My favorite books of 2018

At the end of 2017, I realized I’d read paltry few books (I think I counted 8?) and what a sad shame that was for someone who used to love to read. I decided to put excuses (and my smartphone) aside and read for half an hour a day, with a modest goal of reading about a book every 2 weeks, which I would track on Goodreads. Half an hour a day quickly added up and I hit my goal of 26 books in March. My total for the year?

67 books!! I’m still hoping to make it a nice round 70 before January 1st. 😉

Anyway, this is proof that setting a small goal for yourself can yield big results. Now I’m posting book reviews to my blog and contemplating the best setup for a book review podcast. My own fiction has also improved in the last year–pretty drastically, in my opinion–and I know a great part of that is simply that I’m internalizing good habits by reading great writing.

I also set a goal for myself to read more nonfiction (based on advice from Chuck Wendig that, again, proved to be great for my own writing). “More” than 1 or 2 nonfiction books a year was pretty easy to accomplish.

Additionally, I wanted to read 50% books by authors of color. That led to tracking some demographic information on a spreadsheet. Here’s a brief statistical breakdown of what I read:

Total books read: 66

Graphic Novels: 15, or 23%

Young Adult Fiction: 20, or 30%

Nonfiction: 15, or 23%

Audiobooks: 12, or 18%

Books* written or edited by women: 39, or 85%

Books* written or edited by POC: 19, or 41%

Most read authors: Mackenzie Lee, Grady Hendrix, and Victor LaValle

*graphic novels were not included in this calculation, sorry!

Keeping track of demographic information created a fine kettle of fish for myself. How to include graphic novels, which have multiple authors and artists? Could I reliably track author data (not everyone publicly reports their gender, race, disabilities, etc.)? What about anthologies–was one LGBTQ character in one story enough to qualify the entire book for a tick in the LGBTQ category, when the other 20 stories are about cisgender, hetero characters? Arg. This was an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure I’ll track the same statistics in 2019.

And now, the recommendations! I read a lot of books…so, which ones did I enjoy the most? Get ready for a genre breakdown! With links to my specific reviews.

Young Adult

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzie Lee, is perfect for you if you like swashbuckling action, period romance, and humor.

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton, is a lush, beautifully written fantasy novel for anyone who loves dystopian worlds disguised as utopias.

The Female of the Speciesby Mindy McGuiness, is not a book published in the last two years, but it was easily one of the best books I read in 2018, so it’s making the list. It’s my list, I do what I want!

More great books: Undead Girl Gang, Dread Nation, The Call

Horror

Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant, is about murderous mermaids. It’s the novel my 14 year old self has dreamed of for a long, long time.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle, is every parent’s worst nightmare given form. LaValle’s writing is evocative and entrancing.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike, is a classic Japanese horror novel recently given a wonderful new translation. I couldn’t put it down.

More great books: We Sold Our Souls, Meddling Kids 

Nonfiction

Well, That Escalated Quickly, by Franchesca Ramsey should be required reading for anyone who wants to exist on the internet.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West, is the book you need if you, like me, are a fat white woman in her thirties.

More great books: What Every BODY Is Saying, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

AND NOW, MY FAVORITE BOOK OF THE YEAR! 

Drumroll please….

The Power, by Naomi Alderman, is technically science fiction, in the way Margaret Atwood novels are science fiction. I chose this book as my favorite for the year because it’s the one I find myself recommending to other people the most. It really resonated with me and my mind keeps returning to it, months later. I highly recommend the audiobook.

So, dear reader, what books do you recommend? What should I read and review in 2019? Will you listen to my podcast when I finally get myself organized enough to record some episodes?

Happy New Year! ❤

Review: Dark Currents

I should start this review by saying that Jacqueline Carey is one of my top-five favorite authors. Her novel Kushiel’s Dart and the nine-book series that followed it was a life-changing revelation for me. She’s also really lovely in person. (Me, name-drop? Never.)

Sadly, however, I didn’t enjoy Carey’s first foray into urban fantasy as much as I had hoped. Her novel Santa Olivia, about a girl whose father was a mysterious super-soldier, was an entertaining enough book, but certainly not a revelation. Being a big fan, I picked up the sequel when it came out, and found Saints Astray to be really disappointing.

Thus it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I picked up Dark Currents, Carey’s latest addition to the urban fantasy genre. I was a little hesitant because the description of the book mentions fairies and vampires and frankly, who isn’t a little True Blood-ed out where those are concerned?

I’m really glad, however, that I didn’t let my preconceived notions stop me from picking up this book. Carey has managed to successfully blend the poetic writing, compelling characters, and supernatural mystery of the Kushiel’s Legacy series with a modern setting and urban feel. Most importantly, however, she manages to do something new and interesting with a genre that has, of late, been a little worn-out with identical iterations of fairies and vampires and mermaids and other tropes of the genre.

The protagonist of Dark Currents is Daisy Johanssen, who is tall, blonde, and half-incubus (I’d cast Kristen Bell for the movie version or tv series; she’s petite but otherwise perfect for the role) . She lives in the town of Pemkowet, where the supernatural lives alongside humanity thanks to the blessing of the Norse goddess Hel, who lives underground. Literally. Hel has chosen Daisy to be her enforcer on the surface, granting her the title “Agent of Hel,” and giving her a magical badge only members of the eldritch community can see.

Daisy also works for the local police department. Mostly, she files paperwork, but when a student from a nearby college turns up dead in Pemkowet, the Chief of Police suspects eldritch involvement and partners Daisy with an officer who also happens to be both a werewolf and Daisy’s childhood crush. Cue romantic tension!

Urban fantasy sometimes suffers from lack of originality where supernatural creatures are concerned. The creatures that live in Pemkowet, however, are expertly drawn and multi-dimensional, from the B-movie actress who happens to be a lamia to the sexy Eastern European leader of the local “ghoul” biker gang. As you’d expect from Carey, there’s sexual tension all over the place, between Daisy and characters both male and female. My only complaint is perhaps that none of this tension is ever resolved, if you get my drift, but that’s how we get readers excited about a sequel, isn’t it?

Carey also keeps the tension in the book tight as a violin string by giving Daisy the power to bring Armageddon down on the entire world if she gives in to the temptation of her father. You see, the incubus who impregnated Daisy’s mother is a particularly powerful one, and thanks to a sort of paranormal legal loophole, if she doesn’t keep control of her temper she could accidentally summon him from across the barrier that separates the supernatural world from ours.

Oh and, did I mention that Daisy’s other inheritance from her father is a tail? This was, oddly, one of my favorite features of the book. Much like a dog’s tail, Daisy’s tail is subject to her emotions, and Carey never forgets to mention when it lashes in anger or curls between her legs in lust. Yeah, it kind of made me want one too!

All-in-all, Dark Currents is an excellent novel. It’s not going to blow your mind or change your life, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and probably the best novel I read this summer.  I’ve already checked out the sequel, Autumn Bones, from the library, and I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir is the debut effort of Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, best known as the funniest woman on the internet now that April Winchell has retired from Regretsy. I discovered Lawson when she followed me on twitter, which was a pretty clever tactic, because I couldn’t help but read her blog out of curiosity and then BLAM, I was hooked, and also smitten. How could one not love a woman who writes candidly about mental illness, starts a project to send red dresses to women around the world to help them feel beautiful, and who buys a giant metal chicken to freak out her husband? A giant metal chicken named Beyoncé, people.

So it was with great enthusiasm that I attended a reading and signing for Lawson’s book, the exciting events of which you can read about here, and purchased a copy of Let’s Pretend. It took me a few months to get around to reading it, what with school and work and whatnot, and even longer to write a review, but late is better than never, right? Right!

The first few chapters of Let’s Pretend were difficult for me to get through for two reasons. First, much of what Lawson describes was not-quite-child-abuse-but-still-awful. For instance, Lawson’s winter footwear consisted of bread sacks stuffed with newspaper in lieu of actual shoes. Her father used roadkill–bloody roadkill–as a hand puppet. These stories made me cringe so much I found it difficult to laugh. But then I thought about how her eccentric parents and poor upbringing gave her character, and that is pretty much why she’s famous, and it’s not like she was molested or anything, so really she’s probably grateful for those experiences so I should stop cringing so much and try to enjoy it. And I’m fretting over my reaction so much that I forget to laugh.

The second reason: a lot of the experiences of Lawson’s childhood hit a little close to home. No, I didn’t wear bread sack shoes and my father wasn’t into taxidermy. But I did (and do) share Lawson’s anxiety disorder. Some of those passages made my throat tighten because the feelings were just a little too familiar. I may have had flashbacks to every awkward moment of my time in middle school. These are not cherished memories.

Fortunately, once I got past Chapter 5, Lawson moved into memoirizing (is that a word?) her high school, college, and adult experiences. Though many of these anecdotes were still really familiar, they didn’t bring up such conflicted emotions or terrible memories. Lawson details bizarre and hilarious experiences being the only Goth kid at a tiny rural high school, having social anxiety in college, and working in human resources as an adult. She writes candidly about her rare medical conditions, the struggle to have a child, and her (legitimately inherited) obsession with taxidermy. The two funniest passages were, for me, the one about her daughter wearing the wrong diaper to the pool, and another section where Lawson takes too many laxatives with the result you would imagine, except with a would-be rapist in the house. I’m not going to give you more details than that, you’ll just have read it for yourself if you want to know more. I won’t ruin it for you.

There are also sections where Lawson talks about reconciling her childhood, coping with her anxiety and depression, quitting her job to live the dream life of a full-time writer, and dealing with the death of her dog, all of which manage to be both funny and poignant in a way that few authors can achieve. In the end, Let’s Pretend succeeds at proving that a woman can start at humble insane beginnings and eventually become an internationally acclaimed blogger, successful author, and happy wife and mother, “just” by working hard and being her own anxious, generous, hilarious self where the internet can see and appreciate it.

I came away from reading Let’s Pretend with stitches in my side, but also feeling a little less alone, and a lot more hopeful. It’s one book that lived up to the hype and didn’t disappoint. And really, you can’t expect more from a book than that.

I managed to read several other books this summer, so you can look forward to reviews of the ones I really liked in the coming months. No, I won’t review any of the ones I didn’t like. If I don’t have more compliments than criticisms, then I prefer to say nothing at all, especially since the internet is eternal, and I have way too much anxiety to deal with worrying about the fallout from an uncomplimentary review.  If you want to hear about some books I didn’t like, I suggest you buy me a drink sometime.

If you read Lawson’s memoir, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

Review: Triumph Over Tragedy

As a rule, I don’t generally review anthologies that contain my work. I’m making an exception for Triumph Over Tragedy because 1, I’m not receiving an financial remuneration and 2, profits from the anthology go directly to the Red Cross to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy, so I want to encourage people to buy the book!

Triumph, edited by RT Kaelin, features 41 stories by a variety of speculative fiction authors. Some of them are big names–Marion Zimmer Bradley, Elizabeth Bear, Robert Silverberg–but most are new or midlist authors. The stories vary widely in themes, writing styles, and genres. As with any collection, there were a few stories I loved, a few I didn’t, and a lot that fell somewhere in between, though the effect was exaggerated by the staggering number of stories included in the anthology. I’m going to focus here on the stories I loved.

I have to start with Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s  “Death Between the Stars.” Zimmer Bradley is widely considered to be one of the great classical speculative fiction masters, and this story proves why. It’s one of those stories that manages to be both small in scope–detailing the brief encounter of a human attempting to share a berth on a starship with an alien despite cultural restrictions against human-alien contact–and which manages to also explore universal issues, especially bigotry. The ending manages to be both satisfying and chilling, with the feel of a parable without being preachy.

“The Pope of the Chimps,” by Robert Silverberg, is another masterful story with a tight scope but universal implications. When a chimp researcher dies, the chimps develop mythology about him. Soon they’ve invented an entire religious hierarchy and the surviving researchers are left wondering whether they should halt the development of religion among their animal charges–and how to do it. The story is a brilliant meditation on spirituality, religion, and humanity.

I also really enjoyed Steven Saus‘s story, “The Burning Servant.” (FYI: Steve is a close personal friend and has published quite a bit of my work as Alliteration Ink. I just happen to also really enjoy his writing.) This tale of civil war demon-summoning and human sacrifice starts off dropping tantalizing hints but quickly builds to a horrific conclusion. If you don’t like horror, you should probably skip this story, but if you like a good scare, you’ll probably find it very enjoyable.

My favorite story in the anthology, however, was probably “Sargent Argent’s Moment in the Sun,” by Rob Rogers. Part of my love for it stems from the fact that it was one of few humorous stories in a collection that was, overall, very dark and serious (and I include my own story in that). “Sargent Argent” is the story of two friends, one of whom dies…and comes back. What would you do if your best friend returned from the grave, with newly minted vampire super-powers? Rogers weaves a tale that is charming and heartwarming, with a good dose of laughter and a killer ending. I’ll definitely be inviting him to submit to any future anthologies of mine that would benefit from a dose of humor.

The book concludes with another excellent story, Timothy Zahn‘s “The Ring.” Nick Powell stumbles upon a ring in a pawn shop, and is suddenly inundated with riches. He quickly comes to realize, however, that those around him are paying a terrible price for his success. Nick can’t figure out how to remove the ring, or undo the curse, but with a horrible fate in store for his fiancee, he had better figure it out, and fast!

There are a number of other excellent stories in Triumph, but these were my favorites. The ebook is only $6.99, so the anthology is well-worth the price even if you only like a handful of the stories. And don’t forget, 100% of the profits go to benefit the Red Cross. Though Hurricane Sandy is no longer in the public eye, cleanup continues, and for those who lost homes and loved ones, life will never be the same again. Buying a copy of Triumph is a great way to help them while also helping yourself to some great stories.

Review: Lost at the Con

In the interests of full disclosure, the author of Lost at the Con, Bryan Young, is a writer friend of mine from the Origins Author Library. I’ve invited him to submit to the anthology I’m putting together. I try my best to review all books as fairly and honestly as possible, but bias happens. I didn’t pay for this book, either; I purchased it for zero dollars during a promotion where anyone could download the ebook for free. I was not, however, asked to write this review or compensated for it.

Lost at the Con is a novel about a journalist, Cobb, who is sent on-assignment to a science fiction convention in Atlanta, Griffin*Con, which is obviously meant to be an analog for Dragon*Con, the largest fan-run science fiction convention in the United States. The novel is written in a gonzo journalism style, which is to say, it gives the journalist a narrative voice rather than reporting in a traditionally dry, objective manner.

The first few chapters were slow for me because Young spends a lot of time setting up the world of Griffin*Con. If you’ve never attended Dragon*Con, you’ll appreciate the descriptions of the hotels, convention layout,  costumers, etc. But as someone who has attended the convention before, I didn’t need so much detail, so these sections bored me a bit. If you’ve been to Dragon*Con, you can probably skim these parts.

There’s a second reason I had a hard time getting into the first few chapters of Lost at the Con. Cobb works for an editor he hates, doing a job he despises, living with a girlfriend whom he allows to be unfaithful (to clarify, I have no problem with open relationships, except when one partner is obviously unwilling–as is Cobb, here). He is a self-admitted alcoholic who spends the first half of the book searching for his next gulp of booze. He complains about everyone he meets and everything around him. He is, in a word, pathetic.

But I kept reading, because as much as I hate to admit it, I saw some part of myself in Cobb. I think everyone probably does (though some readers will be reluctant to admit it). We’re all wage slaves, or hate our bosses, or we’re trapped in emotionally stunted relationships, or we’re drinking way too much to numb the pain. Cobb felt familiar. He represented the worst parts of myself, the parts I’d like to jettison. Reading about those parts of myself is not easy, but generally when a novel taps into self-loathing, that’s a sign that the work is exploring universal themes and there’ll be some payoff at the end. Fortunately, Lost at the Con does not disappoint in that respect.

It becomes increasingly clear, as Cobb’s adventures at Griffin*Con become more bizarre and entertaining, that he’s not only representative of the reader’s own weaknesses, but that he’s also unhinged. He has a really difficult time telling reality from his slightly paranoid imaginings. Once I realized this, parts of the novel made a lot more sense, like his  completely unreasonable fear of a cosplayer dressed as Steampunk Abraham Lincoln.

In the end, Cobb experiences what a lot of geeks experience at science fiction conventions (or, if you’re me, writing conventions): a sort of nirvana, bliss, a clarity of purpose and motivation. Young foreshadows the ending quite a bit, and this experience is very familiar to any geek who has attended a convention, so it feels…not predictable, but right, like “Of course this is the ending, it has to be. It’s the only ending this book could have.” Cobb hits bottom in a big, flamboyant way, and from there he can rebuild himself–better, faster, stronger, much like Steampunk Abraham Lincoln improved on the original. The convention takes the place of an ancient religious rite, the kind where a person’s soul is washed and renewed, past transgressions are forgiven, and the future is full of endless possibilities.

So my advice to you, dear reader, is that even if you find the beginning of Lost at the Con a bit slow, the action builds, and it wraps up with an ending I found surprisingly resonant. Just don’t be shocked if it makes you crave a science fiction convention! Sadly, the next Dragon*Con is almost a year away, but I can recommend some others to keep you busy in the meantime–like Ohayocon!