Best of 2017

At last, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Here’s my holiday gift to you, and I hope you enjoy! This post is going live for those still looking for last-minute gifts (like me), and there will be no post this Friday in honor of the holiday. Sorry for shaking things up on you folks, but I thought you’d prefer getting this sooner than later.

I read a lot of books in 2017, though perhaps not as many as I would have preferred. My TBR continues to grow much faster than I can strike things off. But nevertheless, I persist in climbing this mountain! Happily, it’s quite enjoyable.

2017 saw a lot of amazing fiction, honestly, no doubt spurred in part by everyone being pissed off and defiant. I loved some of those pieces, but I also got the chance to discover some preciously clever examples of characters subverting hegemony through self-care and care of others, and those stories were honestly some of the most raw and wonderful. So, as always, we’ll do these grouped by form. I’ll pick five of my favorite short stories, a handful of novellas, and five novels (if I can narrow it down that much).

Without further ado:

Short Stories

With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips by Beth Cato

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Beth Cato is an author I’m just now coming around to following, and I look forward to seeing more of her work. I really enjoyed this story, which is on the slightly darker end set in post-war Britain or something very like it.img_3988

Three May Keep a Secret by Carlie St. George

This story has major content warnings, so please be advised. That said, it’s a powerful story about bringing darkness into the light and how our secrets can be deadly, cemented by a lovely, mostly platonic relationship between the two main characters.

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

This story was a haunting tale about grief and healing and the nature of death. It also spoke to me about how an entire community can turn on you, but you are forced to live with them. I have complicated feelings about this story, which are the best kind.

Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon

Sliding in here at the end of the year is this precious gem of a story that makes me believe in humankind. Honestly everything Ursula Vernon writes makes me feel better. She’s been a huge balm for my soul this year, and inspired me thoroughly as a writer. She also writes as T. Kingfisher, who you’ll see later on this list, and if you want more of her writing I recommend the entirety of Jackalope Wives and Other Stories without reservation.

A Recipe for Magic by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde

This story is another balm to my heart. I am super into kitchen witches and gardeners and anything else bringing magic and power to things domestic and full of love. Please check it out and try not to tear up (happy tears, I promise). It’s up on B&N’s website as part of their new push to publish original fiction.img_3990

 

Honorable mentions to Loneliness Is in Your Blood, The Oiran’s Song, and If We Live to Be Giants. They were all hella good.

Novellas

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

I loved this novella mostly because it felt so real to me. I knew the people that Killjoy described in a way that a lot of characters don’t exactly strike me as real. It’s an urban fantasy, or more appropriately a contemporary fantasy, and it’s an unexpected and delicious story.

Dusk or Dawn or Dark or Day by Seanan McGuire

McGuire had several novellas come out this year, and a few books, too. She is super prolific. I picked this one for the list because it was one of my favorites, and also because it’s a great place to start with her work, encapsulating a lot of her reoccurring themes in a standalone text.

Also I have to point out that I read this novella around the same time that I read “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” by Alyssa Wong, and if you put those two titles together they make a refrain to what could be a bitterly beautiful poem.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

You all know I love Martha Wells, or at least you do if you’ve been reading this blog any length of time. This novella has taken the sff world by storm for its inventive approach to an alien consciousness that nonetheless remains lovable. It was actually a little short for me – I felt like I would have become more emotionally invested given more time in Murderbot’s head – but good news! There are two more planned installments in The Murderbot Diaries to look forward to next year.

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Novels

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

I read the entire Craft Sequence this year, and I cannot recommend it enough. Technically, the book that was published in 2017 is The Ruin of Angels, which is my second favorite book in this series, bumping off Three Parts Dead to take that honor (barely). My favorite, though, is Full Fathom Five. All of Gladstone’s books explore earth-shaking themes with inventive, masterful language and world-building. (What if magic was real and also managed by a bunch of capitalists, for example. Also: what if the stories we told ourselves became sentient?) I recommend these books to everyone I come across. You can read them in order of publication or chronologically (I did order of publication) but just go read them.

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Wrapping up The Broken Earth Trilogy is The Stone Sky, a book that lived up to the promise of the series. I can’t say it was uplifting, but it was satisfying.

Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

I wrote about this book a few weeks ago, and it remains one of my favorites I’ve read this year. I’m very much into American West reimaginings that feature women and people of color. I even did a whole blogpost about this subgenre, which you can check out here. Anyway, check out this book, it’s worth it, and can be read as a standalone or as the first in what I believe is a trilogy.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

This book is the only non-speculative fiction title on this list. It’s also the only YA title, I think. It explores similar themes to “Three May Keep a Secret,” mentioned above, so content warnings are necessary. However, this book, too, is about healing, and it was a powerful read for me during this long year when it has seemed like so much darkness has been in the world.

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

Surprising no one, another one of T. Kingfisher’s fairytale reimaginings has made my list this year. You will recall “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, above. They happen to be the same person, and all of her stories are amazing. This one tackles Beauty and the Beast, and it’s one of my favorite retellings of that particular tale yet.

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Serials

This isn’t exactly its own category, as I have only one work to mention here. Serial productions seem to be on the up and up at the moment, and I wanted to note one that I think will go a long way towards revolutionizing the genre. Steal the Stars has been a remarkable listen, and it has taught me a lot about what can be done with a serial story. You should check it out.

Essay

The Shape of Darkness as it Overtakes Us by Dimas Ilaw

Essay is not a category I usually include and probably won’t make it in future best-of lists, but I felt like 2017 has been an exceptional year and so we had to make an exception. If you have felt at all hopeless and overwhelmed, I can’t say that this essay will make you feel better. But it will definitely help you to process, I think, just as the author is processing their own grief. And it will help you to step forward, too.


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Depictions of AI

Hey, friends. This weekend is Roanoke Author Invasion! I’m bringing a bunch of books and oddments, so I hope to see you there! I promise to take more pictures this time and post them for you next week, but until then please enjoy this discussion of robots and artificial intelligence.

A few weeks ago I finished Lightless  by C.A. Higgins. It was a masterful book that depended uniquely on interpersonal conflict. Yes, there were explosive moments, but most of the tension was constructed through dialogue and interactions between characters. I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in reading a good example of solid character-driven plot. I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t read this book, so my recommendation would be to go read it and come back at this point. We also might see spoilers for a few other books and movies going forward, specifically Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, but I will warn you ahead of time.

Still here? Good.

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One of the characters in Lightless was actually a computer. Ananke was originally not sentient, but gains sentience over the course of the book due to some unfortunate or fortunate events. The depiction of Ananke and her decision-making processes was probably my favorite part of this story. Althea, whom she views as something like her mother, grows to simultaneously love, fear, and hate Ananke – understandable when you essentially have a five year-old-who is devoted to you but has the power to asphyxiate you if you piss her off. I always find meditations on the psychology of an artificial intelligence interesting and I wanted to compare and contrast some other, very differing examples of AI from some recent stories I’ve come across.

One of the oldest versions of an AI story that I’ve found is that of the German silent film Metropolis. You may remember me mentioning this movie in my post on Feminine horror and Ex Machina. In that post I focused more on feminist critique, but we’re going to sidestep the gender issue for a minute (I know, shocking) and just look at the construction of an artificial intelligence in the context of the plot for this movie. The AI in Metropolis is clearly a servant of the devil, possibly being the embodiment of that spirit. Its goal is, simply, to destroy mankind and the works that he has built (“he” being used here because, in the world of Metropolis, there don’t seem to be a lot of women building things – product of its time I suppose). Thus, we see an early depiction of AI as something unnatural and to be feared.

In a more recent iteration of AI, we can look at Ex Machina. Again, see my feminist critique of this movie above. In this iteration of an AI, we see something that is still alien and inhuman. It is not necessarily an ethical creation either. Yet there is some attempt to give this AI reasonable motives for harming others – specifically self-preservation. That said, AI are still not presented as equal to human beings per se, or rather, both humans and AI are evil and twisted in different ways. It remains a pretty dark view of AI, if more nuanced.

Yet a third example of AI can be found in River of Gods by Ian McDonald. (SPOILERS)

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In this story, there are various types of artificial intelligence that have evolved from computer programs. They do not need bodies, since they can download and replicate their programming infinitely in the world of data. The one AI that does seek to grasp at humanity or something like it does so in order to better understand humankind. I’ll leave her unnamed in order to hopefully shield you from being too keyed to what happens in the book. (Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, look away now.) This AI is brutally murdered, at last understanding the desperation of humanity all too well. She is represented as nearly saintly, sacrificing herself for the good of her kind and humanity. I have to be honest, this book made me enraged – not so much at our decisions as human beings, but at the rules that entrap our corporal selves. In this case, AI is imagined as an evolution towards something more inherently free and everlasting than humanity. It’s a stark contrast against the demonic robot of Metropolis and the very impermanent Ava.

I would argue that Ananke from Lightless most closely resembles Ava as something that is alien and makes decisions with a logic that is not human. Ananke, however, has managed to include emotions that are not logical in her personality – anger comes to mind. Love, or something like it, is another emotion that she consistently expresses. She is a somewhat unique take on AI in that the implication is that those emotions, such as they are, are real in her. Her development is presented almost as that of a child. In that respect, she may more closely resemble the AI in River of Gods who goes among humans. I particularly like this representation, as it seems very believable to me. It makes sense that an AI would take time to come into itself, and that it might want to model itself off of the other beings around it – specifically, people.

There are numerous other depictions of AI in all different stripes out there, and it is always fascinating to see a new take. Do you have a favorite?

My writing process: novels vs short stories

A lot of people have different ways they tackle writing, and I suppose there are a lot of places where best practices kind of deviate. Given that, I wanted to take a minute today to talk about my writing process.

I am not a pantser. For those unfamiliar, a pantser is someone who flies by the seat of their pants. I will not go into a story without and ending in mind – mostly because I can guarantee if I do so that I will not have an ending to my story. It won’t ever get finished. This doesn’t mean that I don’t improvise, because I do, and it doesn’t mean that I know everything that’s going to happen before it does, because I don’t. My characters can still surprise me, and do. It just means I need a target to be aiming for.

What this often means in novels is that I know the ending to the book, but I may not know the middle. Most of my rewrites in novels, which can be extensive, revolve around the meat of the story. While there are exceptions, for books I focus on adding scenes and otherwise filling in gaps that affect the world-building and character development going on around the main plot points in my re-writes.

For short stories I can say that it is a little different. My short stories often spring full-formed from the page. The edits that are made are usually semantic edits – changing the wording of descriptions and actions so that they come through more clearly. Very occasionally, I will adjust a paragraph to add some missing information that will help the reader connect to the character in question. In fact, my short stories either come through with almost no edits, or don’t come through at all and must be completely rewritten, with only a couple of elements surviving – maybe the setting, or a character, or even only a paragraph that I particularly liked. It’s a very different process from my novels.

I think this comes from the fact that, for short stories, it is a lot easier to hold the whole thing in my head. A novel has too many moving parts, and so I will use outlines and charts to try to keep things straight. A curve ball can destroy this architecture, requiring weeks of reworking outlines before I can start moving forward again. By the end of the novel, I’ve changed the plot points and reorganized them several times, and so the rewriting involves dragging my characters to where they need to be for it all to make sense. But for a short story, the whole of it pops into my head pretty early and stays there. Reworking the plot isn’t necessary, and so the character takes her time revealing herself, and I’m free to focus on the craft of the sentences, the tone of her voice, on perfecting the language itself.

Either task is daunting and fun and rewarding. I am so excited to share more stories with you.

Launch

Hello everyone!

This is the first post of the blog I will be keeping on my official author website! I cannot promise that posts will be the most regular (I also post on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, so for more regular information please check those out). However, I hope to document major events in the writing process. Subscribe to keep in the loop with current projects, new reviews, and other fun information about my books.

I first published in February 2013, so this website is a long time coming. Following the publishing of my initial standalone novel, Child of Brii, I enrolled in a graduate school program. This put a bit of a damper in my productivity. My second book, Mother of Creation, came out during this two year program. You can find out about both books here. They are available on Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, and you can also read Part I of Child of Brii on Wattpad.

The website itself is likely to go through some changes in the next few months. As a preliminary design I feel good about it, but I would like to personalize some aspects of it more. Don’t be surprised if you come back to a face-lift of the site sometime this winter! I’m looking forward to having a more concrete home for my material on the internet.

Until the next post!