2023 already! Preposterous. I suppose I should be getting used to it given that we’re now into February, but there’s a certain part of me that perpetually expects it to still be 2002, and yet another part that’s sure it’s March 1,129th 2020. Time is, as they say, out of joint… but at least there have been things to read in the meantime. Here’s what I got through last month:
- Tress of the Emerald Sea (Brandon Sanderson)
- The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)
- The Running-Shaped Hole (Robert Earl Stewart)
- Playing Under the Piano (Hugh Bonneville)
- Rattle no. 78 — Poetry Prize Finalists
- Smashwords Style Guide (Mark Coker)
- Persepolis Rising (James S A Corey)
- Tiamat’s Wrath (James S A Corey)
- Leviathan Falls (James S A Corey)
- Miss Ex-Yugoslavia (Sofija Stefanovic)
- Art Matters (Neil Gaiman)
- Boys and Girls Together (William Goldman)
- The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (Joanna Cannon)
I was delighted to start the year with Tress of the Emerald Sea. In early March 2021, Brandon Sanderson announced that over the shutdowns in 2020 he had written a full four novels in secret, in addition to his scheduled output on previously-announced projects. He launched them in a record-setting kickstarter campaign, and I bought in at the ebook tier; Tress was the first of the quarterly book releases. It ties in with his Cosmere novels in a small way, and was also thoroughly delightful as its own thing.
Early in January — or possibly late in December — I listened to an interview with Ann Patchett on the Spark & Fire podcast about writing The Dutch House and I immediately put a library hold on it. It was beautiful and sad and completely engrossing, and I spent a large part of a Saturday morning reading it on the couch. Lovely.
And speaking of engrossing, I finally finished the last three full-length installments of Corey’s “The Expanse” series, which… wow. It wrapped up in a really satisfying way that dealt with some of the big questions raised all the way back at the beginning of the series and felt true to established characterization. These three books took over my life for about a week, as this screenshot from my phone’s screentime report testifies:
On the other end of the enjoyment scale, we find Boys and Girls Together, which was an absolute stinker. The blurb billed it as a coming-of-age story about five friends putting on a play in NYC. It turned out to be 600+ pages of thoroughly unlikeable people behaving incredibly nastily to one another, and the only one worth rooting for (spoiler alert) kills himself in the penultimate chapter. I honestly don’t know why I finished it; I think I was waiting for it to get better, only it never did.
I did get one good thing out of Boys and Girls Together, though — well, sort of. It’s this little excerpt from Goldman’s foreword to the novel:
Anyway, the day I was done I was alone in the house and stared at “the end” when I wrote those blessed words, got up, went outside to the backyard, where we had a child’s swing set up for our daughter Jenny, then all of a year. I sat in it, smoking, and suddenly I had this realization:
I had told all my stories.
I sat there thinking it couldn’t be true, because that would mean the end for me as a writer, then luckily I remembered the story of the mother who dressed her son in her clothes …
No, I’d put that in the novel, given it to Branch.
I went through them all and I’d given them all away. That’s my chief memory of that afternoon, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. (I did not realize at the time that two years down the line, in that same university town, over Christmas vacation, these two outlaws named Butch and Sundance would ride up from South America to save me.)William Goldman, foreword to Boys and Girls Together
It’s a good reminder not to hoard our best ideas, and to trust the creative process in the hope/knowledge that once they’re spent, there will be new best ideas in their place.
The creative process brings us to Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters, which is a pocket-sized collection of four or five of his most popular essays, charmingly illustrated by Chris Riddell. It took less than ten minutes to read in its entirety, and if I had paid the suggested Canadian list price for such skimpy content — $24.99 as I recall — I would have been pretty annoyed. As it was a library copy, it was fine, but I will note that all of its contents are available separately elsewhere.
I love a good memoir, and last month’s reading featured three: The Running-Shaped Hole, Playing Under the Piano, and Miss Ex-Yugoslavia — all very different and all enjoyable in their own ways. The Running-Shaped Hole had the extra excitement of taking place in a city I know, which always brings out my inner Pointing Rick Dalton:
The Smashwords Style Guide is exactly what it says on the tin: if you want to format a Word file for Smashwords’ automatic conversion to epub format, this will tell you how. I learned some new tricks with MS Word, which is good I guess? Not much to say about this one, or about the latest issue of Rattle, except that it remains one of the best poetry magazines going.
Finally, I closed out January with Joanna Cannon’s wonderful The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. Set during the great UK heatwave of 1976, the residents of a council estate gradually give up their secrets as ten-year-old friends Grace and Tillie try to find out why Mrs Creasy has disappeared, and also, if they can manage it, where God has gotten to. Cannon’s prose is beautiful, if occasionally a little hard to believe in Grace’s first-person chapters, and the whole thing wraps up on an ambiguous note that still has me thinking it over a week later. Excellent stuff.