Hey all! Issue #71 of Andromeda Spaceways is out, and with it, my story “The Year of Salted Skies.” It’s all about droughts, magic, and sisters. You can pick up your copy of the issue here. You get the whole issue with a whole bunch of stories for less than $5, which as I said last September is as much as I spend on ice cream on a daily basis. And after you’ve read the story, don’t forget to check out the story behind “The Year of Salted Skies,” to find out where the idea for the story came from and to read about the roller coaster that was revising it. It took seven years from idea to publication with this story. It started out a complete mess, and then it was the third runner-up for the Dell Award, and now I’m so happy that it’s out in the world for you all to read. I hope you enjoy it!
May was a crazy month. I finished up finals and moved down to Gaithersburg, Maryland for my first internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. They’re keeping me busy at NIST, and I’m really enjoying the work. The public transportation in this part of the world does leave something to be desired, and I have never ever had allergies like this (at least I’m hoping they’re allergies), but I can get back and forth to work and I can get food, so it could be worse. I’ve been writing again too, slowly but surely, and finishing up critiques I promised people forever ago.
I also read twenty books this month. Which means I’ve read ninety books this year. I’m probably going to reach my goal of a hundred books this coming month. The question remains: should I increase my goal for the year? Or should I just bask in my victory for the next six months? Opinions welcome.
Many of the books I read this month were relatively short. I only read one book in Braille, because most of my reading time is while I’m doing things like cooking and laundry and such, and audio works better for that, obviously. Working full time tends to cut down on your ability to chill on the couch with a book. I made progress on a couple series I’ve been working on, read three series completely, started another new series, and read a couple stand-alone things. As usual, I’m clumping series together in this posts, and keeping my thoughts as spoiler-free as possible. And so, without further ado, here’s what I read in May and what I thought of it.
First, I read all three books in the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver—Delirium, Pandemonium, and Requiem—as well as the collection of Delirium stories: Hana, Annabel, Raven, and Alex. I enjoyed these books. They weren’t fabulous, but they were very decent. It’s a YA dystopian series set in a futuristic America where everybody undergoes a procedure to cure them of the ability to love, which is viewed as a deadly disease. So of course, our protagonist, Lena, goes and falls in love a month before her scheduled procedure. There were a lot of things that I liked about these books. The world building was pretty solid, and I really enjoyed Lena’s journey from a scared believer in the system to an awesome resistance fighter. I also like that Lena is just an ordinary girl within the system. She’s never even such a big part in the resistance, though she does do a lot of good things for it. It was kind of refreshing compared with the YA dystopians where the hero is always the unwitting or even unwilling figurehead of the rebellion. I also thought Lauren Oliver definitely stuck the ending. A lot of people on Goodreads disagree with me on this, but I liked it. I was worried about it, given the split point of view in the third book. But it worked for me. All that being said, the books were pretty predictable. I knew what was going to happen way before it happened, particularly with the romantic side of the story. But this was still a fast-paced, fun series to read.
On our drive down to Maryland, my mom and I listened to Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I really enjoyed this book. It’s about a Mexican girl who immigrates to America with her mother after her father dies and works in a migrant camp during the Great Depression. There were times when Esperanza was a bit of a brat, but it’s also totally understandable and watching her journey of becoming self-sufficient was great. I would definitely recommend this book.
Next, I continued my journey through the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins with the next two books in the series: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. I am absolutely loving these books. They’re middle grade novels, but they tackle some really important issues, like racism and biological warfare. In the second book, Gregor and his little sister Boots return to the Underland to go on a quest to kill the evil rat overlord. In the third book, Gregor and Boots go back to seek the cure for a plague. Gregor is such a great protagonist. It’s also really interesting to read these books after reading the Hunger Games series, because you can see similar plot structures, characters, and themes handled in a completely different way. This gave rise to an interesting conversation with my writing friends about authors using the same or similar pallets for different projects. I haven’t finished the series—knowing Suzanne Collins it’s going to get darker from here—so I can’t speak for the series as a whole, but so far I am loving these books.
After that, I read the entire Breadwinner series by Deborah Ellis: The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana. These books are about a girl in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban, and when her father is arrested, she disguises herself as a boy to support her family. Each of these books was very short, and I could see it working better as one longer novel with more detail rather than four separate shorter ones, but I think it was written this way because it’s a middle grade series. But the whole series put together is fabulous, and I highly recommend.
After that, I read Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth. It was interesting to get Four’s point of view before and during Divergent, but on the whole it was kind of meh. I already knew how it was going to turn out, and I’m not sure it added anything new to the series.
Then I caved and reread The Call, and the sequel which just came out, The Invasion, by Peadar ó Guilín. i read The Call last year, and I hated it viscerally. The writing was terrible, the characters’ motivations made no sense, and it was just bad. But I was intrigued by the premise for the sequel, so I got both books from the library and plowed through them. I still disliked the first book, but the second book was pretty creative, and putting them together they make a not-completely-terrible duology. I still wouldn’t recommend them, though.
I finally started the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I read the first three books this month: The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters, and The Titan’s Curse. I’ve been meaning to read these books for a while, and I am so glad that I finally did. My sole regret is that I haven’t read them until now, because where have these books been all my life?! They are so much fun. This is a middle grade series about the children of the Greek gods going on adventures to avert wars and rescue friends. They are good fun, but also serious in all the right places. Basically everything I want in an upper middle grade novel. Also, kind of unrelated, but it’s really interesting to be reading this series and the Underland series simultaneously, because there are some very interesting similarities in the plot structure, and Gregor and Percy have some similar characteristics as protagonists.
And finally I continued my rereading of the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. This month, I read books 6 through 8, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, and the Hostile Hospital. Honestly, these books are starting to wear on me. I’m glad that the orphans have more agency now and are actively trying to solve the mystery themselves, but the mystery is moving so slowly, and the adults are just the worst. I’m hoping things pick up in the last five books.
And that’s it for May. If you’ve read any of these books, I would love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading everybody!
I’ve talked to a lot of people about this already, but for those who don’t know, I’ve decided to pursue a career in space law after law school. When I tell people this, I get two different reactions.
Either: That sounds so cool! … What is it?
Or: What happened to disability rights? You’d be so good at that.
Let’s set aside the first reaction for now. I’ll come back to what space law is in a future post—I promise. Today, I want to talk about that second reaction. What happened to disability rights? And the follow-up comments that I’d be so good at that and it’s really important.
In true Jameyanne’s blog fashion, let’s back up. Believe it or not, I started thinking about law school about three-and-a-half years ago. I’d been in Italy for about a month, and I was already pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I was invited to a dinner at the local chapter of the Lions Club, because this chapter was involved in fundraising for a guide dog school in Milan, and they’d heard about the blind girl walking around Assisi with her guide dog and wanted to see her in real life. So I went to this dinner, and when I successfully cut up my own chicken, everyone at the table applauded. I kid you not. They applauded.
I got back to my apartment at about two in the morning, exhausted and frustrated to the point of tears. It had been a long, difficult month, filled with countless incidents just like this. The people who screamed at me on the bus for having the nerve to leave my apartment by myself. The clerks who tried to stop me entering their stores. The head of the school for the blind who wouldn’t let me volunteer to help teach the students skills for independent daily living—like pouring liquid or getting toothpaste on the toothbrush without making a mess—because, and I quote, “they can’t do that.”
So here I am, at two in the morning, tired, homesick, definitely in culture shock, confused because I’m six months out of college and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and furious because I just want to cut up my chicken without people clapping. And I think to myself, you know, self, you could make a difference here, if you really want to. You could go to law school and become a disability rights lawyer and make a difference here, or back in America, or anywhere. You might wonder why law school was the first thing I came up with for a way to make a difference, but actually I’d been told by my parents and our family friend/my special education advocate, Eleanor, that I would make a great lawyer. And I’d actually been fighting against this idea for years. But here I was, seriously contemplating it.
Granted, I was seriously contemplating it at what was now 2:30 AM, so I took that contemplation with a large pinch of salt. But I couldn’t shake the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. So I spent the next year volunteering at the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center, which I loved, while I studied for the LSAT, took the LSAT, applied to law schools, got accepted to law schools, and decided where I wanted to go. And then I started law school.
Law school, if you don’t know this already, is literally the worst. I have never worked so hard and felt so stupid. I’ve heard this from a lot of friends in grad school for other fields, so it may not be exclusively a law school thing. It took me less than two weeks to start questioning all my life choices and berating myself for letting my crazy 2:30 AM ideas get me into this mess. But I stuck with it, because everyone said there was a steep learning curve, and I’d only been doing this for two weeks. This was nothing like what I’d been doing at the DRC, but of course I had no legal training when I was there. What if the lawyers were spending all their time doing what I was doing in law school now? Could I do this for the rest of my life? So at some point, I asked my resident advisor if this was what it was like to be a lawyer. He said no, not really. Being a real lawyer was more like what we were doing in my legal research and writing course—applying cases and statutes to new problems—than what we were doing in my black letter law classes—reading a lot and analyzing a zillion cases that all said a zillion different things. This advice helped a lot, because I was enjoying my legal research and writing class better than anything else so far.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing the right thing here. I just wasn’t totally happy with the idea of doing disability rights anymore. There were a lot of reasons for this.
First, I knew I didn’t want to litigate or work with individual clients. I was more interested in broader policy issues. I wanted to go into the federal government and make a bigger difference. But then the 2016 election happened. I don’t want to get political, but civil rights and the federal government became much less certain after that. Our teachers advised us not to give up on federal government work if that interested us, because the federal government was going to need good lawyers now more than ever. But the idea that, if you worked for the federal government, what you were defending or choosing not to defend, what policy you had to promote, could change so radically overnight, shook me. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t obvious to me until I saw it happen. And I didn’t know what to do with it. If I didn’t want to work defending individual clients, and if I didn’t want to litigate, and if I wasn’t sure about working at the federal government, where did that leave me?
I spent most of second semester feeling like I had no clue what I was doing. I toyed with the idea of going into literary law and being some kind of literary agent/lawyer thing. And while that seemed like it would nicely tie everything I’d done up to this point together, I just couldn’t get really excited about it. When I got my internship at the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights in Boston, I thought education law might be what I’m interested in. I was interested in education—why I’d decided to teach in Italy rather than research—and I’m passionate about all children getting an equal education. See any of my rants about Braille literacy and you’ll get the point. And the way the attorney who interviewed me described the Department of Ed, it seemed like a really good fit with my interests. But within the first few weeks at that internship, I knew that this, too wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure if education law was right for me or not—unfortunately I wasn’t doing much legal work because the office was so unclear about what it was supposed to be doing after the election—but I knew that in general this kind of federal enforcement office wasn’t for me. Basically, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Ed makes sure that any school receiving federal funds is following the federal antidiscrimination laws. So, if there’s alleged discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or disability, OCR does a review to make sure the school is complying with the federal laws. But, to give one example they used during orientation, if you have a really small rural school that’s receiving very little federal money, the school can just decide they don’t want the federal money and then they don’t have to comply with the federal laws. When I asked, “But where does that leave the student?” the attorney basically replied that, as sucky as it is, the Office for Civil Rights doesn’t have power to do anything about it if the school isn’t taking federal funds. And this really bothered me. I know I know, I’m a walking contradiction. I don’t want to litigate for individual clients, but when I’m working for the agency that’s making sure the law is upheld in a broader context, I’m upset by the idea that a hypothetical student could be discriminated against and there’s nothing we could do about it. And again, this left me… Where?
So that’s my first reason for being uncertain about doing disability rights. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I wasn’t sure I’d be happy doing it.
My second reason is tied pretty closely to my first reason, and that’s that it just seemed like it would be exhausting, particularly in today’s political climate. It felt like everywhere I turned, I was hearing about activist burnout. And let’s be honest, I face disability discrimination pretty often myself, almost on a daily basis, even here in America. If someone on the subway isn’t insisting he’ll pray for god to fix me, someone else is shouting “Oh my god, she’s blind!” If I’m not being stopped from entering a restaurant and asked to prove that Neutron is a service dog—illegal, by the way—then someone is seizing my arm and attempting to drag me and Neutron across a street when I didn’t want to go that way thanks very much. I’ve had cashiers in the law school cafeteria question whether Neutron is a service dog, for crying out loud. I’ve had people refuse to let me get on elevators with them because they’re afraid of my dog. And then there are all those pesky new airline policies about service dogs (there’s another post about emotional support dogs coming, let me tell you). And this might be a standard week for me. I try to be polite about it all, but I’m only human, and it’s frustrating. I swear the next time someone asks if Neutron is a guide dog is going to get the response, “Yes, I’m blind. I can take out my fake eye to prove it if you insist.” The idea of working forty hours a week on this sort of thing, and then having to live it myself is pretty unappealing. Reason number three really didn’t help with this either.
Reason number three is that from the moment I started law school, anyone who met me, whether at the law school or not, assumed I was going to do disability rights. Conversations invariably went like this: “Oh, you’re going to law school? And you’re blind? So you’re going to do disability rights, right?” And this drove me nuts. Just so you know, I absolutely hate it when people assume things about me just because I’m blind. For example, in sixth grade a friend told me I couldn’t learn to make those gimp lanyard things everyone was making because it was more of a “sighted person thing.” I would stop at nothing to learn how to do it. That’s the kind of person I am. When someone assumes I can’t do something or I will do something or anything like that, I immediately want to prove them wrong and I do the opposite. So yes, I went to law school wanting to do disability rights. But between discovering that I wasn’t really sure about that (reasons one and two), and the constant assumptions that I’m blind so of course that’s what I’m going to do, I was really unhappy with the idea of doing disability rights.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it myself for a while. I shouldn’t make decisions because of what some people say. I shouldn’t let people’s assumptions derail my career. But like I said, I had plenty of other reasons why I didn’t want to do it. Above all, I didn’t think I would be happy doing disability rights, which is ultimately what made my decision. Yes, part of the reason I wouldn’t be happy is that I couldn’t stand the way people were always trying to pigeonhole me into disability rights because I was blind. But the problem remains, I wouldn’t be happy.
If you’re still not convinced, let me relate some of the conversations I’ve had with family and friends. Some people try to comfort themselves and/or convince me to reconsider by asking what kind of pro bono work I can do for disability rights om the side. Some people insist I’m making the wrong decision, because I would be really good at disability rights, and when I try to explain to them that I’m not happy for all of the reasons I’ve just explained to you, they counter by saying they’re just looking out for what’s best for me. There are layers of problems with that statement that I’m not going to dissect for you. But I think the fact that I felt I had to write a whole blog post justifying my decision and that I’m really nervous about how people will take it says a lot.
Which brings me to the last reason I decided not to go into disability rights: I found something I really want to do. Not many people know this about me, but I am a huge astronomy nerd. Like huge. So when my property teacher mentioned space law, I started looking into it, and I was totally fascinated. I even applied for an internship at NASA for my first law school summer—I didn’t get it, but that didn’t dampen my interest in space law. So at the end of my summer internship with the Department of Ed, when other interns and I were sitting on the floor of the file room, talking about what we would do if we could do anything in the world, and I said “I would be a space lawyer and work at NASA,” and another intern said, “Jameyanne, you go to Harvard Law, if you want to do that, you can,” I realized she was right. It’s a really niche field, and I don’t have much of a science background, but I decided to go for it. And I have been a lot happier since. My parents have said that I just light up when I talk about space law in a way they haven’t seen in a while, and friends have told me it’s just great to see me make this decision and go for it. And fun fact, two days after I made this decision, I met my Neutron Star, which pretty much made it official.
This year, I’m splitting my summer and interning at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal government laboratory in Maryland, and Analytical Space, a private space company in Boston that’s building a network of satellites that use lasers to communicate. I’ve been at NIST for three weeks, and I’m having a blast. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go back to school and get that science degree I wish I had.
All this isn’t to say that disability rights aren’t important. It isn’t to say that I don’t care about them—of course I care about them—I need them. And it’s not to say that I won’t keep fighting for them in any way that I can. It just isn’t the right career for me.
The way I see it, there are two ways to fight for disability rights. One is to be a disability rights attorney. this is really important. We need good disability rights attorneys who care about the issues. But to me, disability rights means more than standing up in court to fight for someone’s right to read Braille, or use a service dog, or have financial independence or the right to vote or the right to not be abused and neglected. Disability rights means standing up and living the life I want to live, pursuing the career I want to pursue, regardless of my disability. It means showing people that I can do whatever I set my mind to, even if I’m blind. There is a lot of value in seeing someone with a disability doing something totally unrelated to their disability. And really, this is the point of disability rights: to let people do whatever they want to, with their disabilities, just like everybody else. As a disabilities rights lawyer, I felt like I would always be defined by my disability, and true or not, I don’t want that. As a space lawyer, well, not even the sky is the limit.
Hello friends. As it says in the title, my short story “The Year of Salted Skies” is going to be published in Andromeda Spaceways Issue #71. This story was the third runner-up in the 2014 Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, and I’m so excited it’s finally going to be published. Huge thanks to everyone who helped me edit this over the years, and stay tuned for a link when it comes out in early June.
Welcome to my reading roundup for April. I read nineteen books in April, which is a record for this year. I was so close to reading twenty, which I would have loved because it’s a nice round number, but finals got in the way. So nineteen it was. Four of those books were in Braille, and two of them were nonfiction books. I finished a few series I was reading, continued with others I’m in the middle of, started a couple new series, and of course read some stand-alone books.
Like my other reading roundup posts, I’m keeping these comments as spoiler-free as possible. Also, these books aren’t necessarily in the order I read them because I’m keeping books in the same series together.
Okay, let’s dive right in.
First, I continued the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. I read the next four books in the series this month: The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, and The Austere Academy. I decided to reread these because a friend recommended I look at The Reptile Room to see how Lemony Snicket keeps up the tension when the characters are happy, to help with a problem I was having with one of my own projects. I’m not sure it was all that helpful, because I don’t have a narrator pointing out that the kids’ happiness was going to be short lived because guess what, Count Olaf is back. But it was helpful that it got me started thinking about writing things more. So that was good. I also really liked The Reptile Room, because I really liked Uncle Monty as a character, and I liked how the kids were able to figure out how to stop Count Olaf. I enjoyed The Wide Window, but it felt very similar to The Reptile Room except the kids weren’t happy ever. The formula was the same. Also the completely useless adult thing was getting kind of old. But things picked up in The Miserable Mill and the Austere Academy because things were slightly different, even though in general they followed the same format. In The Miserable Mill, Count Olaf’s plan is really creepy and almost works, plus the kids have to use each other’s skills to solve the problem. And in The Austere Academy, the Baudelaires finally make some friends. On the whole, I enjoyed these four installments in the Baudelaires’ unfortunate adventures, and I’m looking forward to continuing the series in May.
Next, I finished my reread of The Hunger Games series with Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. My feelings on this book pretty much remain the same. Katniss has very little agency until the last third of the book. She spends most of her time in and out of the hospital, traumatized and depressed, and I mean it’s definitely understandable, but it’s not the Katniss we’ve come to know and love, and it makes for a slower book—and not in a good way. And as for certain character deaths and certain character behavior, let’s just say that the movie made it make more sense and did it well, but the book didn’t and argh!
Next, I read Smek for President by Adam Rex. This is the sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday, which I read in March. This book was really fun, and it worked well as a follow-up to the first book. It did a good job dealing with the consequences in the first book. Tip’s mom is trying to actually be a mom now, and Tip doesn’t want to take it, and J.Lo is having some problems with life on Earth. So Tip and J Lo head off to New Boovworld, the aliens’ new home on one of Saturn’s moons. Yes, Slushious the car is back, with some awesome improvements to make her spaceworthy. Once on New Boovworld, Tip and J.Lo become embroiled in a presidential election, which is a new thing for the aliens. Oh, and the current president, Smek, arrests J.Lo for his actions in the previous book, and that complicates things a bit. This book definitely wasn’t as good as the first book, but it was a pretty good sequel and I had a lot of fun reading it.
Next, I finished the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery with the final book, Rilla of Ingleside. After the last few books in this series, I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. This book focused mainly on Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla, as she takes care of a baby whose mother died and whose father is fighting in World War I. Rilla’s older brothers are also away during the war, and this book is a really interesting perspective on the home front during World War I. I really enjoyed it, and I was glad that this series had a good finale. Best thing, is you really didn’t have to read the preceding books to appreciate this book, so if you’re interested in this book but don’t want to slog through Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, and Rainbow Valley, you can definitely skip them and still read this book.
Next, I read The Counsel of Mirrors by Michael Buckley, the grand finale to the Sisters Grimm series. This was a solid final book, but I have to say something wasn’t quite right about the ending. It left me feeling a bit let down, like after eight books I expected something more, but I still really liked it. This was a great, fun series, and if you like whacky twists on fairy tales, I definitely recommend the whole series.
Next, I started The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. I read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone. This was a really great read. The three Drew children are on holiday in Cornwall with their family, and when they find an ancient map in the attic, they’re drawn into a search for the holy Grail. This book has some awesome bad guys, some great chase scenes, some actually helpful adults who still let the kids do stuff, and a healthy dose of Arthurian legend. It sort of reminded me of the Chronicles of Narnia in its tone and the premise of kids on vacation in the country in England and fantasy adventures ensue, but the similarities stop there as far as I can tell (it’s been a while since I read the Narnia books so I might be wrong). This book was fast-paced and a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed the siblings’ interactions, which definitely felt real to me, and it’s not often that you get to see kids just naturally playing together in fiction. I really liked this book and I can’t wait to get the sequel from the library (whoever has it now, please hurry up).
After that, I read Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver, which was fabulous and beautiful. It was written like a fairy tale, and I guess there are some pretty great illustrations, but I can’t talk about those. I got the audiobook, which is narrated by Jim Dale, who narrated the Harry Potter books. Liesl & Po is about a girl, Liesl, who escapes from the attic where her evil stepmother has locked her up and journeys across the country with a ghost named Po to lay her father’s ashes to rest at her childhood home, where her mother is buried. Along the way, she meets up with Will, a former alchemist’s apprentice who ran away because he mixed up some boxes and lost the most powerful magic in the world. The story is set in a sort of victorian setting, but the sun has gone out and everyone is starving and it’s pretty dystopian. There’s also a really great cast of characters. This book is definitely aimed at children, but it’s beautiful and sweet and also gripping from start to finish. I really enjoyed it and definitely recommend checking it out.
Our April book club book was Slauterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (full title: Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death). I read this once before for my Theory of Comedy class, when I was a sophomore in college. Not only was that about seven years ago—*shudders*—but I also read the whole book in a day because class. Still, I really enjoyed it then, and this time, with the luxury of reading it in a week instead of a day, I enjoyed it even more. It’s hard to describe Slaughterhouse Five. It’s really the life story of this guy Billy Pilgrim, but Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time” and so the book isn’t told in chronological order. It sounds confusing, but it works, trust me. The focus of the book is on Billy’s experiences in World War II, particularly his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden and the allied firebombing of Dresden, but there’s so much more to the book than that. I really enjoyed the simple, straightforward writing-style, and the characters were really interesting. I also enjoyed the science fiction elements of the book and how you could read them either as straight-up sci fi or as Billy’s PTSD or, how I prefer to read it, as sci fi that represents PTSD. Genre and symbolism aside, this was a great book.
I was getting into finals time, so to justify my crazy reading habits when I should have been studying, I read To End a War by Richard Holbrooke. We read half of this book in my negotiation and diplomacy class, so I decided to read the rest of it so that I had the best understanding of the crisis in Bosnia in the 1990s and the Dayton Accords that I could. It served me well on my final, too. To End a War is Richard Holbrooke’s account as the lead U.S. negotiator to bring peace in Bosnia. The book was really interesting, but it was also a bit long and pretty dense at some points.
Next, I read Gregor the Overlander, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles series. Gregor and his little sister Boots fall through a grate in their apartment building’s laundry room and wind up in an underground world populated by giant cockroaches, rats, and bats, and people who believe Gregor is the chosen one mentioned in an old prophecy. Gregor is pretty sure the prophecy is ludicrous and there’s no way he’s chosen for anything, but these people know where his missing father is and being the chosen one might just help Gregor find and save him. And so Gregor and Boots set out with a band of underland humans, cockroaches, spiders, bats, and one traitor rat to rescue Gregor’s father and save the humans from the evil rats. If this sounds crazy and gross, it kind of is, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s actually a really fun, fast book. I became seriously attached to the cockroaches. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.
Next, I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. It felt like it was trying to tackle all the major teen issues you can possibly think of, and so it didn’t handle any of them particularly well. And the ending was kind of a train wreck.
After that, I finished the Wrinkle in Time series with An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I really liked this book, but I felt like I was missing half the story, and it turns out I was. Even though this book is included in the Wrinkle in Time books, it really is also the conclusion to another series about Meg’s children, which I haven’t read. So I’m going to go read those books and get back to you on how I feel about this book after that.
Because finals time is never ending, this month I also read 3D Negotiations: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals by David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius. I really liked the structure of this book, that it went through each of the three dimensions of deal design and then went through them in more detail with lots of great examples. We read the initial chapters, which were more of an overview, for my negotiation and diplomacy class this semester, so I read the rest of it while studying for my final. I’m glad I did, because the examples really helped me understand the concepts better. It was pretty long—or at least it felt that way because ugh finals. But it definitely went more in depth than Getting to Yes, and if you’re interested in negotiations and want that depth in your understanding, this is a great book.
Then I read the next Maximum Ride book, Fang, by James Patterson. Honestly, this book was pretty much a complete mess. Like everybody was a jerk to everybody else and it made no sense and what was that ending!? I don’t know why I’m still reading these books, but I want to find out what’s going on with Angel, so I will probably push on. But they have gone seriously down the tubes.
My brother gave me the fourth book in the Giver series, Son, by Lois Lowry for my birthday, and so I read that next. I was a bit disappointed in this book, unfortunately. The first third was absolutely great. It was about Claire, a girl in the same community where Jonas lived in the Giver. She is the biological mother of the baby in The Giver, and she figures out who her son is and she’s sneaking around trying to spend time with him and planning how she can get him away from the nurturing center and escape with him. But then the second third of the book hits, and Claire gets bonked on the head in a storm and gets amnesia, and we have to watch her slowly remember what happened to her, and it really slowed down the book. The last third of the book suffered from the fact that it was trying to tie all four books in the series together, and so we almost completely lost the thread of Claire’s story, and the main focus of the plot became her son Gabriel. The ending was satisfying, and I think it was a good conclusion to the whole series. But it wasn’t very strong as its own book, and I have to admit I was really hoping to see what happened to the community after Jonas left it. Just saying, it would have been cool.
Finally, I rounded off April with the next book in the Inkworld series, Inkspell by Cornelia Funke. This was a good book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Inkheart. Instead of characters coming out of the book, the characters went into the book, which felt more familiar to me. Also it was just too long and slow, considering what was happening, and no spoilers, but I’m just going to throw it out there that necromancy is generally a bad idea. Can we all get behind this please and stop trying it?
And that’s it for April. Now that I’m done with finals and started the first of my summer internships, I’m planning to read more, write more ( I hope), and of course post more, so stay tuned.
I know, I know, it’s not March anymore. I was all over posting this last week, but my computer seriously died, and that slowed me down a bit. But I’m back now with my March reads.
I didn’t read as much last month as I did in January and February. This is partly because I realized I was listening to audiobooks at almost double speed in January and February, and in March I decided to turn that back to normal speed. I also spent a week at home and my family and college friends who visited didn’t let me live constantly in my cave of books.
Still, I read fifteen books in March. Four of them were Braille books; the rest were audiobooks. One of them was nonfiction. I continued the series I’ve been reading and started a few new series. I also read a few stand-alone books. I’m now more than halfway to my goal of reading a hundred books this year.
Like my previous reading roundup posts, I’m grouping these books by series, for sake of clarity, and I’m trying to keep these thoughts as spoiler-free as possible.
First, I continued James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series with the fifth book, Max. At this point, I’ve lost a lot of enthusiasm for the books. We seem to have lost a lot of character development and plot in favor of political messages about global warming. I understand that authors can and do send political messages in their books, but you can’t do it at the expense of, well, basically all the reasons I want to read a book in the first place. I feel like James Patterson tried to get things back on track with this book and fix some of the problems with the last book, because Max’s mom is kidnapped and the kids go off on a submarine to rescue her. But it didn’t work for me. So much of it just strained my willing suspension of disbelief—like the giant sea monsters and the characters gaining crazy new skills whenever it’s convenient for the plot—and it just made the book less fun to read. I’m a completionist, so I’ll keep going, but after book three this series has gone way downhill.
Next I read Inkheart, the first book in Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld trilogy. I read this book a long, long time ago, like middle school long ago, but all I remember is that I really liked it. I still really liked it now. It’s kind of a bookworm’s paradise. Meggie’s father can read characters out of books—and people into books. Ten years ago he read the villains out of the book Inkheart and read Meggie’s mother into the book—all accidentally of course. Now the villains are back, and they want Meggie’s father and the book that could be the only way to get her mother back. Reading the book now, I will say that I really wished that Meggie had more agency, because for a lot of it she’s just sort of along for the ride, but I still really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.
Next, I read The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. This was a fabulously fun book. It’s the book that the movie Home is based on, but I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t compare them. I will say that I had so much fun reading the book. Gratuity—tip—has to write about what the alien invasion meant to her for school, and she has quite a story to tell. When the aliens invaded Earth, they abducted Tip’s mother and sent all the humans in North America to Florida. Tip decides to drive herself and her cat rather than taking the alien transportation. Along the way, she meets an alien who has gotten himself into trouble with his own people, and thus begins a great cross-country road trip in a flying car. This book was just a blast. The plot was strong. The characters were strong. The world-building was strong. The only thing that isn’t my favorite is the framing device of the school essay contest, but the rest of this book was so great that I don’t really care.
After that, I read the next towo books in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters. Honestly I didn’t like Swiftly Tilting Planet too much, because it really just felt like watching a series of events throughout history, all with characters named the same thing, and our protagonists weren’t obviously doing anything to save the world and yet somehow the world was saved. I liked Many Waters better, partly because it’s one of the more coherent stories in the series and partly because it’s about the twins, who have so far been the normal side characters of the series. Yes, the religious aspect of the book is a little over-the-top for my tastes, but the twins take the time to learn the rules of the world where they have found themselves, and they use the rules to come up with a way to get home. Definitely an enjoyable installment in the series. And I’m looking forward to picking up the final book in the series.
Next, I continued the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley. This month, I read books seven and eight in the series, The Everaf War and The Inside Story. These books were so intense, but they still maintained the fun adventure tone of the previous books in the series. Still, I was devistated by the big reveal in The Everaf War and the characters’ decisions in The Inside Story. I just got the final book in the series from the library, and I am so excited to read it, but also sad that this series is coming to an end because I have enjoyed it so much.
This month’s book club book was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I listened to the audiobook, and I regret it, because the audiobook was really, really confusing, and based on what I gathered from the book club discussion, I may have actually enjoyed the book if I read it in Braille. It’s written like a play, sort of. It’s complicated. The audiobook had about a hundred and fifty narrators, and it only said the names of who was speaking the first time. The premise is that a bunch of ghosts, for lack of a better word, are trapped in the graveyard where they were buried, like a kind of purgatory. Then Willy Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, comes along—because he dies. Children can’t stay in the graveyard, and if they do, terrible things happen to them, but Abraham Lincoln comes to the crypt and spends the night holding his son’s body, and Willy Lincoln hangs around, and the other ghosts have to try to get him to move on. Because I was so confused, I really didn’t like the book, but I could recognize how you might like it, if you read it instead of listening to the audiobook.
Next, I read War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars by Richard N. Haass. This was another book for my Negotiation and Diplomacy class. I was only assigned half of it, but I read the rest because it was so interesting. Richard Haass worked at the State Department during both Iraq wars. This isn’t a political book, but a comparison of the behind-the-scenes decisions in both wars. My AP American history class—the last history class I took—ended before the first Iraq war, so I admit that I didn’t know much about it. And even though I lived through the start of the second Iraq war, I didn’t really understand what was going on because I was eleven, and everything I did hear was filtered through people who disagreed with the war, so it was interesting to read about both wars and both presidential administrations. If you’re interested in the diplomacy—or lack thereof—during these times, this was an interesting read.
Next, I read Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce. This is the first book in Tamora Pierce’s new series, the Numair Chronicles, about the childhood of one of the main characters in her Immortals series. I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a long time, and I was not disappointed. It was really interesting to read about Numair’s early years, before he was even called Numair. I never thought I would like Ozorne, who we know will grow to be the evil emperror in the Immortals books. But I did like him in this book, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens to make him change so much. I do wish this book had a bit more of its own plot. As it is, it’s a bit meandering and feels like a lot of setup for what’s to come. But it’s definitely a promising start to a series, and I’m looking forward to the next book.
After Tempests and Slaughter, I got back to the Divergent series and reread Allegiant by Veronica Roth. This is every bit as much of a mess as I remember it being. Actually, this time through, it seemed like even more of a mess. The world-building, the plot, the characters, the ending, everything fell flat for me. I could rant on and on and on about this, but I’ll spare you. I will say that I appreciate what Veronica Roth is trying to do with this series—or at least what I think she was trying to do. It’s a really cool idea that with each book, we learn more and more about the world, like piecing a puzzle together. Unfortunately, I don’t think it worked as well as it could have. But I still really like the first and second books in this series, and Allegiant is just going to be one of those things—like the ending of How I Met Your Mother or all of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—that I’ll just pretend never happened.
Next, I read the third book in the Giver series, Messenger by Lois Lowry. I really liked Messenger. It pulled everything together from the first two books—The Giver and Gathering Blue. I liked the mystery and the build-up of suspense, and that ending was just heartbreaking and perfect. (Note that I do think it is possible to pull off this kind of ending and still have the book be meaningful, because Lois Lowry did it here, unlike another book I read this month, which I won’t name because of spoilers. If you’ve read both you’ll know what I’m talking about.)
Next, I reread The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Susanne Collins. I picked these up again because I was looking for something that had inspired me to write in the past, and rereading these books did in fact give me a little spark of inspiration, so at least I’m thinking about writing again. Now I have to actually write. But rereading these books was a lot of fun because I was able to remind myself just how much I love the first book in the series. The world is rich, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is fast and gut-punchy. And I just adore the ending of the first book—it lands so well. Catching Fire is pretty good too. It definitely has some pacing issues, but I think it deals well with Katniss’s actions at the end of The Hunger Games and also is does a great job creating a plot that is both similar and different from the first book.
Finally, I started rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I finished The Bad Beginning at 11:45 PM on March 31, just to give you a sense of how down-to-wire I was getting. I started rereading this series because a friend recommended that the second book might give me some ideas on ways to edit a chapter I seem to always be stuck on. Basically, in this chapter, the main character, who is an orphan and who has been passed from one abusive foster family to the other, is finally in a place where she thinks she might be able to be happy. The problem is, going from running for her life to sudden happiness is a huge drop in tension. So this friend recommended I reread The Reptile Room—book 2 of the series—because it might give me ideas on how to keep up tension while important happiness is taking place. And of course, because I’m me, I said well okay I’ll just reread the whole series. The new season is coming out on Netflix too so this seems like a great idea. I really enjoyed my reread of The Bad Beginning. It does a good job establishing all the characters and their talents. The tension ramps up appropriately. And it was fun. Looking forward to continuing with this series in April.
And that’s it for March. Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?
Last week, I got involved in a conversation on Twitter about the challenges of writing while attending school. It was past midnight, so I let out a lot of feelings I normally try to keep tucked away. Now, in the light of day, I’m trying to crystalize what we were talking about into something coherent and at least a little bit constructive on the challenges of writing while you’re a student and, because this is how those challenges have manifested for me, overcoming cosmic writer’s block.
To be completely honest, all through college and the few years after college before I started law school, my friends considered me something of a writing wonder. I write a lot, and I write fast. And in college, I always found time to write. But at the same time, I was steeped in creativity. My friends were the same people in my writing group. We would set aside hours for quiet writing time. We were so involved with each other’s stories that we talked about them all the time, formulating theories, helping each other work out plot holes, and so on. And when we weren’t writing or talking about our projects, we were disecting books we were reading and shows and movies we were watching. It was a really great experience, and if you have a group like that in college, then I totally agree with anyone who says that college is the best time to get writing done. But I’ve also heard a lot of college students say that it’s hard to get writing done in college because of all the other things you have to balance, and while I didn’t really get it as an undergraduate, I’m definitely getting it now.
Since I left college and I’ve lost that constant, in-person writing support group, writing has become a struggle for me. I kept going through my first year of law school, partly because it was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it wasn’t easy the way writing used to be easy. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post from last year where I was saying that I was going to do Camp NaNoWriMo in April because I was tired of a paragraph feeling like a victory. And in my second year of law school, it’s only gotten worse. I was told my second year of law school would be easier than the first, but this has turned out to be a big fat lie, at least for me. The only real difference is that I chose all the things that are making me busy. Still, I managed to get some short stories written in the fall, and even about a third of a new novel during NaNoWriMo in November, at least before the work really hit, and I had to write a two hundred page paper and edit it four times with a partner in a month, and I stopped writing. And anything I’ve written since has been like pulling teeth and doesn’t even feel like a victory when it’s on the page.
I’m calling this cosmic writer’s block. It’s not like writer’s block as you would traditionally think of it. I’m not stuck on a specific story or a specific scene. I’ve tried switching projects, and now I just have about fifteen unfinished projects floating around, which of course just makes me feel worse about the whole thing. I’ve tried all the things the internet recommends for combatting writer’s block—taking walks, taking showers, just powering through because writer’s block isn’t real, and—but nothing helped. I remembered the distinction Anne Lamott drew in her book Bird by Bird, the distinction between blocked and empty. But even her suggestion to do things that normally inspire you, like reading books or watching movies or TV shows that inspire you to write really hasn’t made much of a dent. I’m just exhausted, and the idea of writing right now feels more exhausting, and when I can’t write, I’m even more discouraged and exhausted. So even though I’m fully aware that I’m spiraling, I can’t stop it. I just have no desire to write, and since for so long writing has been the only thing I really want to do, this is really scary to me.
I don’t have any answers to this, except that maybe I just need a week-long nap. But that’s part of the point of this post. I’m not here to tell some story about how perseverance makes everything okay, because I can’t say that right now, and if you’re feeling anything like me, you don’t want to hear that. I’m talking about writing, but I could be talking about any number of things in my life in the past few months, and any time I try to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, they come up with some baloney about how your twenties suck and “this too shall pass.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those words in the past few months, I could probably pay back a big chunk of my student loans, which would be a lot more useful than that advice. Maybe it will pass. I really hope it does pass. But right now I’m in the middle of it, and it feels like it won’t ever get better, and just saying “this too shall pass” is the least helpful thing anyone can say.
So I don’t want to hear that this will get better. I don’t want you to present me with all the examples of other writers who have overcome this kind of block or received hundreds of rejections or who have struggled with writing as a student. What I want is to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. What I want is to have a productive conversation about these feelings and how we, the young writers and students, can deal with them. Because as far as I can tell, these conversations aren’t happening. To write about rejection and confidence issues and writer’s block and the unique challenges faced by writers who are also students, to some extent we need to talk about failure. Nobody wants to talk about their own failures. And nobody wants to come across as whiny or bitter or incapable. If you’re trying to be a professional writer, it’s not the image you want to present to the interwebs. Even I struggled with whether I wanted to write this post, but I can’t be the only one struggling with this. And if I’m not alone, then maybe writing a post about these challenges will help someone else, even if it just lets them know that others are out there dealing with the same things.
So here I am. I am trying to write while attending law school. At this moment, I am struggling with writer’s block on a level i have never experienced before. I’ve published a few short stories, yes, but I’ve received way more rejections, and right now my predominant feeling is that I am somehow a failure and I will never be a successful writer.
I hope that someday soon I will be able to write a blog post about how I’ve gotten past all this. But right now, I’m in the middle of it, and sometimes I feel like I’m not going to get past it. If there’s a magic bullet to kickstart my creative brain, I’d love to hear about it. But while I don’t have a magic bullet of my own, I do have some inkling of the roots of the problem.
First, I need to work on setting reasonable goals for myself. I had this crazy idea that I would write an entire novel during NaNoWriMo last November and then spend the rest of the school year editing it to perfection, all while keeping up with all my classes and clinics. This was a ridiculous goal, but it was still what I wanted to accomplish this year. And when I failed, I couldn’t pick myself up and press on.
As a student, you’re juggling a lot of things: classes, including homework, projects, and exams; extracurricular activities; summer internship and post-graduation job searches; having a social life; and any hobbies you want to keep up. You also have to eat and sleep. Throw consistently writing into that mix, and it’s a little mind-boggling that one person can handle so much. If goals and deadlines motivate you to accomplish things, that’s great. Set goals. But don’t set crazy goals. And when things get out of hand and you don’t accomplish your goals, you can’t beat yourself up over it.
Obviously, I really need to work on this. It usually works for me to set goals for myself, but when I fail to accomplish them, I beat myself up and just make the situation worse. I have realized this is a problem, and I’m working on solving it. I considered doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this month and setting a small goal for myself that I felt would be a challenge but would still be something I could accomplish. But I also recognized that I have two fifteen-page papers due this month, as well as a final play to write and perform for my french class and a final exam. I also need to get everything in order for my summer internships. And in the place where I am now, even setting myself a small writing goal would be setting myself up for failure, which wouldn’t help the situation at all.
This goes for goals for publication too. The publication market is so subjective, and so much of it is outside your control, that beating yourself up over success or lack-there-of is just counterproductive. The most you can do to pursue a goal of getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting. Yes, rejections suck, but remember why you are writing. For me, I’m writing for myself, because I have a story inside me that needs to be told. Beyond that, I have a close group of friends who want to know what happens next. I hope that someone, at some time, thinks that others need to read my stories too, but if an editor thinks that’s not the case, I’m not going to let that stop me from writing, because first and foremost I’m writing for me. I’m writing because it makes me happy.
Finding what inspires you also helps. Generally reading inspires me to write, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading a lot in the past few months. But this year I’ve been reading books that I haven’t read before. A couple weeks ago, I picked up The Hunger Games books and started rereading them. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I might want to sit down and write. I first read The Hunger Games back in college, and it was a big inspiration for my memory-wiping academy novel, which I’m now editing and expanding into a series. So maybe, if you’re stuck, don’t just do things that typically inspire you. If you can pinpoint it, specifically target what drove you to write this story in the first place and revisit it. It might also help to reread what you’ve written so far and remind yourself that it isn’t complete garbage and there’s a reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Basically, find what will inspire you now, which may not be what usually inspires you, and tap into it.
Remember that there’s time. Along with setting reasonable goals for yourself and not beating yourself up if you have to change those goals, remember that there’s time. Yes, it would be fantastic to write, edit, and publish a novel before you’re twenty, or twenty-five, or whatever age you pick. But you’re in school for a reason, and even if you’re studying creative writing, that reason is to learn, not to write the next Harry Potter. Also, all your experiences in school and beyond school will inspire your writing and contribute to the stories you tell. I really, really wanted to get my novel published before I graduated college, but now I’m glad I didn’t, because my experiences being on my own, separated from my family and friends, and adulting for the first time in Italy right after college really informed my characters’ struggles and decisions, and ultimately made that story stronger. So don’t freak out. There’s time.
And because there’s time, it’s okay to take a break to recharge. School is exhausting, and it is also constant. You are surrounded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with school. In a lot of ways, I feel like law school has taken away everything I love to do, one by one: reading books in Braille, playing the clarinet, drawing, and now writing, mostly because I’m just too busy and too exhausted to keep it up. I’ve clung to writing, saying oan more than one occasion that it’s the only thing keeping me sane. But now I can’t even muster that up. So if you’re just burnt out, which I’m feeling like is a large part of my writer’s block right now, it’s okay to take a break, let the creative part of your brain reboot, and get back to it when you feel ready.
I’m only just starting to feel the itch in my subconscious calling me back to my writing projects. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my stories more than I have in a while. I haven’t really gotten to the actual writing part. So I could be completely wrong about these strategies for how to write while being a student or how to overcome writer’s block. I’m still in the middle of all of this, and I’m hoping that it will get better and I can tell you for sure that these things worked for me. I hope that these strategies work for you, too, if you’re having a hard time, and I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in your feelings. And I would love to hear others’ opinions on how to overcome this cosmic writing block and how to successfully manage being a student and writing.
If you thought it was crazy that I read eighteen books in January—and I certainly thought so—then get this. I read another eighteen books in February. And February is a short month. Okay so law school is hard, and right now writing is hard, and I tend to stress read. But still. By this time last year, I think I may have read, like, twelve books. Maybe? I am well on my way to trouncing my goal of reading a hundred books this year. And I am seriously freaking myself out. I’m measuring time in the number of books I’ve read.
This month, I continued on with the series I’m in the middle of, started a couple new series, read some cool stand-alone novels, and read three more nonfiction books. In the past two months, I think I’ve surpassed my record for the number of nonfiction books I’ve voluntarily read in a year by about a factor of three. I’m also continuing with my goal of reading more books in Braille this year instead of just all audiobooks all the time, and this month I read seven books in Braille. Not too shabby.
As with my January reading roundup, I’m doing my best to keep my thoughts on these books spoiler-free. Also, these books aren’t listed in precisely the order I read them in, because I wanted to keep books in a series together. So without further ado, here are the eighteen books I read in February 2018.
First, I finally got back to James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. I read books 2 through 4 this month: School’s Out Forever, Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports, and The Final Warning. School’s Out Forever and Saving the World etc. did a really good job of continuing what the first book started—the flock’s search for the truth and Max’s mission to save the world. There was some really great character development too. I have to say the explanation of what had really been going on in the end of Saving the World etc. left a lot to be desired, so I kept reading, hoping for more on that. The Final Warning was a major disappointment. The books went all political at the expense of pretty important things like plot and character. I’m pressing on because I’m a completionist that way and I’m hoping they’ll pick up, but it was a serious drop in quality after the third book, and I’m pretty sure at this point it would have been better to stop after book 3. But we’ll see.
Next, I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This was a really interesting book, all about behavioral psychology and how our brains work, but while I found it interesting, I also found it really boring. It was too long, and most of the examples were visual, which I found very frustrating. But if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, this was definitely a very readable book.
After that, I read Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody, which I talk about a bit in this post. I really really liked this book. Sorina is an illusionist in a traveling carnival, but someone is killing her illusions. There’s a healthy dash of political intrigue, really interesting magic, and romance. It was fast-paced and full of feelings and really well-done. My one problem, and it’s a big one for me, is that Sorina has no eyes, but this doesn’t affect her because of her magic. For a while it seemed like Foody was going to do something really cool with this, but she didn’t. And as I’ve discussed multiple times the disabled-but-not-because-magic thing really bothers me, because it’s an attempt to represent disability without capturing any of the real struggles that someone with a disability faces. It’s true that Sorina is treated differently because she’s visibly deformed—she’s even called a freak—but there’s so much more that people with disabilities have to face that it felt feeble. So as much as I liked this book, it ultimately didn’t stand up for me.
I also read Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This was a middle grade book about a girl learning about what happened on September 11, fifteen years after the attacks. But the book tackles other huge issues, like homelessness and race and trauma. This was a really great book, and it reminds me of a Madeleine L’Engle quote which I fundamentally believe in: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Next was A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb. This book is about two ghosts who find each other after decades of floating around haunting places and people. They take over the bodies of high school students which don’t have spirits and fall in love and deal with their hosts’ seriously disfunctional families. This was a really interesting premise and on the whole well-executed, but I could never really figure out how someone could be a totally functional human being without a spirit inside, and that kept throwing me out of the story. I also found it to be a little too sentimental, especially in the end. So not one of my favorites, but a decent book.
Now, with twenty-four books under my belt for the year I decided it was time for a reread. So I picked up Divergent, and then Insurgent, by Veronica Roth. I realize that these books are far from perfect, but I still really like them, particularly Insurgent, which I feel handles the fallout from Divergent very well and is on the whole pretty nuanced.
I also continued with Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series. This month, I read books 5 and 6: Magic and Other Misdemeanors and Tales from the Hood. I’m still really enjoying these books. They’re so much fun, and with each book we’re putting one more piece in the puzzle. I have the next one from the library now and I can’t wait to get started on it.
Next, I read City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this. It’s a stand-alone young adult book set in contemporary Kenya. It’s half mystery, half thriller, half revenge quest (and yes I know that’s three halves). Tina is trying to get revenge for her mother’s murder, but she discovers there’s more to it than she thinks, and she sets out on a journey to figure it all out and discover the truth. This was a really fast, exciting, excellent book.
I went home for the long weekend for President’s Day, and since I’d started myself on a dystopian kick with Divergent, I picked up my Braille copy of The Giver, and then its sequel, Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry. This was kind of a freaky experience for me. I can’t believe that I read The Giver when I was ten. Granted, I think most of the horror went right over my head then, but still, yikes! For me, this was another book that was seminal in my understanding of dystopian worlds, and it was only when I reread it now that I realized how much it ‘has influenced some of my writing, which is a weird feeling too, let me tell you. Anyway, if you don’t know, The Giver takes place in a futuristic, dystopian society where to prevent conflict everything about the characters’ lives is micromanaged, including their feelings. When Jonas turns twelve, he becomes the Receiver of Memory, entrusted with all the memories of the time before Sameness. The GIVER passes on the memories, and Jonas learns about color, and pain, and war, and love. And of course he learns a terrible truth about his community and decides to right it. I absolutely love this book, creepiness and all. We’re fully inside Jonas’s head, so that the highly regulated community where he lives feels natural, even as we the reader can see what is creepy about it. I found Gathering Blue, which is more of a companion novel than a sequel, to be a lot less intriguing. It’s set in another village in this futuristic world, but this village is very primitive. For example, anyone born with a disability or injured beyond a certain point is killed. The main character, Kira, has a twisted leg, but her mother protected her and refused to let them kill her. But when her mother dies, Kira is in danger again. Except she has some kind of magical power with thread that the town leaders want, and so her life is spared. Over the course of the book, Kira learns how to refine her craft with her threads, and also uncovers another terrible secret about the town. The problem that I had with this book was that Kira had very little agency. It’s a lot of stuff happening to Kira, rather than Kira making things happen herself. This feels particularly problematic when compared with the message that Kira’s mother tried so hard to send to her daughter and to the other villagers, that people with disabilities can do things of value. Also, in general I found the world in Gathering Blue less intriguing than I did in The Giver. I think I enjoyed Gathering Blue more the first time I read it because I accidentally read Messenger—the third book in the series before I read Gathering Blue, and since Gathering Blue and Messenger are more tightly connected it worked better for me. I’m looking forward to rereading Messenger and seeing how it works coming after The Giver and Gathering Blue, and I just found out that there’s a fourth book I never knew about, so it will be interesting to see if it can all be tied together.
I finally got back to the Anne of Green Gables books by L. M. Montgomery. I read the first six books last year, and in February, I read the seventh book in the series, Rainbow Valley. The books aren’t about Anne anymore, which is a huge disappointment. This book wasn’t even about Anne’s kids. It was about the new minister’s kids and their crazy stunts that they didn’t realize were horrible things to be doing. I enjoyed the kids’ shenanigans, but after a while they became kind of dull because it always wound up that someone was scandalized and the kids hadn’t meant to scandalize anyone so they hadn’t really done anything wrong. Basically, this was a book about a bunch of perfect kids making mistakes that I didn’t really care about. The only reason I pressed through it is because I’m excited about the next book in the series, which according to the plot summary is about Anne’s youngest daughter adopting an orphan during World War I. Should be interesting.
Next, I read Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. This was another book where I read the first chapter for a class and then picked up the whole thing because it was interesting. It was a fascinating read. First, it gives a simple, comprehensible explanation of how machine learning works (which I found very helpful for my Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence course). Then it gives several examples of how biased data algorithms are causing problems in everything from recidivism models, teacher performance evaluations, credit scores, college loans, work schedules, and more that I can’t think of off the top of my head. This was a fast, easy read, and it greatly impacted how I think about our society right now. Bonus, Cathy O’Neill actually came to talk to our class, and it was really great. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in social justice and artificial intelligence.
After that, I read Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel. I really enjoyed this book, but fair warning, it isn’t really about Galileo’s daughter. It’s about Galileo. It tells his life story, particularly through his interactions with his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun. I learned so much about Galileo that I didn’t know before, and if you’re interested in history of science, this is definitely a good book to pick up.
Finally, I rounded off February with Jack Cheng’s delightful and heartbreaking middle grade novel, See You in the Cosmos. Last year, when I read Every Soul A Star and Counting by 7s, I discovered a genre of contemporary middle grade books about kids obsessed with science, and I fell in love. See You In the Cosmos is one of those books, and it’s just great. It’s written as a series of recordings that eleven-year-old Alex is making on his golden iPod, which he hopes to launch into space aboard his rocket Voyager 3—he figures aliens won’t be able to listen to the golden record sent up with the earlier Voyager spaceships. So he sets out to go to a rocket festival to launch Voyager 3 into space, and he ends up taking a road trip of his life with a bunch of fun quirky characters, and learning about a whole lot more than space. It was a bit episodic at times, but on the whole, this book was such fun, and so sweet, and so beautiful. Also, if you like audiobooks, this was a great book to listen too. Definitely going to be one of my favorites for the year.
And that’s it. As much as I’m enjoying this mega reading spree, I’m hoping I won’t read as much in March, because I’m hoping to break out of this writer’s block I’m kind of stuck in. more on that later. Probably. In the meattime, have you read any of the books I read last month? What did you think of them?
I realize it’s actually March now, but bear with me. I’ve decided to try something new here. I thought, since I’ve already read so many books this year, that I would briefly go through all the books I read each month, my favorites and not so favorites, in a blog post. I’m keeping these thoughts spoiler-free, so if you haven’t read any of these books, you can read on without fear. So here we go.
My 2018 reading challenge on Goodreads is to read one hundred books, and I hit the ground running, reading eighteen books in January. These weren’t all four hundred page epics, certainly, and most of them were audiobooks, so I was reading while doing other things like cooking and laundry. I did read four books in Braille, and three of the books I read this month were nonfiction, which may be a record for me. Whatever kind of books I read, this many books is pretty much unheard of for me, and it’s kind of freaking me out.
Note that in the interest of clarity and also not writing a novel of my own here, I’ve put books that are all part of the same series together in this list, even though I generally read them with at least one book in between them.
First, I finished The Children of the Red King series by Jenny Nimmo. I read the first five books in this series last December, so I started out this year with books 6, 7, and 8: Charlie Bone and the Beast, Charlie Bone and the Shadow, and Charlie Bone and the Red Knight. I enjoyed these books, but I certainly didn’t enjoy them as much as the first five books in the series. Honestly, the series could have ended after Book 5, because the main mysteries had been solved and the bad guys had been defeated. These books introduced new characters—good and bad guys—and a new set of mysteries and challenges for our scrappy band of magical children. Charlie’s parents have gone off on a second honeymoon, but the Bloors know that Charlie’s father has hidden a will that may say their fortune actually belongs to Billy, so they bring in a guy who can control the oceans all over the world to drown Charlie’s parents while they’re whale watching. Meanwhile Charlie has to contend with the ocean-moving guy’s creepy son at school, the evil sorcerer from the earlier books has captured Billy, and the kids’ enemies among the other Endowed are trying to close down the Pets’ Café–a terrible fate to be sure. So lots of great stuff going on. I’d say that the writing was stronger, the characters were more nuanced, and the main mystery was more central to the plot of these three books. This whole series was definitely really fun.
Next, I read The Angel Experiment by James Patterson, the first book in the Maximum Ride series. I reae this book way back when I was in middle school, but I just discovered that the audiobook that I had was abridged. Blegh. So I found the udabridged book in Braille and read it, and let me tell you, it makes way more sense when you have the whole book. Max and her five “siblings” are 98% human, b% bird. They have wings and can fly, and they’ve escaped from the super scary science lab where they were created. They’ve been on the run and on their own for two years when the bad guys show up again and kidnap Angel, the youngest member of the flock. Rescue and adventures and a quest for the truth ensues. This was an fast-paced, action-packed, fun book. Max has a great voice, and it’s obvious that so much is going on that we don’t know about yet. Because of this, it sometimes didn’t make a lot of sense what the bad guys’ motives were, but since this is the first in a series, I forgave that. On the whole a pretty good read.
Next was The Power by Naomi Alderman. This was the first book of the year for my book club. Basically the premise is that women develop the ability to electrocute people with their fingers, and they quickly rise to become the dominant gender. The book follows four main characters, three women and one man, through the early years of this new world order. The book spans about ten years, I think, and the whole world, and it’s a really interesting exploration of gender politics. There was a little too much graphic sex and violence (including rape) for my taste, but I also appreciate that a large part of the book was to make the reader uncomfortable. The writing was also very good, and I sped through this book. Despite all this, there was something about this book that just didn’t work for me. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what that is, but I can’t. This goes back to my discussion of my gut feeling in how I review books in this post. Objectively, this was a really good book. I just didn’t really like it.
I also continued the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, which I started at the very end of last December. Over the course of January, I read books 2, 3, and 4 of this series: The Unusual Suspects, The Problem Child, and Once Upon a Crime. These books are just so much fun I can’t stand it. Yes, they’re a bit episodic, and yes, Sabrina is still a bit of a jerk, but I like her anyway, and I love Puc. and as episodic as each book is within the larger series, they each add to the larger mystery. If like middle grade fiction and quirky retold fairytales, these books are for you.
Next, I finally got off the waitlist at the library for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All I have to say here is that if you haven’t read this book, you need to go read it now. That being said, I’m going to break with all the hype and say that it isn’t a perfect book. It has a lot of disconnected subplots that mostly come together in the end, and there are parts where it drags. But honestly, I don’t mind so much. If you don’t already know, here’s the basic premise: When sixteen-year-old Star sees her best friend shot by a police officer at a traffic stop, she has to decide whether to speak up or not. This is a deeply emotional and beautiful look into a very important issue in our country, and it should be required reading.
When I was home for Martin Luther King Day weekend, I piaked up and reread my braille copy of A Wrinkle in Time and its sequel, A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle. Now I remember really liking these books when I was a kid, though I didn’t get past the first two because they were the only ones I had in Braille and this was before the days of refreshable Braille displays and digital Braille files. The world of Camazotz and It from A Wrinkle in Time is still the first thing I picture when I hear the word “dystopian.” But now that I’m older, I found the books to be pretty weird. Now I have a high tolerance for weird, but these were just really weird, especially A Wind in the Door. I also found the books to be a little too moralizing for my tastes. But I still enjoyed them, and I’m really looking forward to the movie this month and to reading the next book in the series (I have it from the library now).
Next, I read The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel. A lot of the reviews I read on Goodreads were upset that this book was more about the astronomy and the history of astronomy than the social movement of female computers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but since I’m an astronomy geek and that’s what I was in it for, I didn’t mind. So yeah, a hundred years before Hidden Figures, the Harvard Observatory was hiring female computers, and The Glass Universe tells their story, from the days of photospectroscopy on glass plates all the way through World War II. I found this book to be an absolutely fascinating read, though it might be difficult if you don’t already know a bit about the science, and if you have any interest in astronomy or the history of science or the work of female computers, I highly recommend you check this book out.
After that, I dove back into fiction with I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is probably one of my all-time favorite books (I’ll probably reread it sometime this year because it’s been a while). I tried really hard not to judge I Am the Messenger against The Book Thief, and I think I mostly succeeded. I enjoyed I Am the Messenger, which is about a perfectly ordinary kid in Australia who’s life becomes extraordinary when he starts receiving mysterious message he has to deliver all over town. These aren’t written letters or anything. They’re puzzles that he has to solve to find people who need help and to help them. And the ending was a twist I didn’t see coming. All in all, it was a pretty good book, but honestly it just didn’t drag me in the way I expected it to, and I finished it with a general feeling of “well, okay, that’s done. What’s next?”
Next was the Shanghai Girls duology, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See. I absolutely loved Shanghai Girls. It’s a sprawling family epic about two sisters who immigrate from China to the United States because of arranged marriages, but along the way they are kidnapped by Japanese soldiers, held at Angel Island, and other harrowing things that I won’t say because I don’t want to spoil it. It was so well-put-together and so intricate. I will say that without the sequel, the ending would have sucked, but since there was a sequel, it was okay. I didn’t enjoy Dreams of Joy as much as Shanghai Girls. It was more of a slow burn, and it was more predictable, but it completed the first book nicely. On the whole, a really good series, and I recommend.
At the same time I was reading the Shanghai Girls books, I had to reread Getting to Yes: Negotiating An Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton for a class. Since it isn’t a case book, I’m counting it towards my reading challenge. I actually read this book last year for the negotiations workshop I took. It was required reading for the Negotiating and Drafting International Business Transactions course I’m taking. Since the Negotiations Workshop, I’ve delved so deeply into negotiations that I felt it would be a good idea to get a refresher on the basics, so I reread it. Getting to Yes is an excellent and easy-to-read primer on win-win negotiations, and if you’re at all interested in learning to negotiate effectively, I highly recommend it.
After that, I read Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. This book is another book about immigrants, two Irish sisters who immigrate to Boston in the 1950s. It alternates between the past, when the sisters are settling into life in Boston, and the present, when a car accident forces the estranged sisters back together. It was a pretty good book, on the whole. I especially enjoyed the writing. But it was pretty bland, and the concept was so similar to the premise of Shanghai Girls—and I’m not just talking about the immigrating sisters here—that it was hard not to compare them. And Saints For All Occasions was just missing something that Shanghai Girls had. I think if I hadn’t read Shanghai Girls, I would have enjoyed this book a lot, because I wouldn’t have the comparison. But there you have it.
Finally, I rounded off January with Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight by Robert Mnookin. This was a book for my Negotiation and Diplomacy class this semester. We only had to read the first three chapters or so, but I was so interested I kept reading. What I really liked about this book was that it provided some nuance to the negotiation framework I’ve been studying for the last three semesters. Instead of just talking about how to negotiate and how negotiation is better than litigation, this book actually explores times when it may be appropriate not to negotiate. It goes through several historical examples, including Churchill’s famous decision not to negotiate with Hitler. It also looks at more personal examples, such as divorce, inheritance, and business disputes. As with Getting To Yes, this book is interesting and easy to read. So if you are interested in negotiations and want to add another layer to your understanding of it, this is a good book for you.
So that’s what I read this past January. I’ll be back soon with my February reads. In the meantime, have you read any of these books? Do you agree with me? Disagree with me? Let me know what you think in the comments.
A few weeks ago, I was at trivia with some friends, and in between questions we were talking about the books we’d read recently. At the time, I was nearly finished reading Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody. I told my friends that I was really enjoying the book, but there was one big problem that I wanted the author to resolve, and whether she did or not would likely determine whether the book made it onto my list of favorite books of 2018. One of my friends said something along the lines of, “Well 2018 is really just getting started, so how can you already know if a book will be on your favorites list anyway?” Which led me to explain that I’ve never limited myself to my top ten or any other arbitrary number of favorite books of the year. Instead, I keep a running list of books I read throughout the year that I think will make the cut. This is particularly important this year, as I’ve already read thirty-three books since January 1. But after that conversation at trivia, I really started thinking about what exactly got a book onto my list of favorite books for the year.
I’m sure someone could analyze all the books I have listed on my book recs page and come up with some quality that they all share (I’m taking a course on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence right now and this seems like an interesting job for a computer). But in reality, my method is not a science. Far from it. Since I’ve been musing about my process, I’ve found that there are certain things I look for in a book, and some of them matter more to me than others. And so, in no particular order, here are the six-ish things I consider when deciding if a book belongs on my favorite books list for the year (and also on my book recs page).
This may come as a surprise, since I’m a writer and all, but writing is not the most important thing in the world to me. Of course, excellent writing is a huge plus, but if the writing isn’t fabulous and the story is there, I don’t mind so much. Less-than-stellar writing alone isn’t going to tip a book out of my favorites list. For example, I really like the Hunger Games series (Mockingjay less so but that rant is beside the point), even though the writing isn’t fabulous. I also enjoyed Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, despite the bland and often cliched writing. On the other hand, if the book has other problems, bad writing can drag it down for me. For example, last year I read The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín. Basically, think the Hunger Games with faeries. I was really excited about this book, but it turned out that I kind of hated it. The story was almost there, but it was pretty predictable, and the main human villain was so cliched, and I hated the writing. I’m not sure if it would have made it onto my list had the writing been better, but better writing may have lifted it out of the I-completely-hate-this-book bucket. And finally, if bad writing alone can’t drag a book down for me, good writing alone can’t lift a book up. I can’t think of an example of this right now, but if a book has fabulous writing and nothing else, it’s not making it onto my list.
For me this is a pretty broad category. When I think of the story, I’m thinking about the plot, the character arcs, the world building, and so on. Ideally,I love it when all these things are done well, but I’ve also been known to love books where certain aspects of the story aren’t all there. For example, even though the world-building certainly leaves something to be desired, I really like the Divergent series (with the exception of the ending of Allegiant because oh my god what was that!?). Story is one of the most important considerations for me when I’m deciding if a book is doing to make it onto my list. There’s just a certain combination of originality, strong pacing, and characters I care about with goals I care about that you can’t beat.
- The ending:
This is another big one. For me, the perfect ending can take a good book and make it excellent, just as a bad ending can completely wreck a strong book or series. I’ve already mentioned the endings of Mockingjay and Allegiant and how in a lot of ways they ruined the series for me (though I’m more accepting of the ending of Mockingjay once the movies had a crack at it). If you’re interested in reading a much more detailed rant about what makes a great ending and what makes an ending fall flat or actively destroy a good book, I have a whole post on endings here. Go check it out.
This is a complicated one for me. Generally speaking, this is less important in my overall scheme of thinking about books, but if something is absolutely agregious, it will certainly tip a book out of the running for the favorites list. If a book doesn’t have a lot of diversity, I’m not going to dislike it just for that. If a book has female or minority characters and represents them poorly or problematically, that will upset me. This is especially true for me when it comes to characters with disabilities. Earlier in this post I mentioned Daughter of the Burning City, which I really really liked as a book, but I’m struggling with it because it did the blind-but-not-blind-because-magic thing that really gets under my skin. I have a whole post about blind characters with superpowers here, if you’re interested in that rant. Talking about disability representation is what I’m most comfortable with, because it’s my own experience, and I don’t want to make assumptions about groups outside my own personal experience, but I do pay attention to it in books, because I want to do it right as a writer. And if a writer does it well, that will certainly push a book from good into my favorites list. Finally, it’s important to note that my friends are very conscious of diversity and representation, and the books I pick up tend to be conscious of diversity and thoughtful representation.
- My gut:
This is pretty self-explanatory. I have a gut feeling about books, and I tend to go with it. To go back to Divergent, I know a lot of people didn’t like it. I recognize its many flaws. I really do. But I’m sorry, I like it. And my gut feeling is really important.
- Time will tell:
Finally, I keep a running list throughout the year of books that I think will make it onto my favorites list. I also have a list of all the books I read throughout the year. At the end of the year, as I’m writing up my post about my favorite books, I compare the books. Are there any books that are not on my draft favorites that still really stand out to me? Are there any books on my draft favorites list that I can’t even remember the main character’s name? Basically, if a book sticks with me in a positive way throughout the year, that’s a really good indicator that it should be on my list. I recognize that this consideration is a little unbalanced. Obviously a book I finish on New Year’s Eve, two hours before I write the final post, is going to stick with me more than the book I finished three hundred sixty-four days ago. And I don’t know how it will work this year, because I’ve already read thirty-three books and it’s not even March. This year, I probably won’t weigh how the book stands up to time as heavily as I have in past years.
So there you have it, the six-ish ways I review books: the writing, the story, the ending, the representation, my gut, and time. I say six-ish because these aren’t really defined categories. You could smoosh the story and the ending together or combine my gut feeling and the effect of time. On the other hand, you could expand the story consideration into separate considerations for plot, character, setting, and so on. It’s not a perfect system. I don’t weigh these considerations the same: Generally speaking, I’m more interested in the story, the ending, my gut feeling, and to some extent the effects of time than I am on the writing and the representation, though writing and representation are still very important to me. This isn’t an exact system. I’m still struggling over how I feel about Daughter of the Burning City, because if not for the blind-but-not thing, it would totally one hundred percent be making it onto my list. The story is great; the ending is great; the writing is great; the book has stuck with me, even though I’ve read a dozen books since I finished it; and my gut feeling is that it’s a really great book and the blind-but-not thing is just one eensy problem and it should be on my list anyway. But the blind-but-not problem is a really big problem for me. So right now, I don’t know if it’s going to make it onto my list.
There are certainly other ways to think about and review books—maybe better ways—but this is roughly how I do it. So your turn: what makes a good book for you?