CategoryBook Reviews

Ranking My 2019 Reads – Part 2

At the end of last year, I decided to take a look back at all of the books I’d read in 2018 and provide some ranking to them. This was partly because I like lists, but also partly because I wanted to provide some objectivity to how I felt about the various books I’d read for the first time. I’ve decided to repeat this exercise in 2019, albeit with a much larger list, as you can see below. As was the case last year, if there was a book you read that’s on my list below, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I read a ton of good books this year, so there’s some books I loved and would have been top five in last year’s list — such as 10:04 by Ben Lerner — that are relatively low on this list. This is largely driven by the fact that there were several good books recommended to me. For the most part, these recommendations did not disappoint.

This post is part two of two in this series. For part one, click here.

I have a few books I’ve chosen not to rank for various reasons. Those books, along with why I’ve chosen not to rank them, are listed in alphabetical order below.

  • Computer Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing – I read this solely as research for my work in progress and nothing more. It’s a super interesting read, but it’s way too short to be considered a book.
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by John Minford) – Considering this translation is 85% analysis by people other than the actual writer, I didn’t feel it fair to judge Lao Tzu’s work based off of this specific copy. Plus it’s a religious text and people get antsy when you do that.

Also, spoilers ahead for many of these books. If you care about that sort of thing.

16. 10:04 by Ben Lerner

aka: What the fuck did I just read?

I covered 10:04 in greater detail in a review I wrote earlier this year, however, I’ll summarize it as a great book for writers to read and a hit-or-miss book for everyone else. The way that this book dives into the psyche of a writer working through writing a novel is exquisite, especially as the book’s narrator shifts between the various writing ideas he has throughout the book. With that said, most of the characters in the story aside from the narrator and the main female character are hard to develop any sort of attachment towards. Combine that with the fact that the narrator is pretentious at various points throughout the book1And a straight up terrible guy at a couple of points. and it’s hard to get invested in his personal story. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t the one telling you the story. But he is, which keeps 10:04 from climbing higher on this list in spite of its interesting parts. On the plus side, this book taught me I really like metafiction.

15. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

aka: Let’s talk about sex…kind of.

Initially upon finishing this book, I debated writing a full on review for it like I did for 10:04. Then I came to my senses, realizing that doing so would be a minefield from which only bad things would come. The book itself was an interesting read, giving some insight into female sexuality that is often lacking from mainstream books. That said, the book focused too much on sexuality in the context of affairs (be that from the woman in question or if the woman was with someone having an affair) for my liking. Hell, even the primary conflict in the only healthy sexual relationship portrayed in the book — that of an open-ish relationship/marriage — hinges on conflict that comes out of the married couple causing a married man to have an affair with them. I get that keeping affairs out of this book wasn’t part of these stories, but it was disappointing to run into in every single story.

14. Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

aka: If you die in Canada, you die in real life

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post that talked (in part) about whether or not you could like a book despite knowing it was problematic. I wrote that post before reading Otherworld, yet felt it was a great example of what I was talking about in said post. Otherworld is a book that checked a lot of boxes to being a book that typically isn’t good. It has a damsel in distress who should be able to fend for herself, yet is being saved by a weak male character. It has corporate conspiracy themes out the wazoo. It screams being a weird bastardization between Ready Player One and Sword Art Online2The technology for the former, the danger and creep factor for the latter.. There were impossibly inflated stakes for the two main characters that made it clear nothing serious was going to happen to them, even when they were in danger. Yet, despite all that, it was a really entertaining read. Also, I didn’t realize that this book was co-authored by THAT Jason Segel until I recognized his voice as the audiobook reader.

13. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

aka: I’ll do you one better. Why is the scientific secrets of perfect timing?

I am an unabashed fan of Daniel Pink’s work. His book, Drive, is arguably the single most impactful book I’ve ever read in regards to how I think about my career, both as a writer and as a professional. It’s one of only two books I will actively recommend a business professional read, regardless of their industry, role, or responsibilities. When is not Drive, but it is still a good book. As always, Pink is a writer who can capture you in anecdotal stories to make a point about scientific evidence. That said, it’s one of the few books on this list I felt like didn’t dive deep enough into what was being discussed. I finished the book in less than two days. Though Pink does offer some options for additional reading at the end of the book, I read his work because I enjoy the stories he tells — not because I want to read someone else’s work about the same topic.

12. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

aka: How to write a non-linear comedy book and look good doing it

This book is everything I wanted Scrappy Little Nobody to be when I read that last year. Granted, Scrappy Little Nobody was a good book, but Yes Please was a GREAT book3That statement is more or less true from every book this point on the list or higher.. It was funny and witty, while still being a great look into Poehler’s life. My only question — who the fuck has a high school that lets you get home at 1:45pm?

11. Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

aka: Still a better love story than Twilight

I went into reading this book expecting to learn a lot more about the NSA abuses of power revealed by Snowden in 2013. And while there was some of that, most of what was covered in the book was, unsurprisingly, much of what was already publicly known (and well-known at that) knowledge. I came away from this book instead thinking about how Snowden’s story only reinforced the need for increased protection for whistleblowers — not that there’s been any high-profile whistleblowing in the past few months or anything — as well as thinking about how Snowden’s personal love story was his now-wife is better than most romantic stories on this list.

10. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

aka: Busy, busy, busy.

One of Vonnegut’s other books, Slaughterhouse-Five, was a book I called out when I wrote my Ten Favorite Books of All Time post a few years back4Note to self: I really need to write an updated version of that post. I can think of at least three books I’ve read in the four years since I wrote that list that would displace some of the lower books on the list., so I was excited to read Cat’s Cradle. While I don’t think it’s Vonnegut’s best book, it was an interesting philosophical exercise to read. The amount of world building (and later world destroying) Vonnegut does in Cat’s Cradle is nothing short of impressive — and yet he does so all while contrasting the world of San Lorenzo with the world in real life. This is probably one of the deeper books on the list, kept as low as it is by its extremely choppy pacing5I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still jarring..

9. Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage

aka: A book about being creative wrapped in a machinist’s body

I went into Every Tool’s a Hammer expecting to be disappointed by another autobiography from a famous person I liked. Considering the only one that hadn’t disappointed me to this point belonged to Michelle Freaking Obama, I had somewhat low expectations despite my love for Adam Savage. That said, this book was oddly inspirational for me as a writer, as Savage really went into the philosophy and psychology of what it means to be a maker. Regardless of your medium and your tools, creating is an amazing thing. Savage really managed to drive that home in ways I hadn’t thought about before. I was impressed with this book — enough to give it a second read after finishing the first time.

8. Becoming by Michelle Obama

aka: Needed perspective in a perspective lacking world

This is by far the longest I was in a hold queue for a book at my library, outside of Where the Crawdads Sing. Becoming is exactly what I expected it to be — a well-written autobiographical account of the former First Lady’s life both before and in the White House, told from a perspective of someone that overcame a lot to get everywhere they had been in life. I knew Michelle Obama was a good writer, though the book did manage to exceed my expectations in that regard. It ends the year as the second highest non-fiction book on the list, both because of its importance, as well as how good the book itself was. My lone criticism is that the book had a hell of a downer of an ending. Who writes a book where the bad guy wins in the end6The irony to this is that I love writing fiction where this is the case. That’s the thing though. Fiction.?

7. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

aka: Don’t read (or listen) to this book if you’re in a bad state of mind

I adore John Green. His work on Vlogbrothers, Dear Hank and John, Crash Course, and other places has been a huge inspiration to me in so many ways. Despite all of this, I’d never read one of his books. Turtles All the Way Down was a good book that I struggled to fully appreciate because of how long it took me to get invested with the main character’s story. For the first half of the book, I felt myself caring more about the quirky side character, Daisy, than I did about the book’s struggling protagonist, Aza. The story itself was good and the focus on mental health in the book was great. But I didn’t connect with the book the way I did with others further down the list. Turtles All the Way Down is objectively a better book than some books I’ve ranked ahead of it — it just wasn’t one that I adored.

6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

aka: Blade Runner didn’t do this book justice

I made an effort to read this book early in the year to help give me some perspective on how other writers have handled writing androids in fiction. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does a great job of debating what it means to be human, as well as to what extent humanity is or is not truly human, all while focusing on the possible humanity of artificial intelligence. This book taught me a lot about how I want the villains in my book to view AI, but also brought up great questions for the protagonists to consider as well. After reading this book, I’m disappointed in my previous viewings of Blade Runner, particularly with where they chose to stay true to the book versus where they didn’t.

5. Dear Martin by Nic Stone

aka: This is America.

Right out of the gate, I’d like to say that I couldn’t relate to at least 90 percent of Dear Martin. That’s exactly why I read it. Yes, Dear Martin tells a good story. It’s a well-written book with characters you develop emotional connection toward, be that positive or negative. But it’s also important to read books outside of our experience. I don’t know it’s like being an African-American teen in a country where that group is systemically profiled by a group that should protect them. Yet it’s important to understand that experience. The fact that Dear Martin was written in such an engaging way is just a bonus.

4. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

aka: What a psychological thriller should read like

Holy. Fuck. For a book that starts out as slow as this one7This is the first time I’ve ever found myself calling a book that starts out with a murder in the first three pages slow, but it really was a slow starting book., once it gets going it’s damn near impossible to put down. Unweaving the tangled web that Turton creates in this book is challenging enough, but trying to figure out who kills Evelyn Hardcastle throughout the story is a shockingly difficult exercise for a reader to partake in. The ending of the book was a let down to me, though I get why it ended the way it did for character growth purposes. On the plus side, this book did give one of the best narrator characters I’ve seen in a book this year, in the form of Constable Jim Rashton. The only down side is that he’s only a narrator for a short time in the book — but it’s an engrossing few chapters.

3. Educated by Tara Westover

aka: This is America, too.

Of all of the books on this list, Educated was the hardest for me to read. This isn’t because it was a bad book — far from it actually. While I can’t claim to have experienced anything like the horrors Tara Westover experienced in her childhood and young adult years, reading this book only served to remind me how many similarities certain people in my family share with those that could be better described as religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, or just backwards in terms of what we consider to be modern society. There were a few lines in particular Westover mentioned in her book that I recall hearing nearly word for word as a child — how women who weren’t modest were whores, how doctors existed to poison you instead of help you, and how public school was a government conspiracy to brainwash you. It makes me feel a little bit better that I wasn’t the only one who experienced those things, as well as a ton better that I only experienced such a minimal amount in comparison to what Westover had to go through. Make no mistake, what Westover describes in her book is still going on now. It’s not just happening in rural areas or the Mormon community. It’s a terrifying realization.

2. Crazy is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks

aka: Bipolar disorder is the villain in this story

Every once in a while, there’s a book that just catches you emotionally when you aren’t expecting it. That’s this book for me. A.J. Mendez Brooks — under her wrestling name of AJ Lee — was at the height of her career when I was at the peak of my watching wrestling. I watched her story of clawing her way up the WWE roster play out in real-time. Knowing the back story behind her life, as well as all the horrors she went through at various points, really resonated with me. It’s a beautifully written, quirky, and funny book that pulls no punches. After reading several bad or underwhelming books by celebrities this year, Crazy is My Superpower was perhaps the most pleasant surprise read of the year for me. If you want to hear my thoughts on this book more in detail, it was one of my three in-depth reviews this year.

1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

aka: Thought provoking and beautifully-written literature can infuriate you

Alright. Let’s hit the only two negatives of this book immediately.

  1. The ending focusing on Mrs. Richardson and Izzy seemed out of place, particularly when Mia and Pearl were clearly the focus characters for much of the book.
  2. This first half of this book was an orgy of evidence that it took place in Cleveland in the 1990s. To the point where it was actively distracting.

That out of the way — I’ve never read a book that shifts between perspectives as fluidly and beautifully at this one does. Little Fires Everywhere does a great job of telling little stories everywhere — blending these asides and peripheral tales into the larger narrative of the book. The book did a great job of creating believable teenage characters without making them cringey. Even the adult characters where well-written, despite being less focused on (aside from Mia and Mrs. Richardson). The story very much downplays the theme of child abduction — which I hit on hating in one of the other reviews in this list — but manages to do so in a way that makes sense. That said, Little Fires Everywhere did frustrate me as the book was wrapping up, but only because I wanted to know what happened with the story faster than the book was telling it. I’ve only felt that way with two other books since becoming an adult. One was the book that topped last year’s list, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. The other was The Shadows. This book makes three books on that list. It’s the highest compliment I can give to a book that really did tell an entrancing story.

Ranking My 2019 Reads – Part 1

At the end of last year, I decided to take a look back at all of the books I’d read in 2018 and provide some ranking to them. This was partly because I like lists, but also partly because I wanted to provide some objectivity to how I felt about the various books I’d read for the first time. I’ve decided to repeat this exercise in 2019, albeit with a much larger list, as you can see below. As was the case last year, if there was a book you read that’s on my list below, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I read a ton of good books this year, so there’s some books I loved and would have been top five in last year’s list — such as 10:04 by Ben Lerner — that are relatively low on this list. This is largely driven by the fact that there were several good books recommended to me. For the most part, these recommendations did not disappoint.

This post is part one of two in this series. For part two, click here. Once it’s posted on December 30th, that is.

I have a few books I’ve chosen not to rank for various reasons. Those books, along with why I’ve chosen not to rank them, are listed in alphabetical order below.

  • Computer Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing – I read this solely as research for my work in progress and nothing more. It’s a super interesting read, but it’s way too short to be considered a book.
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by John Minford) – Considering this translation is 85% analysis by people other than the actual writer, I didn’t feel it fair to judge Lao Tzu’s work based off of this specific copy. Plus it’s a religious text and people get antsy when you do that.

Also, spoilers ahead for many of these books. If you care about that sort of thing.

31. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

aka: Just because a book is famous doesn’t mean it’s good.

No. Just no. This might make my list of worst books of all time. I generally love philosophy books, but this was cringeworthy. If I wanted to read a book rebuking education, I’d read Ayn Rand again. At least that’s transparent about being horrible philosophy.

30. Sunburn by Laura Lippman

aka: How many unlikeable characters can you cram into a single book?

Never judge a book by its cover — or its back cover blurb. After I finished a book that appears much later on this list, I realized that I wanted to read another psychological thriller immediately after because of how engrossed I got in that book. So I picked up Sunburn, drawn in by its well-designed cover and the synopsis that the back of the book gave me, only to be majorly disappointed in how flat the book fell. It’s almost as if the author tried to see if they could write an entire book solely with characters who have no redeeming qualities. Which was super confusing, as I’ve really only heard good things about Laura Lippman as a writer. I finished the book so that I didn’t give up early on another book I didn’t like1Waves at Jim Gaffigan., but Sunburn felt like a waste of a week and a half of my commute more than anything. The final 10% of the book in particular was infuriating. Sure, lots of bad people got what was coming to them in the end, but the least likeable character in the book gets the happy ending. Why? At least the audiobook reader was good?

29. The Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson

aka: The old baha’i and switch

I genuinely went into this book assuming I’d get a biography of Rainn Wilson. My hope was that there’d be a decent amount of focus on his time on The Office, however, I knew that he had done other work, so I assumed we’d get into that. Instead, the book was just as much an exploration of Wilson’s spiritual journey and relationship with drugs in his youth as it was anything else. Wilson is funny — I laughed harder at certain parts of this book than I did at many books higher on this list — but I spent more of the book wondering why I was reading this than genuinely being interested. Its highs are very high, but the lows are frequent and extended.

28. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

aka: Everyone’s a little bit racist…and lying

Here we have a great premise of a book and a story style I love — the murder mystery — ruined by rampant stereotyping and a final sixth of the book that falls flat. Most of the characters in the book spend time talking about how Brits are stuck up and reserved or how Americans are pragmatic jerks or how Italians just love to stab people. I get that it’s not a long enough book to develop a cast of nearly 20 characters all deeply, but nearly everyone was a walking stereotype (mostly driven by how others spoke of them). Even if you want to go with the defense that the book is just “a product of its time”2Don’t. That’s a terrible defense for a book written just before the outbreak of World War II., the first 80% of the book is spent setting up an entire plot line, only for it to be thrown out for the final 20%. Then, after the final 20% of the book builds up a second narrative about the book’s true killer, the final page of the book decides to say fuck it and none of it matters. I was left wondering why I’d even read it.

27. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael P. Lynch

aka: My biggest Twitter pet peeve, now formatted as a book

Have you ever followed someone on Twitter — let’s call them Account A — because one of your friends follows them? You realized from your friend’s retweets that Account A is interesting, insightful, funny, or whatever quality you’re really looking for in a good Twitter follow. Beyond that, Account A shares many, though not necessarily all, of the world views you have, reinforcing them from a source of credibility. But then, once you begin following Account A, you realize that they’re often talking to their followers like they’re kindergartners — treating the broader consumer of their content as having no knowledge of particularly prevalent concepts. Account A also retweets themselves constantly, not to mention retweeting people who talk about how awesome and insightful Account A is3There are two accounts in particular I follow on Twitter like this. I like following them because they’ll tweet super informative things that I don’t see anywhere else. That said, 95% of their tweets are either self-congratulating bullshit or are tweets marketing their own products thinly-disguised as actual content. Is that all you need to do to become a verified account? Because I can do that. ? That’s pretty much The Internet of Us. Amazingly informative book. But I felt like I was in a college class led by a professor who was only teaching the class because they were forced to (because they were super knowledgeable in that field), and were sleepwalking through it as a result.

26. Ulysses by James Joyce

aka: A rambling Irish odyssey.

Truth be told, this book was long, boring, and not particularly easy to follow via the audiobook. Perhaps I would have liked it better and/or understood it more if I were reading a physical copy, but I don’t have time to read an 800 page book just laying around in my week. I did that with Anna Karenina a few years ago and while that was worth it, Ulysses wasn’t. On the plus side, the audiobook performance read by John Lee had amazing voice work — to the point where it might be the best read book on this entire list.

25. The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre

aka: Personality testing and religion have a lot more similarities than you realize

Despite largely being a biography of the authors of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory rather than a breakdown of that test  (and other personality tests as I had hoped it would be), I had three primary takeaways from this book:

  1. Holy shit Katherine Briggs was a horrible human being.
  2. Personality testing is a lot like religion/faith. Neither has much, if any, scientific validity. That said, there is a lot people can draw out of each of them. Much of it can be good and be a positive way to improve peoples’ lives. But there’s a lot of ways it can be used to manipulate and oppress people, nevermind the fact that it can be used to reinforce someone’s own bigoted tendencies (see #1).
  3. People who use personality testing and an end-all, be-all way to control their employees’ careers is frightening…and more common than you’d think.

24. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

aka: Paint the bird feathers by numbers

This was one of the books that the internet recommended to me (though I sadly can’t remember where I got this recommendation from), so I was excited to read it. And considering the five month wait I had to spend on a wait list for the book, I expected this to be a showstopping book of epic proportions. Hell, I waited longer for this book than Michelle Obama’s book. That said, I can sum up this book in one sentence. Decent story, terrible ending. It was predictable chapter by chapter, particularly after reading a couple of other books on this list. I was interested in the story, hence placing it above the books below it on the list. But more often than not, I found myself wishing the story would go somewhere other than where it did with the turn of every page. I actively said ‘oh, goddammit’ multiple times as I read the book. At least Jumpin’ and Mabel were entertaining?

23. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker

aka: As I said in my first book, everything is your parents’ fault.

I read this book as research for my current WIP. In reading this book, I learned a ton about CPTSD, how it manifests itself, how people can cope with it, and several other topics. It was an immensely useful book roughly 75% of the time. That said, while part of the premise of this book is that CPTSD is driven by childhood trauma, there were several scenarios and ancedotes that the author blamed on childhood trauma that clearly were not caused by the child’s parents. The biggest one that jumped out to me was a story about how a sexual assault victim who was assaulted as a child also got assaulted later again in life. According to the author’s story, because the woman’s parents had done nothing to address the assault from her childhood, the woman was prone to getting assaulted again later in life. Just. No. Not even a little. Also, if you take a shot every time Walker mentions his first book, you’ll be unconscious by chapter 7.

22. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

aka: As I said in my previous books, the brain is fucking weird.

If you take a shot every time Sacks mentions something else he’s written, you’ll be unconscious before you start reading. It earns the nod to being one spot higher on this list than the previous book solely because the stories in it were much easier to listen to. Granted, part of that is subject matter, but still.

21. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

aka: I fully understand why I gave up on this book three times in the past

Of the various books on this list, this is one of two I had attempted to read before 20194The other being Musicophilia.. In fact, I had attempted to read Dorian Gray on three separate occasions since I started college at the recommendations of various folks whose book opinions I respected. I never made it past the first quarter of the book on any of those occasions. I figured picking up the audiobook ready by Stephen Fry would help — and it did, as I finally finished the book. That said, despite Fry’s great performance, the book is exactly what I remembered it to be: boring, fatalist, and tedious. The moral to the story is still good, in that your misdeeds will eventually be your undoing by hook or by crook. But the other lessons I think Wilde is trying to show in his story fall flat, particular with a character as uninteresting as Dorian Gray is.

20. Failure is an Option by H. Jon Benjamin

aka: Sometimes diarrhea in a rental car ends better than expected

First off, I swear to god the aka line makes sense once you read the book. Second, for a book that I picked up because all of my other to-read books were on hold — and even then only because I’m a fan of Archer — this was a surprisingly entertaining listen5As I got the audiobook for this one.. Benjamin is relatable in many of his failures and some of the stories are fun. As a web series or movie, I feel like Failure is an Option would be hysterical. As a book, it fell flat at times, but was still enjoyable. The book wasn’t a failure, even though Benjamin spent a lot of time self-deprecating its quality. If anything, it was probably the most average book on this list, dividing the good (or better) books above it from the bad books below it.

19. Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Dozen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

aka: Characters, not plot depth, can make stories

Despite my love for the various Sherlock Holmes television series and movies that have come out over time, I’ve never actually read any of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I decided to rectify that by reading a compilation of the stories. And yes, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are great characters and their adventures are entertaining. The biggest thing that jumped out to me is that arguably the most common flaw that people pointed out in my book — that the short stories don’t build up backstory and skip over potentially relevant details for sake of moving the plot along — is the EXACT thing that happens in every single Sherlock Holmes story. Granted, I’m not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, I’m far from it. But seeing this did make me feel slightly better about my writing.

18. When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica

aka: A book of dualities on every level you could imagine

I reviewed When the Lights Go Out earlier this year, so for sake of not rehashing that all over again, I’ll keep this short. The Jessie Sloane arc of the book is genuinely one of the best slow burn character descents into madness I’ve ever read. Full stop. The Eden Sloane arc of the book was bad. It was on par with Sunburn, only with a character you’re actively rooting against because you can see the impact this woman has on her daughter. I want more of this book and to never read it again all at the same time.

17. Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black

aka: This book isn’t too ba…what the fuck just happened?

The first 85% of this book is exactly what I expected from Lewis Black having been a fan of his standup and watching him on The Daily Show. Witty, sarcastic commentary with disregard for the absurdities of pretty much anyone and everyone. It was a good book, but not an amazing one. Then the last 15% of the book happened. He wrote a multi-character play with multiple flashbacks inside of it. And this was already inside of him telling a story within a book. That’s like 16 walls. Me of Little Faith gets bumped up a few spots just because of how weird, unexpected, and oddly effective this was.

Ranking My 2018 Reads

It’s the end of 2018. Literally. Today is the last day of the year and I’m still cramming trying to write new content before the year ends. It’s like I’m back in high school. Except that I didn’t really cram study in high school so much as I just didn’t study. At all. Not developing study habits came back to bite me in grad school.

Wait…what was I talking about? Cramming.

So in 2018, like in 2017, I had a goal to read 12 books before the end of the year. 2018 was a borderline maniacal year for me — to the point where I’m hoping 2019 just consists of a nap for me. I miss having energy to do things. Now all my energy goes to my life, my job, or (if I’m very lucky) my writing. It’s a tiring thing. It’s why I’ve largely resorted to audiobooks over the course of this year. It’s also why I read 10 of the 12 books I read in 2018 in October or later.

I decided it made sense to do a small review post of the books I read over the course of the year. It’s been a while since I did I true book review post (if you want some of those, go check out Megan’s blog…she’s even done a full review on one of the books I read this year), and though I’m not in a position to do any of those in the near future1In terms of time spent per word written, book reviews take the most time of any post that isn’t creative fiction that I write., I did have some thoughts on the books I read. Most of them anyway. I’ve decided to rank 10 of the 12 books I read this year.

In addition to the books below, I also read “Candy Apple Butterscotch” by Rebecca MacCeile and “2666” by Roberto Bolano. I’ve chosen not to make these books part of this list. In the case of the former, I was involved heavily in the formatting process, so I don’t feel I could review it objectively in comparison to other books I read. In the case of the latter, the book was unlike anything I’ve read…to the point where I’m still not sure how I feel about it after the fact. I may come back and add it in as an edit to the post in the future, but as of writing this at the end of December 2018, it will not be mentioned.

10. The Red Inn by Honore de Balzac

The first book I read of 2018 was also the worst by a decent margin2It was a MUCH larger margin until I read the #9 entry on this list.. For a book that’s considered to be a classic novel, it was just boring. The Red Inn made The Iliad readable. It made Moby Dick seem entertaining. It was that bad. On the plus side, it was short, taking me only three days to read in spite of it putting me to sleep every night. I cannot recommend it enough if you have insomnia.

9. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

I’m generally a pretty big fan of books written by comedians, however this is one of the rare exceptions to that rule. You can always tell when someone is trying too hard to be funny, as it sounds forced and painful more than it does actually funny. Eighty percent of Dad is Fat falls into the forced and painful realm. There are a couple of entertaining moments in the book, but they’re few and far between. Having this as an audiobook made it better, as at least Gaffigan’s delivery was really good. That said, it’s one of the few books this year I actively had to put down out of frustration of reading it.

8. Hurricane Season: What Katrina Taught America by Susan Zakin

Not going to lie. I completely forgot I had read this book until near the end of the year. Huh. That’s not a good thing for a book. It was…unremarkable? Which is still better than the two entries below it on this list. But here it sits.

7. Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart by Lisa Rogak

I had extremely high expectations of this book and came away completely disappointed. As someone who is a huge fan of Jon Stewart, I was hoping to come away learning something new about a man who I had idolized through much of my young adult life. That said, the book came across more like a long Wikipedia article than it did a narrative story or biography. The audiobook featured the worst narrator of an audiobook I came across this year, but even when ignoring that fact, the book was still not great. There was so much potential here, but nearly no execution that couldn’t be done as part of a research writing class.

6. Earth (The Book) by Jon Stewart

I’ve always wanted to read this book, in spite of the fact that people have given me mixed reviews. It’s a gimmicky book — written as a letter of sorts to the alien race that inevitably finds the remains of crumbled society — and fills that niche about how you would expect it would. It was funny at times, though not to the point where I found myself in constant laughter or in deep thought like I often was with The Daily Show itself when Stewart was at the helm. It’s worth the read if you like the premise of the gimmick behind the book, but not a required read if you don’t.

5. Monkey: A Journey to the West translated by David Kheridan

I completely blame Overly Sarcastic Productions for me wanting to read this book. After all, this is a thing.

The book itself was a great morning read during the time off I had from work early in the year and does tell an interesting story. As OSP shows, Journey to the West is a folktale that provided tropes that we see constantly in modern literature. If you have a child of a certain age3I’m thinking in the 8-10 range…I don’t know how old kids are when they stop getting bedtime stories read to them. I don’t remember ever getting one. And now I’ve made myself sad., it’s a great bedtime story to span over a few months.

4. The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

We come to the point of the list where I started actively being invested in the books that I read. The Black Prism is a very good story with an amazing magic system. That much is for certain. It’s also a fantasy novel wrapped up in all of the trappings of the typical fantasy novel, including cringeworthy gore and murder, as well as an unshakeable male gaze that makes most women in the story objects or plot devices first and characters second. There are two exceptions to the previous statement in Karis and Liv, however even they can’t avoid occasionally being nothing more than objects of desire4At least in the case of Karis, it’s somewhat justified, as two men feuding over their love for her was debatably the spark that caused an entire war. That said, she’s also a badass bodyguard who STILL has pages devoted to how she looks when dressed up by a creepy kidnapper.. There’s three more books in this series, and I’m torn on whether or not I want to read them at this point. The main story is great. The flaws are enough that I don’t know that I care about continuing reading the series.

3. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

This was surprisingly good — though not for the reasons I expected when I started reading it. Anna Kendrick often come off as this super-relatable, funny celebrity. Scrappy Little Nobody showed that the funny is definitely still true, though I’m less sure now that I’d use relatable to describe her. That said, she tells a damn good story, which was something I didn’t know she was as good at as she clearly is. This was another one of my audiobook reads for the year, and of all of the narrators I listened to in 2018, she was by far the most engaging. Which is nothing to scoff at since Wil Fucking Wheaton is her competition.

2. What If? by Randall Munroe

Speaking of Wheaton, he was the narrator for XKCD creator Randall Munroe’s deep dive into the batshit craziest questions about science you could ever imagine. As someone who adores science and math, this was a joy to listen to, causing me to stay up far later than I had meant to more than once. Munroe’s explorations into the weird space questions he would receive were the most entertaining responses in the book, however the entire book was engaging.

1. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

The single best book I’ve read since high school…possibly ever5My ten favorite books list from 2015 needs updated at this point.

I’m not exaggerating. Go read this book. It was that good. I read this entire book in one day, then re-read it again over the course of about a week. I was swept away by the book itself, losing myself in the beauty of its story (something that has only happened one other time in recent memory). There are several relatable, compelling characters in the book. Its messages about fame and the social internet are inescapable truths. Even if the dialogue feels strange at times6Though that’s admittedly because I am not a female young adult, I think., the brilliance of the story makes any concerns forgivable.

Author Interview – E. V. Jacob

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review post for the new book The Shadows by E. V. Jacob. It’s a book that’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in 2017, as well as one that I definitely think you should pick up. If you haven’t read the review, I would encourage you to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have a chance to chat with E. V. Jacob a bit about her new book, her experience as a new author, as well as about some other authors that she sees inspiration in. The transcript of our chat is below. Responses have been edited solely for the purposes of fixing typos. For ease of reading, my questions are in bold, with the responses unbolded below each question.


Tim (T): I’m going to start off with what might be the most obvious question — how does it feel to be a published author?

E. V. Jacob (E): It’s twofold: On the one hand, it feels like everything you want it to and more—I’m proud, excited, grateful, happy, and having a blast. But on the other hand…you’re still you at the end of the day, you know? Nothing about you, or who you are, has ultimately changed. Because the road to publishing, as any published author knows, is so long, that the changes happen over time. There’s no sudden shift; there’s long-term growth. And that’s honestly a great thing, it’s just not as immediate as I think most people would assume. At the same time, it still all feels like a whirlwind and I can’t believe that it’s already done. This simultaneously took forever and happened in the blink of an eye. It’s weird.

T: As a newly published author, what was the your favorite part of the writing/publishing process? What was the most intimidating part of the process?

E: I love it all. I do these wild plotting sessions with outlines and timelines and character profiles. I pin up notecards and scatter papers all over the floor, and do that murder wall thing you see in investigations. Then I hand-write the first draft. After it’s done (and boy is it a hot mess when it’s done), I type it up and get to editing. Each and every stage is incredibly fun but also incredibly daunting in its own way. I get stuck, I get frustrated, but the whole time you love what you’re doing, and that keeps me going. But really, I think the best part—and this could just be the novelty of it—was finally getting it out there into the world, and being able to say “I am 100% done writing that book. Time for something new”.

T: From the outside looking in, you seem to be a very motivated, very driven writer. What keeps you motivated during your creative slumps?

E: I appreciate that, because I don’t usually feel like a motivated or driven writer. But what keeps me going is just how badly I want to tell these stories. I have over 70 books planned, and that can sometimes seem like an impossible task, so I am just trying to tell as many of these stories as I can in the time I have. Writing is also a great refuge, and cathartic, so often it’s as therapeutic as it is productive (and other times it’s a damn chore, but I get my friends to yell at me and demand the next chapters, and that helps me churn out words on the bad days).

T: Who are some of the author — or even some of the works — that inspired you? Do you think any of those inspirations show through in The Shadows?

E: My first love, at the ripe old age of six, was the Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate. I still have every single book and read them from time to time. They definitely influenced me. As I grew older, I read anything I could get my hands on, so figuring out exactly has been the biggest influence can be tricky. I’d be lying if I left off obvious contenders, like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and Rick Riordan, but I think every single book I’ve ever read has motivated me to write and tell my own stories. Even books I didn’t like, because I’d think, “If this can get published and have fans then my book should definitely be out there.” One I always think of is Douglas Adams—he’s so funny and absurd and I so admire the odd, casual manner in which he is completely ridiculous.

T: Let’s take some time to talk about your book now. If someone walked up to you on the street and asked you about your book, how would you explain The Shadows to them?

E: I’ve just been describing it as a young adult paranormal sci-fi as of late, but if someone wanted a more in-depth description, I’d tell them it’s about tragedy, and loss. It’s about mental health struggles, and figuring out who you are, apart from what you’ve been raised to be. It’s also about ghosts and some other entities that I don’t want to spoil, but…yeah, things get weird. That’s a phrase I use a lot when describing it, too: “Things get weird.” Which is hilarious to me, since this is arguably the tamest of all my books.

T: The Shadows is your debut piece, however it’s evident that it’s intended to be part of a longer series. Has this always been a series in your mind or did it start out as a book and become something more?

E: This is kind of tricky. See, years and years ago, there was a stand-alone novel that I discussed with my mother about a teen girl named Roz, her eccentric artist neighbor, and some dark secrets. I fiddled with this a bit, but it never fully evolved into anything. And there was another stand-along novel about Derek and Emily—two characters in this book—that was mostly an exploration of Derek’s personal struggles.

Fast-forward to about five years ago, and I’m again kicking things around with my mother, and a new idea blossoms: A series, with a more supernatural feel, taking Roz from her book, and Derek and Emily from their book, adding some other characters, throwing in some mysteries and mystical entities, and creating a series that could unfold over several books. So it almost started as two separate stand-alone books that have been combined into one longer series.

Fun fact: Both Roz and Derek’s original stories will be told over the course of this series, so very little was lost; just assimilated and reworked. I’m excited to still get to share those concepts in this bigger framework, because I loved them both, but they needed the rest of the story to shine.

T: Are there any characters in The Shadows that you like or feel more attached to than others? Any reason why?

E: I mentioned Derek having come from a previous story, and he is actually the character I’ve had the longest out of all others in this series, so he’s rather dear to me. His role in book one is smaller, but that’s mostly due to his reserved nature. He’ll feature more in coming books, and I hope others will come to care about him like I do. Ford is also special, mostly because he’s so easy to write it’s almost like he’s writing himself. I never have to sit there and think about what he’s going to say or do, he just does it. It’s great fun, and he brings out sides of the other characters I like. Roz, I relate to in more ways than I realized I would, and in fact I didn’t see it until the book was almost published.

T: Going into the book as a reader, I knew there was going to be a good bit of paranormal and supernatural content in the book. That said, the detail you went into with the ghost hunting and the paranormal shows was more than I expected. Was there a lot of research that you put into this book — be it in the paranormal realm or otherwise? If so, what was the strangest thing you found yourself researching as you were writing this book?

E: So much research. I mentioned my mother helping out before, and I should say: She loves to research, so I’d recruit her help and she’d find some amazing stuff. Also, I have an affinity for physics and scientific study, so I always liked the idea of explaining the paranormal in logical terms. A lot of research went into “ghosts from a scientific standpoint” (which I’m sure isn’t surprising to anyone who’s read the book), and I built from there. I need to know how things work in order to write them, even if it never makes it into the book, so when I wrote my first ever ghost story—a short story requested by a friend back in 2012—I found myself puzzling over the physics of ghosts. I spent way too much time thinking about how it all worked. So it’s been building for quite some time now, and I’m likely going to continue adding to my eclectic knowledge.

T: Being from Southern Nevada, how much research did you have to do into the setting for the story and how much came from memory?

E: I was born and raised in Las Vegas, so almost all of it was from memory, though I did use the book as an excuse to “research” locations a few times. I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon all my life, and I actually lived up on Mount Charleston (just outside of Echo, the area mentioned in the book) when I was a teenager. Most of the restaurants and other locations I mentioned are real, or are based on real spots around town that I like to visit. I actually went up to the mountains and hiked around, deciding exactly where I wanted the final scenes of the book to take place. It was a lot of fun, getting to use my hometown as a backdrop to a story, especially when so many of my other projects take place in different countries, time periods, or even on different planets.

T: You’re working on the second book in the Dark Sentinels series now. There’s a nice, albeit short, excerpt that appears at the end of The Shadows as to what’s going to happen in the second book. Anything else you can share about the next book in the series?

E: Some questions will be answered, more questions will be posed, and Rosalind (and her friends!) are going to find themselves dragged even deeper into this mess. Relationships will be strained, and Roz will have to work very hard to keep up with her new abilities. I’m trying not to give anything major away, but things get a lot more intense as the series progresses, and it happens pretty rapidly. Book one, as you know, was a lot of set-up; books two and beyond won’t be slowed down by setting the stage—full speed ahead into the weird.

T: What new, upcoming, or little-known authors would you recommend to others to read?

E: One person who’s writing I love and was fortunate enough to get to read before it was published is Ryan Dalton. He’s the author of the Time Shift Trilogy, which anyone who loves sci-fi and time travel should absolutely check out. Another, with a completely different style, is Abigail Johnson. She writes these complex, deep real-world stories about people taking the raw hand they were dealt and turning that into something magnificent. And she, as a person, is hugely inspiring. I also know that there’s a book coming out Fall 2018 by Candice Montgomery, Home & Away, which I think a lot of people are going to love. And me, of course. I have a lot of projects in the works—some solo, some collaborative, all awesome.


If you haven’t already, go pick up The Shadows by clicking on any of the links below. Additionally, you can learn more about E. V. Jacob by going to her website or by following her on Twitter.

Amazon – Hardcover | Kindle | Paperback
Draft2Digital
Kobo
Smashwords

Book Review – The Shadows (Dark Sentinels, Book One)

You know what I haven’t done in a while? A book review.

Tim, you did one in April.

Huh. So I did. Well I haven’t done many of them.

This will be your sixth.

Uh…well it’s not like I’ve done any other revi…

What about this one?

Goddammit. Am I becoming a reviewer?

Not yet, but you’re on your way.

 

…also, if you’re looking for an update on the book charity drive, that’ll come later this week or early next week. Anyway, on with the review.


Full disclosure on this review — I received an advanced reader copy of The Shadows. While I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for writing this review, I am quite shamelessly helping the author promote this book as I can on Twitter. This is partly because she’s been a writer/creator I’ve held a lot of respect for for quite some time now1Yes, I know there’s a double for there. It’s also grammatically correct.. It’s also partly because The Shadows is a damn good book.

Oh…uh…review spoilers in that previous paragraph2Since people get all bent out of shape for spoilers. Which…stop that..

As a reader, I have a decently wide range of books I like to read. With that said, one of the original book genres that I really got into when I started caring about reading was the Young Adult genre. In particular, I tended to prefer Young Adult dystopian novels3Think “Feed” by M.T. Anderson., however I wasn’t opposed to reading pretty much anything in the genre, aside from heavy romance4Still can’t stand heavy romance novels now, regardless of if they’re young adult books or not. For whatever reason, many romance writers struggle to write good plot..

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve really sat down and read a YA novel. The only one I’ve read in the past three years was Mila 2.0 which, while a good book, wasn’t one that I actively went out of my way to recommend to others to read. On top of that, when the book’s concept was original ran by me, it was stated to be a young adult paranormal sci-fi book. The closest I’ve come to caring about paranormal things is my love for Chandelure and Froslass in the Pokemon games. Needless to say the book had a chance of being outside of my wheelhouse.

Here’s the thing though…I loved the book.

The main character of this book, Roz, is a very relatable character in my mind. Anyone who has gone through the challenges of living as a child in a single parent household will have some level of empathy for Roz’s situation, particularly the frustrations of her mother not being around. The other major characters of the story also seem to jump off of the page — in particular Derek, who is more of a secondary character in the book, but has a very distinct way of speaking, to the point where I feel like I know exactly what his voice sounds like in my head.

The characters themselves form a diverse, multicultural cast, which is always a pleasure to see in a book. It’s something I know from personal experience can be a struggle for writers, so seeing someone handle it successfully is always a positive. The paranormal entities in the book also stick around in your mind for a while, particularly Diego and the book’s main antagonist5It’s hard to explain exactly what this specter is without spoiling, so that’s all you’re getting..

The Shadows is definitely a setup book. You can tell the book is doing its best to introduce you to the main characters of the story, the intricacies of the world around them, the gravity of the challenges they’re facing, and the relationships between the characters themselves. You can also tell that there’s going to be more books in this series coming down the line. And yet, even though you can, as a reader, surmise that as the book is winding down, the only feeling you’re left with is sadness that the book is ending and you don’t get to know what happens next. Having a preview of the second book at the end was particular cruel — not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I wanted to know more.

I was able to get through The Shadows in a single evening, though I was a bit distracted, so quick readers might be able to finish it in just a few hours. It’s not that The Shadows is a particularly short read — the ebook version I had was around 290 pages — it’s that it’s a captivating read that you won’t want to put down. I cannot recommend The Shadows highly enough. Not only would I encourage those of you reading this interview to buy the book, I would also say that many of you, like me, will find it to be one of your favorite books you’ll read this year.