I’ve felt fortunate during this summer of Covid that I haven’t lost the focus to read. In fact, I’ve been burning up my local library’s Overdrive e-book lending account, maxing out my holds and then having new books suddenly appear on my tablet with no effort on my part. What will I read next? Whatever shows up! I don’t even have to think about it, I just have to read it before it vanishes off my device on the due date. It’s magic.
I’m also reading a lot of non-fiction, as I hunker down with some new ideas for historical pieces. So my current reading reflects a pattern of bouncing back and forth between comfort reads, exciting new books, and research. It keeps me on my toes. Here’s a selection:
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I’ve read a lot of Tudor history, and Thomas Cromwell is never presented as the hero of the story. He’s usually portrayed as another ruthless social climbing politician doomed to fall hard, yet another victim of Henry VIII’s temper. So it’s fascinating to see him in Wolf Hall as the sympathetic protagonist, a man who rises from nothing to become one of the most powerful politicians in England, master of a close-knit household, who uses his power and influence to help those in his care as much as he can. I also appreciate the almost stream-of-consciousness, present-tense style. It’s immersive and riveting. Alas, I know this story doesn’t end well. But I’m still looking forward to the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
This jumped to the top of my TBR pile when it won the Hugo this year. (Yes, I’m one of those terrible people who always seems to be about a year behind on my reading. Rather than reading all the great stuff as it comes out, I’m chasing after it when it lands on the awards lists. But hey, I’m trying.) I’ve seen this described as a space opera, but there’s very little space in it. Instead of the galactic scale, this novel’s concerned with the political heart of the empire, and the movements of small wheels that turn into big problems later on.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing. It’s rich and full of love for his settings and characters. This is another one of his parallel historical novels – this isn’t actually Renaissance Italy, at the height of the power of warring city states and the great flowering of art and literature. But it kind of sort of is. One of the protagonists, Guidanio Cerra, is living by the tenets of Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which of course is never mentioned by name, but he espouses the same ideals of manners, diplomacy, combat, art, and learning described in that real-world 16th century book. Following a character who seemed to be designed based on those ideals, in a fictional context where those ideals are perfectly suited, was delightful.
A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo
I’m writing a story set in Greenwich Village in 1961, so I read this memoir by Suze Rotolo about her time as an artist and activist in the Village during the sixties. She was also Bob Dylan’s girlfriend when he got famous. This book has the single best piece of information I’ve collected for my story: a map, with the important locations marked out. A couple of things that jumped out at me: Rotolo talks about wanting to be partners with Dylan. She saw them as helping each other, supporting each other in their artistic endeavors. But increasingly it became clear that no one else saw her as an equal. She was the girlfriend, the chick, and was expected to give way to Dylan’s status in all things. From a few decades’ hindsight, Rotolo talks about how frustrating this was, and how at the time she didn’t have the language to articulate that frustration. That would come later, with the feminist wave of the seventies. My other favorite thing is how Dylan just falls out of the memoir after they break up. Rotolo went on to make a lot of art, work a lot of Off-off Broadway shows, and was part of a student protest group that traveled to Cuba to test the travel ban. You might start reading the memoir to learn dirt about Dylan, but you’ll end up being drawn in to Rotolo’s life and experiences, which were emblematic of that time and place.
Birds Through an Opera Glass by Florence August Merriam Bailey
This book, published in 1889, basically invented modern birdwatching. Before this, naturalists’ standard operating procedure was to shoot birds in order to study them, lining their specimen cabinets with thousands of avian bodies. However, some noticed that bird numbers were in decline—in twenty-five years the passenger pigeon would be totally extinct, for example. Bailey made the then-radical suggestion that perhaps one could observe birds rather than kill them, with the help of rudimentary proto-binoculars, and learn even more about them that way. I have a story I want to write about 19th century ornithologists, so this is a must-read for what was going on with birds and the people who loved them at the time.
Continuing education FTW. This was recommended to me, and I’m making a ton of notes out of it. I want to learn more about screenwriting, but I think a lot of this applies to novel and story writing as well. How to focus in on the heart of the work, and how to bring that heart out for the audience in the best possible way. And that there’s no substitute for the hard work of just doing it. Good stuff.
Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times Bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, and over twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.