Thursday, April 13, 2017

My Favorite Books

As a writer, one of the most common questions that I get (aside from things like "What inspires you?" or "How do you beat writer's block?" or "But seriously, what's your day job?") is about my favorite books/authors. I think any list like this will, for me, be incomplete on some level. I'm guaranteed to forget some, and to finish reading one in three days that I decide belongs on here. But, keeping all of that in mind, here's a shout-out to some of my favorite books!

Of Bees and Mist, Erick Setiawan

This is my favorite book ever, bar none. I read it over winter break in December of 2015, back when I was visiting Rhode Island/the University of Rhode Island for the first time. It hits so many notes that are right up my alley--fantasy, gender dynamics, compassionate rendering of characters, stunning prose. I could go on and on about this one forever and, if you've ever asked me for a book recommendation, then I probably have. Here's my Goodreads review: "The fantastical elements build an enchanting world and the metaphorical truths make this a very human and resonant story. The language is lyrical and the characters dynamic. Meridia's life is in (quite a few) places heartbreaking, but I never stopped hoping she'd find peace. A beautiful novel."

The Beginner, Lynn Hejinian

This is my favorite book of poetry. The mastery of echoes is something I aspire to in my own work. If you can find a copy, I highly suggest picking it up and not only reading it but going back and rereading it to get the full potential out of it.

Graceling Realm Series, Kristen Cashore

This is another book (okay, series, really) that I've probably recommended you read if you sit still long enough. Each of the protagonists of the three books shows a different set of strengths as a female character. While I love all of these books, my favorite is Fire for a lot of reasons, not the least of which I think is the fact that I found the titular character the most natural to relate to on a personal level. If you love strong female characters (and not only in the ass kicking sense), fantasy, romance, adventure, or any combination of the above, this is a wonderful series to give a go.

Coven of Echo Park Series, Amber Benson

Two out of three of these books have been released, with the final installment coming this May. My review of book #1, Witches of Echo Park: "There is nothing more disappointing than when a book you've waited months for is no good. Luckily, Witches of Echo Park did not disappoint.

This book serves, at its core, as a eulogy for Eleanora. (No spoilers here: The book opens with her dying of cancer, which is why her grandniece, Lyse, returns to Echo Park in the first place.) Flashbacks allow the reader to get a real sense of some of the biggest moments of Eleanora's life, letting a plot that only covers maybe a week of present-day time delve deeper into decades worth of character development. We do not experience Eleanora only through Lyse's perspective, or Eleanora's friends, but through Eleanora herself--a major benefit of switching character points of view. If you love character-driven work, this is the book for you! The bulk of the present day plot seems to take place in the last 50 or so pages of the book. Much of the book is dedicated to character exploration, acquainting you with a whole cast of different kinds of women (anyone ranging from the girl who starts the book with a hangover to the mother of two who reads tarot cards to the pink-haired, leather-gloved woman who is anything but warm and fuzzy, except when it comes to her cats). 

Author Amber Benson shows reverence for the place, lingering on images of houses and landscapes as well as any opportunities to explore the culture of Echo Park. The prose is--simply put--beautiful without being self-involved or indulgent. Benson's lovely descriptions feel fresh and true and relatable. Overall, I highly recommend this book, the first in a trilogy (if I'm remembering that correctly) that you'll want to pre-order book #2 for by the end of this installment."

My review of book #2, The Last Dream Keeper: "One of the real joys of reading this book is the character groundwork laid out in Witches of Echo Park. With basic personalities and relationships established in book one, Last Dream Keeper really gets to deepen our sense of each of these women, as well as project them even more emphatically along their character arcs. The questioning of loyalties takes deeper root as the story unfolds. There's a lot of payoff for the connections and threads that may have seemed, based on a quick or surface-level read of Witches of Echo Park, simply there to flesh out the world or characters, and this payoff is extremely rewarding as a reader.

In addition to the character exploration and development here, everything is more intense: stakes, tension, scale of impact, horror. There were parts of this story that were so horrific and haunting that they created a visceral reaction in me. And, for the last 100 pages or so, I mostly chanted a mantra of "HOLY SHIT. No, that can't-- Holy shit." (Pro Tip: Make sure when you near the page 200 mark, you're prepared to finish the rest of the book in that sitting.) The ending leaves plenty of cliffhangers, and the fate of many in the balance, though book two's story arc hits where it intends to at the conclusion.

The descriptions, as they were in Witches of Echo Park, are very often stunning. When used in regards Echo Park itself these descriptions are consistently reverent and detailed and familiar and, when these descriptions are used to ramp up the terror factor, they get dark and chilling really quickly. The descriptions of the more heightened uses of magic are surreal and cinematic, making very ethereal concepts extremely visual in the mind's eye.

This is a series where the characters make the world more interesting, and the world makes the characters more interesting. The lighter, happier moments are born out of the women connecting in very supportive and meaningful ways. I was especially partial to Lyse and Lizbeth's relationship, but all of their connections, with each other and with other people in their lives, are interesting. The work done to sharpen each of the leading ladies as flesh-and-blood characters on the page, and to enhance our understanding of their relationships with each other and their lens on the world at large, is fascinating and well-crafted. As the best witch stories do, this novel highlights a lot of truths about our own world, including but not limited to the capacity for women to work together toward greater ends and support each other, and the kind of fear-mongering and oppression that should be outdated but can be seen in our society at large.

If you haven't started this series yet, go grab Witches of Echo Park and The Last Dream Keeper, snuggle in with a quilt and your hot beverage of choice, light a candle, and get reading."

You better believe I've already pre-ordered The End of Magic.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

This is my favorite short story collection. Aimee Bender has been such a tremendous influence on me as a writer, which is interesting because I didn't especially connect with her work the first go-around. Her ability to slip between the strange, even fantastical, and the mundane is something I've incorporated more and more into my own writing. Her voice and style are stunning. And, without overtly drawing attention to it, she has some really interesting display of female narratives throughout a lot of her work. One of the included stories, "The Healer," is my favorite short story of all time.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

It's a classic for a reason. While it's not what I would by any means call a happy read, the writing itself is gorgeous and the themes are both haunting and valuable to engage with.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

This was the first novel that ever taught me your main characters didn't have to be likable. I credit a lot of my love for this book to an amazing high school English teacher who made it utterly engaging. The fact that Cathy and Heathcliff are unabashedly selfish and reckless people blew my mind as a young teen writer and expanded my concepts of writing in a lot of really important ways.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day

And here we have my favorite memoir, a birthday gift from my husband. I absolutely devoured this book. Here's my Goodreads review: "It's funny and geeky and relatable. From finding her home with an Internet community to dealing with anxiety and depression, there's so much in here that I connected with personally. And, having gotten this as a gift on my 26th birthday and read it right before starting my PhD program, I think it was perfect timing. Felicia Day touches on a lot of smart points about perfectionism, driving yourself into the ground, being a creator, and letting yourself take stock of where you are and where you want to be. I especially recommend it to anyone in their 20s and anyone who considers themselves a nerd, but I think that there's a lot of insight and humor here for just about any reader. If you've been on the fence about buying this memoir: Do it."

Yes, Please, Amy Poehler

There are lots of reasons to pick this up. Like Day's memoir, it's definitely funny and relatable. You can pick it up if you already love Amy Poehler and her work--whether that's Parks and Rec or Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. It's especially engaging if you're already a fan of hers, but I think there's a lot to connect to either way.

Garbage, A.R. Ammons

This is a book I had to read my freshman year of college and I found myself marking it up constantly without even thinking. The line work and use of breath is fantastic.

Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak

My Goodreads review: "Stunningly written and emotionally provocative." To expand a bit, Shafak's writing is stylistically some of the best that I've read. This novel does quite a bit of jumping around--between characters, from one time and place to another. I was especially invested in the characters of the past because they felt so complex in a deeply human way. There's a lot of different things for people of different tastes to appreciate in this one, I think, and, to me, it's worth it to read for the lovely writing alone.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans

Evans' command of voice, dialogue, and the form of the short story are all not only enjoyable to read, but also an excellent study of craft if you're a writer yourself. This is another one that very much benefits from subsequent readings that let you deepen your understanding of what Evans is pulling off, as well as notice different aspects of the stories themselves.

Bone, Jeff Smith

This is another one of those "right up my alley" ones. It's a huge volume of graphic novel. Fantasy, strong female characters--seeing a pattern here? Thorn and her grandmother are amazing, but Bone is such a wonderful character as well. (Bartleby may be my favorite though. That might be weird. I probably don't care.) It's a great adventure tale that lets you get really invested in the story over a long plot.

Spell on Wheels, Kate Leth + Megan Levens + Marissa Louise

My blog review of this series is here.


So... that ended up being a really, really long post. Which of these would you like to give a try? What are your favorite books?

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