for joining me. Faithful readers, thanks for sticking with me another year. I hope all of you have a great year ahead of you as well, like I hope too. Happy New Year’s Eve!

Happy Holidays 2019!

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Merry Christmas today, or a happy holiday season to those celebrating other religious or traditional festivals! I’m spending today with some of my family, then on Friday my husband and I will be traveling to see other family over New Year’s. I have posts queued for next week while I’m gone, and hopefully I will have time to ready my book reviews for next Friday, because I can’t do those ahead of time. If not, I’ll either post them as soon as I’m home, or just double up the week after.

I hope everyone has a safe and fun holiday, with good food, good company, and presents that bring you joy, if that’s a thing you do to celebrate. I know I’m getting books today–I always do–so before I leave I’ll make sure to take pictures of my Christmas book haul!

 

2020 Goals: Reading Challenges

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I was considering taking it easier next year on reading challenges, but by now, faithful readers should know me better than that. I am changing up which challenges I do, a little.

The 2019 Challenge Rundown:

  1. Mount TBR (100 of my own books owned prior to the start of the year)
  2. Virtual Mount TBR (48 books on my TBR that I don’t own–meant to encourage me utilizing the library more)
  3. The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge
  4. The Reading Frenzy’s monthly mini-challenges, as I had time and/or liked the theme
  5. Goodreads overall total challenge (150)

Now, I finished all of those (minus the December challenge from Frenzy, which I’m halfway through.) I did not read any extra books for VMTBR; I’ve read a few for regular Mount TBR. My overall book number this year for the Goodreads challenge is going to be lower than years prior, but I still made the goal I set.

So, you’d think with the time I want to devote to learning to draw, plus writing time, I’d cut back on reading, right? (Also I want to catch up some on my video game backlog, but that doesn’t deserve its own post.) But no, after checking the Book Riot Read Harder list for next year (I did that challenge last in 2016 and have skipped it since) my disappointment in the incredibly narrow prompts led me down a rabbit hole of reading group recommendations until I found Around The Year, which, like PopSugar, is a prompt-based challenge paced to be finished reading one book a week. Unlike PopSugar, they have a schedule that makes it actually weekly, though the group rules say that doesn’t need to be followed strictly.

I found myself liking the prompt list, and I do enjoy some pre-planning of my TBR, so I signed up and started putting together books for it.

So my proposed 2020 Reading Challenge List looks more like this:

  1. Mount TBR 100 (again, if I sign up for 150 I’ll feel too stressed)
  2. PopSugar 2020
  3. Around the Year 2020
  4. The Reading Frenzy monthly mini-challenges (when I have the inclination)
  5. Goodreads overall total challenge (150 again)

Virtual Mount TBR is getting cut, not because I’m not going to use the library–quite a few of the books on my PopSugar/ATY lists are ones I don’t own–but because my personal collection is still quite bloated and I need to read that down as much as possible.

On a related note, I have two personal but non-challenge reading goals I intend to dovetail in as much as possible with the formal challenges; to read as many of my acquired-in-2017 books as possible (I will finish my last 2016 book this year, dammit) and to finish (or progress through, if they’re incomplete) as many series as possible. I liked that I did the “Getting Serious About Series” posts, but I don’t like how I did them: they’re going to get revamped for 2020 to make following along easier.

So that takes care of art, reading, and the brief mention of my backlog video games. Up next: writing goals!