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Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

I keep a log of all the books I read every year, and when I looked down my list at the end of last year, I noticed something. I was doing a great job reading many women writers. I was happy that I was branching out and reading a variety of books, not just YA and SF&F. But the number of POC writers on my list was low. Eight percent of my total.

I looked at past reading years (I’ve been logging since 2009), and I found that no matter how many books I read each year, the number of POC writers I was reading consistently fell between seven and ten percent. Not completely horrendous, but also not great. So I told myself, I’ll try to pay more attention in 2014 and up that number. (It would require another post to discuss why I think this is important. I’m adding it to my list.)

I did a little bit of research to find more POC writers I thought I might like, and then I did a little bit more. It was more work than I’d thought it would be, because a lot of the lists repeated the same few names over and over again, or they turned out to be about books with POC characters written by white writers, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

And then yesterday I was looking over my reading list so far from the year, almost three-quarters of the way in, and I realized I’m not doing enough. POC writers only account for eleven percent of my reading this year, which is only a few percent higher than years I wasn’t paying any attention at all. I decided I’d have to be more systematic if I was actually going to improve.

So I spent more hours combing through the internet, looking for writers and specific books that I think I might enjoy (sometimes I can be a bit picky). I poured through lists of POC writers, I read some posts from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign from earlier this year, I peered at author photos and read their bios and interviews, and I combed my bookshelves. And I compiled a list.

It is a somewhat strange list. It doesn’t include any books I’ve already read (hence the glaring omission of Octavia Butler, among others). It includes certain books because I already happen to own them. It doesn’t include certain books that I’m not interested in reading right now (this is a list that is supposed to help me read more, not discourage me from doing so). It has lots of different types of books so I can find something I want to read no matter my mood. And I’m going to keep adding to it because I know there are so many more books out there by POC writers that I’d love to read and just don’t know about yet.

Here is the commitment I’m making to myself. I’ve recently joined two book clubs (yeah, I know, I don’t know what I was thinking either), so I can’t control the reading for those. And sometimes I need to read something specific for a writing project I’m working on. But aside from that, the next six books I choose to read will come from this list of works by POC writers. That should bring me to more like twenty percent for the year, given how much I expect to read. And between those six books and my book club reading, that might be about all I have time for.

I’m publishing my list because I don’t think there are enough of these lists out there, and I was surprised at the amount of time it took me to compile it. I’d also love to hear about any books by POC writers that you would like to mention or recommend in the comments.

Adult SF/F:

  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
  2. Falling Sky, by Rajan Khanna (out Oct. 7)
  3. The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
  5. The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  6. The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  7. Mindscape, by Andrea Hairston
  8. Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
  9. The Best of all Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord
  10. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  11. White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
  12. Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
  13. All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  14. Harmony, by Project Itoh

Other Adult:

  1. Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Lullabies, by Lang Leav (poetry)
  6. Follow Her Home, by Steph Cha
  7. Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata
  8. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  10. Bitch is the New Black: a Memoir, by Helena Andrews
  11. The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, by Ernessa T. Carter

YA:

  1. The Silence of Six, by E.C. Myers (out Nov. 5)
  2. Since You Asked, by Maurene Goo
  3. Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
  4. Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn
  5. The Young Elites, by Marie Lu (out Oct 7)
  6. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
  7. Prophecy, by Ellen Oh
  8. Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
  9. Rivals in the City, by YS Lee (out of print)
  10. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  11. Champion, by Marie Lu (this is the 3rd book of the trilogy)
  12. Once We Were, by Kat Zhang (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)
  13. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
  14. Control, by Lydia Kang
  15. Unravel Me, by Tahereh Mafi (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)

And here is a (very partial) list of resources I used to compile this list:

We Need Diverse Books and 27 POC Authors

We Need Diverse Books Summer Reading Series

You Want More Diversity in Your Pop Culture? Here’s How to Find It

100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read

Diversity and List of Books by 23 Asian American and Other POC Writers Part I and Part 2

For more information on this campaign, visit weneeddiversebooks.org.

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I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well. I thought it would be fun to expand on some of the points made. (Yes, this is totally what I do for fun. Welcome to my mind.)

After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind. This means that even during the earliest stages of a career, we can aspire to professionalism. And I believe this state of mind will make it much likely to eventually find success.

Here are some points I find particularly relevant:

Execution: Amateurs don’t see their work through. They don’t finish. They don’t find the time, or they get distracted by other shiny ideas, or they allow themselves to be held back by their own fears. To a professional, execution is paramount: “Sure, they occasionally abandon a project when they see further effort is fruitless, but the mark of a pro is someone who begins and ends.”

Image: Amateurs are concerned with image, whereas professionals are concerned with their work.

It can be fun to be involved in the industry, to network and name drop and know “important” people. And knowing writers definitely livens up my social life. But it doesn’t matter who you know if you’re not doing the work. It doesn’t matter how connected you are if you are not finishing any of your projects. The work trumps everything else. And professionals know this in their bones.

Confidence: This one is interesting, because if there is any profession in which professionals are insecure, it’s writing. But professionals tend to express it differently. They are less likely to express their insecurity publicly on the internet. They are less likely to make extreme self-effacing remarks in public. They are more likely to be matter-of-fact about their insecurities if they happen to come up. And they are more likely to deal with their insecurities with their close friends instead of with whoever happens to be around.

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

 

Empathy: Professionals recognize we all have to pay dues, we all have to navigate a series of “breaks,” and we all have our own set of problems.

I wince whenever I hear one writer talk about a professional difficulty, only to have another, usually less experienced writer say, “Oh, I wish I had your problems.” NO. Just NO. First off, problem comparing is not helpful. Second of all, that other writer just passed up a golden learning opportunity. Who knows when this “coveted” problem might be your own? Third, the writer sharing the problem is going to notice the lack of empathy offered and the relationship might be weakened as a result.

Talking/Listening: Amateurs interrupt; professionals listen. Amateurs tend to go on and on with a minimum of prompting. They talk for twenty minutes straight about their current project and then never ask about yours. They inadvertently reveal ignorance because they are so busy filling the space with themselves.

One of my favorite things to do in a professional setting is find someone whose knowledge and opinions I respect and get them talking. And then I sit there asking questions and soaking up everything they say like a super-absorbent sponge. The amount of information I get from doing this is priceless. I already know what I have to say; I want to learn about what other informed people think.

What do you think are important marks of a professional?

 

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I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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Why I Need Beauty

Ever since Rahul wrote about beauty and how we don’t have the language to discuss it, I’ve been wanting to write about beauty. But it turns out he’s right, and it’s surprisingly difficult to talk about. For starters, beauty is measured so subjectively, and then I’m not used to saying anything about it except for, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Which does not a blog post make.

But what I can talk about is what beauty means to me personally. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of beauty as it pertains to my home, and how critical it is for my well-being to have some beauty in my surroundings. I felt silly about this too, I think because this is not something we normally talk about. This is not something I feel like I ought to expect or prioritize. Square footage or number and type of outlets or layout, no problem. But beauty? I feel spoiled for even considering it.

But as I thought about it more, I realized every place I’ve lived has had its beautiful aspects that I have loved. Most often, it’s about the trees. Redwoods grew right outside my windows in Santa Cruz, which I loved so much that whenever I’ve had the chance to live near redwoods, I’ve taken it. Another place had a beautiful bay window in the front, as well as this pleasant curving opening between the kitchen and the living room. One place had beautiful cherry flooring that shone in the sunlight. And another had quaint lace curtains that hung in the windows.

So in my recent search, I rejected place after place. They all had many additional problems, but the main problem as far as I was concerned was that they lacked beauty. There were no trees to love. They were dark, grimy, not cared for. They were in neighborhoods with chain link fences around each yard, or they smelled strange and I left with a sore throat, or they were in sterile communities where I wouldn’t feel happy walking Nala. After I left, I wasn’t thinking about this or that piece of beauty that had caught my imagination. Instead I was worrying about crime rates and how much water and garbage would cost and if I could impose enough of my personality on the place in spite of itself that I could be happy there.

Until I found my new place. Its main feature of beauty is a very tall window that pours light throughout the space. I fell in love with the sun, and that was that. I knew I could turn the place into a home.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

Why does beauty matter so much? Whenever I witness beauty, I feel an easing in my chest. When I’m happy, beauty adds to my sense of appreciation, and when I’m sad, beauty reminds me that all is not lost. The world cannot be a truly desolate place for me when I’ve just seen a hummingbird zoom by or watched the clouds being perfectly reflected on a still lake surface or looked at my copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman.” It is why, last year when I was under so much stress, I instinctively went to my study and stared out at the tree outside, the piece of beauty that had persuaded me to choose to live here.

Beauty reminds me that there is more than whatever is going on for me in this moment.

Of course, there’s a lot more to beauty than what I’ve said so far. But this is, at least, a beginning.

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I am happy to report that I did in fact host my party this past weekend, and in spite of a flurry of winter flus and colds, I had plenty of fabulous and creative people in attendance. Challenge met.

I have a great interest in experimenting with social gatherings (otherwise known as parties) and creating different social experiences for people. I’ve been most intrigued by designing parties that encourage mingling, meeting new people, and getting to know slight acquaintances better (as opposed to sticking within already established friend groups and/or the people you came to the party with) and parties that cultivate creativity. (I’m also interested in the idea of fostering deeper connections between people, but I haven’t experimented much with that yet.)

The Albion experiment:

Some months ago I read about Emily Short’s San Tilapian Studies, a “narrative entertainment” for 30-40 players, and I instantly wanted to try it. Check out her post for a detailed description, but in summary, there are three different color stickers, and each person gets two stickers of the same color. One color is an item, one color is a descriptor, and one color is a function. The goal of the game is to put together three stickers, one of each color, into an awesome item (or in the case my game, a magical artifact). Then you put the stickers in a book and add drawings and/or text about it.

I used the rule mechanics almost exactly as stated in the blog post, with one exception: I changed the part about one sticker being a vile forgery, so people could match up both their stickers if desired. I re-themed the game to be high fantasy and titled it “Reclaiming Albion.” The story went that we were all native Albion scholars researching our magical heritage, which had been stamped out centuries before when an evil empire had conquered Albion.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Results and Observations:

I waited an hour after the stated party start time to launch the game; I wanted a critical mass of people present to give more possible match options. Time from the launch of the game until it finished was about three hours, with another half hour for sharing, although most people were not playing for the majority of that time.

After I handed out the stickers, there were a couple of really fast matches, mostly between significant others and tight friend groups. I was a little worried that the game would be over extremely quickly, but after that initial burst, players began to be more picky with their matches and explore options before deciding. The matches also became more difficult with less stickers in play, requiring more exploration. People began to mingle outside of their immediate circles. Did everybody do this? No. But it did give more opportunities for people to approach each other and get to know each other while working together, which was really cool to watch.

Perhaps because my party was smaller (~20 players), there were a couple two-sticker matches that couldn’t find a third sticker that was a good fit. In those cases, I waited a while to make sure a match wouldn’t materialize, and then provided a third sticker that would complete the artifact in a fun way.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Lessons Learned:

1. While this party was certainly more flexible than a standard mystery party, it still mattered that players were present at or near the start time of the game because later on, there were less stickers in circulation. I’d emphasize arriving early-ish in the invitation next time. That being said, for people who didn’t care about playing, arriving later was fine because there was more socializing happening then anyway.

2. I received a few suggestions of changes in implementation that could be interesting to try. One was to hand out four stickers at the beginning of the game instead of two, although I’m not certain about this one, as it would increase the options so hugely at the beginning. Perhaps another way to achieve something similar would be to have two rounds. The other suggestion was to make an explicit rule to encourage more mingling: for example, that everyone is only allowed to collaborate with each person once or that no collaborating is allowed with anyone you came to the party with. I tend to like to have as few rules as possible, but the results of either of these rules would be interesting to observe.

2. I provided paper to glue into the book to avoid a bottleneck of people wanting to draw/write/etc. and having to wait for the book. However, many people wanted to wait for the book anyway. I think perhaps if I had provided fancier paper, people would have been more excited to use it. (That being said, people began to use the paper once they realized how long a wait it was.)

3. I provided many different colors of ballpoint pen, as well as black gel pens and markers. I thought I’d gone way overboard, but people loved having a big selection. Next time I’d be tempted to provide an even larger variety of supplies.

4. At the end of the evening, several players were very eager to share their work and see other people’s work. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this! We sat around in a circle for storytime, when I showed all the illustrations and read the artifacts and text out loud. It was quite entertaining, and it allowed people to share their experiences from the evening.

5. I didn’t realize the book would be as amazing as it is. People took the opportunity to be creative and ran with it. Included with the stickers were: many drawings of artifacts; a map of Albion and surrounding areas, complete with broken seal; short stories; a limerick; and magical recipes concealed in a specially folded paper. It made me realize how excited people can get when presented with the chance to be creative together. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise since kids are the same way, but I see it in practice less frequently with adults.) I think having the atmosphere be fairly low pressure helped minimize feelings of self-consciousness as well. (Contrast this with indie RPGs that require improv, which provide very creative experiences but are too stressful for some people.)

All in all, a fun and successful party! And I made enough stickers that I could do another one. I think that re-theming the party could also keep it fresh enough for several parties with many of the same guests. (Or maybe I just think that because I’d love to do a science fiction theme.)

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

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1.

There’s this article beginning to make the rounds called “My Wife is a Terrible Piano Player.” I’ll confess I didn’t read the whole thing, but I like its main point. When we start doing something new, we’re usually bad at it. The first time I tried to play the piano, I’m sure I sounded like a little kid pounding randomly on a lot of keys. Because in fact, that’s what I was. It took years of time and practice and instruction and effort for me to become a passable pianist.

This makes me think about grit, a word I’ve seen pop up a lot lately. There are several components to grit, it seems, but one of them must be the ability to persevere even when we’re bad at something. Really bad. Wince-worthy bad, our efforts plagued with mistakes, missteps (or misnotes, as the case may be), and misunderstandings.

The first time I play a new board game, I never expect to win. It’s not that I think winning is impossible or that I’m not good at games. But I like to give myself the space to be bad while I’m learning. I want to experiment. I want to be able to make mistakes without embarrassment or disappointment. Isn’t that what learning is all about?

2.

But some people grow discouraged and give up. They don’t give themselves the time they would need to become good at something.

I saw this difficulty as a teacher. It was particularly prevalent with gifted children. They were so used to everything coming easily to them that when something didn’t–like, say, music, which pretty much always requires lots of practice–it was really difficult for them to continue. They grew frustrated. They weren’t used to having to wait to become good.

Music lessons were probably one of the best things those children could have been doing. Because really what they were learning was not only music, but grit.

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

3.

If, then, part of grit is giving ourselves permission to be bad at the beginning of learning something new, then another part of grit is cultivating self-discipline.

Becoming good at something is not always going to be fun. I love singing, but have I loved every minute of becoming a good singer? Have I enjoyed learning every song I’ve ever been assigned, figuring out how to practice effectively when I’m sick, doing the same exercise over and over and over, giving a poor audition? No. I love writing, but have I loved every minute of improving as a writer? Do I love the times when I’m stuck or whenever I realize my world building sucks or the endless revising or the hours upon hours writing personalized agent query letters? No.

If becoming good at something was pure enjoyment, we wouldn’t need much self-discipline. But there are always going to be off days and parts that aren’t very fun and repetition that is so boring you just want to scream at your screen and then go do anything else. And for things that don’t come with automatic structure, we have to provide ourselves with our own motivation and our own goal-setting as well.

Self-discipline, self-motivation, self-direction? All part of grit.

4.

Just in case anybody wants to talk about talent? Forget about it. Grit is more important.

We can argue about whether talent exists. I happen to think it does. But talent without grit is not enough. Grit without talent might be. Talent might give an extra boost, but having that boost makes it less likely you’ll develop the necessary grit. So if you do have talent, that means you have to work even harder.

5.

So the next time you start learning something new and you really, really suck at it, congratulate yourself and give yourself a pat on the back. “Good job for persevering, self,” you can say. “You’re showing some real grit.”

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First of all, I stayed up late to finish Insurgent by Veronica Roth last night (the final novel in her Divergent trilogy). If I’d finished it before Tuesday, it would have made my best YA list, so I’m giving it a shout-out right now. The ending was…something. Veronica Roth didn’t play it safe writing this one; she took a big risk, and while I’m sure some readers didn’t like what she did, for me I felt like she avoided the easy way out and instead opted to say something important. So I’m entirely on board with the book.

And now I’m going to switch my focus to adult fiction. Well, adult fiction and one memoir.

Honorable Mention:

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her childhood was fascinating and well-balanced in showing both tender and excruciatingly difficult moments. I did find myself wishing for more time spent on her adulthood so I’d be able to see her character arc more clearly, but I do understand that wasn’t the purpose of this memoir.

My Favorite Adult Novels of the Year:

Just don’t expect to get much sleep while you’re reading this one.

Nexus and Crux, both by Ramez Naam

These two science fiction novels have probably gotten the majority of my in-person talking up time this year. Near-future, cool ideas, compelling characters, page-turning thrillers. What’s not to love? I can’t wait for the next one to come out.

Old School, by Tobias Wolff

I picked this up after my friend Rahul recommended it and I was not disappointed. It’s literary fiction set at a boys’ boarding school, and the protagonist is just so interesting to hang out with for a while. The stakes in the story are, for the most part, relatively small, but I actually really get invested in small stakes in many stories, and this was certainly one of those cases.

Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh

When I heard Will McIntosh was writing a novel based on his Hugo award-winning short story “Bridesicle,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. And this time, my anticipation paid off. The world building is strong and I love how the idea of “Bridesicles” introduced in the short story was further developed. I also loved that this was an interesting science fictional story that also incorporated romantic elements to good effect.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I’ve heard this novel compared to vN by Madeline Ashby, which made my list last year, but while both novels are about robots, they are very different in tone. Where vN is more an adventure story, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter has a slower pace and a more literary voice. It is not so much a story about robots as it is the story of the coming of age of a girl, and how her relationship with one robot changes and affects her over the course of her life. And it was so beautifully done. io9 has a fantastic review if you want to learn more.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson apart from her famed Lottery story, and I decided it was time to change that. This novel features one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator I’ve had the joy to experience. It’s creepy and sneaky and liminal, and it could be read as completely realistic or as fantastical or as simultaneously both.

 

Thinking back on these novels has made me so happy. So much amazing writing! Here are some other adult novels I’m looking forward to reading soon. They’re all already out, and the last four are even in my possession.

Fortune’s Pawn, by Rachel Bach

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

iD, by Madeline Ashby

Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Map of the Sky, by Felix J. Palma

River of Stars, by Guy Gavriel Kay

What novels have you read this year that stand out for you? What novels are you excited to read? Any 2014 releases you want to clue me in about?

 

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