Sunday, December 28, 2014

Heather's Best Reads of 2014

My reading lists each year are generally nothing to brag about to because I don’t read the kind of books that the intellectual cool kats are reading. Let's just say that few of the books I like ever make it onto the New York Times Book Review section.

I read trashy romance. There! I said it.

I love it. It’s my bread and butter. After a long day of writing and hanging out with the kiddo and husband, I just want… Well, what I want in a book kind of changes all the time. Because what I really want is for my socks to be blown off. I don’t want cheap escapism. I don’t want a cookie cutout of a hero and heroine. I really want psychological complexity and depth and to be put through the ringer and an ending that feels earned. Basically, I wish I could have Outlander or The Bronze Horsemen or… hmm, what are my other gold standards for amazing? Haha, I’m too knee-deep in historical fiction to have any other reference points of books that ripped out my guts like those two (both of which I read last year, funnily enough).  

In the meantime, I read everything else, and I try to be pretty unabashed and unashamed about it, because f*** that s*** about shaming smart chicks even when we like to read books that don’t *seem* intellectual enough or whatever crap people like to label ‘romance’ book readers with (to all of those people, I want to say, hey a-hole, I read Derrida and I understood him!... okay, well, I *mostly* understood him...!). The books I will list below may have their problems and I’m sure my fellow feminists and I could get into some heated arguments about them, but it can’t be denied that the authors want to f*** with your emotions, in some cases exploring the dark and taboo, which I think secretly fascinates us all. And they sure took me on one hell of a ride.

Also note, books on the first 3/4ths of this list are pretty much exclusively self-published books, which I went on a tear with this year. It wasn't me trying to say FU to the publishing industry or anything. These books were just telling some crazy a** interesting stories. They aren't the self-pub of even 5 years ago. These are well edited and stories the mainstream publishers aren't touching, probably why I was like, wow, this isn't anything I've ever read before (often very dark reads).

Pepper Winters: Tears of Tess; Quintessentially Q; Destroyed


Pam Godwin: Deliver; Beneath the Burn

Tabitha McGowan: The Tied Man

Tillie Cole: It Ain't Me Babe; Sweet Home; Sweet Rome; Sweet Fall

 Laurelin Paige: Fixed On You Trilogy
Mia Sheridan: Archer's Voice; Leo; Stinger (especially Archer's Voice)

A. E. Muphy: Broken; Connected

Shay Savage: Surviving Raine; Transcendence

Also, I barely read anything in YA, and mostly just friends' or acquaintances' books, but of what I did, there were a few stand outs, this amazing series:

Juliann Rich: Caught in the Crossfire; Searching for Grace

and this book was great too, I feel like I want to suck out the author's brains to figure out and understand how she wrote a dude's voice so naturally since I'm trying to write from a guy's POV in my newest book. Men are an alien race of unfathomable shallows and crannies. Her book illustrates this perfectly.

Carrie Mesrobian: Sex & Violence

Then the later part of the year, I got into the genre I swore would never interest me, literary fiction. Stop the presses, I'm as shocked as you. Because GUYS, I found some that was readable and had PLOT! And characters I could dig into! And that hit me in the guts, which is all I really want from a book. Please, just please, books, cut me up inside but then put me back together a little bit at the end!!! I'm not sure how long this will last or if I just stumbled onto a few really good ones.

So here are some of the more literary finds,  probably more of the upmarket variety and not deep into the heavy folds of literary fiction, but I dig what I dig.

Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding
Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Chris Bohjalian: The Light in the Ruins

Then there were these two installments, where I met Karl Ove in deep and intimate detail and couldn't look away for about a thousand pages. Like anyone who reads them, I can't imagine them leaving my thoughts any time soon.

Karl Ove Knausgård: My Struggle Book 1 & 2

And to end with, the book that blew me to pieces, and not just because of the 'choice' which I kinda knew about from pop culture, and not even because of the language usage in the writing, but because of the VOICE Styron masterfully captures-- through which there are all the things the reader can see in the immensely complex Sophie and Nathan that the 22-year-old Stingo is too young and naive to comprehend (yet with overtones of his older self seeing as he retells the story). To show your reader something your protagonist isn't seeing, when your protagonist is sort of the narrator (though occasionally his much older self jumps in with foreshadowy things) - are you getting how difficult that is to do as a writer? Wicked hard, but Styron navigates it so naturally.

God, there's just a mastery to the writing in that way. It's not about beautiful language, but it's the epitome of what they're talking about when the say voice. It was like a master class. So I'm watching all of that happen with a writer's eye and then being drawn into the tragedy of the narrative, which is almost Shakespearean as it unfolds. I felt like any keen reader can see where it's heading long before it arrives and like Romeo and Juliet, you are on the ride for the headlong rush toward disaster and you Cannot. Look. Away.

William Styron: Sophie's Choice

So, 2014, another year down, nice knowing you. 288 books read.  It's strange as hell where the rabbit trails of reading interests lead. Lets see where 2015 takes us.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Bad Romeo

Bad Romeo by Leisa Rayven
St. Martin's Press
Now Available

Plot Summary from Goodreads:
When Cassie Taylor met Ethan Holt at acting school, sparks flew. She was the good girl actress. He was the bad boy about campus. But one fated casting choice for Romeo and Juliet changed it all. Like the characters they were playing, Cassie and Ethan's romance seemed destined. Until he broke her heart and betrayed her trust. Now the A-list heartthrob is back in her life and turning her world around. One touch at a time. 

Cast as romantic leads once again, they're forced to confront raw memories of the heartbreaking lows and pulse-pounding highs of their secret college affair. But they'll also discover that people who rub each other the wrong way often make the best sparks.

My Review:
This story unfolds, both present and past, in a way that won't let you stop flipping pages. The characters are so well drawn, you are just IN the story from the first page. Ethan is so screwed up, but not in your typical asshole alpha guy way. I think that's what felt so fresh about this book. The drama and difficulties in the relationship between Ethan and Cassie felt new and different from all the other NA books we're reading out there. And seeing the change from past Cassie to present Cassie is so dramatic, gah, there just a ton of mysteries wrapped up in the past that are desperate to know WHAT HAPPENED and HOW it happened and also wanting in your guts for things to work out between these two! Amazing writing, amazing book, can't wait for the next installment!

Thanks to NetGalley for a free review copy. Available now, everywhere books are sold.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Great Experiment: Parenting

After coming back from holiday vacation, I find it’s difficult to transition my headspace back into real life. My mind is still lost in the place I visited. We drove eight hours to Chicago and stayed with college friends and their four children, all under eleven, for three days over Thanksgiving weekend. Today was my first full day at home trying to work and write again, but all I could think about was being back there, all the thoughts and revelations and conversations and observations of their family and family life.

I was very impressed by our friends' parenting style (also it’s been so interesting to see friends you met in college develop over a decade into responsible parent types). Naturally, my friend L has to be at the top of her game all the time with so many kids running around. She homeschools them too, and I don’t know, has this bearing of order even though it understandably gets chaotic at times. Anyway, ha ha, it’s a different parenting style from at our house with my own son which ends up being very laissez faire out of necessity because of my health conditions and my husband being in a PhD program. L has to have a military lineup in order to feed them all, whereas we’re like, kid, go find yourself some dinner in the fridge! Um, yeah. Her kids eat better.

But more than that, it’s just the different cultures of families. We think a lot about multiculturalism and the differences in cultures and the difficulty this creates in communications between ethnicities (I’m not just talking language wise), but this weekend made me think about the vast differences in the home lives of families, which affects how the kids will see the world their whole lives (whether they retain the views or rebel against them). Her children are growing up copying out Bible verses and with a religious lens to everything in their world. Because L homeschools them, she’s able to discuss world events and history and science and economics influenced by their family's sense of morality. My son is a lot more influenced by forces outside the home since he spends the majority of his time at school and an afterschool program. He’s in fourth grade, out in the world of social strata and bullies and the drama and trauma of all that and then he comes home to our little haven, an only child, where we all spend two hours a night together, eating and maybe watching a show.

I’m not saying one way is better or the other, but it was startling to me for some reason to witness such a different way of doing things. Which is an obvious thing, I know. But how often do you get to get a close-up view of another family, sleeping in their living room and observing them morning to night for half a week? And while parents might be on best behavior, children under ten don’t quite get the concept, so it all tends to hang out. You see it as it is. I felt like there were a lot of things I could learn from L. Other things I felt I was contented about at home. Other things that make me feel intensely curious about the true home lives of other people, which you rarely get an honest picture of even in a memoir because few people are willing to be so honest (unless your name is Karl Ove Knausgård).

So my overall thoughts were ultimately about the quandary of marriage, when you get two people together who come from these opposite little orbits, these mini-cultures of their families growing up who then meld into their own new orbit trying to come up with their own new customs and laws and language and how strange and awkward and rocky it is at first trying to navigate together. Just ask anyone in their first year of marriage! Especially if they haven’t lived together beforehand. I think about my son’s future partner and wonder about all these strange little habits we are forming in him both good and bad and then I just laugh and hope I’m just not screwing him up too badly. The rest I leave to his future therapist.