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It’s December and we’re all a bit tired.  2018 was a hard year.  If modern women were allowed to “take to their beds” like Victorian women often did, I would have done so.  The next best thing was to bury myself in books.   This year I read not only the most I’ve read in a decade – 30,000 pages and counting (thank you to Goodreads for the calculation), but I read some of the best books I have in years.

This year I tried very hard to incorporate diverse voices with stories by and about POC, LBGQT+ and women.  The real world might have been a burning, stinking dumpster fire this year, but the reading world was such a joyous experience.  Here are my favorites.

Science Fiction:

Space Opera by Cathrynne Valente.  Ms. Valente is probably the best author you might have never read.  Despite being quite prolific, brilliant and hilarious, she’s not generally popular (though she absolutely should be).  She has a decidedly cultish following, of which I am a proud member.  If you only ever read one of her books (and I recommend you read ALL of them), it should be Space Opera.  As the title suggests, it’s a space opera – about SINGING IN SPACE.  Get it?  Amazing.  As always, her writing style is mind-bogglingly, psychedelically wonderful.  Her prose is to be savored, not rushed through.  The characters are compelling, and the story is laugh out loud funny.

Honorable mention:  The Power by Naomi Alderman.  In the year of #MeToo, this book was cathartic and thoughtful.  The premise is that young women around the world suddenly have the power to send electric shocks from their body.  These young women are also able to awake this power in adult women.  The shifts in power, politics and culture that result are instantaneous and the fallout is fascinating.

Adult comics:

Monstress Volumes 1-3 by Marjorie Liu. These comics are gloriously drawn and are both breathtaking and terrifying to look at.  The story involves a non-human young woman named Maika Half Wolf and her discovery of a monster that lives inside her, one that she cannot completely control.  Her dystopian story of self-discovery is violent and mysterious and filled with fantastical creatures and characters.  She is a warrior and fair warning; this comic is often graphically (pun intended) violent.  Definitely not for kids.

Middle grade Graphic Novel (standalone):

The Prince and The Dressmaker by Jen Wang. This book is just plain wonderful.  It is the story of a prince who loves to wear dresses and the seamstress who helps him awaken into his true (beautiful) self.  It’s about self-acceptance and unconditional love.  Beautifully drawn with engaging characters, this book is great for both children and adults.

Middle grade Graphic Novel (series):

Delilah Dirk Volumes 1-3 by Tony Cliff was one of my favorite series I read this year.  Delilah Dirk and her companion, Selim (who she almost haphazardly picks up on one of her adventures) are one of the best relationships I’ve seen in middle grade writing.  Their repartee is funny and interesting and real.  Full disclosure:  My 8-year-old daughter had zero interest in these.  I, on the other hand, found it delightful.

Classics:

This year I discovered Anne Bronte and I’m here to tell you she is by far the very best Bronte sister.  It is a tragedy that she only published two books.  Tennant of Wildfell Hall is the better of the two. The story is mysterious and compelling.  It must have been downright scandalous at the time.  Anne’s mature and full realized characters reveal just how shallow and flighty those of her sisters’ books are.  She’s definitely the Bronte for adults.

Essays:

Shrill by Lindy West.  On page 3 of, Ms. West writes about the body positive role models of her youth.  She begins her list with Lady Kluck and Little John aka Baloo (in drag) from Disney’s Robin Hood.  Like many women of a certain age, this movie is a touchstone of my childhood; it is part of my DNA.  So when I read this, I was filled with pure joy.   I have never fallen in love with an author quicker.  I recommended this book to my sister based solely on those 3 pages. The rest of the book did nothing to dampen my adoration.  She is a voice everyone should hear.  BONUS:  Shrill is becoming a TV show starring the gloriously funny Aidy Bryant.

YA Fantasy Series (A Tie Because I Couldn’t Decide):

The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater (4 books total) is one of the best fantasy series I’ve read, not just this year, but ever. It has a bit of teen romance among an overarching story involving dead kings, magic, ghosts, and demons.  Despite what the “boys” of the title may suggest, there are many strong female characters.  The plot is intricate, and each book is a page turner.  If you like her writing, I also highly recommend her standalone novels All the Crooked Saints (her best work so far) and Scorpio Races.

Also:

The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo.  Nothing I can say would do Ms. Bardugo justice.   If you like Fantasy, just do yourself a favor and go ahead and read everything she’s ever written, including the Six of Crows Duology and  The Language of Thorns. I read her entire works in 2018 and I look forward to her new series coming in 2019.

Nonfiction:

Small Animals by Kim Brooks.  In a dumpster-fire world, it’s not hard to feel anxious or terrified.  As a parent, it’s especially hard to keep actual danger vs. perceived danger in perspective.   This book is part memoir of a fearful parent and part researched assessment of today’s anxiety-ridden parenting culture.  It explores why we are so afraid and what we can do about it.  A must read for all parents.

Middle Grade Fiction (Another Tie Because I Can’t Decide):

In this banner year of books, my absolute favorite was Thisby Thestoop and The Black Mountain by Zac Gorman.  A middle grade book about a girl who grows up as the gamekeeper of monsters inside a black mountain.  This book is funny and endearing, with a strong female main character and a hilarious assortment of supporting characters.  My 8-year-old supports this rating.

Also:

There is a revealing moment in The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, a story about Baba Yaga, her granddaughter and a house with (yup) chicken legs,  when I said “Woah” and had to place the book in my lap and breath for a second.  It wasn’t so much a surprise I didn’t see coming, it was the unexpected emotional impact of what was revealed.  This story is about Life and Death and Love and it doesn’t shy away from the impact of any of these things.  This book is written for middle grade; however, the emotional landscape of this story is powerful for adults as well. Both my mother and daughter wholeheartedly agree that this is a great read.

Adult Fiction:

Kate Morton is one of my perennial favorite authors.  With The Clockmaker’s Daughter she doesn’t disappoint.  Every time I think I’ve got her formula figured out, she surprises me.  As with her previous books, there is a mystery and a multi-generational perspective.  This book is ambitious with four different timelines.  Ms. Morton handles this deftly and almost seamlessly.  She makes you think you’ve got it figured out (you don’t).

YA Fiction:

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl.  This story defies description, which is entirely the reason I loved it.  It’s part mystery, part fantasy (there are some “time-y wimey” things happening), part existential teen angst, and part nihilism.  I’ve never read anything like it.

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Zone OneI love big words.  I have a solid vocabulary, built on the foundation of obsessive reading since childhood.  I rarely have to stop and look up words while reading.  Although we have dictionaries all over the house, my husband instead often chooses to yell at me  “what does X mean?” while he’s reading.  But to me there’s a limit, a line between being well-read and being pompous.  Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the impossibly big words too.  It’s just that they’re too special for everyday usage.  Like using Grandma’s fancy china for Sunday dinner, when you take them out everyone’s a little bit stiff and uncomfortable.  And let’s face it, they usually come out when company is over and you’re trying to impress someone.

I can’t tell you what word of Zone One first hit a discordant note for me.  I think instead it was the general rhythm that felt clunky and ponderous to me.  I do remember a vague jarring feeling after the first few pages.  It’s the feeling that I would get (I imagine) if I saw a Shakespearean actor starring in a romantic comedy.  I was uneasy.  I was confused.  I thought this was a zombie story.

I don’t mean to imply that zombie stories aren’t smart.  Or that smart people don’t read them.  Clearly I’m a thinking person and I love zombie apocalyptic mayhem.  But with this book I kept thinking what is going on here?  We’re busting out the china and we don’t even have visitors coming.  When on page 75 defenestration was thrown out there (pun intended), I audibly groaned.  Who says that in pre-apocalyptic society?  Besides overly literate teenagers having fun placing it in casual conversation.  Are we assuming a higher level of erudition in the masses surviving zombie slaughter?  We shouldn’t.  My guess is the dudes slinging dead zombie bodies out windows would be saying “later motherfuckers!”  On that same page came the words (also regarding the defenestration of zombie corpses)  “. . .splashing him with ichor and grue.”  So hard on the heels of defenestration, these words almost did me in.  If I hadn’t just read a review in the New Yorker about Magic Mike XXL, I would have thought the world was ending.  Clearly there are no boundaries for the highly articulate.

There is no doubt that Mr. Whitehead is a clever writer.  Sadly, his subtle, snarky asides reminded me of a precocious child screaming for attention in a room full of adults. I do not like precocious children.  He wants us to see how clever he his.   Which, being the contrary person I am, makes me want to ignore him entirely.

So why did I finish the book?  Well for one, I’m also stubborn besides contrary. It amounts to a very petulant attitude of You think you’re more clever than me?  I’ll show you.  And also, as I kept reading I found out just how clever Mr. Whitehead really is.  When he’s not trying to show off, his legitimate brilliance eked out.  The following paragraph made me stop and say out loud “Now THAT is good writing!”:

“Parenthood made grown-ups unpredictable.  They hesitated at the key moment out of consideration for their kid’s abilities or safety, they were paranoid he wanted to rape or eat their offspring, they slowed him down with their baby steps or kept him distracted as he pondered their erraticism. . .The parents were dangerous because they didn’t want your precious supplies.  They possessed the valuables, and it hobbled their reasoning.”

THAT is what I want to think about when I think about zombies.  I want the humanization of a world filled with unhumans.  Tell me what it’s like to live with the undead and survivors.  No fancy words required.

Finally, begrudgingly I came to really like this book. I may even read it again, defenestration, ichor and all.   By the end I was satisfied with story.  It was simple and rang true.

“The world wasn’t ending:  it had ended and now they were in a new place.  They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”

We spend much time writing about the books we’re reading here, and little time about how awesome books are in general (and that’s a good thing — no one would want to read that all year round). But Christmas got me thinking about it so I wanted to give thanks to books.

My Christmas morning was full of books. Here’s what I found under the tree, along with a stocking full of an unconscionable amount of candy:

I also gave folks loads of books and indie self-published comics because they would like them, it would help keep bookstores and writers and artists going in these trying times, and because it’s fun. I can’t think of a better Christmas day then one where we are all sprawled out on the couch or living room floor reading our presents while the snow falls outside. That’s how Christmas was when I was a kid and how it still is today — for that day at least I’m only having an adventure, not just reading when I can on the subway or before I fall asleep at night. Books are awesome. So is getting them as gifts.

Here’s a beautiful video via the New York Times book blog that captures everything I just wrote in a much more eloquent way. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

I’ve never had any interest in novel-writing. I’m more of a script guy (comics, screenplays, little notes directing me to write something later that I never will) and I’ve always bristled when people ask me when my first novel will be finished upon learning that I’m a writer. A novel is a very specific art form with many rules and traditions. It’s not simply the default setting for writers.

Then my friend Melissa signed up for National Novel Writing Month last year and it sounded like too much fun. The premise? You just write 50,000 words in 30 days. They don’t have to be polished or good or even (I’m assuming) very novel-like. It’s a writing exercise, really — the kind that reminds you what it was like when you were a kid and writing was as simple as looking out the window in the morning and writing about the snow coming down until you got bored. Writing should be, as Neil Gaiman put it, making stuff up in your head and then writing it down. National Novel Writing Month is basically a hammer to break the emergency glass and get back to that. I’m looking forward to it.

The race began today and I’ve got a few words in the bank. You can check out my progress in the little gadget at left and on the NaNoWriMo site. And you should do it, too! Sign up here.

You too, Jessica! Write a novel!

Book CoverFull disclosure:  I read Marley and Me (hey, it has a dog on the cover doesn’t it?) and I enjoyed the book immensely.  I laughed at all the funny parts, cringed when required and even cried at the end (come on, you knew it was coming!).  I’ve read that Walking with Ollie is Britain’s answer to Marley and I agree with that in many ways. I also think that both men adore and love their dogs and any judgments that follow are solely in their roles as responsible dog owners, not as good people.

I have four rescue animals – two cats and two dogs.  They are all wonderful creatures, affectionate and loving.  They don’t know they are supposed to be thankful that I rescued them and often act quite cavalier about their living situation (they are, plain and simply, spoiled).  Three of them have stable personalities with no issues that need managing. 

One of them doesn’t. 

He came to us as a four month old puppy and the first time I took him to the vet (the second day I had him) she said “He’s a bit timid isn’t he?”  I wouldn’t realize her understatement until many months later.  By then I had come to realize the little guy was afraid of the car (he puked once he got in), strange men on the street (or boys past the age of 15 or so), my father (even after he’d known him for months), statues of people, holiday decorations, the vacuum cleaner, nail clippers (the dog version and the human version), baby gates, cats, and inexplicably, the Stop N Shop Peapod truck.   Unlike Ollie, he was not afraid of his owner (me) but he did give Tim the fish eye occasionally, just to make sure he wasn’t up to no good.

When I began reading Ollie, I couldn’t help but remember the despair I felt when I realized my dog was not normal.  I felt that I had failed.  I thought that my first dog attempt was a disaster and it was all my fault (did I make him this way?).  That I couldn’t help this poor creature who was just terrified of the world.  I felt for Mr. Foster, I really did.  I’ve been there. 

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“As much as I admire and value intellectualism and experimentation, I’ve discovered that unless a book has a throbbing heart as well as a sexy brain, I feel like the story is a specimen in a sealed glass jar and not a living, breathing creature I want to take by the hand and talk to for hours on end.”

Myla Goldberg from this Slate article.

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Let’s face it, readers are at least a little bit geeky.  And I don’t mean you Opera Book Club, Joyce Carol Oates, or Nora Roberts fans (I continue to slam them, knowing there is no chance they are reading this right now).  I mean real readers of real books. You know, the kind who read (or write) a book blog. 

That geekiness doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.  I began liking to read because in my early elementary school years the readers were the smart kids.  And I very much wanted to be one of the smart kids, especially when I learned in the 3rd grade what “straight A’s” meant. What started out as purely academic and competitive turned into something more.  I got hooked on all the wonderful stories out there. 

As I got older and being smarter made me less popular I hung onto reading (which, it needs to be said, my peers were dropping it as fast as they could to become “cool” or a reasonable facsimile) because it is a solitary but never lonely activity.  It’s an excuse to be alone with your thoughts and a clearly identifiable activity which doesn’t make you (that) weird.  Parents don’t hound you for reading too much.  You can opt out of the latest innane schoolyard game quietly and without embarrassment by sitting on the grass with a new volume. If you’re home on a Saturday night you’ve always got something to do.

If you’re reading others don’t hang out with you because they think you are too smart for them (and therefore boring) , not necessarily because you’re a loser.   Or they call you “bookish” which sounds suspiciously like a compliment given to less social, but reading kids.  In school the smart kids are somehow allowed more leeway in the social awkwardness category (actually in life, for those of you who have ever met a brilliant but painfully awkward MIT grad).  There’s at least one positive thing about you – usually a way to get homework copied, or the answers on a test.   

Or it’s possible that these are all the reasons I’ve constructed to make my inner geek feel better. 

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{Full disclosure:  I’m a little defensive lately.  My best friend got married in the last of the weddings for this season (what a relief) and we didn’t make it to rehearsal dinner before the “When are you getting married?” questions started.  I’ve mentioned before that reading keeps me sane and my choices this week are no exception.}

I’ve had my anti-bride rant already so I’m moving on to bigger prey.  In a long hot summer filled with wedding after wedding (really it was only three, almost four, but it seemed like exponentially more) I’ve become increasingly frustrated by social expectations being laid at my feet.  Everyone wants to marry me off. 

It still amazes me how rude some people can be.  When are you getting married is not, by any means, an innocuous or polite question.  And yet it’s completely socially acceptable.   Even if we excuse the blatant invasion of privacy there are issues with the semantics.  Firstly there is the “when” of it which implies there is no choice not to – it’s  pretty clear that this is not a question of “if” after all.  Secondly there is the fact that the questioner even has to ask the question, which implies that you’re taking too long (the poor, frustrated souls, I really feel for them).  This questions belongs, along with its sister when are you having kids, to a society where people had no choices in the matter – matrimony and childbirth were inevitable – and frankly, they had nothing better to talk about.  I for one think we’ve moved past that and our social manners should evolve as such.  Unfortunately it appears that I’m in the minority on this one.

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Jessica’s Reading

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Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

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