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: Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

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Genre: Young Adult…Mystery? Horror?

Format: Audiobook

How could anyone resist a book with a title like Undead Girl Gang? I certainly couldn’t. And Lily Anderson’s debut novel is as utterly charming as the title (and the whimsical cover) would suggest.

Our protagonist, Mila Flores, has a smart, bitingly sarcastic voice that is a joy to read. Her sarcasm hides a deep well of bitterness thanks to her weight (she’s fat, not curvy or fluffy, okay?) and her race (one of the only girls of color at her fancy private school). But Mila is smart and capable, so smart and capable that when her best-and-only friend Riley is murdered, Mila manages to use witchcraft to bring her back from the dead–along with two other girls from her school, murdered by the same killer. With only a week before the zombified girls return to their graves, Mila and her new girl gang go on the prowl for the killer to exact justice. Along the way, the book explores questions of friendship, trust, deceit, and why exactly mean girls do the mean things they do. Mila gets the kind of closure most of us can only dream of, so this book is a satisfying read for anyone who has ever been bullied for being different. Additionally, the romantic subplot enhances the novel, rather than distracting from it.

The blurb for this book calls it “Veronica Mars meets The Craft” and I’d say that’s pretty dead-on. It reminded me of My Best Friend’s Exorcismwhich also takes place among girls at a private school and features a fairly similar protagonist, smart and capable and stuck with mean girls, often hampered from doing what needs to be done merely by the limits of her age and the clueless adults around her. Mila’s voice also reminded me a bit of the darkly humorous and wonderfully self-aware Meddling Kids.

The audiobook is enhanced by the reading by Rebecca Soler, whose delightful voice I recognized from other YA audiobooks like the Lunar Chronicles series. Soler’s youthful narration style keeps the tone light even while the story deals with heavy topics like murder, resurrection, young love, and bullying.

As a final note, it was really nice (as a fat person) to read about a fat heroine in a genre (science fiction, fantasy, or horror) novel. While it is possible to find young adult novels about fat characters, it’s a much greater challenge to find books about fat protagonists in the genres I love. I’m not a big reader of contemporary fiction, where the few fat characters can be found. I much prefer horror and fantasy, where fat people are as badly underrepresented as disabled people. And Mila also stands out because she’s one of the few fat characters I’ve read who isn’t bemoaning her fatness, or trying to lose weight–she accepts her body as it is, and only gets angry when other people deny or diminish her fatness. A book about a fat person that isn’t centered around the protagonist’s fatness? YUP. This book is a freaking unicorn, people. You need to read it.

Overall, I give this novel 5/5 resurrections via lip gloss.

You can read more of my book reviews on Goodreads. If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying my new fiction collection or backing my Patreon. I’m not currently accepting books for review, but I will consider recommendations, so comment away! Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

Review: Starless, by Jacqueline Carey

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Genre: Fantasy

Format: Hardback novel

Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite authors. I don’t read much epic fantasy, because I often find it formulaic and predictable, not to mention overwhelming with details, but Carey’s novel Kushiel’s Dart and its subsequent sequels (currently numbering nine, in total) is maybe my favorite fantasy series of all time. Her urban fantasy/paranormal romance Agent of Hel series is also excellent, managing to do something unique and compelling with a played-out genre.

Thus, it was with great excitement that I picked up Starless, Carey’s latest effort in the epic fantasy genre.  This is a stand-alone novel in a new secondary world, one which is never named but has three moons. In this world, the gods were once stars in the sky, but were cast down, and have since come to live among mortals, blessing the people who worship them and live in their lands with special abilities and prophecies.

When we meet our protagonist, Khai, he’s 11 years old, living among warrior-monks in the desert. Khai is, naturally, part of a prophecy, born simultaneously (during an eclipse) with a princess, and thus her “shadow.” He spends his days training to become her protector. This first section of the book, where Khai learns to become a super badass ninja bodyguard, reminded me strongly of Rati Mehrotra’s recent novel MarkswomanAre Desert Assassin Clan Novels a trend?

Only about one-third to one-half of the book is spent among the desert warrior-monks. The second portion occurs at the royal court in the city, where Khai finally meets his soul-twin Zariya, and the third portion occurs on the ocean, as Khai and Zariya and a group of random strangers journey to fulfill a prophecy that will save all of existence. If it sounds to you like the book has an identity problem, you’d be right. After the first section, it often felt rushed, and I wondered if this book hadn’t originally been planned as three novels, rather than one. My least favorite section was the third, where Khai and Zariya are attempting to fulfill the prophecy, as this portion felt awfully Tolkien-esque. The trouble with prophecies is that they make the book predictable, and, in my opinion, they remove all agency from the protagonists. Now I’m just reading about a bunch of characters to whom I have little connection–because there are just so many characters and species and gods to remember in this book, y’all–going from point A to point B to point C, dealing with obstacles we all know they’ll overcome one way or another. All the tension has been sucked out of the narrative.

That said, if you enjoy that sort of fiction, which (judging from the continued popularity of Tolkien’s books) plenty of people do, then this novel is right up your alley. I do think the publishers missed the mark on a couple of items: this should have been marketed as a Young Adult novel, as it’s chock full of young adult characters and themes, and it should have been allowed the room to breathe that three–or even two–books would have given the story. I did finish it, but it became a bit grueling at 587 pages. Still, it’s a good novel that deserves at least three stars.

I’m giving this novel an additional star for excellent representation. I don’t want to give much away, as it’s kind of a major plot point, but there’s more to Khai than initially meets the eye. This is another reason I think the book should have been marketed as YA; young people need the kind of LGBTQ, POC, and disabled character representation featured here. It made my heart glad to read it, but I fear a lot of young people won’t pick up Starless because it’s marketed to adults and because it’s just such a hefty tome, which is really a pity. If you have a young person in your life looking for something to read after finishing Lord of the Rings, then this is it.

Overall, I give this book 4/5 desert ninja bodyguards.

You can read more of my book reviews on Goodreads. If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying my new fiction collection or backing my Patreon. I’m not currently accepting books for review, but I will consider recommendations, so comment away! Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

Review: Well, That Escalated Quickly by Franchesca Ramsey

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Genre: Nonfiction

Format: Hardback Book

In case you don’t know, Franchesca Ramsey is a YouTube personality and host of the popular MTV show Decoded, which breaks down racial issues in a quick, easy-to-understand way with lots of colorful graphics and sound effects. I picked up this book because I’m a fan of Decoded, and because I liked the “memoirs and mistakes” portion of the title. I’ve certainly made lots of mistakes, both in real life and online, and I was intrigued that someone who is perceived as a fearless leader of social justice warriors not only made mistakes, but was going to confess to them and (hopefully) disclose how to bounce back from them.

The book is mainly a reflection on Ramsey’s career, which started out on YouTube and evolved into writing, producing, and appearing on shows like The Nightly Show and Decoded. The parts I appreciated the most were her frank, honest discussions of her mistakes, spanning interviews and YouTube videos to podcasts and Facebook discussions, especially the sobbing mess she became after Black Twitter came for her. While I would never wish an internet dragging on anyone, having been dragged myself, it made me feel a lot better that even really intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people like Ramsey occasionally get it wrong and then, whether they have anxiety disorders or not, crumble into a hot mess when they’re attacked for it (thought I suspect her recovery time was probably a lot shorter than mine. Thanks anxiety).

I also especially appreciated her chapter on Calling In. Ramsey makes a compelling case for Calling In instead of Calling Out, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The act of Calling Out certainly creates an outraged stir, but it can also ruin careers, or drive people (like me) off the internet. Sometimes, Calling Out is appropriate, as with large companies (and conventions, *ahem Worldcon ahem*) that are prone to ignoring individual marginalized voices. And I’d argue it’s probably the way to go for violent hate speech, as well, because it’s probably not safe to engage one-on-one with someone who wants you to see you dead. But when dealing with well-meaning individuals who have made a mistake, Ramsey urges us to try Calling In instead, before resorting to public humiliation. Essentially, Calling In involves reaching out compassionately one-on-one to the individual who has offended, and providing them with resources and advice. It requires a little more personal effort–you can’t just retweet a call for the person’s head and be done with the conversation–but it’s ultimately more rewarding in the long term, creating more allies rather than alienating them, and helping people to grow and become better instead of bitter. Obviously we don’t all have the spoons to Call In all the time, but I think it’s a good goal. Compassion should always be at the forefront of our minds, and it’s too easy to forget that when the Horn of Gondor has been sounded and the troops are rallying for yet another call out campaign.

At the end of the book, Ramsey also has a couple of chapters with resources, including book titles she recommends for further reading, snappy and appropriate comebacks for passive-aggressive or microaggressive comments you might run into on the internet or in real life, and a handy list of terms that’s useful for anyone who is just getting started on their social justice journey.

All in all this is a very informative, intelligent, funny, and compassionate book that I would recommend to anyone who exists on the internet, especially if you’re a creative.

5/5 tragic YouTube wigs

You can read more of my book reviews on Goodreads. If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying my new fiction collection or backing my Patreon. I’m not currently accepting books for review, but I will consider recommendations, so comment away! Thanks for reading! 🙂