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Book Souk

A bazaar crowded with random offerings. William Gibson/Henrik Ibsen. Zafon, Murakami, Van Gogh. A table of well-thumbed Louisa May Alcott. Shiny Urban Fantasy and an aromatic clutter of cookbooks.

My Top 10 Reads in 2015

Closing the year with a list of my top 10 reads of 2015.  That's books read DURING 2015, regardless of when they were written (bear in mind that I don't often get around to reading things the year they're published). In alphabetical order by title, they are (teeny drumroll please!): 
* "Ancillary Justice" (Ann Leckie)
* "Barnaby Rudge" (Charles Dickens)
* "The Clasp" (Sloane Crosley)
* "A Discovery of Witches" (Deborah Harkness)
* "Many Colored World" (Julian May)
* "Sinister Street" (Compton Mackenzie)
* "Skippy Dies" (Paul Murray)
* "Station Eleven" (Emily St John Mandel)
* "Story of a New Name" (Elena Ferrante)
* "The Watchmaker of Filigree Street" (Natasha Pulley)

Happy Birthday, Historic Inspirations!

Confession of an obsessive author: all my characters have birthdays. An extra fun thing about having characters that were inspired by historic figures is that no one will think I'm mad if I celebrate!


So right now I wish a very Happy Birthday to Kola (today, 7/10) and Gertrude (7/14) of "The Upsilon Knot" and also offer my thanks to Nicola Tesla and Gertrude Lowthian Bell for the seeds that sprouted them.

Always meant to read...

Sinister Street (Complete) - Compton Mackenzie

You know all those books you always meant to read?


One of mine was Compton MacKenzie's Sinister Street.Decades (!?!!) ago, I was intrigued by reading two consecutive social histories of early 20th century England that referenced this novel. At that time, it was out of print; and it never showed up in the library or the second-hand bookstores I regularly prowled. I never found it, and never quite forgot about it.


A few years ago, getting all excited about digitized versions of "lost" books, I thought to look for it and, wow! There it was! So I downloaded both volumes. But my to-read pile is gigantic and digital books, being out of sight, tend to fade.


A couple of weeks ago, I was on the subway when I abruptly finished the digital copy of the novel my book group had selected for this month's meeting. So I flipped through my device & picked out....no, not Sinister Street, but Julian May's The Many-Colored Land, because I was in a scifi-ish mood. it was a choice that made me very happy, btw. So happy, I didn't notice the progress thermometer running out and, once again, ran out of book on the subway.


This time, I did click on Sinister Street. Nice thing about books you always mean to get around to: when you finally do get around to them, they're still there and no worse for the wait.


In this case, I'm kicking myself for having waited so long. I'm having such a good time that I had to post about it (not a common occurence). I went straight from the first volume into the second, and am now trying hard to dawdle through Michael's Oxford years. Sinister Street is a detailed telling of a young man's life, from early childhood through University (I don't yet know how far beyond, if at all). Published 100 years ago, it feels so modern to me. Okay, there are far fewer brand names than you'd find in a book by one if our current bright young things. And technology stops at trains and gaslight. Thing is, I had to think hard just now to come up with those differentiators. Michael, despite his attraction to the 17th century, feels more like a protagonist from the 21st. He is endlessly self-examining while endlessly curious about the lives of others. And MacKenzie had him observe place and sensation and ceremony -- not to forward the plot, but to bring us into his world and live it with him.


So yes, it's looking like my favorite book of 2015 might have been written in 1913.



Dickens at his finest

Barnaby Rudge - John Bowen, Gordon W. Spence, Charles Dickens

I'd planned to start Martin Chuzzlewit on the Inimitable's birthday, but just as

I was set to begin, I spotted a stray comment by Peter Ackroyd that praised Barnaby Rudge as being particularly rewarding. On the premise that Ackroyd knows best, I changed my plans -- and am so very glad I did! Rudge is Dickens at the top of his form.


So much lovely writing. Descriptions of place are exceptionally rich. Each of the cast of wonderful characters is larger than life, as I expect from the Inimitable, but there's a less usual elegant restraint in his depictions here. In other books, characters like the hangman Mr. Dennis, the puffed up Tappertit and the shrewish Miggs would have been drawn with much broader strokes (ok, with the 19th century equivalent of a Sharpie), but in this book Dickens develops even these beyond the easy laugh. And for those like me who sometimes have problems with Dickens' women (don't get me started on Lucie Manette!), note that while few and mostly not admirable, the women here had some substance beyond being plot devices. 


The book is set during the Gordon Riots, something I'm embarassed to say I knew nothing about. Dickens wasn't born yet -- and he couldn't google up a pack of news footage to make up the difference -- but he plunges you into the experience as if he were holding your hand in the thick of it. And he shows a spectacular mastery of mob psychology that, alone, is enough to secure the continued relevance of this novel. 


Highly recommended.

One Post to Update Them All

If you follow me here–or anywhere–you’ll have noticed that, despite having all the usual channels, I don’t post much at the best of times. When you’re a slow writer, like me, there just isn’t time. It’s tough enough to juggle novel-writing and making a living with maintaining contact with the humans I love. Over the last year, having been not-so-gently nudged from salaried employment to contract work, I’ve been scrambling more furiously than ever.

And now, I’m heading into NaNo. The book I’d been working on has run over by about five months and is still 2 chapters shy of a complete draft (and several hundred hours shy of a final one). And even so, I’m heading into NaNo. That probably sounds counterproductive to you. Unless you’ve experienced NaNo the same way that I have. As I blogged back in 2011, "NaNo is not to be missed.” It seems somewhat ironic (in the classic, not the millennial, use of the word) that the “jolly little workplace comedy” I was kicking off that year is the same bear that I’ve been fighting to finish off (it turned out to be neither so jolly nor so little after all).
This will be my fifth consecutive November writing marathon. I look forward to it with a mixture of excitement and dread. I expect a particularly difficult run this year, a combination of escalated time pressures and a project that is fraught with emotional baggage. The book I’ll be working on, "Chasing Fireflies", is something I’ve been waiting my entire adult life to write. Waiting and preparing. In my mind, the novels I’ve written before–whether completed or not–have been training to write this one. Am I finally ready? No matter how much you prepare, you never feel as ready as you’d like to be. Even if I am ready–enough–is NaNo the right engine to kick it off? NaNo is relentless; it’s brilliant at pushing me forward by not allowing me the luxury of deliberating over every word. But for this novel, I want to deliberate; I want to write with the beauty and fluidity of a much better writer than I am. I know (and yes, I understand it’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy) that if I manage to push through and “win” another NaNo, I’ll end up with mostly dross.
And yet, I’m doing NaNo. Because the focus and the confidence it gives me are a gift to be treasured. I write nearly every day of the year, but it’s the month of November, National Novel Writing Month, when I feel most like A Writer. On the other hand…don’t expect to read any of my work anytime soon!

Secret Anniversary Sale

This week only (first week of September, 2014), you can find the Kindle edition of The Upsilon Knot on sale for $1.99.  Hours and hours of reading pleasure for less than the price of a latte!

Wilkie Collins: Armadale

Armadale - Wilkie Collins, John Sutherland

No spoilers here. Just a reaction.


It's been years since I read The Moonstone and The Woman in White. It seemed like time to revisit the other two Wilkie Collins books that are most often recommended: Armadale and No Name, so I'd added them to my Book Jar. 


Last Sunday, I pulled out the slip for Armadale, and spend my entire week's work commute so deeply immersed that I nearly missed my stop on two occasions. As thoroughly melodramatic and convoluted as my childhood beloved, Dark Shadows, often having me pause with the same mixture of the desire to laugh and an absolute need to know what happens next.


Don't judge the book by its summaries. In the end, what I loved in this book was the spectrum of characters that Collins developed so firmly beyond stereotype (hmm... Collins....I'm only now wondering if Wilkie is why Dan Curtis chose that name for the Dark Shadows family). The plot overflows with impossibility, but the people are richly believable and fiercely human. Lydia Gwilt is particularly astonishing, a villainess so well-developed that you can't stop yourself sympathizing with her. 


If this sounds like your kind of book, you can currently download it for free on Kindle! 

"Jarring" Reflections

The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway Loving / Living / Party Going - Henry Green, John Updike

A couple of months ago, I wrote about setting up a Book Jar for 2014. This is by way of being a status report.

Understand that my Book Jar was never meant to be my sole method of selecting reading material. I wanted a tool to help me through those times when the stacks of unread make my brain glaze over. And yes, the jar absolutely resolves that issue. 


My very first plunge pulled out a slip with the Henry Green omnibus (Loving, Living, Party Going) that I bought during a self-improvement kicks and neglected to read for nearly a decade. 


Aside: You will note that, for me, "self-improvement" doesn't mean finding out the colour of my parachute or losing 10 pounds in a fortnight through kale, pineapple and a daily run; it means reading books, not because the personality of the blurbs appeal to me, but because they are said to be elegantly written or else crammed full of facts or philosophies to which I ought to be exposed.


I can't say that I loved Green. However, one of the novels in that omnibus turned out to bolster my work with a book-in-progress that's been giving me some trouble. They're not alike, Green's book and mine (except perhaps in the way the Romanian is like Italian). Both books share a kind of root purpose, use of a refracted pov, and large bursts of dialogue. Green's book gave me the courage to stick with my instincts about my own, at a moment when that was exactly what I needed to keep moving forward. So I can now feel a bit superstitious about my jar!

But the jar isn't my primary way to select what to read next.


Once a month, a book is selected for me, by my book group. Inevitably, the next book I read after that will be as opposite to the book group selection as I can find (I imagine there's a wide contrary streak down the center of my brain).


Much of the time, I know exactly what I'm in the mood to read and select accordingly. For example, after filing my taxes, I craved a treat. I walked over to the stacks and there, gleaming atop one of them, was the recently arrived Dawn's Early Light, the latest in Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris' wholly delightful series about the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. It was fun; but it left me still feeling "hungry." So I reached for another indulgence. I'd been saving Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World for just such a moment. The next morning, I was having such a good time that I hated for my subway ride to end. I've tried to make this last as long as possible, but I'll be reading the last few pages tomorrow morning. And then...Well, after traveling that wonderful impossible-to-pigeonhole roller coaster, I'm ready to veer off in a totally different direction. If nothing catches my eye, no worries -- I've got a great jar waiting to help me out!

All the cat people I know are also great readers.  Coincidence???

I like big books, and I cannot lie!
I like big books, and I cannot lie!

Do you like BIG books? ABNA doesn't

The Upsilon Knot - Merle Darling

So disappointed!


I have been so looking forward to submitting The Upsilon Knot for this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Well, the contest launched today, and for 2014 they've instituted a maximum word count that comes to about half the size of my book. Not making it past the first cut with last year's literary fiction was hard, but not being able to enter Upsilon at all is massively frustrating.


My friend T was right: I should have ripped off my readers by chopping the book into several random pieces and selling it as a faux trilogy or quartet (remember my post on Chapter Books??). Then I could have submitted one chunk and gotten some visibility from ABNA. Once again, integrity counts for nothing!

BookRiot takes the mystery out of picking from a long shelf

Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors - Jeff O'Neal, Rebecca Joines Schinsky Start Here - Volume 2 - Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors - Jeff O'Neal, Rebecca Joines Schinsky


This is such a great idea!


Sometimes you manage to glom onto a living writer early enough to read as the books come out. But more often, by the time a name hits your radar, the shelf of work is long and you can't figure out where to start. If you're lucky, you've got a like-minded friend who's read the whole lot and will give you some clues. But mostly, it's hit and miss. And sometimes, if you start with the wrong piece, you might give up on a writer whose work you would actually like.


A while back, the people at BookRiot addressed this situation with Start Here: Read Your Way into 25 Amazing Authors. It was a nice grab-bag of writers across time, place and even genre. Each artist selected was covered in a single chapter that presented a pitch (why you should read X) and a starter inventory of works designed to give an overall sense of the writer. It's not just pleasant to thumb through: it's a public service! 



Today, BookRiot announced the launch of Start Here, volume 2. Yes, 25 more authors to explore! I can't wait to see what they have to say about China Mieville. So far, I've only read Perdido Street Station and I've been wondering where to go next.






Chapter Books?

I'm probably about to get myself in trouble with a lot of you by saying this, but I'm getting grumpy about this new chapter book phenom. I'm not talking about books written in chapters. I'm talking about "books" that are chapters.


Just to be clear. I don't mean entries in a trilogy or whatever. Plenty of stories legitimately require being broken into multiple pieces. It may take the combined volumes to tell the full scope of the story, but each book in such a series (take The Hunger Games trilogy for a contemporary example) has its own complete dramatic arc and feels satisfying to read. Nor am I pointing a finger at series fiction. I would never! I love series fiction; am kind of addicted to it. When a book plunges me into a vivid world and introduces me to wonderful characters, I'm delighted to think that world and those characters are going to continue beyond the one story. When a series ends, whether or not the end was forecast, it's a special kind of torture to reach the last book and understand that the door to this world has closed. 


No, what gets me grumpy is this marketing phenomenon whereby a single story arc is broken up and published as multiple books. 

Maybe I'm wrong to fuss. After all, in the 19th century, serial novels were the epitome of storytelling. What we're seeing now is simply one more instance of the 21st century recycling culture. Except, back when Dickens was a bright young thing, readers knew they'd only be getting a bit of book each month or quarter. And each chunk of a 19th century serial wasn't asked to stand on its lonesome; they were published in periodicals that offered readers plenty of other food for thought. 


I guess I'm a relic of the 20th century. I was trained to expect my novels to come complete. I can read them at my own pace, but all the bits and pieces the author had planned are delivered to me in one parcel. I like it that way. When I accidentally wander into one of these new modular novels, I feel I'm being manipulated into some marketing scheme where I'm assured "you can cancel-at-any-time!" 


If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, take Elizabeth Hunter's "Elemental Mysteries" as an example. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed A Hidden Fire tremendously, and I think Hunter is a good writer. But the rest of the story, carefully disassembled so that there would be a book for each element and padded out with battle and sex scenes of ever-increasing redundancy, was only enough for one more novel. Not three. Oh, it's smart business, this chopping things up! And, if Hunter weren't a good writer, the ploy it wouldn't have worked, at least not on me. I can respect this, even as I say that, despite Hunter's talent and my enjoyment of much of her story, I feel like a mark.


I published my own 500 page novel this year. One novel. It's the first entry of what I have every intention of building into a series. A trend-savvy friend actually advised me to break up this book and market the digital version as four pieces. Her logic was that "people today are intimidated by long books." I objected, holding fast to Diana Gabaldon. I also observed that my book has no reasonable break points for this kind of packaging; The Upsilon Knot has multiple characters, and the various arcs aren't synchronized. My practical friend said it didn't matter; if anything, this would help sales, as people would get to the end of one piece and absolutely have to grab the next one. She assured me I'd find more readers; and by selling 4 pieces at $1.99 rather than the whole book for $6.99, I'd be making more money off of each one. I appreciate her marketing wisdom as much as her friendship but, pragmatic as it is, I can't swallow it down. I've analyzed the table of contents for potential breaks but I just can't bring myself to do it. I imagine someone reading part 1, coming to the end of what is really Chapter 7, and feeling let down because, well, it's clear that the story is only just beginning!

Am I wrong in this? Do readers honestly prefer to have a story broken up into bits?

50 Essential Mystery Novels (from Flavorwire)

I always read lists like this, but I rarely agree with them. In this case, I agree so much that I had to share it. I haven't read all of the books here. And I'm not going to pretend I liked all the ones that I have read. But I agree that even the ones I didn't like are important. Next time a friend who's resisted mysteries asks me where to start, s/he gets a copy of this list! And next time I run out of mysteries, I'll be checking it.

Do you devour books?

Instead of a "challenge," I'm going with a Book Jar

I don't set annual challenges because, for as far back as I can remember, I've always tried to read 52 books a year. Some years I read more. Since I try and balance my reading, a year with a really big number doesn't necessarily make me happy—I end up with a higher tally if I'm reading a lot of ripping yarns. With long subway rides being my most productive reading time, how much I read in a given year also depends on my commute.


My biggest issue isn't how much I read, but what I read. As I said, I try and balance my reading. However, when I reach for a new book, it can be far too tempting to let my mood sway my better intentions. Some of the books I've been meaning to read for years still linger wistfully at the bottom of the pile (I'm talking to you, Naked Lunch), while I breeze through stacks of shiny new fun toys. 


The other day, I read about something on BookRiot that sounds just perfect for me. Maybe you already knew about this. The original source for Rachel, the BookRioter, was an alexinleeds post from last March.



(image from alexinleeds.com)


The idea is to write down your "to read" book titles on little slips of paper, fold the scraps and tuck them into a jar. When you're ready for your next book, pull one from the jar. Brilliant! Gets rid of that "books and books and nothing to read" thing that happens from staring at the Piles or the List and having my eyes glaze over.


By stacking the deck with a combination of the "should reads" and "fun reads," I can even force that balance I keep striving for. My personal riff on this was to use assorted meaningless coloured scraps, just to make the jar look pretty, but to keep potential library books on white paper (easier to manage the uncertainty of loan availability that way).


As soon as I finish the books I've already started, my next selection is coming out of the jar. I am so excited about this!