We’re taught that a novel has certain basic rules. Not about what the story is, but about how you tell the story. Beginning, middle, end. Plot, character, point of view. Once in a while, a book comes along that breaks the rule for readers’ expectations.
It’s hard to do well, because even if you pull off some great technical feat, it still has to be enjoyable for the reader. I’ve never attempted Ulysses, for instance, because its structure has been described as a slog by so many readers. Especially recently, I’m not into storytelling that requires a study guide to be understood. But here are some books with unique storytelling methods that I greatly enjoyed.
Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig
This book breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule: it’s written entirely in dialogue. No description, no narration, no tags to tell you who’s speaking. The author creatively solves some of the expected problems with this format. For most of the book, there are only two characters, with such distinct voices that it’s easy to follow who’s talking. They’re in a prison cell, so there’s not much need to describe the setting. The readers do get plenty of other descriptions, though: one character is a film buff who passes the time by vividly telling his cellmate the stories of his favorite flicks.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
This book has six narratives set in different eras, from the 1700’s up through the present, near future, and distant future. Each has a different main character, and it’s hinted that they may be reincarnations of the same soul, though that’s not exactly the point. Each section has a different format (journal, letters, third-person suspense thriller, first-person comedy, interview, external monologue). Each section makes a brief mention of the previous one (eg, the writer of the letters finds the old journal and wonders if he can see it to a rare-book dealer; the near-future character watches a movie of the previous narrator, etc).
What makes it unique is the “nesting” format: we get the first half of the first story, then the first half of the second story, and so on to the sixth story, which is the only one told straight through. Then we get the second half of the fifth story, fourth story, etc. As I was reading this, I tried to imagine how the author was going to stick the landing. After we’d seen the far future, how was an ending in the past going to feel satisfying? But it did, because the author tied together the themes that ran through the book, and ended on a hopeful note in a struggle that’s far from over.
First Light, by Charles Baxter
This book traces the relationship of a brother and sister from birth until middle age. Or rather, it traces their relationship from middle age until birth. Each scene moves backwards from the scene we just read, ending with 3-year-old Hugh coming to the hospital to meet his newborn sister Dorsey. (Oddly, Seinfeld did something similar in one episode.)
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
All of Calvino’s books are kind of surreal, but this one is his most delightful. It begins with the words: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” The entire story is told in second person. After various preparations, “you” settle down to read the book, and the next chapter is the first chapter of the book-within-a-book. But there’s a problem with the book, and when the “you” character goes to exchange it in the next chapter, it gets traded for a different book, and we’re given the first chapter of a completely different story. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler alternates between first chapters of ten different books, and the increasingly ludicrous adventures “you” have that prevent reading past chapter 1 of any of them.
Speaking as a writer who has far more first chapters than finished books, why didn’t I think of this?
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.
I posted my nonfiction reads for 2020. Here’s the fiction list, with totally biased commentary.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
Wilkie Collins, Jezebel’s Daughter
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Unlike her sisters, Anne Bronte wrote male leads that were worthy of the heroine. (See also The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.) I thought, “He’d better make sure she’s reunited with the dog...” and he did.
Mansfield Park has Austen’s sly wit, romance, and the inevitable scoundrel who gets what he deserves.
Moses, Man of the Mountain is an irreverent (and yet, somehow wholly reverent) retelling of the Moses story. Some of the Bible’s better-known characters do not come off well.
Notes From Underground is only 150 pages, and that’s at least 50 pages too long.
I’d never read Treasure Island before, or seen the movie, but I felt like I had. Every popular image of pirates, from peg legs to parrots to “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” seems to come from this book.
Wilkie Collins was an early mystery writer, although Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t strictly a mystery like The Woman in White or The Moonstone. It has a few touches of Collins’s early feminism, including a widow who takes over her husband’s business and informs the scandalized partner that they will be hiring lady clerks. (But she has an annoying tendency to start sentences with “I know I’m only a woman, but...”)
Ann Aguirre, Sirantha Jax series (Grimspace, Wanderlust, Doubleblind)
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
Isaac Asimov, The Robots of Dawn
Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
Octavia Butler, Seed to Harvest series (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster)
CJ Cherryh, Foreigner series (Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor)
P.N. Elrod, Ed., Hex Appeal
Paula Lester, Sunnyside Retired Witches series (A Bottle Full of Djinn, Loony Town, Mummy Issues)
Dominick Parisenne & Navah Wolfe, Eds., The Mythic Dream
Terry Pratchett, Sourcery
Terry Pratchett, WintersmithKatherine Vick, The Disposable
Some great comedy/fantasy combos, including the inimitable Terry Pratchett. Sourcery is about the incompetent wizard Rincewind, and his sentient luggage steals the show as usual. Wintersmith is about aspiring witch Tiffany Aching, who inadvertently attracts the Spirit of Winter. The “wee free men” are always a lot of fun. I also recommend Katherine Vick’s The Disposable, sort of a fantasy version of John Scalzi’s Redshirts: the minor characters get fed up with being killed off and otherwise suffering so the heroes can shine.
Paula Lester’s Sunnyside Retired Witches is a lighthearted cozy mystery series set in a retirement home in a town full of witches and magical creatures.
Octavia Butler’s Seed to Harvest series is less satisfying than her Parable books or Kindred. Seed to Harvest has so much violence and incest that it rivals Game of Thrones — and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.
Asimov’s I, Robot is not so much a novel as a series of puzzles: given the 3 laws of robotics (in descending order: never harm a human or allow them to be harmed, obey humans, protect oneself), what would a robot do with this or that contradictory set of circumstances? (Aside from the premise, it bears no resemblance to the Will Smith movie.) The Robots of Dawn expands this premise to a full-length murder mystery.
The Sirantha Jax series had interesting aliens and some decent plot twists. But I didn’t particularly care for the love interest, and disliked the subplot with the “alien from a species that’s evolved to be slaves, so you have to accept them as your slave even if you don’t want to” trope.
I like CJ Cherryh, and her aliens are always complex and interesting. She tends to front-load a lot of world-building, so the action mostly hits at the end of the book. And like the Chanur series, the Foreigner series assumes that no matter how different the aliens may be, they’ll wind up having sex with humans.
The Testaments was Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. She did her best to make it compatible with the TV series, and glossed over ways the series contradicted the original book (particularly around race). It’s told by June’s now-teenage daughters, and an especially devious Aunt Lydia.
The best book I read this year was probably The Mythic Dream, which reimagined myths as SF/Fantasy stories. A lesbian Persephone wants to stay with her Lady of the Dead. Artemis livestreams her revenge on Actaeon. Kali wreaks holy havoc. each story found something new in the familiar.
Middle Grade/Young Adult:
Dean Gloster, Dessert First
Karen Schwabach, The Hope Chest
Karen Schwabach, Starting From Seneca Falls
Karen Schwabach writes great historical fiction for kids, giving a great feel for the early days of American feminism. (You should also check out her fantasy stories as Sage Blackwood.)
Dessert First is about a teenager watching her little brother succumb to cancer — and it still manages to be warm, relatable, and even funny at unexpected times, never maudlin or manipulative.
Janet Evanovich, Twisted Twenty-Six
Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey
Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train
I love the combination of mystery and humor. Twisted Twenty-Six takes the famously unlucky bounty hunter Stephanie Plum through mystery, murder, lust, and an ill-advised marriage between Grandma Mazur and a local mobster. Bad Monkey has that only-in-Florida flavor with assorted scams, annoying neighbors, and a cop busted down to restaurant inspector. Between the latter and the monkey, there’s more gross-out humor than usual in this one.
Strangers on a Train is very different from the movie Hitchcock made out of it. Darker, if possible.
A.R. Moxon, The Revisionaries
Leslea Newman, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not: Lesbian Romantic Fiction
Nancy Ryan, The Shape of the Heart
Aline Soules, The Size of the World
The Revisionaries is a very weird, surreal-ish book about the rise and fall of a demagogue (among other things). The Shape of the Heart and The Size of the World are brief collections of slice-of-life fiction, poetry, and (in the latter book) some nonfiction about the author’s Scottish upbringing.
I like Leslea Newman’s love stories, which range from fluffy to heartbreaking. But She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not is a book of the 90’s, where a couple of the stories felt a bit squicky about issues of power and consent. On another level, it’s stunning to remember what a different world it was just 20 years ago, in terms of legal rights, civil unions (remember those?), and the risks of coming out.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.
2020 will go down in history as the year I finally got my TBR pile under control. Partly because shelter in place gave me extra reading time, but mostly because the pandemic kept me out of bookstores, and browsing online just isn’t the same. I read 73 books and plays this year.
Here’s my nonfiction list, with assorted commentary. Next I’ll do my fiction list.
Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America
Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists
Barry Levine & Monique El-Faizy, All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator
Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Rachel Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
Shelly Oria, Ed., Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the MeToo Movement
Jessica Valenti & Jaclyn Friedman, Eds., Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World
Indelible in the Hippocampus contains some raw, occasionally hard-to-read material about harassment: mostly essay, but some poetry and fiction too. Believe Me is partly about harassment and how “he said/she said” is routinely interpreted as “he said/she lied.” But also included other issues where women are treated as less trustworthy (for instance, how medical professionals are more likely to assume women are exaggerating their symptoms).
Hiding in Plain Sight is a solid and fascinating look at the mainstream and extreme elements that came together to bring us Trump (and the way extreme elements get mainstreamed). I also highly recommend The View from Flyover Country, also by Kendzior. All the President’s Women is about the harassment and assault allegations against him, but also veers into trying to analyze the workings of his mind, which seemed overly speculative.
Blowback is about an essential issue, but it’s 20 years out of date, pre-9/11. Blowout is a deep dive into the fossil fuel industry, wonky but worth it, as you’d expect from Maddow.
Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’
Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
Julia Flynn Siler, The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown
I tend to like biographies that connect with a bigger issue. Barracoon was drawn from interviews with a man who was enslaved in Africa, brought to the US long after importing slaves was illegal, and had to make a life for himself in America after being freed by the Civil War. It’s a brief but powerful read. The White Devil’s Daughters is about a different kind of slavery, and it’s a part of my town’s history that I hadn’t known well.
Maid was thoughtful, honest, and really made you feel the pain when some rando in the grocery store shamed her for using food stamps.
And Daring to Drive was a really interesting look at a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia. Media portrayals tend to paint the country as a monolith, but in fact al-Sharif found lots of who thought the driving ban was ridiculous, or who helped her circumvent other laws that restricted women’s freedom.
Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya
Noel Coward, Hay Fever
Noel Coward, Private Lives
Eve Ensler, Necessary Targets
Luigi Pirandello, Henry IV
Luigi Pirandello, It Is So! (If You Think It Is)
George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House
I don’t know if it’s the translation or what, but I don’t get Chekhov. I do enjoy Pirandello, who sets up situations where somebody has to be crazy or lying — but we’re never quite sure who.
I liked Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but found Necessary Targets frustrating, because it centers the American women, not the Bosnian war victims that they’re ostensibly trying to help.
Noel Coward mostly wrote light comedies. Unfortunately, in the era when he wrote Private Lives, domestic violence could be treated as a joke. Meanwhile, his Hay Fever and GB Shaw’s Heartbreak House both followed the formula of “throw a bunch of oddball characters into a house for a few days and see how much they annoy each other.”
Phyllis Clements, Ed., Coffee and Conversation: Warm Cups of Self-Care
Jill Filipovic: The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness
Jonathan Kay, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground
Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
Peter Laufer, The Dangerous World of Butterflies
Nicole Tersigni, Men to Avoid in Art and Life
Among the Truthers addressed an important topic, conspiracy theories and 9/11-related ones in particular. But the author tried to force it into his preferred political narrative (that conspiracism is primarily a problem of the ”anti-American left” — his phrase — with the usual rants about “political correctness”).
Men to Avoid in Art and Life is a collection of classic paintings, with captions like, “You’d be prettier if you smiled more.” I laughed straight through.
The Dangerous World of Butterflies is about all things butterfly: collectors, preservationists, and the surprisingly lucrative underground of smugglers and poachers.
Kim Addonizio, Tell Me
Adedayo Agarau, The Arrival of Rain
Jericho Brown, The Tradition
Philip Cushman & Michael Warr, Eds., Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin
Kerri Davidson, How to Fly
Derrick I. M. Gilbert, Catch the Fire: A Cross-Generational Anthology of African-American Poetry
Nikita Gill, Great Goddesses
Nikita Gill, Your Soul Is a River
Amanda Lovelace, The Mermaid Gets Her Voice Back in This One
Amanda Lovelace, To Drink Coffee with a Ghost
Amanda Lovelace, To Make Monsters Out of Girls
Susan McMaster, Ed., Siolence: Poets on Women, Violence, and Silence
Murray Silverstein, Ed., America, We Call Your Name
Clint Smith, Counting Descent
Andrena Zawinski, Ed., Turning a Train of thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry
I demand two things from poetry: that it be (1) comprehensible, and (2) actually about something.
Some of these books were themed anthologies, like America, We Call Your Name, a great collection of political poems from the era of *resident *rump. Catch the Fire included both well-known and obscure African-American poets, but was from 1998, so it was jarring to see a poem unironically dedicated to Bill Cosby.
Of Poetry and Protest had each poet include an essay as well as a poem on the theme of Black lives mattering. Siolence took a similar approach, though I found the poems in that one less accessible.
Amanda Lovelace writes prolifically about overcoming abuse, sexism, self-doubt and more. Each of her poems seems simple, but they fit together into a complex story. The Mermaid Gets Her Voice Back in this One is a bit of a departure: the last section includes contributions from other women poets, and they work together beautifully.
Weirdly, I loved one Nikita Gill book and didn’t care for the other. Great Goddesses was a re-imagining of Greek Mythology, with much imagination, unexpected images and good storytelling. Your Soul Is a River was more like a collection of aphorisms, didn’t grab me.
The Tradition and Counting Descent are both about being a Black man in a society that’s sometimes indifferent and sometimes hostile. The Tradition is more formal poetry, Counting Descent more free-form, both really affecting.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.
And the video drawing is even more technically inept than the first one.
JANICE GARRISON wins the Cosmic Turkey raffle!
Here's a link to the video, so y'all can see that I really am worse with technology than my main character is.
What's better than a good book and a cup of coffee? A free book and free coffee, of course!
From now until 12 noon Pacific Time (3 pm Eastern Time) on November 27th, 2020, everyone who responds to this post will be entered in a raffle. The winner gets an autographed paperback of The Cosmic Turkey, plus a 12-ounce package of Cosmic Turkey Blend coffee from Brandywine Coffee Roasters in Wilmington, Delaware. Turkey Day will never be the same!
And from November 21st through November 27th, the e-book is just 99 cents!
*Disclaimer 1: US addresses only for the raffle, please.
** Disclaimer 2: Brandywine Coffee Roasters has no affiliation with me, the book or this raffle. The name is just a cosmic coincidence. But what an AWESOME cosmic coincidence!
An excerpt from my unpublished novel, Best Interests, was a winner at Novel Slices.
What inspires you to write?
I always have stories going in my head. It was years before I discovered that wasn't true for everyone.
Sometimes the spark for a particular story will be a "weird news" item on the back page of a newspaper. Sometimes it's a historical event that I hadn't heard about before. Sometimes it's a new scientific development that makes me wonder about the consequences. I'm always looking for something new,for a story that can surprise me even though I'm the one writing it.
Tell us about your writing process.
The story starts with a lot of noodling around in my journals, scribbling down ideas, snatches of dialogue, scenes and situations. There will be a lot of pathways that lead nowhere. But eventually the story starts to fit together, I can see which pieces belong there, and I start typing a draft on my computer. If I get stuck, I stop and make a list of 20 things that could happen – or better yet, 20 things that couldn't possibly happen, and one of them will lead me to an idea that works.
Read the rest at Interviews with Writers.
Novel Slices held an unusual contest: submit a chapter from an unpublished novel, but it didn't have to be the opening. An excerpt from my social worker novel, "Best Interests," just made the finalist list. Wish me luck!
Available at booksprout. Read it and leave an honest review.