Reading List: Fantasy and Science Fiction

Students and friends ask this question a lot: What are some great books to read in the genre? Recently, I wrote a pretty extensive email in answer. Here’s the list of books I’ve either fallen in love with or I have on my to-be-read shelf at home:

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
– A familiar title, but if you’ve never read it, the first book in that series is simply gorgeous. A master class in just about every imaginable category.
Binti or Akata Witch – Nnedi Okorafor
– There’s a reason she just won awards for Binti. Brilliant writing in diverse settings with diverse characters. Please grab Akata Witch instead of reading about Rowling’s school of magic in Africa. Okorafor’s is by far the superior version.
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
– In terms of literary/lyrical writing in fantasy, few really stand up to Rothfuss. He even wrote an off-shooting book for this world in iambic pentameter. A worthy, sprawling epic.
The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
– Not action oriented at all. It’s much more focused on diplomacy and navigating traditional waters in a new way. The main character, Maia, wrestles with maintaining his thoughts and beliefs in light of an unexpected and powerful new status.
The Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson
– Only read this if you enjoy a steep learning curve, feeling a little lost, and the convergence of powerful forces. Erikson’s characters tend to feel like video game bosses, which I really enjoy. His magic system is also pretty great in this one.
Wizard of Earthsea- Ursula K. Le Guin
Old school, but she does it so well. We can thank her for all the wizarding schools that followed. I’d also suggest The Left Hand of Darkness, if you want a taste of her sci-fi.
Red Rising – Pierce Brown
– This series was tops for me after the past few years. It’s relentlessly action-packed with characters we simply can’t help attaching ourselves to. It has the darkness of Game of Thrones, but really tends to read more tightly, and without so confusing a cast.
 
The Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb
In my mind, this is the benchmark for traditional fantasy. The magic, the world, the characters… all brilliantly rendered, but I’ve never read someone who writes relationships better than her. Fitz reads like a Jane Austen character in that respect. His interactions with each person are incredibly dynamic. Whether it’s the Fool or Molly or Chivalry
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
In my mind, it’s Ocean’s 11 but set in a fantasy world. Great characters and a very gritty world.
Temeraire – Naomi Novik
Not my personal favorite, but if you like historical fantasy, this is one of the tops in the category. Imagine the 1800’s navies of our world, but with a dragon air force. Pretty great concept. Her more recent novel, Uprooted, was up for all kinds of awards.
N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season
One of my recent favorites. The work she does with narration in this one is just brilliant. She also has some mind-bending, eye-popping world building within the story.
The Scar – China Mieville
If you want weird fantasy, go this direction. He’s trying to push back against Tolkien (dwarves and elves) and carve out some funky newness in the genre. I just started his book The City and the City It’s one of the coolest things I’ve read in a while.
Bone Street Rumba / Shadowshaper – Daniel Jose Older
Daniel’s known for being a force on Twitter and a force in his books. He crafts distinct, diverse worlds with casts of characters you’ll follow to the end.
Station Eleven  – Emily St. Mandel
A group travels from town to town performing Shakespeare in the apocalypse. She jumps through time quite a bit, but I really thought she pulled it off better than most.
The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker
1900’s New York. A story about a golem and jinni trying to make life work in the city of immigrants. Really beautiful prose throughout
Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer
Science fiction. Really cool story, sort of creepy, but very compelling intellectually.
A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab
A character who can travel to three different versions of London?! Treat yourself.
Just to be clear this is the equivalent of a starter kit. I also didn’t really include ANY YA books in here. I know there are MASSIVE gaps in my reading as a science fiction, fantasy, and young adult author… I’m working every day to shore those gaps up, but I’m also admitting to myself that I’ll never really complete that task. Too many new books. Too many brilliant writers over the year. Just pick the books you love and keep reading them!

How to Write a Chapter

chapter-blog-post

I’m writing an epic fantasy with seven viewpoints right now. It’s no small task to manage the storylines, to juggle character arcs, and to weave the entire plot through those varied various. Recently, I’ve been examining how I begin a chapter and how I move forward to it’s completion. There are some really short, take-them-or-leave-them tips that have come out of that examination:

  • Consider how it connects to the previous chapter from that character’s perspective. I’ll take my character Gemma for example. In one of her chapters, she’s giving the survivors of a plane crash haircuts. It’s meant to be exceedingly light, one of those moments inserted between action and chaos to alleviate the reader and provide a small (read SMALL) ray of hope. It works. After examining that, I did not want Gemma’s next scene to be as comfortable. I simply asked, “What would make her most uncomfortable?” Gemma’s old and in a situation where her age is very meaningful. I decided to use another character to exacerbate that discomfort and draw her into a place of anger and frustration over it.
  • Consider how it connects to the previous chapter directly before it. I wanted to make sure Gemma’s story continued properly, but I also have to make sure the piece of her story is well-positioned with the rest of the narrative. How? Well the scene right before hers is a scene of creation. Someone is bringing something to life. I wove that fact into her scene in two big ways: she has an encounter with the new creation and she’s forced to consider her own death in the scene, which juxtaposes ideas of creation and newness. Even if the reader doesn’t catch these two chapters held up side by side, they’ll hopefully feel the rhythm of these things in their reading.
  • Examine where each paragraph starts and where it ends. Does the trajectory make sense? Did you stray from the subject of that paragraph? Maybe you were supposed to be describing the dragon, but you got sidetracked by describing the waterfall around it… Did you take ten sentences to get there when you should have taken 5? Does that paragraph nestle logically in with what’s around it, or does it stick out awkwardly?
  • Closer or farther. I like examining if my character has moved closer to their desired goal/outcome or farther from it. In most scenes, they should do one or the other. Stagnation frustrates characters and readers.
  • Dominant or Not. I also like examining my character’s status in the scene. Are they setting the tone? Are they the leader? Is the person they’re interacting with afraid of them? It helps to shift this from character to character, too. For instance, I have a scene in which a character gets ordered around harshly… He then follows this encounter by snapping at one of his own subordinates to do something. Exploring those shifts in powers tells us more about each character.
  • Critical Hits – Is there anything new in the scene that doubles or triples the reader’s interest, even for a moment? I never want the action to fully die down. For example, that scene in which Gemma’s giving haircuts? Totally positive scene. The other survivors love her for it. They’re laughing and having fun. It goes really well… until right around sunset. Someone shows up for a haircut that Gemma doesn’t like. What does she do? A positive scene gets drawn into darkness, suspicion, and intrigue.
  • The Close – I think there are hundreds of ways to end a chapter. I’m always wary of the red herring chapter ending: “Something breathed on her neck…” And then we cut to the next scene only to find out it’s a fairy and all is well… Those can work, but used sparingly. I’d much rather see a scene close with a really meaningful line that summarizes or concludes or increases what’s been happening in the scene up until that point. If you ever want a lesson in this, check out The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin. A friend, Stephen Carradini, pointed this out to me. She’s a master of making sure her final lines have weight in each chapter. If the point of the chapter was to open Ged’s eyes to his own weakness, the final line will really hit that aspect home in a way that’s powerful without being preachy.

Those are just a few of the writing thoughts on my mind today. I was working on two scenes. One came together so easily. The other struggled out of the gate, and took a lot of revising. These are some of the qualities I noted about the first one, and my approach to it.

Hopefully they help! Happy writing!

Pupdate

That’s right.

We’re in full on puppy mode at the Reintgen household. After some social media voting, and serious deliberations, Katie and I decided to name our little chocolate lab Luna.

She is all the wonderful things…

… and she’s also chaos in 12 lb form. My last few days have been spent playing with Luna (Translation: trying to avoid being eaten alive). She’ll nap four or five times every day, for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. During those times, I slowly tiptoe into the other room and scramble to do anything productive. But hey… at least she’s cute as a button.

Luna 1

Really, you’d have a hard time finding a button this cute, but I digress…

Here are a few things I’m learning in the first week of having a pupper:

  1. My wife is going to be a really great mom. She’s thoughtful, but more importantly, she has systems she likes to put in place. She’s going to be a smart mom.
  2. Luna wants to be wherever you are. You’re touching that? She wants to touch it, too.
  3. She will eat ANYTHING. Rabbit poop? Check. Mounds of grass? Check. Flowers? Check.
  4. But she’s obsessed with her dog food. I went to scoop some out the other day and she pulled some kind of Houdini act. I looked up and she was over the barrier and attacking me from the western flank. She came. I fell. She conquered.
  5. We’re learning a lot about how good God is to us. This puppy is straight helpless. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s peeing in the wrong places. She’s chewing on extension cords. We swing in and, to her infinite frustration, give her nudges away from a lot of bad stuff. It’s not hard to stretch the metaphor. You can probably measure what I know and understand in teaspoons. I’m sure God’s shaking his head at me all the time like I do with Luna, “He’s doing what now?”
  6. But we love her. And God loves us. That’s crazy good.
  7. Caring for a creature that can’t support itself is exhausting. People have babies and puppies simultaneously? Can you believe that? That’s amazing. Can we get these people medals? Candy bars? Something?
  8. I absolutely hate when she’s in pain. Seems like a given, but she has bad dreams and I go hold her for a little while. I stepped on her paw yesterday and thought she wouldn’t ever forgive me (she did!).
  9. But she’s totally cool when I get hurt. Between the biting and that time I fell down the stairs at 3am… she’s yucking it up over here.
  10. Sleep. I miss sleep.
  11. Who knew how much of a space in your heart is waiting to love other people/creatures? Sometimes it’s not something you’re feeling until there’s someone who needs you to, you know, pick up their poop and clap excitedly when they pee. True love, you know?

That’s it for this pupdate. Luna’s got a few more pictures up on Instagram, but here’s one more of the snooze machine:

Luna 2

 

 

Summer Update/Newsletter

For those of you not subscribing to the newsletter, here’s a summer update:

My blog has been quiet because our summer has been loud. The biggest news being: Katie and I bought a house! Talk about chaos. Does this house have the right pipes? What are the right pipes? Can you explain the amortization schedule to me one more time? Oh… can you unexplain that so I never think about it ever again? Aside from all the stress and learning that comes with owning our first home, there was also the packing, moving, and unpacking required. I assured Katie that I would use a magical spell to take care of everything. Fortunate, then, that my Patronus is a U-Haul truck.

On the fictional front, I’m happy to announce that we recently secured a deal in the UK for the Babel series. So the trilogy continues to do well abroad and we’re hoping for more announcements on that front in the future. I’ve also just finished and turned in copy edits on the first book. For those unfamiliar with the publishing industry, this is the level of edits in which a very intelligent person leaves me feeling like I stole my English degree from UNC. More seriously, I was amazed by the attention to detail in those notes. My favorite example has been the editor’s ability to determine an entire timeline based on one reference to the Super Bowl. Seriously, that’s nuts.

Right now, I’m finishing up my time at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. Teaching College Admissions Essays and Dark Fiction this summer has been such a blast. Katie and I are looking forward to a week in Wrightsville after the session finishes. After that, I’ll be back to full time writing. I can’t talk about those projects too much, but they involve magic horses, dirigibles, and a nine iron. Below you can find a few pictures from our summer!

Enjoy the rest of your summer and be on the lookout for more newsletters in the Fall!

Say it with me: TRANSITION

Some stages of life can be summarized by a single word. Other stages (middle school, mostly) should be outlawed from all future conversations. Still others are so confounding or glorious that there really aren’t proper descriptions for them.

I find myself in the the first category. Katie and I are two months into our return from Switzerland. We would tell you that transition has been pretty smooth, but “pretty smooth” doesn’t stop me from waking up sometimes, walking out our front door, and expecting the 33 bus to take me to Hardbrucke.

Another transition happening right now is teacher to writer. You would think ten months would be a big enough window for me to grow accustomed to that change, but remember that I started that transition thinking my time as a full-time writer would be completely temporary. Honestly, my real goal was to get an agent while I was abroad. Anything else felt like wishful thinking. Well, in the immortal words of Brick Tamland, “That escalated quickly.” Now we’re back, and I have a publishing deal, and I’m trying to sort through all the unpredictability of how to make a career out of my imagination.

We’re also making a big transition from “first townhome/apartment” to “first house house.” Katie and I are searching for a place to live in this absurd Triangle market and wondering why every property has one really strange quirk (I’m confused… why is there a window there?).

Finally, I’m transitioning between projects as well. I’ve completed a new YA about horse racing… and I’ve completed my edits for the first book in the Babel series. With each completed work there’s a profound sense of accomplishment. Trust me. I sit back for exactly twenty seconds, smile at my computer, and eat anything that resembles chocolate in the house. But that’s always followed by the inevitable: What’s next?

And here’s where I want to do some honest digging. I struggle so, so much with this question. I’ve spent the past week doing what I always do between projects. I’ve shoved small tasks to the forefront of everything. Write this email. Check that box. Do some research (aka watching Bloodline on Netflix). I know I have other projects on tap. There are three different stories I could finish. There are two others I could begin. But I know all of those require heavy lifting. They require my energy. They require more than quick one-offs. I’ll have to plot and plan and dig deep.

I’m not advocating for constant work. Trust me. I take weekends. I take breaks. I work hard and I dog it whenever I’m mid-project, but there’s always time with my wife, or time with family, or any number of solid, restful distractions. There’s something, though, about this in-between that doesn’t feel like rest. It feels like taking the easy road. It feels like… this:

IMG_1540

And as nice as this looks, I kind of promised myself I’d work tirelessly so that I can keep doing the job I always dreamed I would get to do. So there’s no quick take from this particular blog post, but there’s definitely a psych-myself-up encouragement.

Tomorrow I’m going to wake up, pick a project, and dig my feet all the way into it.

Here we go.

The Business of Best

This weekend my wife and I attended a wedding.

It’s not a well-kept secret that I love weddings. Our wedding was such a celebration. Of the love my wife and I have for one another, but also of the people that had prepared us for marriage throughout the years. But what makes weddings more than just another event are the people that are choosing to come together and start a new life, a new family. This weekend I watched my YoungLife leader get married.

To explain the magnitude of this event, I’d have to start with how big of an impact Mike Strawbridge has had on my life. We met my freshman year in high school. Like most YoungLife leaders, Mike looked vaguely out of place. Here was this college kid in the stands of a Cary High School soccer game, cracking jokes and spending his time with us for some reason. While that sounds vaguely like a scene from Dazed and Confused, it was the first time I saw pursuit in action. Someone with way better, way cooler things to do was choosing to love, pursue, and encourage high school folks.

Eventually, Mike and I became friends. I attended a bible study at his house. I went to weekend camps with him as my leader. We ate meals together, and played way too much Halo together. My memories of specific talks or advice are vague, but they’re all highlighted by the idea that Mike always had time for me, and was always willing to help me find the answers in my walk with faith. I knew if I called him, he’d sacrifice his own time and energy to sit down with me. That’s just rare, no matter how old you are or what your situation is.

… so fast forward to Saturday. Mike stood there across from his breathtaking bride, Crystie. I sat at the back of the gathering and my mind raced through a lot of thoughts:

  1. A memory of senior club. I stood up and told Mike I couldn’t wait to have him be a part of my wedding (he was a groomsman), but that I hoped he’d get hitched up before I did (he didn’t).
  2. It’s really hot out here.
  3. Going to Mike for advice after getting engaged to Katie. How he told me to chase after my wife, to be relentless with my love. He wasn’t married at the time, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know Crystie yet, but he had wisdom and he gave it freely.
  4. Is my back sweating? Yeah, it’s sweating.
  5. Mike taking care of me on my wedding day. Asking if I needed anything. Looking out for me on a day where it was all I could do not to have my stomach tied in knots.
  6. It’s still hot.
  7. All the times we dogged Mike about getting married. Mike’s about four years older than me, so he was an easy target as he pressed into his 30s.
  8. All the stories I heard about people trying to set Mike up. All the stories I heard about people wanting Mike to meet the right girl.
  9. The final thought: Mike and Crystie look perfect together up there.

And that’s where my mind landed, and stuck. Katie and I enjoyed catching up with folks I knew from Cary, and we danced, and we ate good food. But as I thought about the joy I had in my heart for Mike, and the joy I felt in being with my own beautiful bride, I was absolutely struck by the idea that God is in the business of best.

He’s not in the business of easy, unless He wants it to be easy. He’s not in the business of quick, unless He wants it to be quick. He’s not in the business of settling or in the business of half-measures. The God that Mike spent years teaching me about is in the business of best. He knows us so well. He knows our ins and outs, our weaknesses and our strengths. He knows which parts of us echo Him, and which parts of us rebel.

There’s nothing about my life that’s hidden. There’s nothing too big for him to unburden from my shoulders. There’s nothing too small to go beneath his notice. He took account of everything about me and everything about Katie, and patiently led us to one another.

My wife loves asking how people met their spouses. The two of us met on a blind date. Mike and Crystie met in a hot tub. How random, some would say. How lucky!

But I don’t think that’s what we would call it. God’s greatest provision in our lives came, not by accident, but with great purpose. So I think about the years that Mike and Crystie had to wait for each other… and how overshadowed all of that is by a single day, and by all the days to come.

I think about the world I lived in before Katie… then the world I stumbled upon after we met.What grace, what mercy, what hope. What a glimpse of What is to Come.

Reading Winds of Winter… Will Be Weird

I’m going to keep this post spoiler free…

… because let’s be honest, you have friends in every phase of the Game of Thrones story line. You have friends that have not started (heaven forbid). You have friends who are committed to reading the books before they start the show. You have friends who have never read the book, but are knee-deep in the HBO series. It’s a wide spread.

But to the fans who loved Game of Thrones before it was the Game of Thrones cult phenomenon, things are really starting to get weird, aren’t they?

I’m not well-read enough to know if this is a unique circumstance, but it strikes me as very likely that Martin is one of the first novelists to have his storytelling usurped by another group of storytellers that he invited into the telling. There’s no doubt in most fans minds that Martin really is the superior teller of these stories (and the world’s originator), but there’s also no doubt that he’s the slowest teller, too. He’s being outraced and there are a few things that will happen when hungry fans finally curl up with The Winds of Winter:

  1. It will be, in some ways, a re-read: I’m not a huge supporter of the re-read. There are a very select number of books that I’ve seen as important and fascinating enough to bear a second run. This mostly because I feel there are so many books out there, waiting to be cracked open. But The Winds of Winter will be a re-read for those who are watching this season (and next?) of Game of Thrones. Some of the ground the producers are treading has to be the correct ground. Some of it has to be flush with what will happen in the novel. We will already have a vision of certain deaths. Will they move us as much in the prose as they did on the screen? How much punch will be lost in the fact that we’re no longer surprised when so-and-so bites the dust? Most people, I think, will consider Winds of Winter worthy of such a re-read.
  2. It will be a form of choose your own adventure: Martin won’t have us skipping around to different pages, but you are going to have some choice in canon purely because of how the show is veering off course. We’ve obviously witnessed a vast array of changes to the story as the producers attempt to put it in a new format for a new audience… but now the established plots and ends will be challenged by the original creator and visionary. He will change deaths. He will have different armies rising up. He will employ different twists in plot. We can assume some of the finales will be close to the same, but the road toward those ends may twist and change drastically from show to book. These surprises (oh! that character did this in the books!) will drive some people crazy and be delightful nuggets for others.
  3. Twenty Years from Now… No One Will Agree: No, that character got run through with a spear! Uhh… I’m pretty sure he actually got eaten by a wolf. Wait a minute… Martin’s cast is already massive. It takes a compendium just to keep up with the houses and names and growing list of players involved. The success of both the books and the series will eventually create a confusion over the acceptable facts. Really, it seems like the viewers will outweigh the readers. It strikes me that twenty years from now there will be little agreement on how characters actually did anything in these books.
  4. We will be massively entertained: This is the one that matters most, yes? I will sit down with Winds of Winter and relish every chapter. It might be the strangest reading experience I’ve encountered to that date, but I know it will be a great one, because I trust Martin to deliver on what has become one of the most fascinating and dynamic reading experiences of my life.

 

#HoldTheDoor #WeirdIsComing #IMeanWinter