I've been doing a lot of reading about writing lately, from books to blogs, and, partially based on what I've read, I decided to read all of the Nebula and Hugo award nominee novels for this year. A lot of what I read recommended becoming familiar with current writing in one's preferred genre, and I happen to be mostly interested in science fiction and fantasy, so where better to start familiarizing myself than with those nominees?
The Nebula Award nominees for Novel, 2012:
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
Ironskin, Tina Connolly (Tor)
The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Hugo Award nominees for Novel, 2013:
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit)
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor)
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW)
Conveniently, two of the books were nominated for each award, and one of them I had already read. But still, it was a significant undertaking- I began this quest in May and just finished today. When I started the Nebula nominees, I began to despair that I should not be a writer, because, to be honest, I didn't really enjoy reading most of those books, each for their own special reasons. I'm not intending this to be a book review (there may be a few spoilers, but they're mild), but more like a me review. After all, these books were all published, and are therefore better than anything I've ever written. They're also nominated for awards - again, more than I've got.
But that doesn't mean I don't get to have an opinion, right?
I started reading The Drowning Girl first. The cover looked really cool, and the idea of the book was quite appealing to me. Crazy girl writes about her crazy, what's not to like? The question I ended up asking was what is there to like? I can't fault the writing, and there were parts that I enjoyed, parts that made me curious, but- I stopped reading this book the first time before I finished the first chapter. I did finish it, eventually, but I read three other books before I read the last page of this one. I do not think I would have made it through if I hadn't been challenging myself. The conceit of it all being typed on a typewriter, the stories within the 'memoir', and the swirling between using first and third person just did not appeal to me. At the same time, that such a book has been published certainly demonstrates that rule-breaking can sell.
The Killing Moon was one of the books I read while trying to get through The Drowning Girl. I was excited to see that N. K. Jemison was female. Girl power, yay! I definitely had an easier time reading this one, and never wanted to throw the book across the room in frustration, but I felt that I had read the first chapter before. Something about the opening scene was nigglingly familiar to me, and that hidden itch affected my reading of it. I was disappointed by the ending, and I don't feel compelled to read the second book in the set.
Ironskin was read in that same interval, and I think my prejudice against Jane Austen colored my reception of it. I think I tried to read Sense and Sensibility about a dozen times between the ages of 12 and 20 before giving up for good. A college friend told me I had started with the wrong book, but it was too late. She never could convince me to pick up another, and I didn't enjoy the one I had to read for school (which I've deleted from long term storage in my memory). I didn't find the speed with which Jane's emotions developed to be realistic. It's funny how when you're reading fantasy, some things still feel too fantastic, like they fall out of the parameters that were initially set by the author. I'm constantly afraid of crossing that line in my writing, but, based on this book, maybe I shouldn't be.
Glamour in Glass set the rule for the rest of the series books on these lists. It was the first one that I had to make the decision of whether to read prior books when the nominee was not the first in its series. Although this is entirely contrary to my normal book reading habits, I decided to read only the nominees, and not any books that might precede them serially. As a result, I was really confused about the whole pregnancy and magic issue. I thought it must have been something that was mentioned in the previous book, and that's why I felt lost. When I finished the book, I read in the author's note that this was a feature exclusively of the second book - I only felt lost, because I knew there had been something before, but didn't know what that before was. If it had been the first book, maybe that detail would not have struck me so oddly.
Oh, and is there a rule that every female protagonist in historical fantasy has to be named Jane?
I was disappointed when I realized that Kim Stanley Robinson was male, not female. I know Stanley is a guy's name, but I figured it could be one of those things where the middle name is the mom's maiden name or something. But no, male Kim. Once I got over that blip, 2312 was interesting... The excerpts, lists and especially the quantum wanderings were painful to read. They were like modern art - I know it's supposed to be art, but I just don't get why it is art and my abstract scribblings are not. Another inexplicable emotional entanglement surrounded by some neat-o ideas. Meh.
At this point, I found myself wondering if anything that was nominated for an award was something that I would really enjoy reading.
Throne of the Crescent Moon began to restore my faith. I did like reading it. It was a fast read that kept me invested in the story and didn't knock me out of the story with perceived inconsistencies. I'm not chomping at the bit to read more by Saladin Ahmed, but I'd be more inclined to read his other books than any others on the Nebula list.
It was about at this point that I looked into how these award nominees are selected. Essentially, the Nebulas are nominated by professional writers, and the Hugos are nominated by fans. Reading the Nebulas first was probably a good idea, because otherwise I would have ended on a sour note, instead of a sweet one.
2312 and Throne of the Crescent Moon were on both lists, which is part of the reason I decided to include the Hugos in the first place - it wouldn't be that much more work, and surely fans would nominate works more readable than pros, right?
If I had looked at the back cover of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance before starting to read it, I might have been a little more sour towards it. The front cover is cool, kind of a hokey space opera type thing, but the back cover... Okay, I get the nearly naked blue girl is a dancer, somewhat of an exhibitionist, but there is no reason why Tej should be draped over the couch like a sex-drugged kitten. Rear cover art aside, I enjoyed reading this book as well. It made some nice abrupt turns that still made sense in the larger context and the story ended in both an expected and unexpected way - the title really gave away the permanent nature of the supposed temporary alliance to me. I was really glad I'd already decided not to read all books in a series before reading the nominee when I got to this one. I think it's number 19.
Ah, Blackout. Is there any higher compliment that can be given than, "I read this book in one day"? Okay, I guess staying up all night to finish would be a superior compliment, but I can't help that I can read fast when inspired (and I started this one at like 10am). I pretty much couldn't put this one down. Yay! This one was number 3 in a trilogy, and I've got the first two on my 'to read' list now. I thought hard about whether I wanted to read the first two first, because I thought I might not want to read the first two if I already knew the ultimate ending, but I don't think I'll mind knowing the ultimate ending. I feel like there was a lot that I missed by not knowing the whole story, and I actually want to know what it was. I really enjoyed this book, even without having read the first two, which I think may be more difficult for an author to achieve than having a reader enjoy a standalone. I think Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire is my new hero.
And, finally, the one I've read before: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. My husband and I found Old Man's War in a Borders several years ago, and we both enjoyed it enough to buy the other books in that universe. I started reading John Scalzi's Whatever, and therefore learned of Redshirts in a more direct manner. I enjoyed it, both the first reading, and the re-reading I completed today to finish my project. It's entertaining, funny and I'm enough of a Star Trek fan to appreciate the basis. It was also interesting to read it a second time, because I paid a lot more attention to how the story was constructed, what techniques were used to transition from one scene to another, and how the exposition was handled, among other things.
So I read some books I liked, and some that I didn't like, and at least one that I wanted to punch. I am glad to have completed this project - both in the sense that I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I'm done. I'm going to be shifting my reading focus back to books on writing, though I think I'll make time for the rest of the Newsflesh trilogy before school starts...