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.
I’ve always been a sucker for those lists of “Top Ten Writing Tips.” Which means I’ve read many versions of the same advice: get your butt in the chair; write at the same time every day; set consistent goals. All good stuff, but it doesn’t always relate to how I do things. I can’t claim to have everything figured out, but I’ve been writing fiction for 10+ years, and here are the most important things I’ve learned along the way:
You don’t have to write first thing in the morning. I’m always hearing that you’re most creative and free when your brain is emerging from sleep. It may indeed be the perfect time to scribble in a free-association journal, but I am not and will never be a morning person. I can barely speak a coherent sentence when I wake up, let alone write one. Because I know and accept this, I start my day with other critical tasks, such as Facebook scrolling and scrubbing hardened pieces of food off my kitchen counters.
This is me, when I could be writing (NOTE: This is not literally me. My hair would be much messier.)
You don’t need to have a regular routine. I have nothing but admiration for those people who get up at 5am and knock out ten pages before anyone else in their house is awake. But that will never be me (see above). I write at all different times of the day, in all different locations of my house. Sometimes, I’m in an amazing groove and the words are flowing and everything’s great right at the moment my kids come home from school and start demanding snacks and waving permission forms in my face. On those days, I throw a box of crackers in their direction and say yes to any and all electronic devices so I can get in another hour or so of work. (My kids love “be-quiet-Mom’s-working” days.)
You will make less money than you think. Or maybe not—maybe you’ll make more money than you ever dreamed! I hope you do. But the sad truth is that I’m lucky to be making any money off my fiction, and even though I had a book released by a major publisher (hooray!), I still do other stuff to help pay the bills. Everyone wants and deserves to be paid something for what they write. But if you’re planning on doing this long-term, you have to accept that financial insecurity is part of the deal. Or have your own reality show, in which case you’ll get a six-figure book advance with no problem.
No matter what, you will feel like a failure. Wow, this list is really getting depressing, isn’t it? You’re looking at this website, and maybe you’ve read a nice review of my book, and you’re thinking, “What is she talking about? Elizabeth’s got it made!” (Excuse me while I chuckle.) Every single professional writer I’ve had a more-than-superficial conversation with has admitted having these feelings. If your first book sells great, you sit down to write the next one with almost unbearable expectations: I’ll never do that well again—it’s all downhill from here. And if your book sells just O.K., or bombs? Then the self-doubts have a field day: Who am I kidding? Everyone hated my last book! I suck!
You will have to keep writing even when you’re convinced you’re a failure. This last step is the one that sorts out the poser-writers from the writer-writers. I’m not going to give you a pep talk about how you should embrace your inner sunshine or find your happy place. Now that you know literally every other writer out there gets depressed and doubts themselves, you can accept those feelings and move on. Write even when you hate yourself, or while hating all those other writers who may be depressed but still get paid more than you. If you keep at it despite all the negatives—congratulations! You’re a real writer.
It’s been a busy week for social-media grieving: one day my Facebook feed was full of David Bowie videos and quotes, a few days later it was dedicated to actor Alan Rickman. I was surprised by Bowie’s death, but it was Rickman’s death that hit me with deep, genuine sadness. Why? It wasn’t as if I knew him, or had seen all his movies. If you’d asked me who my favorite actors were, I doubt his name would have topped the list. (Top 10, maybe.)
I thought about this as I scrolled through the Facebook and Twitter tributes to both Rickman and Bowie. Like so much of what’s supposed to be “social,” many of the posts were in fact self-centered: here’s what this man meant to me, here are my memories. Like people were trying to insert themselves into the center of attention, making themselves part of the story.
And yet I found myself clicking the link to Rickman’s obituary in The Guardian. Scrolling through a slideshow of his film roles. Reading the tweets and reminiscences from fellow actors. I remembered movies he’d been in that I loved and wanted to re-watch (first up: Sense and Sensibility). It was the same process Bowie fans went through as they watched old videos of his concerts or listened to albums that spoke to them when they were teenagers, even if they’d barely listened to those songs in the decades since. Yes, this grief is selfish: we mourn these artists because their work intersected in some way with our lives. Maybe we’re mourning the loss of our younger selves, too.
I found Rickman charismatic. (C’mon: that voice!) He grabbed my attention in whatever movie he appeared. I don’t think I can genuinely grieve for someone I didn’t know, but when I added pictures of Rickman to my Twitter and Facebook feed, it wasn’t because I was jumping on some bandwagon, or trying to grab credit as his greatest fan. It was a gesture of respect. I’m sorry Rickman won’t be making any more movies, but like Bowie–like all artists–he isn’t really gone. They’ve left us their work, which makes them immortal.
I’m a sucker for a good End-of-Year list, so I’m sharing some of the books I most enjoyed in 2015. I read many other good books this year, but these are the ones that made a lasting impression and taught me something (either writing-wise or life-wise). These are in no particular ranking, just the order I read them.
- LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St. Aubyn. Fun literary satire about the leadup to a British book award. An entertaining read for bookish types.
- STONE MATTRESS and MADADDAM, Margaret Atwood. OK, I’m cheating by putting two books here, but they both made me worship Margaret Atwood all over again. Stone Mattress is a set of short stories (many about aging) that manages to be both funny and touching. MadAddam finished up a futuristic trilogy that was terrifying at times, moving at others. Atwood is now officially one of my literary role models.
- THE SECRET PLACE, Tana French. Layers upon layers upon layers in this story about a murder at a girls’ school. One of those books I had to simply sit and think about once I’d finished.
- THE GOOD GERMAN, Joseph Kanon. I’ve read a lot of World War II books. This is the first one that made me understand what Berlin was like right after the war (a perspective you don’t often see in novels). Plus, there’s a mystery that keeps the plot moving.
- LIFE AFTER LIFE, Kate Atkinson. Not the easiest read–in fact, I’d tried it twice before and given up. BUT….once I plowed through the first 50 or so pages, I got invested in the characters and the concept made sense. Like the best books, it created a world (worlds?) I got lost in.
- ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell. Are you brave enough to mentally return to your most awkward teenage moments? These characters took me there (esp. since it’s set in the 1980s). A love story that felt painfully real.
- CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Neil Patrick Harris. I don’t read a ton of celeb memoirs (sorry!) but this is one of the best I’ve ever tried. Funny, honest, and a hilarious concept overall. Plus, it comes with cocktail recipes!
- A JUDGMENT IN STONE, Ruth Rendell. OK, this is kind-of cheating, because I’ve read this book a few times before. But I picked it up again after hearing of Rendell’s death this year, and was thrilled to see that it still held up. I couldn’t stop reading–even though I knew exactly what was going to happen!
- HONORABLE MENTIONS (other books I raced through once I’d started): THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins (everyone knows that one, right?), ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey (narrated by a woman with dementia–a really challenging voice to write, pulled off well), CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith (murder mystery set in Stalinist Russia), STORM OF SWORDS by George R.R. Martin (the 3rd in the “Game of Throne” series, this book had some seriously “OH MY GOD!!” moments).