My Favorite Reads of 2017

Long and rambling post ahead — you’ve been warned!

Boy, that 2017. Amirite? 

/me pours a drink from her fanciest liquor bottle because why the hell not. 

If you want my politics, you can find them on Twitter. I want to talk about this year not in terms of the Orange in Chief, or the increasingly tremulous global-political Faberge egg we’re living inside, but in terms of the books that I read.

Books, after all and if nothing else naturally does so (family, school, friends), can teach empathy as well as broaden the mind and console the weary.

Because in 2017, I think all of us are weary. Amirite?

/me takes another swig, dispensing with the glass entirely.

I wasn’t sure I was going to make my 50 Book Challenge on GoodReads. A squeaker, to be sure, but I made it. That goal wasn’t helped by a few monster-length books, or those I started and abandoned after getting about 50 pages in. You can only argue with a book so much before you realize you have better things to do and better books to read. All in all, I think I powered through too many books that I didn’t connect with and DNF three books, including the third book in a series I had started reading in the mid-2000s. (God, REMEMBER THE MID-2000s? #wistfulsigh) Read and loved, talked about, shared, and then bought the third book and held on for the right time only to discover that its time had passed me by. Alas.

There was also one additional conceptual hurdle I had to jump over right at the beginning of 2017: the Christmas Gift Book Trap.

Books, for me, are personal. I don’t like giving them, and I don’t like getting them, unless. (There’s always an unless, and I play it by ear.) In particular, novels can be a total crap shoot for the receiver. And while personally I am comfortable (sort of, the hives are completely under control) letting a book I pick up doesn’t work for me, it’s different with a gift. There’s an obligation, even if unintended. One gift was in a genre I don’t read, and the other was non-fiction, and one that had special significance to the giver. I wasn’t in the mood for non-fiction at the beginning of the year, but the gift giver asked what I thought about it and so I felt pressured to read. (I liked it well enough, it was just bad timing.)

Never mind the towering, tippy, leaning tower of books that will crush me to death if I so much as sneeze in my tiny apartment. They will come for me, sooner or later.

/me takes another drink from the nearly empty bottle, and sighs.

So fifty-two weeks and fifty books. Normally I clear that goal earlier than the week before and usually with a nice cushion. Counting six issues of Yona of the Dawn mangas didn’t hurt, as well as the the nearly 1,000-page Revolutionary Girl Utena manga omnibus. I wouldn’t normally count manga, but I love these series deeply.

The one book I didn’t get to, and that I normally reserve for my holiday reading, is the next volume in the collected short fiction and essays of Roger Zelazny. I’m on book four of the set, and I think I will make that my pet project for January. Add to that, the Holy Grail of quests — TO CLEAR OUT MY TBR PILE. Which has only just entered triple digits.

Stop looking at me like that.

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Anyway, while in the middle of 2017, it felt like a lousy year for books but I think that had more to do with the overwhelming mood of the year than the books themselves. Because when I look back at last year’s list, I read some amazing books, ones that sucked me in or moved me deeply — and I want to talk about those books here.

So in the order that I read them (more or less), here are my favorite books of 2017!

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home was a terrific second installment in her refreshing space opera series. Binti really works for me as a series of novellas. I’ve read a good number of the Tor novella offerings and I find that usually there is a pacing issue — the story skips over major sections, or doesn’t deliver enough world building, and I am left frustrated even if there’s a lot to enjoy. Binti, both the first book and the second, don’t have this problem. I could see all three being a single book, but they stand on their own beautifully.  The complex relationship between Binti and her alien enemy-turned-friend Okwu is fascinating to watch, as well as how Binti herself must navigate between the two worlds of her home culture and the University, part of both and yet not.  Binti: The Night Masquerade, the finale, is already pre-ordered.

A few other novellas that really worked for me this year:

  • Passing Strange by Ellen Klages was my first introduction to her work after hearing a lot of praise. It’s sweet, romantic, and just shimmers with the teensiest bit of magic around the edges. Good stuff.
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, second in his science-fictional fantasy series and which should have won all the awards. I enjoyed the first in this series, but this one I adored and wept over.
  • Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw is a tightly packed, creepy story with Lovecraftian edges. I devoured this on the train ride to Seattle, and need to dive into its sequel.
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson was wow from start to finish, a feminist Lovecraftian travelogue. Her style is so welcoming and assured. I would follow Vellitt, and Kij, anywhere.
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells was one that I felt could have used a tiny bit more meat to it, but on the whole I really liked. A great protagonist. Will check out the sequel.

Okay, back to books.

Goth by Otsuichi (translated Andrew Cunningham and Jocelyne Allen) was a book I’d picked up years ago at a convention (possibly at Sasquan in 2016). My first exposure to Japanese horror came from the Fatal Frame franchise for the Playstation way back in 2001. (REMEMBER THE 2000s???) What works for me in Japanese horror is that I don’t have the visual and storytelling framework to be able to know what’s coming next. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, slasher flicks, supernatural thrillers — I’m familiar with the North American form. I know what to expect, I know what the rules are. With Japanese horror, I don’t know the ending or how we’ll get there, so watching, reading or playing something that has those elements both creeps me the fuck out and keeps me hooked, even if I am squirming the whole way. Goth is a series of novelettes about the same protagonist encountering and stopping other psychopathic people all while saving his best friend for himself to kill later. It’s creepy and quiet and compelling.

Certain Dark Things by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia was very different from her first book, Signal To Noise, which I loved, but it’s just as strong and comes with an entirely original spin on the allegedly tired vampire mythos. There’s no such thing as a dead trope — only people not paying attention when someone gives it a real, genre-defying twist. This would make a fabulous movie, do you hear me Hollywood? Moreno-Garcia feels like one of those old-school writers — not in terms of her style or her stories but that she’s writing whatever the fuck she wants. I don’t know from book to book what I am going to get but  I know I will keep buying her books.

I fell hard down the rabbit hole of The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey, having discovered mid-year that this 2014 release was actually about (spoilers) zombies! I love zombies in both fiction and film, so being able to read the book and then watch the adaptation, penned by Carey themselves, was a treat. Neither was perfect, but it was fascinating to watch how the stories unfolded in slightly different ways. I would strongly recommend that anyone who has read the book hunt down the secret final chapter.

And in a further late to the party style, I finally got my hands on The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, published in 2013. It was perfection page to page. I couldn’t stop reading. It’s been optioned for adaptation, but Google tells me that was years ago and the latest news is that the director of recent SF film (and highly criticized) Passengers may be the one to do it. Here’s hoping they pull it off.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer was a book I came to both excited and trepidatious. I loved the Southern Reach trilogy. (The adaptation of the first book, Annihilation, comes out soon!) We’re talking fangirl, muppet-flailing, inarticulate joy. But would that mean his next book would, too? Reader, it was. I love this kind of sideways universe, a style that manages the realistic yet lives and breathes the utterly fantastical.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Cat Valente is quite different from her recent stuff and I enjoyed the change. Lyrical, highly wrought language makes way here for a sharp skewering of the traditional fate of female comic book characters, be they love interests or heroines in their own right. Figuring out which character mapped to which mainstream superhero was half the fun, but Valente ends up with a composite universe that’s just as interesting as the originals. I hope we see more of it.

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin completes her Broken Earth trilogy with such skill, such emotion, such pure and perfect craft, that it has to be among my favorite series of all time. Jemisin does amazing world-building, no question — a science fictional fantasy with armageddon at its core and exploring the effects of colonialism, conquest, and survival. It’s big sweeping stuff, but her characters that take the abstract and make it deeply personal. I am looking forward to whatever she does next.

Lastly, and one of my favorite books of 2017, was Hild by Nicola Griffith. It took me a while to finish, because this isn’t a book you can barrel through. You have to take it one page at a time, slowly, as each sentence unwinds in your mind and ensorcels you to Griffith’s version of Hild’s world. I’ve seen criticism about the book being overly detailed, laboriously slow, but this is entirely a function of point of view. Hild is a seer by trade, yet it’s not magic she wields but a keen understanding of the patterns of the world. Every scene, besides being beautiful, weaves Hild’s world for us and for her as we follow her from about the age of three to eighteen. The patterns must be shown before they can be understood. And all the way there is this line of tension, even in the quiet scenes. It’s a beautiful, brilliant book.

Ah, to a good year after all!

/me takes the final sip and sets the empty bottle down.

But wait! Runner up, Miss Congeniality, or whatever you want to call it, I need to plug my ongoing favorite manga series (again): Yona of the Dawn. I feel in love with the anime adaptation in 2016. It’s a reverse harem story set in a fantasy Japan and I love everything about it. The world-building, the political struggles, the heroism, the humor, the romance. *swoon* While the anime is only 24 episodes (and likely won’t be continued) of a much bigger story, the manga has been translated for the North American market. This year, we hit territory the anime hasn’t covered, so the swooning continues! Where is my swooning couch?

So that’s it, my year in books and the best of the 50 books I read. Are you still with me?

My god, why? I’ve given you a list of terrific books, so what are you still doing here?

Go read something. 

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After Taos

I should have expected this. It’s happened before.

I came home from Taos Toolbox and my first instinct was, and continues to be, to not talk about it. This happened with Viable Paradise; took months to discuss it with any real depth. Until I could, it was all surface details.

Conversation-safe details, like, “I was on time for my appointment with the Doctor. I love that she has after-work patient hours. If you’re searching for a new nurse practitioner, she’s great.” Unless the person you’re speaking with is someone already deeply trusted, you aren’t likely going to talk about the particulars of your breast exam, your pap smear, or your bloodwork.

Not that Taos was bodily invasive, but if we’re talking about the state of my writing craft the metaphor doesn’t break down.

If Viable Paradise gave me blocks of artist-grade clay, Taos gave me the stainless steel sculpting tools to transform that clay. I’m still getting used to the heft of them in my hand.

What I can tell you is that I woke every day before a dawn crawling slow and golden over the mountains. I watched prairie dogs chase, yip and dig in a garden plot their coterie took over years ago and transformed into a red-holed burrow. Deer with half-grown antlers fuzzy with sunlight moved noiselessly across the field, the parking lot, as untouchable and alien as anything I’ve ever seen. Storms rolled in, shattered parched ground with bullet raindrops. Mornings turned perfectly cold. A heat that was never hard, hills to climb no matter which route you walked. Pencils scribbled, keys clacked, and day after day of the finer points of the craft were laid out, explained and examined. And the people, who were of course amazing. Smart, witty, and trying hard to get it all down.

Like I said, surface details.

Pictured above: my little writing owl, made for me by my Sudbury writing group before I went to Viable Paradise. I couldn’t not bring the little fella along for Taos.

 

Missives from the Rabbit Hole

Forgive the long absence, but I’ve been busy. Productively so!

After my last post (…long ago in a galaxy far, far away…), the critique group I joined last fall launched into a short story intensive. They weren’t kidding about the intensive part. Twelve weeks (which ended up being a few more as holidays and end-of-year events stretched out the timeline) and six stories, each written to a general theme. I threw myself into the challenge as hard as I could, setting fire to work-life balance and pulling some incredibly long hours on weekends to hit those deadlines. (Deadlines are a special sort of magic.) As frazzled and drained as I was by the end of it, the work itself was deeply satisfying.

Of the stories I wrote, there are two I am very pleased with, three that have promise but need additional work, the last a “seasonal” story written with a IMO hackneyed romance written to an arbitrary, self-imposed structure. It’s not even genre, so the less said about that one the better. (In my defense, everyone had trouble with seasonal and, yes, someone wrote a horror story set in Santa’s Workshop — but it wasn’t me!)

Meanwhile, I’ve doubled last year’s submissions. Looking to triple it next. (Last year’s submission rate was so small that this should be very achievable.) Had my first agent call too, (no offer, but a great conversation and she wants to see the next book I complete) and I’m waiting to hear back from two other agents who have the full.

That’s the kind of busy I can be pleased with.

Meanwhile, I had been toying with the idea of checking out, maybe even applying for, the Writer’s Studio at SFU. It’s a 10-month program, one with critique and mentorship (something I’ve always been hungry for, but been at a loss to find). I signed up for the information session in June. Applying for the program wasn’t likely, but I felt that maybe I could figure out a way to do it if the program looked like a good fit and I was accepted.

Then something awesome happened at work, and suddenly that what-if could become an actuality. Yet I was still stuck wondering if the Writer’s Studio be genre enough for what I write. I talked the idea out loud with a few friends online and then it hit me — there has only ever been one workshop I was interested in after Viable Paradise but had never the opportunity, in terms of both time-off and funds available, to seriously consider.

So I took one of those two stories mentioned above, packaged it up and sent off to Taos Toolbox, a two-week workshop that focuses on novels, at the very last minute. Talking wing and a prayer stuff, here. I was sure I had missed the cut-off. Being able to apply at all was a celestial convergence — it was this year or never-year, back to the land of daydreams if I didn’t go for it right now.

Terrifically pleased to announce that I’ve been accepted to Taos Toolbox 2017!

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Me right now. Srsly.

This June,  I will bake in the heat, fill my head with novel structure, and hopefully get the chance to enjoy some of the wilderness, climate and culture of New Mexico.

Can’t promise more regular updates here on the blog — as ever, the best way to immediately reach me remains my Twitter account, or Gmail addy if you have it — but I may start using this place to bang on about whatever media property has captured my interest or my heart. Think of that multi-post rabbit hole I went down for GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Might be books, might be movies, might be video games. We’ll see. (And maybe that sort of thing is better suited to my Tumblr. If so, I’ll cross-post.)

I’ve always been reluctant to just blog here for the sake of blogging, especially if I didn’t have writerly news. The truth is, the news at this stage of my career comes in slow drabs, and its the work itself that fills my days (or erodes my confidence). I haven’t figured out a way to blog about the writing life without either coming off like I’m bragging (lookit mah wordcountz!) or wallowing (despaaaair . . .).

And would anyone want to read either? Nah. 😉

TL;DR — first quarter of 2017 was pretty good, the second quarter is shaping up nicely, and I have to find a bigger suitcase.

To Be Reads For Realz

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I have a book problem.

There are worse problems to have, but at least this is a problem that, in theory, I can painlessly do something about.

I participate in the yearly GoodReads challenge to read X number of books in a year. I generally hit my quota, normally somewhere in the range of 50 books, and while I no longer rate books (usually) I do use the site as a running tally of the stuff I’ve read and the stuff I want to read.

Yet despite hitting the 50-books-read benchmark for another for the year already, I’m not exactly putting a dent in the To Be Read pile. The other day I glanced over at my shelf, did a rough count, and realized there were 50 books sitting there, never mind the currently uncounted number of e-books I have picked up for both Kindle and Kobo. And hello local library, the best library of my life, your aren’t helping by helping either.

So: I’m declaring 2017 is the year I crush my To Be Read pile. At least the physical one, hopefully part of the e-pile, too.

Why do this challenge?

Because I am not a Dragon sitting on a treasure horde. I mean, I am, sure, but I want to be able to pick up a book that just came out or one I’ve just heard about and read it immediately without guilt. No more surveying my Shelf of Wonders wondering when I might actually get to crack that spine. For some of these books, it’s been years since I bought them, some I moved cross country and a few of ’em I am not even excited about anymore. Despite paring down before the move, I’m more or less back where I started – at the bottom of Book Mountain right before the inevitable avalanche.

It ain’t pretty. I need a steel shelf to hold them all.

Now, the rules:

  • I’m not sticking with books I’m not enjoying. Forget sunk costs. If I don’t like it by page 50 or so, boom, done. It will go in a box and I will pass it on to someone else.
  • I cannot borrow a book from the library (our beautiful, six-story library with all the things) unless I’ve read 10 books. But will try not to.
  • I cannot buy a book (except for pre-orders I have already made) unless I’ve read 15. But will try not to.
  • If I need a book for research, I will borrow, study and return it. Pinky swear.

That’s it. Keep reading, keep updating GoodReads, and keep my nose out of a book store unless I’m in there not buying books.

Which is okay, as I have a lot of great books ahead of me. ♥

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Well, shit.

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Tina cannot believe this bullshit, and neither can I.

Been a long few months since my last blog (confession?) but I can assure you that I’m not dead. Not dead, but not in a happy place. Tina Belcher’s face above says it all.  (Although technically my website redirect was offline for at least several weeks so, now that that’s fixed, the website isn’t dead either. Anymore.)

This summer wasn’t an easy one, and my sense of dread got worse as it went. I pushed through writing, kept showing up to the page, and hit a nice production milestone for the year early, some 125,000 words. The bulk of that was on the new novel but it was getting away from me in much the same way that earlier attempts at this novel got away from me. I was still hopeful about the novel on submissions, mind you, but otherwise wasn’t submitting. Felt a little like wheel-spinning. I had been feeling the lack of a regular, hard-core critique group keenly for the last two years, and then a lead from the spring landed me the opportunity to join one this fall. With the Surrey International Writers Conference right on its heels, I figured I’d be back on track – refreshed, refocused and ready.

It didn’t. SWIC kicked my ass despite great feedback on my Blue Pencil sessions and a Full Request for the novel. Should have been flying high, but wasn’t. I was frustrated, flailing. The new critique group was terrific, exactly what I needed, but everything else wasn’t. It felt like everything was yelling at me and I couldn’t hear my own voice anymore.

So, I stayed away from social media, because it was starting to hurt. Stopped listening to podcasts whenever I was walking and just walked. Starting work on a personal Kanban board to keep track of all the projects I had let languish. I tried to find some focus while I left the novel to sit.

And then that election. That election. That election that will in our lifetimes only ever need be referred to as that election. Astounding, disappointing, devastating … and yet was it really that surprising? Was it really that much of a shock that people would so crudely vote against their interests, against the evidence, against their fellow human being, given what we all watched, what we all laughed at, and what we all believed was too ridiculous to be true?

If a man says he’s going to do horrendous, stupid, evil things, don’t laugh – believe him.

So I’ve been gutted, like everyone else. I’m not even American, and like most of my Canadian brothers and sisters, I am shocked and horrified. Hate speech and hate crimes have of course erupted, not just in the US but up in Canada, too. (There are some saying that up here it is just shits screwing around for attention, but fuck them for wanting to make people afraid for their own amusement. That’s only a slim degree of difference from the real thing.)

I have watched my American friends mobilize despite their grief and shock. I wish them courage and success in these hard years ahead. (Not interesting – don’t call the next four years interesting, don’t you dare.) To my Canadian friends all I can say is don’t get complacent.

They thought it couldn’t happen there, and it did.

We’re not that different.

We have the Charter of Rights and a progressive history, but look at what’s stirring up in some parts of the Conservative Party on our side of the border. Be prepared to say, “No, that is not Canadian. That is not how we do it here.” Be prepared to speak up, be prepared to vote. We have seen what complacency has done in the UK and the US and cannot permit the same mistake here.

In the interim, I can watch, I can witness.

I can speak up, I can support.

And I can make art*, for as long as I’m not dead.

(*Someone else can tell me whether it’s good or not.)

 

Say Yes To The Owl

At least once a year I have to go backpack shopping and it’s a bit fraught. Concerns like size, cost, shape, how much it can hold, how it hangs on the shoulder, and of course esthetics all swim around in my head and make something that should be fun not very.

A bag is so personal, too. It’s something I carry with me every day. It’s gotta last, it’s gotta hold books, maybe even a computer, all without killing my spine. My spine has opinions that if I fail to plan for means my spine will wreak its terrible vengeance on me for weeks following. Oh yes, I pay attention to Mr. Spine these days, which is why I’ve been backpacking for several years now. 

My old backpack was technically fine. It wasn’t falling apart, but it was designed for someone a foot taller then me and twice as strong. It’s large enough to heft a hard-core computer around but also had a bunch of front pockets that stick out like turtles on top of ever larger turtles. What ended up happening was that the bag became lopsided, with all my small things front-loaded and literally pulling me backwards with every step. Plus, the bigger the bag, the more I’ll stuff inside. Like a goldfish expanding to the size of the tank. But, with my junk.

Mr. Spine assured me that this was not tenable in the long run. Something smaller, it asked with a warning twinge between my shoulder blades, that fits close to the back. Please and thank you.

So a-shopping I did go. How hard is it to find a cute, not too big, well-made utilitarian backpack? SUPER HARD. Store after store. Option after option. Too military, too frou-frou. Too big, too small. Too friggin’ expensive, but that’s what I get for trying to shop in downtown Vancouver.

I had just about given up. With my old lumpy, too-big backpack dragging on my shoulders, I headed home. On my way, I passed one of those discount tourist luggage and bag shops that are everywhere here, windows plastered with sale signs. 

Went in, wandered around. Past the Canadian tchotchkes, the flags and moose and maple syrup, it was all standard issue square backpacks. No laptop pockets, no multiple storage options, nothing that really stood out as something that checked all the boxes.

And then I saw it, up on the top hook well out of reach.

A cutie owl backpack.

I stared at it, drawn to its adorable gravity. I couldn’t. I would be taking this backpack everywhere. The office I work at, nerdy it might be, is still the most grownup office I’ve worked at. These were cute owls with big eyes and bright patterns, all in different pastel colors. It’s not professional, it’s the wrong shape, the straps aren’t that great. I can’t!

But it’s … so cute!

With a firm mental no, I stalked around the store some more. If that backpack could theoretically work, maybe there was another backpack that would. Something professional. Whatever that meant. Of course, every other backpack looked even crummier than it did the first time by comparison. I looked at brown ones, blue ones. Ones with no pattern, ones with wishbone, or faux leather detail.

Every time I looked up, I saw the owl backpack high on its hook looking so perfect.

Stop it, Stephanie, I almost said out loud. It’s not professional.

The owl backpack just hung from its hook. Perfection. Hoo. Hoo.

I bought it. I’m pretty sure I was blushing. I made jokes with the woman behind the counter about how silly it was, the bag, but how I really loved it anyways. I excused the purchase by saying I would use it just for non-work days. How that would really work is not seriously thought out because transferring all my crap between bags would be nothing but impractical shenanigans from beginning to end.

Walked home with the biggest smile. I loved that owl backpack. Didn’t hurt that I’ve always loved owls, or that in my home town the local chapter of NaNoWriMo chose the owl as its mascot, or that when I went away to Viable Paradise, one of my best buds in my writing group crocheted the cutest little owl to take with me.

Before I even got home, I decided it would be my regular, everyday backpack, because I loved those damn cute owls. And I was prepared for snarky remarks, laughter, or even faint frowns of disapproval. I was ready, man! Hit me! 

What did I get?

Nothing but complements. And often, complements from delighted strangers, compliments that I don’t think even they themselves would ordinarily make, sounding so surprised in shared, secret delight. For a nerdish minute, we’re both smiling, and I say thank you. 

So. What do you talk yourself out of that would bring you joy?

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Owl Backpack: taken at the VanDusen Garden while reading Letters to Tiptree. ♥

Go do it.

(I write this on the cusp of having to replace the Owl Backpack, as I’ve had to repair the straps and as the bottom starts to wear away to nothing. It breaks my heart! Next bag is going to be a Bag of Holding, which will still be nerdy, if a little more subtle. I did, however, see a scarf the other day in a shop that has the exact same artwork as the backpack … so … we’ll see.)