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Welcome 2018! (What I read in 2017 and where you can find me this year)

Posted by on Jan 30, 2018 in Blog Posts, Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Work and Career | 0 comments

During the fresh, can-do spirit of the beginning of a new year, it seems like a good time to have another swing at writing for this blog!

As I expected last year, blogging hasn’t been my biggest priority, though I’m glad I was able to get some book reviews and publication announcements in last year. So what HAVE I been doing? Fair question! Two big things, mostly: reading, and being paid for reading.

(That is, copyediting. And also writing, of course!)

2017 was the first year I used a journal to keep track of the books and writers I read. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and my memory for what I read is pretty good–it helps that I read multiple books at a time in different genres and styles, which makes each book distinct and easy to tell apart–but this journal has been helpful as a reference, and to provide raw numbers.

According to it, last year I read at least 218 books. That’s even more than I was expecting! So I’ve promptly set my 2018 reading challenge to 300, now that I’m getting the hang of this ;D.

Here are some of my most memorable reads from the list:

Alice Walker, The Color Purple –When I was younger I thought rereading was a waste of time because it would just retread what I already knew. Now I’m realizing the value of rereading a book with added perspective of both life and other books. I enjoyed and learned a quite a bit reading The Color Purple in high school, but this time I was struck by just how unique and valuable a book it is. I also followed up with the (loose) sequels, which follow the wider cast of characters: The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (4 books)–This was an interesting reading experience. The first book about the heroine’s childhood was good but, in my honest opinion, a bit generic (precocious young reader succeeds in school despite challenges and hardship–I think there’s a reason so many writers start off characters’ lives this way!). It got to the point where I was wondering if the many reviewers praising it as “A new page in fiction” “A new feminine perspective” “A female epic” and so on had ever read a book by a woman before. But by the time I was reading the third and fourth book, I realized something had changed, seismically. A shift in scale to something that felt truly epic, while still keeping an intimate focus on two women’s lives and the turbulent political and economic scene of working class Naples over the course of the twentieth century. To be fair, I don’t often read long series, so I can’t say for certain this is something brand new to fiction. But it was refreshingly different to me, and I’m glad so many other readers are vibing to it.

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir –A chilling true story about how a democracy can fall apart, a moving account of how ordinary people resist, and also some excellent literary analysis (I’m now pretty impatient with most other interpretations of Lolita).

Marissa Silver, Mary Coin–Inspired by Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph, this is a historical novel about a woman’s life both before and after the Dust Bowl and of a present-day family’s secret (while of course being about so many other things as well).

James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder–A witch hunter’s daughter takes a stand against injustice in the early American colonies. Ben Franklin is another major character. While overall a volume championing rationality, in a delightful not-fully-nonsensical twist the novel itself is narrated by a book, the Principia Mathematica, who has lots of snarky things to say about other books’ writing efforts. Pleasantly bonkers while still being accessible, this was a fun read.

Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country and Thousand Cranesthese short but powerful novels are full of precise details about places and objects that reveal the people who inhabit them. Of the two, Thousand Cranes was my favorite because I’m someone who collects and holds on to objects as a way to keep the past alive, although Snow Country’s conclusion is also haunting and memorable (as are the descriptions of the snow drifts, especially in January!).

Nicola Upson, The Death of Lucy Kyte–a mystery novel featuring novelist Josephine Tey that I wouldn’t quite call cozy. Beautifully written, with many moving human details, it engaged more of my emotions than I expected (mysteries are often a cerebral genre for me), and I was crying by the end.

Brooks Langden, Building Great Sentences–I’m planning to write a fuller review of this at a later date, because I found parts of it useful and other parts much less so. The author has an excellent eye for example sentences written by other people, but a number of his own examples were actively painful to read, making me wonder if we have different definitions of “great sentences”. It’s still well worth recommending, though, for excellent tips on a): how a sentence’s form reflects its content (while showing how sentence and “proposition” are separate), and b) advice on building long sentences that are easy to follow.

Takashi Matsuoka, Cloud of Sparrows–a historical novel and true genre mash-up that would probably appeal to fans of Westworld or Game of Thrones. I watched the former and rarely watch the latter, but I enjoyed lots of this (including the philosophical question of the possibility of redemption that was unobtrusively mixed in with the gunslinger’s revenge-seeking subplot), though by the end some of the heroes were doing truly appalling things according to horribly rigorous logic. Haunting and masterful. Though in terms of craft, I was a bit irritated by the writing of certain female characters.

Sarah Anne Johnson, The Lightkeeper’s Wife: a historical romance in which two people slowly uncover each other’s secrets and resolve pain from their pasts; to say much more might be a spoiler, though even when I was able to predict where things were going it was absorbing to watch it unfold.

Emile Zola, Therese Raquin— read not just because it has my name on it! This turned out to be a really creepy thriller. In particular, without spoiling, I’m struck by the things it had me hoping would happen to different characters–not for the sake of justice but for compassion. And of course, you shouldn’t waste your energy hoping for compassion in a Zola novel…

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West A brief but warm and interesting take on a science fictional concept through a treatment that doesn’t feel like science fiction; the focus is far less on how the doorways happen than on what the human results are, and those results feel believable while also hearteningly optimistic–I recall one chapter towards the end that felt nearly utopian. While not cosmically grand in its sense of scale or pyrotechnics (compared to works like the next two on this list), it was honestly exciting for its “What ifs?”

Iain M. Banks, Excession and Octavia Butler, Dawnboth read as part of a science fiction book club; for both, I have the feeling of “Why did it take me this long to read it?” and “I’m glad I’m reading it now!” Though rather different from each other, each author posits an alien (in fact, post-human) future that feels convincing, at times unsettling, yet engaging and even beautiful.

Stephen Pinker, A Sense of Style (a more thorough review should follow for this one too. In brief: “the curse of knowledge” is the most useful term I picked up in 2017)

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man (complete works) –some stories have aged better than others, but it was fascinating to watch the ideas that kept recurring throughout his career.

Greg Egan, Distress —another piece whose predictions haven’t all aged evenly, but most are at least interesting, and some appear startlingly prescient. Notably, this story manages to be highly existential without being terrifying–even with observations such as “reality is that which cannot be escaped–and I read it at one of the more existentially terrifying points of last year.

Euge Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet –a work of “philosophical horror” read at the same time as Distress. A bit more distressing, but still fascinating.

Aminatta Forna, Ancestor Stones — a family saga (I think? I have to admit I don’t usually read things described as family sagas, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this one) of beautifully written, interconnected short stories/novellas.

Tim Powers, Declare –a supernatural take on the Cold War that’s creepy and propulsive. While parts didn’t quite work for me, overall I’m intrigued enough to keep an eye out for more supernatural historical thrillers in the future. I didn’t realize until I reached the author’s notes that a major character was historical, for what that’s worth.

Charles Portis, True Grit–as part of Waukesha Reads this year. I’ll go out on a limb and admit I liked the book better than the movie (the 2010 version at least), even though it was well-acted and well-produced. There’s some nuances (or maybe that’s not the word I’m looking for when it comes to Mattie Ross) that breathe on the page and felt flattened onscreen.

Sorrow’s Company and Four Funerals and a Wedding –memoirs and reflections on grief and resilience.

Sarah Cauldwell, The Shortest Way to Hades — a cozy mystery that’s full of the driest possible British humo(u)r. Also notable, and refreshing, for the fact that its narrator, Dr Hillary Tamar, never reveals his/her/their gender, even though a lot of the plot does involve several complicated (and hilarious) gender and sexual dynamics between the other characters, plus legal technicalities, Greek poetry, and sheer nosiness.

Elizabeth Wein, The Winter Prince — Recommended at a WisCon panel, and am I glad I took note of it. I wouldn’t have believed there was a new take left on Arthurian mythology, but this one does it in a deceptively obvious way and goes on to be disturbing, moving, and incredibly memorable.

Samuel R. Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw –A mix of biography, criticism, and a bit of advice on writing science fiction (or any fiction), this was simply a pleasure to read. I bolted huge amounts of the at times dense text in one sitting, so I know there’s stuff I missed, but I couldn’t hold back from seeing what funny, intelligent, provocative, or brilliant observation would come on the next page. If I could take one book from 2017 onto a desert island with me, I’d take this one for a thorough self-guided book study.

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier –this novella is about a century old now, and according to the introduction was one of the first stories by a woman describing the home front of WWI. A painful read, but a good one (it hit me in the same place as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy did when I read it in 2014).

 

Reading aside, the editing business also picked up. In particular, I’m thrilled with the new contacts I was able to make with clients on Upwork (where I’m now a Top Rated Seller) and Fiverr (where I have a personal goal to become a Top Rated Seller by the end of 2018 through providing yet more excellent service to awesome clients).

So it’s clear I didn’t do nothing with the past year, even if blogging wasn’t really one of the things I did enough of. I’m also trying to continue with my goal of making at least one short fiction submission per month in 2018–I’ve even considered making it a goal to collect rejections.

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