This is not a Top Ten list.
I read a lot of books, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more ruthless about bailing on those that don’t grab my attention fairly early on. By definition, then, all the books I finished in 2018 were books I enjoyed–which made it impossible for me to winnow them down to a simple “Best” list.
Instead, I’m highlighting the books I found most memorable, without worrying about the total number I choose. The idea is to spread the love, reading-wise, so why not give a shout-out to as many titles as possible?
Thrillers with Distinctive Settings: The Trailing Spouse, by Jo Furniss, uses Singapore as a backdrop for the story of a British expat’s slow unraveling. The city’s weather, architecture and social dynamics are all brought vividly to life. Tricky family dynamics drive the action in Amber Cowie’s Rapid Falls, and the Canadian small-town setting feels so real that the characters do, too.
Thrillers with Devious Twists: I love a good page-turner, especially when there’s a delicious twist at the end. But because I read so many suspense books, most end up somewhat interchangeable in my memory. That wasn’t the case with You, by Caroline Kepnes. The narrator, Joe, has a voice so distinctive and entertaining that I didn’t really care that he was a stalker with a troubling history. In fact, I rooted for him! (The tone of the book was captured almost perfectly by the recent TV version, despite some changes in the plot.) Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough, was billed as one of those “amazing twist” books, so much that I kept my expectations low. But yes, there was a genuinely surprising twist–and it was bonkers. The kind of ending some people hate. But I admired the sheer craziness of it, and the rest of the book was so well written that I went along with it.
Immersive Historical Fiction: The main reason I read (and write) historical fiction is that it allows me to time travel. City of Ash, by Megan Chance, transported me to late 19th-century Seattle, an up-and-coming city where people came to reinvent themselves. I loved the evolution of the two main characters, “frenemies” who ultimately collaborate on a revenge plot. The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, is Gothic with a capital G. There’s a creepy British ancestral home, long-buried family secrets, a young wife who’s afraid she’s going crazy….and oh yes, weird wooden figurines that move around on their own. What set this book apart was its impeccable style: the descriptions and dialogue all sounded like something written more than a hundred years ago—and I mean that as a compliment.
Books That Made Me Feel Smart: Every year has its “important” books, the ones that win all the awards and that I end up reading years later, when they’re in paperback and no longer on the waitlist at the library. This year, I managed to be ahead of the pack with The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. Rebecca is a writer who lives not too far from me, and we have some friends in common, so I bought her book soon after it came out, even though I was a little apprehensive: It’s about the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and it will be good for you to read this. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so darn entertaining. Yes, parts are very sad, but it never once felt like homework. I loved spending time with these characters, and I missed them when I’d finished. While I enjoyed The Great Believers from the very beginning, I found Madeline Miller’s Circe slow to get going. But as a long-time ancient-history nerd, I pushed myself to keep reading. And it was worth it: this story of a nymph banished to an island was a mix of classical allusions, feminist critique and family drama.
Books That Made Me Laugh: I’m listing these last, but really they should be first, because it’s really hard to write funny. When political debates and social-media nonsense got me stressed out, I turned to Hottest Heads of State: The American Presidents, by J.D. and Kate Dobson. A hilarious mashup of teen-worthy swooning and legitimate research, this is a book I’ve already re-read multiple times and gave as Christmas gifts to my mom and sister. Other books that made me giggle: Dear Dwayne, With Love, by Eliza Gordon (a woman’s obsession with The Rock inspires her to make changes in her own life), and Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta (a funny-but-real take on how different generations deal with dating and sex). After reading most of Perrotta’s books, I still wonder how he manages to capture female characters so wonderfully and truly.
Honorable Mentions: A category I’m including for books I really enjoyed but don’t have the time/energy to write full descriptions: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware; City of Thieves, David Benioff; How to Be Famous, Caitlin Moran; The Hunger, Alma Katsu; The Promise Between Us, Barbara Claypoole White; Pachinko, Min Lee; The Mothers, Brit Bennett; Digging In, Loretta Nyhan; The Alice Network, Kate Quinn; The Good Liar, Catherine McKenzie; Long Black Veil, Jennifer Boylan
Did you read/love/hate any of these books? What should I add to my list for 2019?
A few months ago, I went to a publishing party in New York City. Despite what some might assume about the writing life, this is not the kind of invite that comes my way often. Sure, I was a little intimidated, but also really excited. All those years of typing, alone, had led me here, to a hotel off Times Square, where I’d finally mingle among the literati.
Not so much, it turned out. There were too many people for the space; guests didn’t so much mingle as sort into cliques. I wedged my way through the overstuffed rooms, looking for the only people I sort-of knew: fellow writers I’d interacted with on Facebook. I faked a confident walk, drink in hand, as I tried to match the dimly-lit faces around me with the tiny profile pics I was used to seeing on my screen. Total fail. I felt embarrassed and alone; it seemed like everyone else already knew each other and I was the only odd one out.
Which wasn’t the case, of course. I eventually connected with two other lovely authors who were just as lost as me. But I flashed back to that night more recently, when my twin sons started middle school. By the second day of sixth grade, a “popular” group had already formed, pulling some friends of my boys’ into its orbit. My sons talked about how hard it was at lunch, feeling like they had no-one but each other to sit with, and I flashed back to that party. “I know exactly how you feel,” I said.
It doesn’t matter what age you are—there are always times and places where you feel like you don’t fit. I think that’s especially true for writers, who tend to be introverts and work primarily on their own. It’s easy to feel like there’s a whole Cool Writer World out there that you’re not a part of, where everyone is having more fun than you.
It happens when you see photos online from a conference (“They’re all having cocktails while I’m stuck in the middle of my first draft!”). It happens when you see yet another tweet or Instagram story from one of those social-media-superstars who always find something clever to say (“How does she have time to produce all that content when I’m still on that same first draft?”). It happens when you hear about someone else going on a writing retreat, or being sent on a multi-city book tour, or having their book optioned for TV. It can seem, at times, like everyone else is at the cool lunch table, while you’re sitting alone.
The thing about being (much!) older than a sixth grader is that you can put it into perspective. I’m pretty sure those A-listers who blurb each other’s books think their first drafts are awful, just like me. The authors at that conference are grinning because they’re out of the house, enjoying a few days off from the usual writing slog. Very few working writers have permanent seats at the Cool Table–and as a friend of mine once pointed out, sometimes we’re so busy looking at the people ahead of us that we forget how far we’ve come.
My boys now have some friends to sit with at lunch. But I’ve told them there will always be an In Crowd. There will always be people who make you feel left out. But there are far more people on the fringes. If you can have a good conversation with just one of them, it’s still a win—whether you’re in a school cafeteria or a New York City soiree.
I hate “networking.” I always feel awkward interacting with groups of people I don’t know (introvert alert!) and I’m much better at self-deprecation than selling myself. And though I spend a fair amount of time online, so-called “social networks” come with their own drawbacks: snippy Facebook comments, Twitter trolls, nasty Amazon reviews, the possible undermining of our entire democratic system, etc.
My last book club meeting (OK, not really, but doesn’t it look like fun?)
But this week I was reminded that we all have a very different kind of social network: the people who are in our lives because we share a common interest or goal. One night, I went out with a newly-formed writers’ group, which included two guys I used to work with at a magazine years ago. Technically, you could say it was networking, because we’re all writers of one kind or another (both fiction and journalism). It was also social, because I was catching up with old friends. But most importantly–it was fun. At one point I had to take a mental step backward and marvel: I’m in a bar at 10pm on a Tuesday, talking about writing. My younger self would have been thrilled.
The next night I went to a book club meeting, where I was the youngest attendee by at least 10 years. The women in my group are all voracious, wide-ranging readers, so we talked about books, of course, but also movies and grandchildren and upcoming vacations. For that hour-and-a-half, we formed our own network of book lovers–and I came away feeling just a little bit smarter.
The night after that was Boy Scouts. My fifth-grade boys joined at the beginning of the year, and this was the first time I’d gone to a family event. I knew hardly anyone. But that group, I realized, will become yet another one of my networks. Eventually I’ll get to know those parents and kids, because we all have something in common…. such as opening a post-campout duffle bag and nearly passing out from the smell.
Now don’t get me wrong–I don’t usually have such a busy social schedule. But at a time when so many experts are wringing their hands over the influence of social media, I hope we can all keep nurturing our own, real-life social networks. Call or email that old friend. Have dinner with someone from your old office. Maintain those ties, even if they’ve gotten frayed with time. Because that’s the kind of networking that can keep you sane in crazy times.
No one needs another Titanic book.
That’s what kept going through my head as I started work on what would become ON A COLD DARK SEA. Everyone’s seen the movie; the tragedy has long since been over-exploited. But I had this idea I couldn’t let go of, one of those all-too-rare inspirational moments when I saw exactly how the story should go. So I went with my gut and wrote the book I wanted to write.
And luckily, it turns out there are still people who want to read about a ship that sunk more than a century ago.
Remember that hackneyed advice to write what you know? What you’ll hear from actual working writers is to write what you love. After all, you’ll be living with that topic/setting/character for years–you’d better start off super-excited about it, or there’s no way you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Sounds great, right? But let’s get real. Just because you want to write about something, doesn’t mean anyone else will be interested.
Writers face this dilemma all the time. Follow our hearts and hope an audience follows? Or try to adapt our passion projects into the kinds of books that actually sell? A few literary A-listers can write whatever they want and get awards; other prolific authors churn out series that are target-marketed to very specific readers. Most novelists I know fall somewhere in between, but you definitely have to start with a strong reason for telling that particular story.
The problem is what comes next.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by a certain Big Historical Event. (Sorry, I’m not telling which one.) “Write what you love!” friends urged, so last year, I finally took the plunge and started brainstorming ideas for a book. But this time, no perfect storyline magically presented itself. I struggled and restarted and struggled some more. After many false starts and lots of stomach-churning, I finally figured out that it wasn’t enough to just write about The Event and assume everyone else would be as interested as I was.
So here’s the advice I’ll now be giving to aspiring writers:
Write what you love in a way that makes readers fall in love, too.
Think of your book as a new boyfriend you’re bringing home to meet the family: He’s so great! So smart! You’re going to love spending time with him! A good writer can make any topic interesting–through distinctive characters and dialogue, elements of suspense, and other literary tricks. I’m now reworking the storyline so that readers will hopefully understand why I’m so interested in The Event. (And no, I’m still not ready to share which event is it. Trust me, you’ve heard of it.) Who knows if I’ll pull it off? Stay tuned….
It’s four days until Christmas, and I’ve gotten hardly any Christmas letters. You may remember those from the distant past….say, 1995. In mid-December, your mailbox would fill up with cards from great-aunts and cousins and friends from college who’d moved far away. The cards almost always included a one-page summary of what the family had been up to that year. Since so many of those letters were full of humble-bragging, they got a bad rap. (“Our beautiful daughter is a straight-A student at a super prestigious college and our amazing son plays seven different sports, plus my darling husband got a promotion!”)
Such letters didn’t necessarily reflect the messy realities of family life–or the stress of holiday To Do lists.
But I liked them! They helped me stay in touch with people I didn’t see very often, and each one was a reflection of the person writing it. I remember one former co-worker who sent out a brutally honest report from her dysfunctional family: her son was finishing up rehab, her daughter had gone off to Tokyo and disappeared for awhile, she and her husband kept bickering but were still married. In the years before confessional mommy blogs, her honesty was pretty shocking–and made me like her even more.
After I had my eldest daughter, I vividly remember writing my first Christmas letter–it was one of the milestones that signaled I had now officially started my own family. My own parents continue to write about me and my sister in their Christmas letters, even though we moved out of the house decades ago. (For years, she and I would also keep track of who’d scored a bigger paragraph…i.e., which one had done something worth bragging about.)
But this year, I never got around to writing one. Why bother? When you get Facebook status updates on friends’ and relatives’ lives, it doesn’t seem worth it to write up a whole year-end rundown. We’ve all got plenty of other stuff to do. The vast majority of cards I get these days are beautifully printed with family photos, but don’t have actual writing on them.
And that’s fine, if you’re sending cards to everyone you know. I love seeing pictures of everyone’s cute kids! But for me, as a writer, it feels wrong to send out a card without writing at least something on it. So I’ve come up with my own self-imposed system: I send cards to all my close relatives, and to good friends I don’t get to see often enough. I scribble some kind of personal message, and for those few minutes, I feel connected to that person. Which I think is kind-of the point.
I’m not sending cards to the parents of my kids’ friends or neighbors I chat to when I’m taking a walk–and that’s O.K. I’m not getting caught up in the “you sent me a card so now I feel obligated to send you one” dynamic. I love getting cards, whatever they look like, but Christmas should never feel like a competition. And whenever I get nostalgic about Christmas letters, I can always count on getting one from my parents.
The cover design process is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking parts of publishing a book. A great cover helps sell your book to readers, but it also needs to convey the story and tone in the right way (so those readers know what they’re getting). And take note, aspiring authors: the publisher gets the final say. Yes, the writer is consulted, and their suggestions are taken into account (to varying extents), but you don’t always get what you want.
I just went through all that with my upcoming book, ON A COLD DARK SEA. The publisher sent me three possibilities, based on a questionnaire I’d filled out about the book and other covers I liked. Then my editor and I began a long series of emails, as I gave my critiques, and she sent them on to the designer, and then the designer sent new versions, and I gave new critiques, and the marketing team gave their input, etc. etc. The whole process took about two months.
I nixed one of the three contenders pretty early on, but that left two that were equally good. Both showed female figures on a boat, but one was close-up and moody, while the other was more pulled-back and brighter. I honestly could not decide which one was better. So I started polling friends and fellow writers….who annoyingly voted 50/50. Each version had an equal number of pros and cons.
In the end, there were just slightly more cons to the lighter, brighter version, and while they could have probably been fixed with a whole lot of Photoshop, my editor and I mutually decided we were done. We had one cover that didn’t need any further work, and that we were both happy with. And while I get a kick out of sorting through multiple possible visions for a book, it’s also a relief to have the whole thing finished.
Now I just have to wait six months for ON A COLD DARK SEA to actually be published! (Seems like an awfully long time….)
When a fellow writer recently told me she’d abandoned her latest manuscript after working on it for eight months, I felt awful for her. How terrible to spend so much time and mental energy on something that didn’t pan out, and how brave to finally say enough was enough. Sometimes you know it’s for the best, she told me, and once the decision was made, it was a relief to let go.
And that’s when I realized writing books is a lot like dating. We’re always searching for the next great idea, the next great love. We need to feel passionate about our next project, because it requires a years-long commitment. But true love, as we all know, isn’t something you can easily summon.
I recently finished my next book (“finished” being a relative term, since I’ve still got months of edits and proofreading to go). With my previous books, there had been lots of stops and starts as I reworked the plot and characters. Writing this latest one felt more like tumbling into a whirlwind courtship. The idea came to me almost fully formed, and the characters felt real from the moment I dreamed them up. I can’t say every minute of writing as a joy–the process came with all the usual frustrations as I pieced the parts together–but I never once doubted that this was the book I was meant to write. I knew it was The One. And now I’m coming down from that endorphin high, looking around for my next prospect, and I’m starting to feel like the Bachelorette at a particularly disheartening rose ceremony.
(O.M.G, I really don’t know who I’ll choose….)
I have three different story idea vying for my affection, all of them with great potential, but I don’t have that rush of certainty that compels me to work on one rather than another. I’m not in love.
Is it that I’m expecting too much? After all, good relationships take work, just like novels. One of the ideas I’m considering might be come more compelling the longer I think it over, like a nice-but-boring boy next door who reveals hidden depths once you get to know him. Or the ideas could turn out to be the literary equivalent of bad dates. I’ve been trying them out (i.e. writing a few chapters) but ultimately may have to face the fact that we’re not meant to be. Maybe something completely new and unexpected will sweep me off my feet.
I can dream, right?
IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST and my next, untitled book (coming Spring 2018) are published by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon. This makes some people confused: “Amazon? So, you’re self-publishing now?” Nope. Lake Union works just like a traditional publishing house: there are professional editors, proofreaders, and copy editors, and I can say from experience that they are all 1) very thorough, and 2) follow the same editorial process as traditional NYC publishers. The only real difference is that Amazon works faster and gets books into the hands of readers sooner.
Amazon has a number of different imprints–for mysteries, romance, sci-fi, etc. Lake Union specializes in what’s generally called “book club fiction” (mostly books about women, written by women). That allows for a pretty wide range of stories: contemporary to historical, heartwarming to suspense-driven, dark & challenging to light & fun.
Here’s a sample of Lake Union books I’ve got at home:
So, here you have: THE LAST WOMAN STANDING (the story of Wyatt Earp’s outspoken wife, set in the Old West); ALL THE GOOD PARTS (a lovely contemporary story that tells the funny-but-touching story of a woman figuring out what she really wants from life); and A DROP OF INK (a seductive drama/mystery featuring an intertwined group of scandalous literary types in the 1870s).
One of the best parts of joining this imprint is that the other authors really support each other–for example, by doing #LakeUnionAuthor events on Twitter. When you spend most of your days alone in front of your computer, it’s great to feel that you’re also part of a larger whole: a group of women who love to read and write, all telling our own stories.
Today was Publication Day for IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST, a book I spent years writing and rewriting and rethinking and agonizing over (in typical writerly fashion). And as thrilled as I am to have it out in the world at last, it’s not like today was all that different from many other days: I still had to drag myself out of bed to get my kids breakfast; I puttered around the house, thinking of all the things that needed to be cleaned/thrown out; I read a few chapters of the mystery book I fell asleep over last night; and I ate a fast-food lunch in my car while running errands. (Ah, the glamorous literary life!)
This is the start of LAKECREST being out in the world, but it’s also an ending of sorts. The book is now out of my hands: no more rewrites, no more discussions about the cover or title….it’s done. And that’s pretty liberating, especially since I’m now consumed with finishing up my next book (which I’ll get into another time).
The thing is, when it comes to books, I’m all about the ending. A great ending will make me love an otherwise OK book; a lame ending will overshadow an otherwise great book. One of the all-time great endings, for me, was ATONEMENT, by Ian McEwan. It had a twist I did not see coming at all, and it wasn’t one of those twists that are there just to be shocking–it genuinely moved me. I remember having to sit and process that ending for quite a while afterwards.
Another memorable ending was IN THE WOODS, by Tana French. I raced to the end of that book, wondering how she’d tie up all the storylines, only to find out….wahh?? I won’t give it away, but let’s just say, not everything was resolved. I was mad at first, and then I went back and re-read whole sections, and eventually I forgave Ms. French, because her writing is just too great. I had a similar experience with THE LITTLE STRANGER, by Sarah Waters: adored the book, raced through it, got to the end and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all neatly explained. A hour or so later, having disappeared down the Internet rabbit hole and read dozens of online discussions, I realized that there was a solution hidden there all along….which held up when I re-read the book a few years later.
I rewrote the endings of WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT and IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST multiple times, trying to meet my own “great ending” test. Not sure if I succeeded or not, but I’m happy with the choices I made. And I’m thrilled that LAKECREST is out at last…my own version of a happy ending.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when I flip through my reading journal and see how many books I’ve read this year, marvel at how many I’ve already forgotten, and get re-excited about the ones I loved. Here, in the chronological order I read them, are the ones I remember most fondly. (Note: only some of these were actually published in 2016–unfortunately, I’m not a Big Time Author who gets free review copies.)
- Dare Me, Megan Abbott: I’d heard of Megan Abbott, but somehow never gotten around to reading her books until I saw this on the discount shelf at Barnes and Noble (alongside While Beauty Slept…hooray?). Dare Me turned out to be dark and sarcastic and suspenseful and mind-twisting. It’s superficially about Mean Girls and cheerleading as a kind of warfare, but goes way deeper than I expected.
- The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood: Looking for a twisty, multi-viewpoint, multi-timeline thriller? Here it is. The storyline kept me guessing, and its social commentary on the British nouveau-riche gave it an added bite.
- Party of One, Dave Holmes and You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein: OK, I’m cheating by fitting two titles in one spot, but I loved these two memoirs for the same reason: the mix of laugh-out-loud humor, genuinely touching emotional moments and perfect pop-culture references. Both are very much in the spirit of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, one of my all-time favorites.
- The King Must Die, Mary Renault: A re-read of a classic that totally held up. This retelling of the Minotaur story was a little slow to get going, but within a few chapters I was totally lost in the ancient Greek world. Renault is required reading for anyone who wants to write historical fiction.
- All the Good Parts, Loretta Nyhan: It’s tricky to recommend the work of someone you know personally (Loretta is fellow Chicago-area writer). That said, I got totally caught up in All the Good Parts because it had 1) a truly engaging narrator, and 2) an unpredictable plot and 3) a real dilemma at its heart: how does a woman of a certain age deal with her ambivalence about having a child? By the end of this book, I felt like I’d spent time with real people I cared about.
- Piranha to Scurfy, Ruth Rendell: I’m a huge Ruth Rendell fan. Since her death last year, I’ve been re-reading a lot of her books, and I was thrilled to find this collection of short stories at the library, stories I’d never read. How does Rendell make creepy, unsettling characters so compelling? It’s a real-life mystery.
- Why? Explaining the Holocaust, Peter Hayes: I read this as a homework assignment of sorts, before interviewing the author for a magazine story (he’s a retired history professor at Northwestern, my alma mater). But I soon realized it’s a book I would have read willingly even if I didn’t have to. Hayes clearly answers all the lingering questions that remain about the Holocaust (why did it happen in Germany? why didn’t the Jews fight back?) and raises questions about authoritarianism that I’m still thinking about months later.
- Versions of Us, Laura Barnett: I’m a sucker for a good “what if” story, and this one takes you through 3 different versions of a relationship. What if they met and fell in love right away? What if they didn’t meet in college but found each other later? It was sometimes hard to keep all the timelines straight, but I really liked the idea that there are many different versions of a “happy” ending.
- Church of Marvels, Lauren Parry: Another multiple-viewpoint narrative, with plenty of plot twists along the way. While I wasn’t sure I’d get drawn in by the Coney Island/carnival setting, it turned out to be a much richer portrait of turn-of-the-century New York than I’d expected.
- A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham: I’m always down for a good fairy-tale retelling. But this collection of stories went so far beyond that. I can’t even come up with a pithy, clever review because I am still reeling from the emotions and insights and clever characters that Cunningham created from familiar stories. So I’ll simply say: I loved this book. Read it.