Book Review, Fiction, Random

2015: Favorite Reads

2015 - Favorite Reads graphicOne of the things that I love about this time of year (other than copious amounts of sugar cookies) is that this is when news outlets start assembling their “best of” lists. The best movies of 2015, the best songs from 2015, best books, best memes, etc. Since I’m firmly behind the eight ball when it comes to trends, I’m usually reading a book that was a smash hit five years ago and has already been adapted for the big screen (looking at you Gone Girl. Haven’t watched the movie though …). So I went through my Goodreads list for 2015 and picked out the books that impacted me during the year. This year’s goal was to read 30 books. It was something of a laughable goal, because if I really put my mind to it – I can slam a book down in a day. But I work full time. I’m a mom. And on the side, I – you know – like to write. So 30 was doable. I’ve already exceeded that goal by one. 🙂

Here’s what has stuck with me, long after I’ve turned the final chapter:

Shivaree – JD Horn Amazing – the first couple books on this list were actually published in 2015. This makes me feel relevant! But back to the book … I read Shivaree in one evening. Started in the afternoon, could not put it down, and went to bed shortly after midnight. And then proceeded to have some pretty haunting dreams. Shivaree is set in the south after the Korean War and is a paranormal, Southern Gothic horror. I almost didn’t make it past the first chapter but was glad that I stayed the course. Mr. Horn uses rich characterization of the setting, the historical context, and the people he’s created to drive a gripping narrative. Seriously – I need to read more of this man’s work.

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert In my Goodreads review of Ms. Gilbert’s non-fiction on nurturing your creative life, I wrote that I felt like Ms. Gilbert had wrote this book for me. There were so many spots where I wished I was reading a physical copy of the book (checked out the book from my library for Kindle), so I could take a highlighter and mark pages to go back to and re-read again and again. I will be purchasing this book when it’s out in paperback. (Don’t get me wrong – I love hardcovers, but I’m a paperback kinda girl.)

Winter Garden –Kristen Hannah Oh man, this book got me in the feels. I liked the historical nature of Ms. Hannah’s book, but even though I was reading about fictional people, there were parts of this book that had me sobbing. That’s how invested I was in the characters. (Yes, books make me cry – don’t get me started about “Harry Potter” or “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” My nose is turning red just thinking about it.)

Crazy Old Coot / Old Coots Never Forget – Jerry Johnson If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you’ll know that I talk a lot about Jerry, my mentor from college. I talk about him a lot, but I probably don’t talk about him enough, because Jerry’s one of the first people who really made me believe in my ability to write and he’s been a good friend and one of my best and fiercest critics.  If you’re a fan of creative nonfiction, you need to read Jerry’s books.  (Here’s the link to his Amazon page.)  His essays run the gamut between capturing the atmosphere of curmudgeonly men in their hunting camps to elegies Jerry has written for lost friends.  There’s something for everyone in Jerry’s work – reading his blog is time well spent.

What the Night Knows – Dean Koontz There is a fabulous indie used and new bookstore in Red Wing, Minnesota called Fair Trade Books. They have a nifty policy that if you are a newcomer to the store, the owner or one of the employees will try to find a book from their used selection that they’ve specifically chosen for you based on what you’re interested in reading.  What the Night Knows was the book that was chosen for me and it was a good read.  Koontz is an author I had never read before, but Koontz wrote a convincing thriller that had a heavy supernatural tone throughout.  And I loved it.  He built a world that I was not able to shake for awhile after finishing his novel.

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As for next year, I think I’m going to be bold and try for 35 books. (Sorry … sarcasm.)  J.T. Ellison, one of my favorite authors, has a standalone novel coming out, as well as a prequel that features her Taylor Jackson character.  I’m looking forward to reading both of those.  I’m also going to start diving into some of the classics of my chosen genre – Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.  I also have a goal to read every Sackett novel that Louis L’Amour ever wrote.  (When I was in college, I once spent a Christmas break reading a box of L’Amour books my dad had bought at an auction. I think I averaged two a day, figured out that L’Amour liked to plagiarize from himself and had one hell of a good time reading Westerns.  Then I passed them onto my grandpa.  Books can build bridges between generations … that was time well spent.)

What are you going to be reading in 2016?

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Book Review, Process

Book Review – The Virgin’s Guide to Writing Your First Romance Novel

The first time that I ever encountered Elda Minger’s books was at the CashWise Grocery Store in Willmar, Minnesota.  I worked an evening shift that went from 1 to 10 p.m., and frequently went there to unwind.  I’d usually have a couple things that I needed to purchase, but more often than not I was more interested in reading the magazines and checking out book covers.

And that is where I found Elda Minger’s books *mumblemumblemumblemumble.”

Oh wait.  This is the part of my blog where I hesitantly acknowledge that I’ve read (and enjoyed) Harlequin romance novels.  So – back in the early aughts, I bought Elda Minger’s “Night Rhythms” at CashWise and although many of the other Harlequin’s I’ve picked up over the years have been donated or discarded, I like Minger’s book.  And I may have a major in English and my shelves may be filled with books from T.S. Eliot, Stephan King, Elia Kazan, etc., but dammit – a decent romance novel makes for great brain candy.  Especially when I can slam something like a Harlequin down in less than an afternoon.

Anyway – I was taking a long walk with my hooligans the other day and a story idea came to me – it was like a wonderful gift that kept me noodling on the possibilities of story lines, situations, and characters until I got home.  Unlike the other stories that I have burbling in my gray area, there’s nothing paranormal or mysterious about this plot – in fact, it’s kind of a simple, human story.  And you know what?  It could turn itself into a decent little romantic tale.

And since I have a hard time finishing any of my projects and because I wanted to approach this story idea like I was crafting a romance, I decided to do some Googling.  And I came across Elda Minger’s “The Virgin’s Guide to Writing Your First Romance Novel” and I downloaded a copy for my Kindle.

As I mentally composed this blog post, I found myself noodling as to why I enjoyed Minger’s “how-to” so much.  To be honest – I’m not a novice or a virgin (heh) when it comes to writing.  I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, nearly 15 of those years have been spent as a professional/paid writer (and to be honest – being able to write that is just a thrill to me).

So why did I like Minger’s book?  First and foremost – Minger has a great conversational voice.  Her book is structured in a Q&A format of the most commonly asked questions she’s fielded in her writing / teaching career.  And it really feels like having a conversation with a mentor rather than reading a tome that regurgitates the “best of” Strunk and White.  Also – her advice is spot on, whether you’re new to the craft or looking for a couple ideas to refresh your existing skills (more where I am at when I read books like Minger’s).

And finally – one of the most interesting parts of Minger’s book that I encountered in the “writing about sex” section was a very brief, but FASCINATING history that encompassed historical romances and debunked some of the common notions that people might have about romance novels.

Minger’s book was $5 well spent.  I’d recommend it to novice and intermediate writers.

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Writing / Doing – Despite an avalanche of work, I’ve had some painfully slow but pretty satisfying edits lately on AL.  I also mentioned the other story idea that came to me last week while walking.  I’ve taken some preliminary notes on that story and intend to go back and try to craft an outline in the near future.

I also have another story that I’ve worked on for the past few years.  And it seems like when things are going well with AL, this one wants to barge in and be all front and center.  (It’s kind of like watching my eldest son snatch a toy away from my youngest.  Or how my youngest child is finding his voice and crows just to drown his older brother out.)  In situations like these, I just take notes.  I have notebooks and folders (sometimes entire containers) devoted to my separate stories.  I want to get my first draft of AL edited before I start cheating on her to work on something else.

Reading – Other than Minger, I have a couple other books (well, several) downloaded on my Kindle to read sometime very soon.  The two books that are at the front of my queue are “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak and “Make Art, Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Finding Your Creative Career” by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens.