Just some words about books I've read this month
I managed a pretty good reading streak this month - nine books and four plays. I always end up reading a lot on vacation, and I took a little trip this month back down to Houston to visit my parents for Easter and help my mom out with a project. She lent me her copy of Hermione Lee’s massive, thorough, entertaining biography of Tom Stoppard, which I’m going to be writing about next week, but this week I thought I’d talk about the books I read and some things I noticed in the process.
I read Gideon the Ninth (the first book in the Locked Tomb trilogy) really quickly, and I wasn’t 100% sure what had happened at the end when I went on to read Harrow, which meant I had to actually reread Gideon and then start Harrow again. Harrow, who narrates most of HT9, is a very different narrator from Gideon, and the way the story handles memory around the events of GT9 made for some disjointed moments. However, the world building continues to be astonishing. I’ll be preordering Alecto The Ninth when the time comes.
The Unspoken Name is a debut fantasy represented by a friend of mine (*waves to the nightmare slack*) and a tremendously fun ride. At the beginning of the book Csorwe, an orc priestess who has been preparing her entire life to die for the God of the Unspoken Name, instead chooses to run away with a charismatic wizard. Years later, she continues to serve the wizard, only to begin questioning that devotion. That’s a very bare-bones summary of an extremely eventful plot, complete with dying worlds, living gods, and a very sweet gay romance. Highly, highly recommend if you like big epic fantasy.
The last two books on the list are the first two in a series of five, and I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to continue. It’s paranormal romance, with a demigod love interest and a LOT of intrigue. There wasn’t quite enough heat for my tastes which is (I think) the block I have around continuing. As a freelance editor, these days I’m editing a lot for people planning on self-publishing, and since I haven’t read too many self-published books before (a shameful piece of neglect on my part) I’ve been periodically dipping into the KDP charts to see what people are enjoying.
A Swim In The Pond In The Rain: Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
5000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox
A Book A Week by Kate Hall
10,000 Words Per Day by Mason Sabre
Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee
You might be looking at the middle three books on this list and be thinking “Jennifer, what the hell, you barely manage 1500 words for this newsletter once a week let alone 5000 words a day or whatever.” This thought would be justified! I read these as part of the aforementioned KDP research. Many self-published authors publish in a timeframe that seems absolutely unimaginable to most people; a book a month per pen name, some of them. More than a guide to write faster, these three books gave me some interesting insight on the structure of the books produced by this method, which I think will also be helpful for editing. The advice contained in them isn’t particularly new (know what scenes you’re going to write before you sit down to write them, have a dedicated area for writing and wall off your time from distractions, write in “sprints,” etc) but each was different enough (and, it must be said, around 80 pages each) to be satisfying.
I already wrote about A Swim In The Pond In The Rain in last week’s newsletter, so I won’t recap, but it was very interesting to round out the month with the Tom Stoppard biography (which, unlike the three guide books, clocks in at a whopping 753 pages! Plus appendices!) Tom Stoppard was born Tomaś Straussler in the now-Czech Republic in 1937, and much of the biography dealt with his lifelong attraction towards and battles with Eastern Europe and Russia, including his long friendship with Vaclav Havel, playwright and prime minister. Between the four authors featured in ASITPITR (what a terrible acronym! I promise I won’t do it again) and the characters of The Coast of Utopia it was an extremely Russian April!
The Coast of Utopia: A Trilogy (Voyage/Shipwreck/Salvage) by Tom Stoppard
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
I borrowed a small stack of Tom Stoppard plays from my mom, who has individual copies of nearly all of his plays as well as collections of his plays for radio. My mom runs a theater in Houston, and once did a production of Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. She invited him to the opening night but he was unable to attend, and like a true mensch wrote a very sweet note declining the invitation, which we still have, framed.
After reading the biography I realized that though I’ve seen many Tom Stoppard plays (Arcadia! The Real Inspector Hound! Rough Crossing! The Coast of Utopia!) I hadn’t seen most of them, and shamefully had never read his first and most famous play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s always a little weird reading drama but it was a joy reading these four. Questions he wrestled with in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are wrestled with again in Coast: what does it mean, to be alive? What does it mean to take action? Who are we? Questions of chance, fate, destiny, complicity. Truly fascinating.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Delightfully, new Caps Team Dad Zdeno Chara is now the oldest player in NHL history to receive a major for fighting! Fuck ‘em up, Z! (Actually, don’t, fighting is bad and it hurts people long-term.) But the Caps are headed to the finals! I got to go to an actual real-life baseball game last week with my friend Michelle. We sat up in the stands and watched the Astros beat the Angels in overtime, and it was a damn delight. Did you know you can buy full pints of Blue Bell Ice Cream at Minute Maid Park? You can! I love Texas!
The Man in the MTA’s Money Room by Christopher Bonanos (NYMag)
“We suck all the money out of fareboxes via a Keene vacuum system. There’s only one other agency in the world I’m aware of that does that. Philly was at one time, but I’m not even sure if they do anymore. You need to have high volumes of coins and large numbers of buses. We fit that bill — Hey, partner, how are you? You’ll see the vaults here: They look old, they are old, but they last very, very well. They’re durable. And the system is set up so it’s sealed. So from the moment a bus pulls in, the money gets vacuumed out via a port, and that port is connected to a vacuum hose and a probe. The probe takes the data from the fare box, sends it up to the AFC [automated fare collection]. The vacuum sucks it up into the ceiling to a shaker-sorter, a sifter. The coin goes into the vaults by denomination. Why is that important? You can count separated coin extremely fast, 10,000 pieces per minute. If you get the coin unseparated and you have to sort it, the speed goes down to 2,500 pieces per minute, and it wears the machines out. The TA separating this coin makes this operation smooth as silk. You’ll see what I mean.”
Honkaku: a century of the Japanese whodunnits keeping readers guessing by Caroline Crampton (The Guardian)
Honkaku stories have more in common with a game of chess than some modern thrillers, which can be filled with surprise twists and sudden reveals. In honkaku, everything is transparent: no villains suddenly appear in the last chapter, no key clues are withheld until the final page. Honkaku writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”, so clues and suspects were woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery before the detective does.
Rachel Cusk on Writing Without Feeling Like A Writer (LitHub)
So much of the story of that book became what I didn’t know when I wrote those things. At the end of it, it became the story of the aftermath of aftermath. So the reaction to that book, which was the most violent and murderous experience of my life, I think probably. The hatred and disapproval in this country, it was an explosion of it. It was one of those moments where clearly people had nothing better to think about. And it was an extraordinary thing in that state of vulnerability that I had gone to some effort to describe, which was not only my vulnerability, but the vulnerability of children in that situation and the difficulty of finding a way of writing about that without compromising them or their experience. So to have this sort of sledgehammer taken to the whole thing was quite extraordinary. So I couldn’t express myself for a very long time after that.
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.