Most Wonderful Time

October, November, and December make up my favorite quarter of the year for a multitude of reasons, one of which is that it is “best of” list season. This weekend I’ve been googling different Best of 2018 book lists and scanning through them for any I might have missed and confirming that I have read some that are being celebrated.

I have had my library holds list under control for the last couple of months but now it’s got some new additions.

Elevation

 

Stephen King got me earlier this year with The Outsider and when I saw that he had a second new release this year I decided to trust in my newfound fandom of his work and request it in at the library.

Synopsis

I’m always ready for a trip back to Castle Rock, let’s gooooo!

 

The Incendiaries

 

The Incendiaries is a book that kept popping up all year in my literary circles, and when I saw it on the lists I said “fine, I’ll try it.”

Synopsis

I am intrigued by the love story wrapped up in grief wrapped up in fundamentalist religion bullshit, I’m just hoping it doesn’t make me cringe too much. It’s difficult to read stories about people making bad emotional decisions and avoid armchair quarterbacking out of context.

 

The House of Impossible Beauties

 

Set in the drag scene of 1980s New York, this is a book that kept peeking at me on Twitter all year and with week long school breaks just around the corner, I decided I could finally give it the time it deserves.

Synopsis

I find drag fascinating and I still have so much to learn about it. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

 

 

The Great Believers
A 2018 National Book Award finalist, The Great Believers wasn’t on my radar until this morning. It has been on every list I’ve looked at in addition to this award nomination so it must be one I need to see.

Synopsis

Here we’re in 1980s Chicago (not sure why there’s a 1980s trend in literature…) and the story is woven in with the AIDS crisis. It is a much more serious book than I usually read, but if it’s as good as they say, I want to experience it.

 

There There

This is another book that has been screaming at me since the beginning of this year. I knew There There was out there but I just never picked it up. It is time.

Synopsis

This novel explores a variety of Native American experiences in urban settings. To be honest I wish there was more fiction that centered around these experiences. I feel like America forgets about its first peoples more than they should. Every time I read someone’s view of this book they are shouting that people should read it, that it really is as good as everyone says, and that it should be required reading for all Americans. Well, I’m on it.

What are some books you are excited about this holiday season? Are there any you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t yet? Do you have any suggestions for me? Let me know in the comments!

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

B1ciZ4RumOS

Let it be known that Kiersten White can do no wrong in my eyes and has earned that privilege through her absolutely spectacular writing and storytelling. I will recommend her books to anyone looking for something to read because I am sure that they will enjoy her books.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein through the eyes of his family’s adopted ward, Elizabeth Lavenza. They adopt her from a foster home to be a friend and companion to their son Victor. He has strange moods and falls into fevers, and in order to survive Elizabeth learns how to act and perform to satisfy his parents and keep him calm.

Anyone that has ever been in a relationship with a volatile personality knows the slow eclipse that darkens their personality in favor of the happiness and stability of the volatile partner. Years of mincing words and actions to preserve the peace creates a woman who forgets who she is outside of the shadow of the man she is yoked to. For strong, independent women who take no guff this might be hard to imagine, but an inescapable situation can create survival instincts that demean even the best of girls.

Maybe if I don’t ask so many questions.

Maybe if I do more around the house.

Maybe if I don’t get so emotional.

And suddenly all of his actions become blame-able on you because YOU didn’t do enough to avoid them because you should have known better. You understand how he works. You’ll do better next time.

The organization and planning it takes to keep a volatile man from exploding is truly exhausting. The tasks you take on because he gets so frustrated doing them that he lashes out so it’s just easier for you to do them to avoid  the confrontation. You don’t communicate your frustrations because he feels attacked and then starts a fight with you and then you end up apologizing for bothering him with your needs because the results of the fight over you bothering him were worse than the daily issues you were attempting to discuss. All of your energy goes to keeping him under control instead of into making the relationship stronger and then you realize you are trapped and under HIS control and getting out from under that kind of situation is next to impossible, as Elizabeth finds in this novel. Her “support” of his endeavors only causes him to become the real monster in the story.

I cannot think of a more appropriate time for White’s book to have been released into the world than in the midst of the #metoo movement, in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, and during this moment where women are demanding that men deal with their own emotions and take responsibility for their own actions. We’re not going to take the blame anymore. We’re not going to bear the brunt of your anger, your lack of control, your issues. YOU need to handle your business. WE are not your mothers or your therapists. WE want to be partners, not managers. What we wear, say, and do doesn’t give you the right to be physical with us. We have the right to stand up for ourselves, and if that makes you angry it’s up to YOU to hold yourself back from hitting us, we don’t make you do it.

This book is a slow burn where we see Elizabeth do what’s necessary to survive. She chases Victor around Europe to save him from himself because she sees him as the only person who can keep her safe and she’s the only person she believes can keep him safe from himself. Eventually she realizes how her overprotective actions allowed Victor to assume he had her permission to create things that she would have never condoned had she known exactly what he was up to. His insanity is only revealed once she realizes her own agency, and she fights to figure out a way that she can escape and be her own person.

All of Kiersten White’s books that I have read so far have the Angry Angel Books stamp of approval and you should go get them right away because to read them is to avoid missing out on a singular genius. White makes stories we are all familiar with into stories we can relate to, love, and return to reread again and again. Go get you some.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1)

His Majesty's Dragon

Naomi Novik stole my heart away with Uprooted. It was one of my first ever reviews on this site. Her writing was evocative and fresh and kept me hooked from chapter to chapter. Reading her book was like being welcomed into a new universe by an old friend and I had to stay to hear all her stories because I LOVE her stories!

When I began reading His Majesty’s Dragon, I gave an inward sigh because the writing style and language was reminiscent of very stilted and suffocating movies like Master and Commander. The height of propriety, every word has a place, every statement is backed by deep consideration for tradition and expectations, and everyone’s station is life is set. Think honor and duty above all else.

Imagine my surprise when I sank into this language and writing like I was being cuddled by the most comfortable chair, covered in blankets, with a hot beverage, watching the snow fall softly outside as my best friend told me the story of his old war days riding on a dragon against Napoleon. It was a story I didn’t realize I wanted to hear that I couldn’t get enough of as I moved through the chapters falling in love with character after character. Angels, I cried openly during one particular part because by the time I reached that point in the narrative everyone involved was someone I loved and I could not stand to see them hurt or in pain.

An English naval vessel captures a dragon egg from a French ship, and when it hatches before they can reach land Laurence, the English captain, moves forward to harness the dragon to ensure that it flies for England. His deep sense of duty drives him to act for the good of his country, but out of this action grows one of the deepest friendships and loves that I have read about in a very long time. He names the dragon Temeraire and they plan to enter the aerial Corps once the ship makes land.

Now the traditional military branches view the Corps as ‘lesser than’. It’s seen as a rougher life. People who enter the Corps traditionally don’t marry, they aren’t involved in the typical English social circles or ladders anymore. Their only duty is for England, the Corps, and the dragon to whom they are bound from the hatching. This kind of isolation gives most people the vapors, and Laurence, having been fed a steady diet of this misinformation, enters this new world with some nervousness. He soon discovers that the people who are involved with the Corps are just as smart, honorable, and duty bound as any other part of society that he has experienced thus far.

Temeraire is a very different dragon from those typically used in the Corps. Laurence speaks with dragon scholars and they believe him to be an Imperial breed from mainland China, sent as a gift to Napoleon but intercepted by England. Temeraire is disappointed because he cannot breathe fire or spit acid like some of the other dragons, and you get to watch him grow and eat and develop throughout the book to finally reach his full growth and abilities to reveal an identity even bigger than they initially thought. He loves for Laurence to read to him, and he knows both English and French, having heard them both spoken while he was still in the egg. In this book dragons speak with humans and it is so entertaining to see them as equal participants in the process instead of simply being beasts of burden.

Novik asks us to consider relationships in this first book of the series. Abusive relationships, especially ones that you cannot escape. What is kindness in the face of such inescapable bonds? How do we balance duty to our country and duty to each other? When is love the greatest duty that we hold? What is consent? YES CONSENT.

Honestly the most comforting aspect of this novel, and what creates the most tension, are the moments where the riders consider their dragons as equal partners and ask their input before doing things and when they do not. For example, Laurence insists on removing Temeraire’s harness at the end of exercise and washes his dragon after he eats and trains because Temeraire asks for it. Because it makes Temeraire comfortable. And what’s really excellent is that these simple acts of consideration and kindness spread to the other dragons, creating a community of deeper companionship among the members of the Corps. The lengths to which people consider the needs and comfort of others in this novel, both people and dragons alike, will renew your hope that such a society might be possible in our dragonless world.

Naomi Novik has written a novel in the traditionally formal style of an old naval story that will capture your imagination and your heart, making you wish for your own dragon as a partner. Please go read this book. You will be better for having read it and I would not lead you wrong. Go get you some.

Kill the Farm Boy

Kill the Farm Boy

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #1)

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #2)

When I began reading this new release that I grabbed on a whim at the library, it was a really fun start. A nobody that cleans up dung on his family’s farm is chosen by an ugly, drunk pixie to be a Chosen One and he sets off with the goat that the same pixie gave the gift of speech to in order to exact revenge on the lord that killed his brother. There is an aspiring dark lord and even a large woman in a chain mail bikini – and it was when I reached this point that I remembered I had seen this before.

In the spring of this year (2018) I attempted to read the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, but put it down after the second book. I love the silliness, but in books like these it tends to get stuck on level 10 and never deviate, creating a situation where you get bored even though the setup is silly and bucking the tradition. There’s no give and take or normal versus silly – you just go from zero to sixty silliness per hour, the authors don’t let up on the gas, and it’s tiresome.

Sorry for the short review, but I didn’t read very much of the book and so I don’t want to mess with your opinion too much. If you like the Discworld books you will LOVE this novel. It’s just not for me. It’s too much and trying too hard all at once and my brain shuts down. But you might like it, so give it a try.

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

Ka Dar Oakley

On my way home from my ultrasound last week I stopped at the library to check on a book that hadn’t been checked back in properly and decided to also browse the shelves. I grabbed two or three books and one of them was KA: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr off the New Releases shelf. I’m a sucker for crows and also for good cover art so I took it even though I had never read anything by this author before. I figured it was worth a try.

The gist is that the main character, a crow without a name, comes to make a connection with a tribe of people that lives near his family’s nesting location. He learns the language of the people and he teaches the one girl the language of Ka and they come to be friends. Something happens to her and he travels to what we are led to believe is the land of the dead to bring her back to be the new leader of her tribe.

This book was interesting at first because it was dark and so different from anything I had ever read. It’s presented like a Plato’s Cave awakening – we slowly see the crow becoming less of a crow and more of a human. It’s a really cool concept.

The problem was that it was SOOOOOOOOOOO boring. I managed to get to about 25% through (page 100 or so, it’s 441 pages long) and I gave myself permission to stop. The reason it was boring is that the storyline is so slow. Four whole pages are given over to describing his mother and father building a nest and how a rival crow tries to fuck his mom but his dad manages to chase him off and then he watches his dad fuck his mom multiple times to make sure the brood is his and…well…I just wasn’t seeing any payoff anytime soon. So back to the library it went.

Now usually I would cushion the blow of an unfinished review with a statement about how it just wasn’t for me but you might like it because it seems really popular, but I haven’t heard of this book before now, nor the author (who is also from Maine originally), and I feel comfortable letting you know that you can probably safely avoid it. Skip it. Do it for me and do it for yourself.

 

Damn Fine Story

Damn Fine Story

On Writing by Stephen King

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

I’m a music educator turned math educator who almost became an accountant. I’m 35 years old but I feel 85 if you factor in how done I am with everything. I start over more than I continue and I can’t seem to find a place where I am happy.

But last November I started thinking about what makes me happy, and I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo 2017. I discovered I had a story that could be a series that could be something I actually would enjoy making out of my brain hole. I have read so many books that I figured I could put some of what I’ve read to use in framing my own story.

Problem is that it’s intimidating out here for a bitch without an MFA. I have writing skills that have seen me through a bachelors, masters, and two years of a doctorate, but the Master of Fine Arts is not part of my experience. So dipping my toe into the same Twitter as Stephen King and Chuck Wendig sometimes creates a situation when I feel like a 100% imposter. These people are in the game, they define the game, and I’m just armchair quarterbacking the game.

That’s not stopping me though. I’m writing a goddamn book. And the longer I dabble in writer Twitter, the more I see that people of all shapes, sizes, and professions are writing books. There’s self-publishing and traditional publishing and small press publishing and everything in between – there’s something that’s right for everyone.

Still, I’m starting at ground level, so I can’t necessarily think about the publication step of things, I have to take things one step at a time. And the first step is to finish this damn first draft. Part of this is understanding the kind of book I’m writing and keeping to as many of the norms as I can muster. Reading craft books about outlining and structure and building character arcs will help me with that, especially in the editing and revising stages. I’m a good learner. So I’m always open to learning structure and procedure and I love reading so I’m just going to absorb everything.

Yet, with all the professional and procedural advice I’ve received and read, I still need to hear that any Joe Schmo with a story and a dream can write a book. This explains why I responded so well to On Writing, and just recently to Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story.

There’s writing advice sure, but the bulk of these books exists to give you a picture of normal people telling stories that other people might like. These books exist to give permission to writers to be writers if they want to be. I don’t mean that we have to approach these authors to receive permission, it’s that reading these books will make your imposter syndrome disappear. They will make you feel as though you can join the club of writers. You may wear the jacket, sit in that area of the plane, be seated in the nice part of the steak restaurant.

Chuck’s writing is quirky, brash, and will keep you on your toes. You will immediately love him like a fun uncle (funcle?) who teaches you to swear. He’s engaging and makes you want to join in and immediately start writing something! Anything! This is cool, I can do this!

This craft book is inspirational, down to earth, and reminds us all that storytelling is as old as the human race. It’s programmed into our DNA, we are programmed for story. So why not try to tell one yourself? You might be surprised what comes out. If you’re currently writing a book or considering writing one, you should make Wendig’s “how to” one of the first books you buy. Go get you some.

In Winter’s Kitchen

In Winter's Kitchen

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. It’s like listening to podcasts or audiobooks, reading nonfiction puts me to sleep. I blame all the articles and books I had to read in my masters and doctoral programs. Nonfiction is like I’m making myself take a class in something that I also have to teach myself and sometimes I’m tempted to highlight what I’m reading but I CAN’T IT’S A LIBRARY BOOK AMANDA GET IT TOGETHER.

If I’m being honest with you I bought this book thinking it was fiction. I am a sucker for a book with food at the center. One of my favorite books from the first year of this blog was Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. He blurbed In Winter’s Kitchen, so I didn’t ask questions, I just bought it. Let me be very clear that I have no regrets.

Beth Dooley begins her local food/memoir tome by describing the first Thanksgiving that she hosted for her family away from their traditional New Jersey home. She attempts to make the meal only from the ingredients that she obtains from either the local farmer’s market or local farmers and makes a total mess of things. The bird is too small and dried out, the potatoes aren’t quite right for the sweet potato dish, and she uses this intial food illiteracy to launch into a series of chapters that focus on individual parts of the meal: potatoes, wild rice, turkeys, apples. Each chapter introduces us to a food source and shows us the reality of being a local or organic farmer in that industry.

You’ll make cheese by hand, harvest wild rice with beaters, and slaughter turkeys in a schoolyard. I was shocked at how many different kinds of apples there are as well as how many there used to be, and it being one of my favorite fruits meant that I wanted to immediately fly to Minnesota and demand 5 kinds I’ve never had before. I was most surprised by the corn chapter. Even though I knew how plants are pollinated and grown, I hadn’t had the time to consider how a GMO field’s pollen would be blown far enough to infect and alter the organic crops grown by locals, which means they would no longer be able to label their produce organic through no fault of their own.

As I moved through this book I felt my poor self competing with my progressive self. I appreciate the need for local and organic farming. There is nothing better than an excellent farmer’s market or driving to a local orchard or dairy farm to get your food. You feel connected to your community and often the food just tastes better. I hate that here in Florida there isn’t a decent farmer’s market to go to.

But then the reality that there are BILLIONS of people in this world to feed and that the US provides pretty large percentages of the world’s food supply in certain areas reminds me that large scale farming and creating crops that are resistant to pests is so important to making sure that people have enough to eat. In addition to quantity, we also want to make that food affordable, and buying small scale from local growers is not necessarily cost effective.

The question I kept coming back to while I was reading, and keep coming back to whenever this conversation comes up, is is a balance possible? Can we find a way to separate large scale growing and local production while maintaining soil and environmental health and sustainability? The only answers I could find included a shift in the Farm Bill that provides funding to farmers to support the shift to organic, and increased regulation in zoning commercial farms to avoid cross-pollination with local and organic crops. But I would like you to think about the likelihood of either of those things passing within our current political reality and then think about whether we’ll have a solution soon.

Recently a climate change report was released by the United Nations that outlines a dire future if we don’t get things under control in the next ten years, but the people who run the American government refuse to believe in climate change and continue to fund and encourage the expansion of the fossil fuel industries because they are able to line their pockets in return. If we can’t manage to make big changes to save our existence on a large scale, how are we going to prioritize sustainability on a small scale here at home? Anyone with the power to make any kind of change just turns away and laughs all the way to the bank.

Sorry, that got bleak there for a second, but the concern and question is ever present in this book. Woven among the concern is the warm comfort of good food and home cooked meals. Families passing down knowledge from generation to generation to create a tradition of raising food and sharing that tradition with their communities, to the point that they become a linchpin in the local economy. That closeness of family and tradition warmed my cold, angry heart and made me wish I had those kinds of traditions for myself. My kingdom for a decent farmer’s market!

Dooley brings it all back together at the end with another Thanksgiving dinner, but a more successful one now that she has obtained all the knowledge necessary to handle these local offerings with care. You can almost smell the chestnut stuffing, taste the cranberry jelly, and see the marshmallows melting over the sweet potatoes. Her preparation of the meal seems less stressed and harried than how she opened the book, and pleasure is laid over all her efforts.

This was an enjoyable, delicious, and informative read. If you like to read about food take my advice and seek this book out. If I enjoyed it and made it all the way through, you can too. Go get you some.