Some book musings

I’m basically done with the “break” part of my break; I have the weekend and then I’m back to work on Monday. Usually by this point at the break I’m climbing the walls and chewing on my extremities; for the most part, other than yesterday’s post, I’ve managed to avoid going slowly crazy. I’ve gotten a fair amount of stuff done over the break. What I haven’t done is any of Luther’s stuff. It’s all been Clark Kent nonsense over here for the last couple of weeks.

My first priority in 2019 has to be to decide what to do with Skylights. I have so many half-written drafts of the sequel, under more than one title, that it’s frankly kind of ridiculous. That may or may not be the cover. It may or may not be the title. And once I have the sequel written I have to decide if I’m doing a second edition of the first book. A second edition wouldn’t be too different, but the first book already mentions things that didn’t happen in 2018 (because 2018 was, comfortably, The Future when I wrote it) and the events of the book are at this point far too close to Now for comfort. If nothing else, I need to remove specific dates, and probably rewrite the prologue to give the story some breathing room. I don’t think I can tie the events of the story so close to something that happened in 1984, for example; it just makes Gabe too old.

(20-minute break while I research the FAFSA and explain how taxes work for a former student; I avoid using the phrase “this would be easier if I adopted you.”)

Anyway, point is I gotta figure this shit out. And I probably should have reformatted some of my books to get them away from CreateSpace and over to Ingram over the break. And maybe done a new banner, since the one vertical banner I have is Skylights-focused. I should probably have one for at least one more of my books.

Point is, I didn’t spend as much time being Luther over the last couple of weeks as maybe I should have. And now I need to figure some stuff out over the next couple of days. This week shouldn’t be too hard (he said,) so I should have some brainspace left to get things done when I get home from work. And who knows? The next couple of days might be hugely productive.

Just, like I said, I’ve got some decisions to make, and a weight to get off my back.

What have you been putting off lately?

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2018

WE’RE BACK! I have a few posts that I generally do at the end of the year, or at least at the end of most years, but this post is the only one that I’ve written every year the blog was in operation. I’m reading my 105th book of the year right now, and will probably be at 106 by the end of the night tomorrow, but as both of those books are Walter Mosley mysteries they won’t affect the rankings any. That said, check out the Honorable Mention section at the end.

As always, “new” in this context means “new to me,” not “came out this year,” although for the first time almost all of the books on this list actually did come out in 2018. Also as always, don’t pay a huge amount of attention to where something shows up on the list– the top 5 in particular are really tight, although I’ve had a good idea what #1 would be for months now. Also also as always, you should be my friend on Goodreads, where this list gets constructed as I read throughout the year.

Previous years’ lists:

And off we go:

10. DOOMSDAY BOOK, by Connie Willis. This is the oldest book on the list, originally written in 1992. I went back and forth between it and another book several times before realizing that I could describe the plot of this book quite a bit more clearly than the other one, which is what tossed it the win– I read so many books every year that “I remember what this was about” is actually a pretty goddamn clear indicator of quality. At any rate: this is about the end of the world, which is gonna sort of be a theme today, only it’s about the end of the world in the fourteenth century at the beginning of the Black Death. It’s a time travel book, and the main character is a researcher sent from 2048 back to the fourteenth century, and then all sorts of things go wrong in the modern day, making it difficult for her team to pull her back out. I had some gripes about it when I initially read it, but the gripes all make the book more charming somehow; the author did not very well anticipate future technological advances from her lofty perch in 1992, and this is one of the most British books ever written. Let’s use the word “quirky.” You should read it.

9. THE ARMORED SAINT and THE QUEEN OF CROWS, by Myke Cole. The first of the Sacred Throne books is what got this book on the list, but I read them both this year, so I’m including both here. These are extraordinarily well-crafted, tight little books– both, I think, are technically novella-length, clocking in at barely over 200 pages, but Tor was confident enough in them that I own both of them in hardcover, and honestly I think it was worth it. The books are set in what initially feels like a more-or-less standard European fantasy setting, only with an Inquisition-style religious government in charge of everything, prosecuting the use of magic to the extent of scouring entire villages when they find a mage, and a decent chunk of steampunk elements– as you can probably see from the cover, the titular “Armored Saint” is wearing a suit of medieval power armor. She’s also a queer teenage girl, and she didn’t exactly mean to become, uh, sanctified, or lead a rebellion, or any of the other stuff she kinda tumbles bass-ackwards into over the course of, in particular, the first book. There’s a heavy “What if Joan of Arc …” thing going on here, but it’s well-told; again, Cole’s craftwork is what makes the series shine. I shoulda been taking notes while reading these.


Hell of a title, innit? I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction (again) this year, but what I did was well-chosen, and you basically know what this book is about from reading the title: it’s a history of Earth’s multiple mass extinctions, with detours into both the geology behind figuring out how and when those extinctions happened and the social history around the science. Despite the title, it’s not really one of those “here’s a bunch of ways the planet is going to kill us!” books that leaves you convinced that everything is hopeless because the Yellowstone Caldera is gonna erupt any second now and we’re all gonna die. It’s mostly a book that’s going to leave you terrified of carbon by the end of it. Carbon sucks, guys.

At any rate, despite talking about sciences and eras of deep history that most folks don’t really have a lot of experience with, this book does a great job of presenting extraordinarily complicated shit in a clear and understandable fashion; this is science journalism at its best.

7. BECOMING, by Michelle Obama. I just wrote a full review of this a couple of weeks ago, so in the interest of not repeating myself too terribly much (it’s good! Michelle is awesome! Buy it in hardcover, because this book is weirdly fun to touch!) I’ll talk about how I’m an idiot, which is always a fun theme around here: I always make sure to caution folks to not take the actual rankings too seriously as they’re reading through this list, right? This book is exactly why. It’s one of only two nonfiction books on the list, the other one being the #8 book. And I swear to you, just now, as I was resizing the cover image so that it was roughly the same size as the others on the list, I thought “I can’t have this at #7! That puts the two nonfiction books right next to each other!”

Which … what? Stop that. Quit being stupid.

6. EMPIRE OF SAND, by Tasha Suri. This is the most recent of the books on the list; I just finished it on the 23rd and I read it in a day, which you’re going to notice will be a theme for most of the rest of the books on the list. The main character is Mehr, the daughter of a governor in a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world. Mehr’s mother is a member of a prosecuted and occasionally magic-wielding minority and she quickly finds herself in an arranged marriage and shipped off use her abilities to keep the Emperor alive and in power and his empire thriving early in the book. This isn’t a YA book despite the very YA-heavy themes, or if it is it skirts the edge of adult fiction enough that I barely noticed; the star here is Suri’s writing, which I couldn’t get enough of. The reviews of this one are surprisingly mixed and the main knock against it is that it’s slow to unfold; turns out you don’t notice that if you only put the book down once so that you can sleep while you’re reading it. The magic system is fascinating and the way the servitude to the Emperor is dealt with is also a highlight. This coulda been a top 3 book for me any other year; pretty much everything after this is absolutely stellar work.

5. FOUNDRYSIDE, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I have, I think, all of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books, and I’ve enjoyed his previous work quite a bit, but Foundryside is quite simply a massive level-up on his part; this book blew me away. The main character is a young woman by the name of Sancia Grado, a thief in a setting that is, to coin a word, magicpunk– sorta steampunky, but with magic instead of steam, if that makes any sense, and in this world magic actually imbues objects with a (mostly) limited form of sentience. Brandon Sanderson blurbs it and is the top review of it on Goodreads, and while I’ve soured on his work a little bit this book really does have a touch of a “What if Robert Jackson Bennett wrote a Brandon Sanderson book?” thing going on, and the answer to that question is awesome things happen. The characters are the highlight of this book, particularly Sancia herself and Gregor Dandolo, a city constable who starts off as an antagonist and is something else entirely by the end of the book. I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.

Also, you should follow Bennett on Twitter; he’s hilarious.

4. INTO THE DROWNING DEEP, by Mira Grant. Mira Grant, pen name of the ridiculously prolific Seanan McGuire, has shown up on these end-of-year lists before. She writes something like 97 books a year and I read as many of them as I can get to (That’s not a joke. I have, on more than one occasion, thought I was caught up on her new releases and then discovered she had more than one new book out that I was unaware of– and once it was an entire new series that I’d never heard of previously) but Drowning Deep is my absolute favorite of all of her books under either name. Cryptids are a favored theme of hers, and one of her series is explicitly about a family of cryptid hunters, but this one takes a tighter focus, following a boatful of oceanographers who are hunting for mermaids.

Mermaids are fucking terrifying, as it turns out. The book starts off with a ghost-ship mystery, basically, and there’s a lot of “Wait, really? Everyone was eaten by mermaids?” going on at first, and there’s a lot of very satisfying cryptid science going on– all of the characters in this book are very bright people with a wide array of academic specialties, and I’d love to know how Grant found the time to research all of this shit– and when the book turns into a slasher film for the last 40% or so (with an especially cool late-book twist) the momentum just builds and builds and builds and oh GOD would this make a great movie. I want a sequel to this book, bad, but I want to see it on the big screen first. Go read it.

3. THE POPPY WAR, by R.F. Kuang. This is another book that sort of starts off feeling like a YA book; I described it early on to my wife with something along the lines of “Harry Potter, only Hogwarts is a Chinese military academy and Hermione is the main character.”

And then Hermione deliberately burns out her own uterus because menstruation distracts her from her studies, and then everybody goes to war and it turns out that the Rape of Nanking is a big part of the inspiration for this fantasy series, and yeah when it goes adult it goes adult hard and it goes adult fast. In fact, this book really needs a bit of a content warning– R. F. Kuang does not fuck around, guys, and while I loved the book and can’t wait for the sequel there are some of you out there who aren’t going to be able to finish it because of the events of the story– genocide is absolutely a theme, and if you don’t know what the Rape of Nanking was you might want to click on that link and read a bit before you decide to get into this one. It’s a Goddamned brilliant book, but more than anything else on the list, it’s not gonna be for everybody.

2. TRAIL OF LIGHTNING, by Rebecca Roanhorse. The genre of this book is Navajo post-apocalyptic urban fantasy.

Navajo. Post-apocalyptic. Urban. Fantasy.

There’s no point to writing any more, because you already should have stopped reading this and headed off to Amazon or a local bookstore to buy the goddamn book, because that ought to be all you need. And, okay, it’s fair to say that a book needs to be more than its genre, but I get the feeling that Rebecca Roanhorse could write an 800-page book about the life cycle of a specific breed of orchid or some shit like that and she’d still produce something I wanted to read. I loved this book, I loved the setting, I loved the characters– Maggie, the main character, is a great example of a character who is an asshole but she’s a compelling and interesting asshole and she’s fascinating to read about; I had a couple of books this year killed by unlikeable main characters and this is a masterclass on how to do that right. You should probably brace yourself for Roanhorse’s general disregard for anyone’s discomfort with Diné orthography; if seeing words like yá’át’ééh sprinkled through a text is going to bother you … well, you need to get over that and go read the book anyway. This is yet another debut book of a series (GOD, was 2018 a great year for fantasy series debuts!) and I can’t wait for the next one.

1.JADE CITY, by Fonda Lee. Let me be clear about something: this 2018 list is the strongest top 10 I’ve had since I started doing this. 2018, for all its faults, was an absolutely phenomenal year for books, and I finished reading JADE CITY on February 2 and knew immediately that it was going to be top 3 if not one of my favorite books of the year. JADE CITY is a family epic; imagine The Godfather, set in Japan, written by George R. R. Martin and with jade-enhanced superhumans in it, and you have a decent idea of what’s going on here, only in this scenario the Five Families are also the government and the scope of the book starts getting aggressively multinational in scope by the end, to the point where if the second book in the series doesn’t have significant spy novel elements I will be really surprised. And the best thing about it was that I bought it effectively at random because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. Everything about this book is great: the writing pops, the setting is refreshing and fascinating, the characters are all interesting people with understandable and well-drawn motivations; it’s great it’s great it’s great. It is the best book I read in 2018, and again: this was an outstanding year, so that’s higher praise than usual. Go read it right now.

(RANDOM NOTE, BECAUSE IT’S ANNOYING ME: That missing space after the period and the 1 up there is not a typo. It’s there because if I leave it out WordPress tries to convert the block to a fucking numbered list and indents everything, and if I then change it back to a paragraph it deletes the number. Rinse and repeat. I love that Gutenberg is still finding new ways to be Goddamned obnoxious.)

HONORABLE MENTION, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER: The Easy Rawlins mysteries, by Walter Mosely, which I’m blowing through at high speed but some of which are rereads and others new, thus making them ineligible for this list, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon, DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland, CROOKED GOD MACHINE by Autumn Christian, THE OUTSIDER by Stephen King, BLACK WOLVES by Kate Elliott, VOID BLACK SHADOW and STATIC RUIN by Corey J. White, A STUDY IN HONOR by Claire O’Dell and THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle.

WORST BOOK OF THE YEAR: SWAN SONG, by Robert McCammon. No competition.

On reading, 2018 and 2019

Alternate title: In which I write about something else. This was originally going to be a saleswanking post, which I haven’t done in quite a while and I wanted to do mostly for my own information and share with you guys because someone out there has to love spreadsheets as much as I do, but once I went through everything on Amazon and Squarespace just to figure out where I was at for 2018 and where (roughly) I might be for my sales since Benevolence Archives 1 came out in 2014, this was what my desktop looked like:

I’m still gonna do it, don’t get me wrong– I want this information, and I am exactly the kind of geek for whom “spend a couple of hours sorting through spreadsheets and pulling together an overall data set” actually describes a fun couple of hours. But I’m not doing this shit tonight. So, instead, since I’m no more than a day or two away from doing my 10 Best Books list, let’s talk about what I read this year. Which still involves spreadsheets. 🙂

Assuming I finish the book I’m reading right now in the next three days, I’ll have read 104 books in 2018, which was four more than my goal of 100. Here they are, excepting only S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, which I’m reading right now:

For the last several years I’ve been working on aggressively diversifying my reading after discovering that I was reading far more white men than I felt like I ought to be. I’ve had different goals for different years, but this year I decided to focus on making sure half of my books were from people of color. And, in fact, exactly half of them ended up being by PoC: 52 of the 104. In previous years I’ve set goals to read books by, basically, anyone other than white men, but I noticed last year that white women seemed to be the beneficiary of that policy so I decided to focus more on people of color this year. I did not specifically track books by women vs books by men, but a quick count indicates that I did pretty well there too– and, if anything, I think I read slightly more books by women than by men. 50 of these books were by authors I hadn’t previously read anything by, too.

The interesting thing is, while my 10 best list isn’t finalized yet– again, sometime this week– I have reason to believe that a substantial majority of the books on it will be by women of color, and this was a phenomenal year for reading. I read some fucking amazing books this year, and choosing the top 10 from this list is gonna be hard.

Damn near every book on the list– upwards of 90%, and probably above 95%– was read in print. Which is why next year I’m gonna pull back a little bit, and the only things I plan to track all year long, other than new authors, are rereads. My bookshelves are about to collapse on me, y’all, and they are on every wall in the damn house. I think I’m going to set a goal of 90 books, with 30 of those being books that I already own. At the end of the year, I’ll take a look at how I did in reading from diverse authors when I wasn’t specifically tracking it. I haven’t been doing a ton of rereading lately because it doesn’t really mix well with the notion of broadening the authors I’m reading work by.

What did you read this year?

In which I ask the hivemind

I need some more conventions, y’all.  Right now I think the next con I’m actually signed up to attend is the next Indy Pop Con in June.  I’m registered for Kokomo-Con again.  And … I think that’s it?  I’ve had a little bit of a run of being turned down by juried cons (I tried to get into both ConFusion in Detroit this January and a February comic convention) and I’ve decided to not apply to the Fort Wayne PopCon in between Christmas and New Year’s, mostly because … well, it’s between Christmas and New Year’s, and it’s a first-year con, and that strikes me as vaguely insane.  I hope they’re successful, don’t get me wrong, and if they are I’ll be there next year, but they’re charging PopCon prices for what I’m pretty certain isn’t gonna be close to PopCon attendance and right now it’s not worth the risk.  

Plus, well, check the posts at the end of December around here for any of the last six years.  The weather tends to not lend itself to long road trips.

So.  Anyway.  If you happen to know of any science fiction conventions, comic book shows, or genre/author events in the next six months within, say, a three- or four- hour drive of northern Indiana, let me know.  I’m looking at one in Louisville over Easter weekend, too, but it’s over Easter, which has its own set of complications to it.  

I’ve finished a story over at Patreon, called The Caretaker, and I’m really fond of it.  The story is posted in five parts and in first-draft form (I literally wrote it straight into the Patreon website; it’s not copy-pasted) and it will be posted again in .mobi and .epub form once it’s cleaned up a touch, but I like it and I think you will too.  Just $1 a month gets you access to a bunch of microfictions and three or four short stories, and $2 a month gets you an entire exclusive novel.  Next Patron is #15!  That’s a great number!  Join us!

Two weeks to winter break, y’all.  There will be Christmas shopping this weekend.  I can do this.  

#Review: THE CHAOS FUNCTION, by Jack Skillingstead

41oDYcJqwBL.jpgSeveral weeks ago I RTed a promotional tweet about this book.  I didn’t really think anything of it; I RT book promos all the time if the author or the cover or really anything about it at all catches my attention, but in this particular case the publisher picked five people who had RTed the tweet and sent them an ARC of the book.  There was no particular expectation attached that I would review the book or really do anything at all with it– I mean, I’m sure they were hoping, but there was no “give us an honest review and we’ll send you a book!”

But!  I read it nonetheless, because reading books is kind of a thing I do, and I’m pleased to report that Jack Skillingstead’s The Chaos Function is a pretty solid read.  I wasn’t familiar with him or his work prior to being sent the book– he is mostly a short story guy, apparently– but he’s definitely on my radar now for future work.

The Chaos Function is a bunch of things: it’s a war novel, it’s a pre-, post- and ongoing apocalypse novel, a dash of alternate history, some conspiracy theorizing and secret society stuff, and a bit of a physics lesson.  The main character is Olivia Nikitas, a journalist specializing in war zones.  The book is set slightly in the future but you won’t be terribly surprised to learn that Skillingstead posits that Syria will continue to be a war-torn nightmare, and Nikitas is covering the war in Syria when some shit goes down and two of her friends are killed.  And then all the sudden … they aren’t anymore.  Not “not dead,” not killed.  As in she remembers them dying and they don’t.  And it turns out that somebody else died in the same event, someone who gave Olivia the ability to alter specific events in the past, but not to control what happens next.

Heard of the butterfly effect, have you?  This book asks you to imagine some really big butterflies, to overextend the metaphor just a wee bit.  And every time Olivia tries to use her new abilities, things change in ways she wasn’t expecting, and most of the time they don’t change in a way she particularly likes.  And this leads to some interesting moral dilemmas wrapped in and around the whole “people chasing me, need to stay alive, oh by the way World War III just started and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault” thing the novel has going for it.

At 304 pages it’s a fast read– Skillingstead has no time to waste on frippery or flowery language, which makes him a writer close to my own heart– and once it gets started he never lets off the gas.  The bad thing?  They got this to me early– way early– and the book doesn’t come out until March 19 of next year.  So I gotta remember to repost this, I guess.  Until then?  I hear Amazon takes pre-orders.

Random odd thing– this is an uncorrected ARC, and I know how these things go– they’re not fully proofread and not 100% ready for full distribution so there’s occasionally wonkiness in the text and typos that are gonna get caught before the book actually gets released.  But one thing I noticed that I found kind of weird:  again, this will not be the case in the final release, but there are tons of places in the text where there aren’t following spaces after a quotation mark, and frequently spaces after periods are elided as well.  This is weird because this type of error is something that modern word processors take care of automatically, so I’d love to know what was going on that so many of those specific errors made it into the text.  Again, I’m not griping, just kind of curious.