March 22—in review

I only read two books this month. 

Well, I should say I only finished two books. I read a ton this month, but there were only two books that I started and finished and read cover to cover.

One was a solid 3 stars (I liked it, it was fine), and Vladimir was my 5-star read. It’s definitely not for everyone; the voice took me a minute to get into, but once I was into it, I was into it. The narrator is unnamed (like Rebecca) and is so delightfully snarky and has opinions on everyone and their mother. Julia May Jones was somehow able to write a book where zero of the characters are “likeable,” but nevertheless incredibly compelling.

Jones uses a couple elements I don’t normally like in a novel, but they worked here. I don’t prefer first person. The voice is usually grating, but this one felt easy, like slipping into an old skin. And there’s a lot of stream of consciousness-type narration, which I have very little patience for, but, again, this felt so easy to slip into. This is a big “personal taste” book, but I loved it. It’s timely and satirical (I think, lol) and so voicey. 

Other reading I’ve done this month: I beta read a novel for a friend, I’ve taken on two mentees as part of TDWS’s Coach Hunt program, so I’ve been reading their work, and I’m still working through my Author Accelerator Book Coaching program, which includes working with practice clients.

I also started my new novel project, so I’ve been in this feverish development/brainstorming phase for a few weeks. I’ve noticed it’s difficult to get in the right head space to read for fun when all my brain wants to do is figure out who my next protagonist is. So, I’ve been spending my usual reading time doing research instead, which involves a lot of skimming and note taking; more analyzing others’ work than enjoying it. 

I’ve started reading a couple books for fun this week that are really good so far, so hopefully they’ll make it onto April’s list!

February 22—in review

I’ve been wanting to start a blog series featuring books I read each month and talking about what I think works in them and why. Reading is the best way to learn the craft of fiction, but reading for fun isn’t the same as reading to learn. So this series will be a place where I can record what I’m taking away from these books, and hopefully you can take something away from them, too!

I read five books in February, which, considering that we moved to another country this month, isn’t too bad. Since I’m sticking to books that I think “work,” I’m going to look at four of them today:

A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw
Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Gallant by V.E. Schwab

*I try to keep these as spoiler-free as possible, but sometimes that’s unavoidable if you’re talking about craft elements and examples. So, minor spoilers ahead!

A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw

Travis Wren has a unique ability to find missing people. He’s hired to find Maggie St. James, author of dark children’s books, who went missing five years ago. But he soon goes missing as well, and three people living in a reclusive community try to figure out what happened to Maggie and Travis.

I’m always fascinated by books that are “quiet” (i.e., not a whole lot of external plot) but still compelling, still page-turning.

The core mystery—what happened to Maggie St. James, and Travis Wren?—is what kept me reading, even when things got a bit slow in the middle. This book is a great example of how to maintain tension and suspense throughout by having this overarching question, this story question, always in the back of your reader’s mind, and revealing details and clues in bits, slowly adding to final answer.

There was also this pervasive sense of dread throughout the novel, which I loved, and overall it was beautifully written. The evocative, extremely sensory prose helped immerse me in this world.


Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Ari Abrams, Seattle meteorologist, loves her job. She doesn’t love her work environment, however, made toxic by the fact that her bosses, Torrance and Seth, have been divorced for five years but can’t stop fighting. After a truly bonkers showdown at the office holiday party, Ari hatches a plan with sports reporter Russell Barringer to help their bosses find love again—in each other.

Yes, just like the Parent Trap, except instead of twin girls, it’s office buddies-to-lovers.

I read Rachel Lynn Solomon’s The Ex Talk last year and loved it so much, so I was really looking forward to Weather Girl, released in January 2022. While it didn’t have the chemistry of The Ex Talk, I did love Ari and Russell. They felt like real people with real problems, and I was rooting for them the whole time. And I loved Weather Girl‘s discussion of depression. Not something you’d expect for a romcom, but it worked. I prefer my romance/romcoms with a healthy balance of serious, real-life struggles (like mental illness) and joy, and this novel did that really well.


Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Dani Brown doesn’t do relationships—unless you count friends with benefits. The problem is, her last FWB situation ended when her friend caught feelings, so Dani’s been SOL for too long. Zafir Ansari, former rugby star, current campus security guard, runs a sports charity for kids that’s not getting the traction he wants. When a photo of Dani and Zaf goes viral, they both see an opportunity: Zaf can harness his new internet fame as publicity for his charity, and Dani can get a new FWB. No feelings need to be caught. Until they are, of course.

I’ve only read two Talia Hibbert books (so far)—the first one in the Brown sisters series, Get a Life, Chloe Brown, and this one—but I’m convinced she can do no wrong. She writes characters and their emotional journeys SO WELL. They feel so real, they practically leap off the page. All her characters’ GMCs (goals, motivations, and conflicts) are solid, which make for realistic and believable characters, and I love how she writes very un-stereotypical male characters in particular. Zaf is a romantic—he reads romance novels! It makes for a fresh reading experience. And the Brown sisters are amazing. They are so voicey (I haven’t read the third book in the series about the third sister, Eve, but I bet she’s just as voicey), so funny, so real sounding. I need to connect with the characters in order to care, in order to read/finish a book, and Hibbert makes it so easy to connect with her characters.

p.s. this book is also extremely steamy, so just know that going into it!


Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Gallant is one of those books that I actually recommend not reading much about before diving in. I don’t even think I read the description before requesting it on NetGalley; V.E. Schwab is just an auto-read for me.

And it absolutely did not disappoint. I finished Gallant two days ago and I’m still processing it. It’s definitely going to be one I reread and take copious notes on to glean everything I can about craft.

This was an incredible Gothic novel. Loads of atmosphere, pervasive dread; I could practically hear the bleakness of it. Schwab’s books are masterclasses in worldbuilding, littering details here and there, never overwhelming with info-dumps or pages of telling. It’s so smooth and seemingly effortless (though, as a writer, I know it absolutely is not effortless) yet evokes such clear images.

Olivia, our protagonist, is mute. When I realized this, I admit I was concerned to see how it would play out, as you cut out a lot of dialogue if your protagonist can’t speak. But of course, in Schwab’s masterful hands, it worked. I’m thinking it worked because the point of view was a little distant, so we weren’t so entrenched in Olivia’s head the whole time. These kinds of choices by an author fascinate me, and it’s something I’ll be revisiting and studying to understand better.

The emotional range I felt while reading this was impressive. Dread throughout (necessary when reading a Gothic novel), then I felt truly hopeless during the dark moment—I could not see how Olivia was going to get out of it, but she did in a way that I never saw coming but that was inevitable. Brilliantly crafted. And I cried at the end, and they have a saying in publishing: if you cry, you buy.


Favorite (romance) reads of 2021

Welcome to the final post of my favorite reads of 2021 series!

This year was the year of the Romance (mostly romcom) novel, for a couple reasons:

  1. I beta read another writer-mom’s* romcom this summer and absolutely loved it. We’ve since become friends and CPs and she’s recommended so many great romance novels that I couldn’t believe I’m so late to this game.
  2. It came at the perfect time—since I started deep diving into my Gothic novel, I could not read anything remotely unsettling before bed or else I’d never sleep. Romance novels were the perfect reads to balance out my daytime horror research.

There will always be naysayers about this genre, but I am officially a convert. I can’t think of a better time to welcome more joyful stories, more stories about love. And there’s such a variety! So many subgenres and niches, and they range in steam level from sweet (usually kissing only, sex might be implied but it’s “closed door,” we don’t see it on the page) to spicy (“open door” scenes). There’s really something for everyone.

So, here were my favorites from this year (in no particular order):

People We Meet on Vacation/Beach Read by Emily Henry

I read People We Meet on Vacation this summer and loved it. Then I read Beach Read, her debut adult romcom, and now I’m a diehard fan. She writes amazing banter and has this enviable way of making the characters jump off the page. I’ve already pre-ordered her next book, Book Lovers, out in May 2022!

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

I’ll admit, some books I read this year billed as romcoms didn’t deliver as well as I’d hoped on the “com” end. Dial A for Aunties, though? Had me literally lol-ing at parts. A true slapstick comedy, Dial A is already optioned for film, and I cannot wait to see it; this book was made for the big screen!

The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon

I’m real picky about enemies/rivals-to-lovers, but this was done so well. The main characters work at a public radio station in Seattle which was so interesting (and gave me major Frasier vibes at first). The diverse cast of characters felt so real and there was such good tension throughout.

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

I didn’t think I would like a story about a professor and a (PhD) student, but I ended up really liking this. While I thought some of the protagonist’s motivations were a little shaky, the banter was great, the steam was hot, and the fact that I kept picturing the male lead as Adam Driver didn’t hurt. At all.

Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I had a massive book hangover after reading Love at First! It’s a quieter novel and the only non-romcom on this list, but it stuck with me for so long after I finished it. I got so wrapped up in the characters, the emotions. I also thought it was unique because it seemed to me like the male character was our protagonist. It’s dual POV, but we started with his (not necessarily denoting the protagonist, but usually) and some of the critical scenes were told from his perspective. I could be totally wrong, but I hope I’m not! It was different and I really liked it. I also got Only Murders in the Building vibes as this also features an apartment building full of quirky residents.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

The first in Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, Get a Life, Chloe Brown was excellent. Chloe is a protagonist after my own heart—bougie and scathing in the most English of ways; I couldn’t get enough. There were some subversion of tropes/gender expectations that I found really delightful as well. I haven’t read the other two books yet (three sisters, three books), but they are definitely on my list for 2022!

*I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nikki’s blog, where she talks all about reading and writing romance (and more). Check it out!

Favorite (YA + nonfic) reads of 2021

The third post in the Best of 2021 series (previously: fave litfic and Gothic reads)

YA (contemporary)

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

I absolutely love this cover


I don’t read a lot of Young Adult fiction; I think I read two this year. Nothing wrong with it, just not my usual cup of tea. I don’t remember why I picked this book up, but I’m glad I did.

Quintero’s debut novel was everything I wanted a YA epistolary to be: voicey, deep, emotional. It never felt like the diary form was being used as a vehicle to just info dump/tell the reader everything. It was immersive from the beginning and carried me through to the end.


Nonfiction

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

This narrative nonfiction uses the case of one disappearing—of Jean McConville, widow and mother of 10—to explore the conflict in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles.

At first, I wished for more history of the conflict but as I kept reading I appreciated the narrative approach. Keefe didn’t set out to write a history; he set out to present the volatile situation through the lens of some major players, intertwining with the mystery of Jean McConville’s kidnapping and death. It makes for an incredible story. Keefe spent years researching and writing this book, relying heavily on oral histories and other primary sources, and it shows.

I went into this book already knowing a bit about The Troubles, but I ended up learning a lot more, especially about specific people—Gerry Adams, Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes. Because Keefe doesn’t speak much about the background of the conflict, I imagine that someone with no prior knowledge might have trouble (eek, sorry) following along at times. That shouldn’t be a deterrent but rather a disclaimer—if you don’t know anything about this situation, be prepared to Google.


Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of PTSD and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.

Mailhot’s writing, her voice, is brisk, sharp, painful. She is brutally honest about her trauma and mental illness, and it was hard to read at times. This book is barely 125 pages but so immersive that I remained with it for weeks after I finished it. Her prose is arresting, and this memoir was unlike anything I’ve read before.


Wild by Cheryl Strayed

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

I’m fascinated by thru-hikes like the PCT and over the last few years, I’ve gotten into hiking (though nothing like she did). If I had read this when it came out, I’m not sure I would have liked it as much. Just goes to show how books can serve you at some times more than others.

And Cheryl Strayed is just a phenomenal writer. I felt all of her emotion in these pages, from losing her mother to losing her marriage to losing (and finding) herself on the PCT. I felt like I was there with her on her journey. I love nonfiction that reads like a novel, and this definitely fit that category.

Favorite (Lit Fic) Reads of 2021

The second post in this Best Of 2021 series:

Literary Fiction (or, the list that gave me the worst book hangovers)

The Turnout by Megan Abbott

Bestselling and award-winning author Megan Abbott’s revelatory, mesmerizing, and game-changing new novel set against the hothouse of a family-run ballet studio, and an interloper who arrives to bring down the carefully crafted Eden-like facade.

With uncanny insight and hypnotic writing, it is a sharp and strange dissection of family ties and sexuality, femininity and power, and a tale that is both alarming and irresistible.

Notice the trend in my IG stories…

It’s not often that the marketing copy is as accurate as this one. Most marketing copy makes the book seem a lot better than it is (no shade—that’s the whole point of marketing), but The Turnout’s is on point (heh)

Teetering on the edge of horror, it’s dark and smoldering and deals with some heavy topics (CW: sexual abuse when one of the characters was a teenager). But oh my goodness the prose is stunning; it’s so lyrical and delicious and even though not much “happens” in this book, I was captivated.

Megan Abbott is an auto-read for me. In interviews she’s spoken about the influence of old Hollywood noir on her work (she wrote her PhD dissertation on hardboiled fiction) and it’s evident in everything I’ve read by her, no matter how contemporary. I see a lot of the Gothic in her work—noir shares a lot of similarities with the Gothic—which is probably another big reason why I like it so much.

Anyway, if you haven’t read The Turnout, I recommend you do so immediately!


Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg

On a cold day in 1997, student Sara Morgan was killed in the woods surrounding her liberal arts college in upstate New York. Her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, confessed, his plea of temporary insanity raising more questions than it answered.

In the wake of his acquittal, the case comes to haunt a strange and surprising network of community members, from the young woman who discovers Sara’s body to the junior reporter who senses its connection to convicted local serial killer John Logan. Others are looking for retribution or explanation: Sara’s half-sister, stifled by her family’s bereft silence about Blake, poses as a babysitter and seeks out her own form of justice, while the teenager Sara used to babysit starts writing to Logan in prison.

I love short story collections, but I especially love collections of linked stories. They provide the cohesion of a novel with the benefit of short stories, bite-sized pieces from various points of view. Perfect for an ADHD brain, tbh.

Nothing Can Hurt You is “literary suspense,” so these stories are pretty quiet, but I nevertheless found them full of tension and intrigue. If you’re looking for a straightforward whodunit, you won’t find it here. But if you want quietly fascinating stories about the reverberating impact of violence in a small community, pick this up.


The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

The Hundred-Year House unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate, and the incredible surprises life can offer.

This was such a unique read that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a while after I finished it. I should have known that Rebecca Makkai’s writing does this to me after I had the worst book hangover, to date, after I finished The Great Believers two years ago. I’ll let the marketing copy speak for itself because this book is one of those you just gotta experience for yourself. I will say that this book, with its quiet hauntings and mysterious house, that should have tipped me off to my Gothic proclivities much earlier than I realized.


The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

With The Office of Historical Corrections, Evans zooms in on particular moments and relationships in her characters’ lives in a way that allows them to speak to larger issues of race, culture, and history. She introduces us to Black and multiracial characters who are experiencing the universal confusions of lust and love, and getting walloped by grief—all while exploring how history haunts us, personally and collectively. Ultimately, she provokes us to think about the truths of American history—about who gets to tell them, and the cost of setting the record straight.

Danielle Evans is a master of the short form. All the stories in this collection, even the quieter ones, are razor sharp. My favorite stories were “Boys Go to Jupiter” and “Anything Could Disappear,” which absolutely wrecked me.

And THEN she blows us away with the eponymous novella at the end. Evans weaves in history with culture and the experiences of Black men and women in the US, and ties in a mystery to solve as well. I read a couple novellas this year and they felt like they were just scratching the surface of the story they wanted to tell, but The Office of Historical Corrections kept the rhythm and depth of a novel in a fraction of the space. It’s brilliant. I read this collection in February and I still think about it from time to time.

Favorite (Gothic) Reads of 2021

As wack as 2021 has been in a lot of ways, it’s been an amazing year for reading. I branched out into new-to-me genres that ended up heavily influencing (read: improving) my writing.

I didn’t fully appreciate how many incredible books I read this year until I sat down to write this post (my first for this site, yay!), so I’m going to split it up. Between now and the end of the year, I’ll post a list of my favorite reads from one of five different categories, starting with

The Gothic

This year, I figured out that the novel I’ve been working on for almost three years is actually a Gothic novel—Gothic horror, to be specific (more on all this in a future post). So, naturally, I dove headfirst into researching the Gothic as a genre, as a mode, as an aesthetic. I’m planning an entire post on my research, but for this list, here are my favorite classic Gothic novels* that I read this year:

*This post contains mild spoilers

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Disclaimer: I learned this year that I really am a modern reader. I love classic stories, but I find it difficult to read the vast majority of them due to their slower pace and heavy, lengthy descriptions.

So, I enjoyed Rebecca but admittedly skimmed some extra description to get to the meat. This Gothic romance, published in 1938, is a loose Jane Eyre retelling. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth pushing through. Our eponymous character isn’t a ghost in the literal, specter sense that we might assume would be present in a Gothic novel, but the power of this story is that she doesn’t have to be. Her presence is palpable on the page and indeed in our symbolically unnamed narrator’s life. Rebecca is a masterclass in haunting, in atmosphere. I’ll definitely be coming back to it as I move deeper into revisions.

The Haunting of Hill House/We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

One thing I appreciate about the Gothic is that it aims to unnerve the reader without resorting to gore or graphic violence (which I can’t do at all). Shirley Jackson uses neither and still managed to be the only Gothic author I read this year who truly scared me. Her use of the borderline mundane to terrify has been hugely influential as I move through revisions.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the perfect amount of unsettling; it was creepy but I could still sleep at night. The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, had to be read outside, in the bright Colorado sun, many hours before bedtime.

But Jackson still made this list because of what her work represents. Probably my favorite thing about the Gothic (and the Female Gothic, in particular) is its depth, its purpose. The Gothic novel is not just a haunted house story; it’s always political, always reflective of the society and culture of its time, always about power dynamics.

Interestingly, Hill House might not even be haunted. Like in Rebecca, we never see any ghost or supernatural being on the page. I love a situation where you don’t know if it’s haunted or if it’s all their head (The Turn of the Screw is another example of this ambiguity). Not all Gothics are ambiguous, but it’s not uncommon.

Anyway (lots more Gothic-specific posts coming in the new year, promise), Jackson’s work tackles mental health, expectations of women, concepts of belonging, identity, and home—most everything I love thinking and talking about, in a nutshell. She pushes these issues to the extreme, but they never feel cheap. They feel real, they feel important. They’re screaming for your attention from a house intent on destroying you—and damn if I don’t want my work to feel like that one day!


Have you read any of these classic Gothic novels?