2016: A Year In Books

Happy New Year, book fans!

2016 was a pretty big year for me professionally, as I had my first book come out via traditional publishing and also wrote a sequel for it (which, as far a I know, should come out sometime later this year). But it was also a busy year for me as a reader. I read (or listened to) a whopping 46 books this year, not counting books I edited. That might not be a whopping big number to some avid readers, but it’s a pretty big number for me. So I thought I’d do a reading retrospective and look back at the best (and worst) of what I read in 2016. (If you’d like to see my entire 2016 reading list, here you go.)

All-Around Favorite of 2016: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train Riverhead Books https://www.amazon.com/dp/1594634025/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_awdb_x_mJUvyb49G59CS: I might be a bit biased because I just finished this recently and it’s still fresh. But this book is a pretty great example of gripping storytelling with a deeply flawed protagonist and interesting use of unreliable narrators. As a writer there’s a lot to learn from this novel. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I’m curious as to how well it stacks up.

(Runner up: Outlander – Diana Gabaldon)

Best Series: The Silo Series by Hugh Howey

Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 - 5) (Silo series) by Hugh H…I dipped my toe into a couple of other series this year, but this is the only complete series that I read. I had to. Each book was hard to put down and when I got to the end I couldn’t wait for the next entry (it also helped that I could read each one free thanks to Amazon Prime). This was a fun read that was full of thrills and surprising twists and turns while also having a lot to say about human nature. The good guys were believably flawed while the bad guys were believably human and sympathetic. This will most likely be a re-read some day.

(Runner up: The Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig, of which I’ve only read the first volume, Blackbirds.)

Best Delightful Surprise by an Author Previously Unknown To Me:  The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter

The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter…: I made it a goal this year to expand my horizons and take chances on authors I’d never heard of, and I’m glad I did, or I’d have missed this gem. Sadly, this book was published posthumously, so this is Jane Lotter’s one and only novel. But it’s a witty, grown-up chick lit with yet another struggling and deeply flawed heroine you can’t help but fall in love with and root for. Plus it’s a road trip story, and those are always fun.

(Runner up: The Smart One by Ellen Meister)

Best Book I Finally Read After Seeing the Movie Like a Million Times: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics) Reprint Edition…: The movie (the Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet version) is wonderful. The book is even better. So it now sits as my third favorite JA novel, after Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion.

(Runner up: Emma. I think I might have actually liked Clueless better. 😉

Best Re-read: Little Ray of Sunshine by Lani Diane Rich

A Little Ray Of Sunshine by Lani Diane Rich…: Lani is keyed into my sense of humor and I think she and I have pretty similar writing styles. This is my favorite of her novels and it pretty well epitomizes the type of fiction I most want to write: women’s fiction/romance that’s about so much more than the romance, is both humorous and poignant, with a strong and snarky heroine who has a lot of self-discovery and growing up to do.

(Runner up: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein, which I am not quite finished with as I write this.)

Best Stephen King Book: The Shining

 I only read two SK books this year (way, way down from last year when I read so much King I got a little burned out). The other was Four Past Midnight, which goes to the runner-up position by default. It was pretty uneven–it had a couple of stories I liked and the other two were just meh. But that’s also kind of how I felt about The Shining. You know how they say the book is always better than the movie? I’m not so sure that’s the case here, but then again, that’s kind of comparing apples and oranges. I think there are some things the book does better than the film, but what the film does better, it does way, WAY better. At any rate, I’m glad I read it, and the newly-written sequel, Doctor Sleep, is on my must-read list for the new year.

Best Horror Novel Not Written by Stephen King: The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

The Family Plot: A Novel, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0765378248/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_awdm_x_6zScybQ4MRCFY: This novel was actually a contender for all-around favorite until I thought up another category for it. I would describe it as a contemporary Southern Gothic ghost story. It’s creepy and atmospheric, with well-drawn characters, including a snarky, no-nonsense female protagonist that seems to be the sort of thing I go for these days. I think fans of Restless Spirits (or at least those who aren’t offended by some cussin’) will really dig this book.

(Runner up: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson)

Best YA: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson…: I’ve long been a follower of MoJo on Twitter and YouTube, and I kind of felt terrible that I’d never read any of her books (confession: I haven’t read any John Green either), so when I saw this book on sale I decided it was a perfect time to change that. I’m glad I did. It was a fun, quirky adventure with enough romance to almost make me wish I was 17 again. Almost.

(Runner up: Angelhood by A.J. Cattapan)

Best Adult Novel by a YA Author: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume…Y’all, Judy Blume is as genius at writing for grown-ups as she is for pre-teen girls. This pseudo-autobiographical novel is about a teenage girl who comes of age in the 1950s in a New Jersey suburb situated next to the Newark airport during a stretch of time when planes keep crashing all over the place. The actual crashes are gutting, even as they serve as a backdrop for the residents’ lives crashing down around them. I believe Ms. Blume has written one or two other novels for adult audiences and all I know is I’ve got to get me some of that in the new year.

Best Christian Non-fiction: Simply Tuesday by Emily P. Freeman

Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving Worl…This was a tough call. I read quite a few entries in this category this year, and they all ministered to me on some level. But Ms. Freeman just gets me in a way I don’t encounter very often, and this book set the tone for my 2016, helping me slow down, shift my focus to what really matters, and stop wearing myself out trying to prove myself or earn my place in the world. It was a game changer for me.

(Runner up: A Million Little Ways, also by Emily Freeman.)

Best Secular Non-Fiction: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art o…: Okay, yeah, I got Konmari’d. And so did my closets. This book was another game changer. I haven’t yet gone through my whole house and de-cluttered, but it definitely changed my relationship to my stuff and set me in the direction of simplifying my life.

(Runner up: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain)

Best Book I Didn’t Finish: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTXlQ5VA77LTX3onXFLiA9v9_mS4icdMx9Xr9YwT12Ew90j-ec-Generally, I think life is too short to stick with a book that’s just not doing it for me. There were two books this year that I couldn’t bring myself to finish. One I actually kind of hated and I can’t even tell you the name of it because I’ve apparently blocked most of it from my memory. But Me Before You is probably a really good book for people who go for that sort of thing. I enjoyed the first third of it well enough, when I thought it was a chick lit, something of which it had all the trappings to lure me in. But then I cottoned to what this book is really about and said NOPE. According to my Facebook community, a lot of people feel the same way, and felt pretty betrayed by the turn the story takes. So, keeping in mind that I didn’t finish it but I did get spoiled to see if I’d guessed right about where it was headed, this is NOT a romance or a chick lit. Don’t let the marketing fool you into thinking it’s such.

Most Tedious Work of Classical Lit: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens…: Last Christmas I finally read A Christmas Carol for the first time and I loved it. Then I remembered that I had an unread copy of Great Expectations sitting on my shelf and hoped I’d be equally entertained. Reader, I was not. It had some good bits, but mostly Pip was just someone I continually wanted to punch in the face.

(Runner up: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which could be vastly improved by a ruthless trimming of the flashback scenes.)

There you have it — my stand-out reads of 2016. This year I might get crazy and try to push myself to read an even 50; but then again, I have a LOT of writing to do this year, so that might not be too likely to happen.

What were your favorite and least-favorite reads of 2016, dear readers? And do you have any can’t-miss recommendations for what I should read this year? Tell us about it in the comments!

PS – Did you catch my new book trailer for Restless Spirits? Here it is for those who missed it!


Why I’m So Lame

Marjorie Liu has a post on “Writer’s Inhibition” that, I think, is right on the money. This is exactly what I suffer from, and what usually keeps me from writing when I have the time to do it. It’s not block, exactly. I know what needs to happen next, usually. I just can’t get my head into a space where I can see how it happens, and I freeze up. And the longer I sit there, frozen, the louder my voices of insecurity become.

My voices of insecurity are screechy and annoying, and they really need to shut up.

The really stupid thing is, that nine times out of ten, if I just ignore it all and start writing, even if I just type a sentence over an over (all work and no play makes Jean a psychopat–um, I mean, the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog), just getting my fingers moving engages the part of my brain where the story is trapped, and I thaw, and warm up, and pretty soon I’m on fire. And writing a lot of cliches that I’ll have to go back and edit later. But at least I’m writing.

Knowing this, I don’t know why it’s such a constant battle. I don’t understand why I let myself freeze up so often, when I know where the defrost button is. I just don’t GET me, man! I guess it all comes back to insecurity–fear that if I start typing, the story WON’T come, or that if it does, it will be crap, and I won’t be able to make it better on the next draft. Stupid fear. Stupid me.

Writer’s Inhibition. That’s an excellent name for it. And I’m the second most inhibited person I know.

By the way, if you haven’t checked out Ms. Liu’s novel The Iron Hunt, you need to do so right now.

Book recs for writers: Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

This is what kept me from writing all weekend. My tax prep service, the owner of which also owns a used book store, had a shelf offering free paperbacks, and I picked my copy up there when we got our taxes done. I’d heard of the Hitchcock movie, natch, but I don’t recall ever having seen it, and this isn’t my usual genre, so I was a little trepidatious as to how much I’d enjoy it. But I’ve been in “read everything” mode lately–partly for writerly self-improvement, although, more practically, also because we can’t afford new books right now. So I finally cracked it open and gave it a chance.

It’s not a fast-paced book. It definitely takes its time, and that’s not a bad thing in this case. I was put off at first–as I tend to be–by the lengthy descriptions of both characters and setting, until I realized that they served the purpose of characterizing the narrator via her perceptions as much as it characterized anything being described. The descriptiveness also serves to help subtly build a haunting, foreboding atmosphere, without laying it on too thick. Really, so far (I’m not finished with it yet) it’s more a character-driven book focused on relationships than it is a thriller. Nothing bad has actually happened to anybody, at least not physically. The sense of dread I’m getting so far is in anticipating the emotional damage that the narrator is likely to suffer. And yet, this is a page-turner. All weekend, I only put it down to eat, pee, do the laundry, and then finally to have Easter dinner with the family, and it was always set down grudgingly.

I think this book holds some great lessons on how to create mood, build tension and suspense, and how to build a character-driven story via relationships. It’s also a good example, I think, of an unreliable narrator, one who is often too naive to fully understand what’s going on. I highly recommend it be added to your reading list.