A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

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“Dark Warm Heart”: my grief over womanhood

This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.

This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”

I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”

I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.

If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.

This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.

Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:

the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.

Through his choice, he is made a monster.

Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.

Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.

Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.

He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”

Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.

How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.

I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:

…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.

Your infrequent inspiration update 

It’s November and the holidays are rolling down the chute, coming whether we like it or not. I haven’t planned my entire Thanksgiving dinner yet but you’ll probably hear all about it after the fact. For now, I wanted to bring you up to speed on some of the fun things I’ve read  and watched recently.

First off, Luke Cage. Holy mess Luke Cage. There were so many things done right with this show. The research and care that went into this production blew me away. The attention to detail in the selection of the soundtrack was especially phenomenal. At first, I was a little skeptical that Luke’s vendetta with Cottonmouth was feeding into the narrative of black on black crime, but the treatment of both characters as well as the role of Misty and Scarfe and the exploration of their motivations and identities quickly quelled that fear. All of the characters in Luke Cage are wonderfully complex and well-crafted. I definitely recommend it.  I could write a book about this show, but I’ll let you watch it and see for yourself.


As for other things  I’ve been into, there have been a lot of short stories I’ve really enjoyed recently. “Fiber,” a comedy with reborn zombies and cheerleaders by Seanan McGuire, was particularly amusing. You can find that over at Tor.com. On the eery, cerebral side of the spectrum there was “What Becomes of the Third Hearted,” published by Shimmer Magazine. That one was like a punch to the gut, in a good way. I’ve also been enjoying being a Patron of Fireside Fiction and Martha Wells. Martha Wells in particular gives me a bunch of fun Raksura tidbits to chew on, which I love. I’m very excited for Harbors of the Sun to hit shelves next summer.

Speaking of novels and novellas, some recent reads have included Vermilion, which I have been wanting to read forever, and Silver on the Road. I guess I’ve been on a Western kick. Vermilion is set in San Francisco and other areas on the far west coast, during the 1800s unless I miss my guess. It is a steampunk adventure which skillfully tackles issues of Chinese immigration and labor in the rail industry, as well as gender fluidity and diverse sexualities. Silver on the Road is also an alternate West story, but set in the area between the Spanish territories and the Mississippi River following the successful bid by the American colonies for independence. The main character is a Latina woman who works for the devil, who runs a saloon in the town of Flood.

In addition to these I’ve been reading Letters from Burma as a bit of a nonfiction break and also for research purposes. It’s a very easy read, and really fascinating. I also finished Obelisk Gate on Audible, which was a wonderful performance by Robin Miles, as always. I have mixed feelings about the second book in this series, mostly because I loved the first book so much. It honestly almost stood alone for me. But it was a great story and, once I reached the end, I was definitely back on board with wherever Jemisin wants to take me. I’m currently looking for my next audiobook, so let me know if you have any recommendations!

Whew. What a list. Anyway, chime in and let me know what you have been reading below. ‘Til next time.

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.