When you find yourself casting about for ideas, it means it’s time to refill the bucket. So I have been. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of what I’ve been reading the last few weeks.
I Give You My Body: How I Write Sex Scenes by Diana Gabaldon
As those who’ve read my work know, while I do have the occasional sex scene in my novels, it’s generally only a few lines. My books aren’t romances, so this isn’t something I’ll dwell on for pages, but sex is still an important thing to my characters, and I have wanted to have more emotional turning points in the bedroom (or wherever) than I have. I’ve read a few primers on writing sex scenes, but this was the first I’ve read that I actually found useful. Gabaldon’s note that the more senses you can engage in a scene, the more tactile it becomes was a really helpful and practical way to think about these scenes.
Take off Your Pants: Outline your books for faster, better writing
This was NOT about writing sex scenes, of course, but novel outlines and creating master plots so that you can write faster, more efficiently, and of course, write better page turners. Unlike 2K to 10k, it didn’t really change my life or anything, but it provided some good outline suggestions (and noted, once again, that if you’re REALLY interested in structure, head over to those screenwriting books. Screenwriters are obsessed with structure). I wouldn’t pay for a paperback of this, but three bucks for it on Kindle is fair (it’s only 100 pages).
Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer
This was one of those books that fundamentally changed how I view the world. Seanan McGuire recommended it to me on Twitter, and I AM SO GLAD. I’ve become very interested in how tied humans are to the organic systems here on earth. We need bacteria from this planet, something that we need to keep in mind if we choose to leave said planet. This book goes a step further and posits that we need those wormy parasites, too, and that many of them, in fact, have been integral to our own development. I’d read a lot of other studies about hookworms curing or reducing the symptoms of chronic immune disorders like lupus and type 1 diabetes, and this book points out that the rise of immuno-disorders like these can indeed be tracked to the elimination of parasites. As the parasites are destroyed, these types of diseases increase. So do allergies. Our immune systems are incredibly powerful, because they have been driven by parasites to become that way. So when you remove the parasites, they are more likely to go haywire and start attacking the body itself. Introduce some worms, and the chemicals that the worms put out suppress your immune system. All this time I thought my problem was I had a shit immune system. It turns out it’s actually very good. So good that it’s trying to kill me. If you want to bend the way you think of humans and how “great” the miracle of life is in the world, check out this book. Halfway through reading about all the terrible things parasites do to animals and people, I decided that it was totally OK for life everywhere to go extinct and all these barren rocks are actually the pinnacle of civilized existence, because for fuck’s sake, life is fucking CRUEL AND AWFUL. I mean, in a fascinating way.
Grunt by Mary Roach
Because I clearly can’t get enough Mary Roach books, I also read Grunt, her examination of some of the less talked about and less glamorous sides of the military. Lots of interesting details here about sleeping, eating, and shitting on a military campaign, and the bazillions of dollars in wild studies that go on (polar bears think used tampons are delicious, but other bears aren’t interested, so hey, don’t run around naked in Alaska while menstruating. Read and find out!). There is plenty of heartbreak in here, as well. The roundtable of medical professionals who go over the deaths of soldiers in the field and point out how they could have been better treated on the field so that they survived their injuries was sobering.
Death’s Acre: Inside the legendary forensic lab the body farm where the dead do tell tales by William Bass
I’ve heard about The Body Farm on Bones, of course, so I had to check out this book. It’s a great long look at this life of forensic anthropologist William Bass, who got started doing forensic anthropology back in the 50’s before there really was such a thing. There are some shocking truths here, among them that he and his team spent many summers in the 50’s digging up, literally, thousands of Native American graves before they were covered by water by a dam project. How they find the cemeteries is interesting, and the science is cool, but we’re talking about cemetaries that really aren’t that old, belonging to ancestors of people still alive, and the sheer number here was staggering. What I did appreciate is that he does not look away from these terrible truths of how forensic science was developed. The bodies of the poor, of slaves, of those with less power in society, had their skeletons pulled. For years the body farm actually used corpses from the local morgue of poor people whose bodies were never claimed by anyone. I mean. Wow. This is a wide-eyed look at what has been done to advance forensic science, dark and gray and everything in between. It doesn’t pretend it’s not messy and morally messed up.
The Red Market: On the trail of the world’s organ brokers, bone thieves, blood farmers, and child traffikers by Scott Carney
So, with Death’s Acre, the narrator dug up thousands of Native American graves. That’s… pretty atrocious, despite how “great” it was for “science.” He also sticks to a lot of assumptions about skeletons and race while admitting that actually a lot of those markers can be wrong. But he was not, overall, painted as an unlikable person, if that makes any sense whatsoever. At the end of the day, I respected what he did and found plenty of other admirable things about him. That’s not true of the narrator of this book, who came across like a privileged whiny white kid shocked SHOCKED at the state of the “third world.” A lot of stuff here that got presented felt like rumor mongering. He didn’t question many of the reports, and appeared to do a very small surface level of actual reporting. The book has a great title, but I wouldn’t say it presented anything new, to me. Worse, it starts out with him giving us this personal story of how one of the young people he was leading as a tour/teaching guide committed suicide in a foreign country, and his narrative about it is so self-reflective, so narcissistic (and creepily sexualizes her in death) that it was really tough to get through the rest of the book with this guy as my guide. It’s got a great title and cover, tho. So, there’s that.
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Francis Larson
Another book I was recommended via twitter and yeah, wow, this one is great. If you ever doubted that Europeans were bloody weird scary conquering nutjobs, this book will put you straight. I read an amazing book back when I was working on my Master’s thesis called Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, which talks about all the seemingly “crazy” myths about Europeans that many Africans in the Congo in particular had about Europeans. That they were vampires, that they kidnapped people for their blood, and all sorts of other stuff, and you know, after reading about Europeans actually did in Africa, this shit is not crazy at all. Not in the least. Horrible shit went down. This one also points out how seemingly “barbaric” practices like headhunting were actually driven by European demand (much like scalping). The human obsession with heads across many cultures is explored, and it’s grim and gruesome. For instance, did you know that American GI’s took home Japanese soldiers’ heads in WWII as trophies? You know whose heads they DIDN’T take home? Nazi heads. Why? Racism. This, too, is explored in depth.
Purple Cow by Seth Godin
This is a classic Godin book with some outdated examples and such, but the premise of the book still holds up. No matter what business your in, the market is most likely oversaturated. As an author writing in a world clogged with trad and self-pubb’d books, and movies and games and TV and social media and VR fighting for people’s attention, getting eyes on your project is a fucking struggle these days. Godin notes that if you want to stand out, you need to offer something truly and absolutely exceptional. You need to come up with a purple cow. Figuring out what your purple cow is, of course, is the problem. Worse is figuring out how to come up with the NEXT purple cow once everyone else is making purple cows like yours. The gosh-wow treadmill we’re on these days makes me wish I could have built a writing career back in the 80’s.
Stop Saying You’re Fine by Mel Robbins
One of those self-help books for folks feeling stuck in a life rut. Am I in a life rut? Well, I’ve certainly been cruising along here for five years or so without a lot of massive leaps in forward momentum. My career is ticking up, but slowly, so slowly, the long author marathon, and sometimes it moves forward so slowly so sure do FEEL like you’re standing still. Some good ass-kicking here, some strategies. It did get me to finally institute my sticker motivation calendar. Baby steps.
Elektrograd: Rusted Blood by Warren Ellis
Some good Weird fiction. Don’t expect to get pulled in by the vague plot or enticed by the interesting characters, but gosh-wow worldbuilding, etc. The apartment blocks are these living things that get up and move. Took me a bit to get through, but… worldbuildling.
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
I read this one in… like, two days? It was a surprisingly light, easy read from Mamatas, which was not quite what I expected. A murder goes down at a Lovecraft convention, so you’ve got a murder mystery to drive the “plot,” but the book is mostly an excuse to poke fun at the convention community as a whole. Having been to my fair share of conventions now, I recognize all of these types (there is a disclaimer in LARGE LETTERS at the front of the book insisting that these are all fictional characters, but you know…), and I admit to rolling with laughter at many scenes, especially the ones of panels (“But I AM the moderator!”) because it was a lot like being there. There’s a lot of in-jokes and nods to real SFF controversies. My main issue with the book was that I couldn’t figure out the protagonist’s motivation to solve the murder (and the police weren’t terribly convincing, but hey, Cthulu’s influence can work as an excuse for everything). As a newcomer to the convention scene who barely knew the guy who gets killed, she does things that make sense for the plot, but I never figured out her personal stakes. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. It was a breezy popcorn read, which I admit is not something I ever thought I’d say about a Mamatas book. My spouse eagerly grabbed this from me after I was done, and I think he’ll enjoy it as well. This was published by Night Shade Books, who I hate supporting because they still owe me a shitbrick of money, but it was a fun book.