2014: My Year in Books

Note the bite marks on the novels. My sons are great consumers of books. They come by it honest.

Note the bite marks on the novels. My sons are great consumers of books. They come by it honest.

Oh, books and spreadsheets, how do I love thee!

I’ve been keeping data on which books I’ve read for the past five years, since early 2010, which is awesome for those times when I want to figure out, for instance, the percentage of female authors I read or how many fantasy novels I’ve scarfed down.

Since it’s the end of the year and everybody’s doing their best books lists, I thought I’d compile my own list, with stats on how I read as a sort of appetizer.

In 2014, I attempted to read around 65 books. For the past five years, I’ve read an average of 37 books a year, so this figure is much higher–but may be partly due to reading more novellas and comics this year, and also romances, which tend to be shorter. But probably a lot of it is because I’m a bigger book nerd than ever.

Out of those 65 books, I abandoned around 14 due to lack of interest–or an approaching library due date. Six of these were classics for my classics book club, four were romances, two were nonfiction, and one was a short story collection. I’ll probably return to a few of these someday. Over the past five years, I’ve abandoned a total of 36 books (ouch!), which is about seven a year on average. So I was not only reading more this year, but DNFing twice as much as well. I will have completely read a little over 50 books this year–not as many as some of the writers in the blogs I follow, but my book-a-week rate works for me.

The vast majority of books I read in 2014 were published in the past six years, with the numbers increasing with the years, the 16 books I read that were published this year being the highest count. In addition to recent reads, I read a handful of books from the early 2000s, one in the ’90s, two in the ’80s and two in the 70s, and then one each in the 60s, 50s, and 40s–most of these older books read (er, attempted) for my classics club. I also read three in the early 19th century: two Austens and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’m too lazy to see how this compares to previous years, but it’s probably fairly typical; I’m a mostly contemporary reader, for better or worse.

I read nine nonfiction books this year (14%), compared to a 22% average for the past five years. These includes three memoirs (one graphic), two books on writing and/or editing, two books on psychology, one on religion, and one on reading.

Among the fiction I read, around thirty of the novels, or nearly half, were romance or YA with a strong romantic element; a third of these romances were in the subgenre of romantic comedy, followed closely by contemporary romance, and a smattering in the subgenres of New Adult, erotica, and historical, with one paranormal romance read. I attempted ten literary or classical fiction, four mysteries, four comics, four fantasies, two horror, and one YA that didn’t fall neatly into romance or fantasy.

Out of the 185 books I’ve read since 2010, 62 were written by male authors (or author teams with at least one man), which shakes out to about 33.5%. I read eighteen male authors this year, or 29%. This lower percentage may be due to reading more romance, which is usually penned by women; many of the men I did read were classic or comic writers.

I didn’t track author race or national origin, but it’s something I’m thinking of starting to track in 2015, to be sure I’m reading outside my culture more.

Anyway, if any of you track your reading, please post in the comments! And, if your eyes haven’t completely glazed over by now, here are my ten favorite books I read this year–though I’m not sure any were actually published in 2014. (A note that this list was really hard to make, as I read a lot of books I really liked. Also I excluded books I beta-read, since these were earlier drafts.)

1.) Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley (YA). Beautiful written, utterly romantic Australian YA that hit lots of my book kryptonite. I read this after drafting my own street artist love story, and am so glad I stumbled upon it.

2.) Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (graphic memoir). I was new to Allie Brosch, and found this graphic memoir so funny and delightful.

3.) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (YA). So witty, so much swoon, so Rainbow Rowell.

4.) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (comic). Wonderfully imaginative, funny, tender, captivating, sexy, wild.

5.) Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl (romance). Sexy, fun romance with erotica writer heroine. I couldn’t put this down.

6.) Unteachable by Leah Raeder (romance). Great New Adult read. Beautiful imagery, tantalizing forbidden romance.

7.) Romance is My Day Job by Patience Bloom (memoir). Funny, well-done, with poignant moments.

8.) Ripped by Sarah Morgan (romance). Short, funny holiday romance.

9.) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (romantic comedy). Hilarious, unique Australian romance between socially clueless genetics professor and a grad student.

10.) Deepest Desires by Charlotte Stein (erotica). Spare, evocative language. Racy yet emotionally intense. Charlotte Stein is one of my can’t-go-wrong-with authors.

Writers Who Read: Mick Harris

This week the Writers Who Read series continues with Mick Harris.

Who are you?
I am a discrete unit who first wanted to be an archaeologist when I was six and wrote my first story from the perspective of King Tut’s heart scarab as it was stolen by tomb robbers in Ancient Egypt.  I still have it, and it’s probably better than anything I’ve written since.  I abandoned the idea of archaeology in college when I realized that it included planes, bugs, sleeping outside and, more importantly, taking sacred objects from the land where they belong. Never looked back.

My storytelling is influenced by a variety of things, from traditional text RPGs to ritual magic.  That’s a pretentious way of saying I draw inspiration from a lot of sources and have been writing steadily for a long time.  I co-wrote a screenplay and am currently at work on my first long-form work developed from my grad thesis, as well as a chapbook of poems.

I still don’t entirely own the idea of being a writer, much less a poet, but I am getting there.  I live in the East Bay, uprooted for 7 years to the East Coast and then fled back as soon as I finished my MFA.  Jury’s still out on if that was worth the money, but it did show me what it takes to be a writer and it afforded me the opportunity to work with some amazing authors and meet some incredibly talented people.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
This is such a hard question for all of us, I’m sure.  My top three would have to be The Hobbit, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.  I found The Hobbit at a book fair at my local library.  My mother introduced me to Snyder (also with The Velvet Room).  I found Konigsburg through the Scholastic reading program at school and read it obsessively.  I almost decided to run away from home to spend the night in the Oakland Museum.  Never mind that I had no idea how to get there, but the idea of sleeping in the exhibits was pretty mind-blowing as a kid.

I’m adding one to cheat as well: the Shadow series by Anne Logston.  They’re out of print and slim run-of-the-mill 80s fantasy but they were the first books I read that featured a strong female lead in control of her life (and her sex life).  They had a HUGE impact on me, and were another random book fair find as a kid.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Anything by Flannery O’Connor, but especially The Violent Bear it Away.  It’s my favorite of hers.  I think she’s an absolute visionary and even now remains an underrated author in many respects, from her long-form work to the subtleties of her religious explorations in her texts.  I adore her and if I could travel back in time, I would go visit her and ask to walk with her in her mother’s yard and see all of her pea fowl and chickens!

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
Good question – I am a budding comic fan (DC and 80s indie, if you must know) so I’m focused primarily on that right now, but I can’t resist a visionary story with oddball characters.  Shirley Jackson comes to mind, as does O’Connor again, but I’ll also plow through anything Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child write about Agent Pendergast.  Those are my “crap” stash, and I love them to death.  My dad passed off Relic to me as a kid and I was hooked.  I enjoy archaic personality traits, strange psychic phenomena and curmudgeonly characters.

In comics, I love non-traditional story lines (think Grant Morrison) and just about anything to do with Batman or Guy Gardner.  I’ll probably get internet feminist heat for that one, but no one ever said complex and flawed characters couldn’t be fascinating. They have to exist, because they have to challenge us.  I don’t want to unequivocally love a character all the time, nor do I wish to be pandered to as a fan as the current geek culture climate tends to perpetuate.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I enjoy reading right before bed and on public transit.  The latter I use mostly as a shield, though it often functions as a big “Hey, come talk to me, I’m totally interested in you and your life!” sign over my head for some people.  I read before bed because I’ve done that since I could hold a book and look at pictures.  I’m incredibly blessed to have an aptitude for language & the educational privilege to indulge this, so I’ve always read voraciously whenever I could.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
My mind always goes completely blank when anyone asks me this.  O’Connor’s work, as I said.  Yukio Mishima, Stephen King, Rebecca Brown and Denis Johnson all contributed, as do Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad and Octavia Butler.  I can’t pick specific texts as I’d have to dismantle my bookcases, and this answer would be longer than the whole interview.

I grab what I love from nearly everything I read and I try and incorporate these techniques into my writing.  Sometimes, all a text does is leave an emotional impression that gets thrown in the cooker, and I’ll only realize later where a particular thread came from.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I generally read more than I write, as I am a procrastinator.  I like to sit on an idea until it has nowhere to go but out, so when I write it happens in bursts.  This is not conducive to producing a body of work, so I’m changing that.

I will go through periods when I am primarily reading and not writing, or vice versa.  They tend to inform each other in this relay pattern.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical books definitely win, though I’ve been taking to ebooks lately.  I really enjoy not having to put on pants or get out of the house to get my hands on a new book.  It cuts down on the storage space as well!  But you just cannot beat that old book smell.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
Not at all!  Half the books I have, I have yet to read.  I tried to curb this habit until I had one too many of the 3 AM “Oh, hey, I’ve never read this and I’ve had it for ten years, why not start it now” moments, and now I’m convinced I can never get rid of anything in preparation for these wonderful epiphanies.  My whole shelf is my list, and I don’t like book challenges.  I read when I feel like it.  I don’t want it to ever feel like a chore again (thanks, grad school).

What are you reading now?
Uh, some really horrible fantasy novels that I will not mention by name here.  Yes, they are that embarrassing.  I’m also reading The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg and working my way through Jack Kirby’s DC oeuvre.  I’m dipping into The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and just picked up Citizen by Claudia Rankine.  I usually have several books going at once.

Mick Harris is a writer and editor living in the CA Bay Area.  You can blame them for it if you like, but they probably didn’t do it.  Their work can be found in Pink Litter, Fruitapulp, Deep Water Literary, the Up, Do anthology from Spider Road Press and Digging Through the Fat.  They blog semi-regularly at positivelysocialsix.wordpress.com and are on Twitter (@socialbutts).

Writers Who Read: Chrissy Kolaya

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Chrissy Kolaya.author photo cropped copy

Who are you?
I’m a poet and fiction writer, parent, and partner. I teach writing at a small university in rural Minnesota. My books are Any Anxious Body, a book of poems published by the fabulous Broadstone Books in spring 2014 and a novel, Charmed Particles, which will be published in spring 2016 with Dzanc Books. If you’re curious, you can learn more here.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
I adored the Anne of Green Gables series as a kid. I also loved Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and The Cricket in Times Square. I feel like I could go on and on! This is the period of my life when books felt more important to me than any other time of my life so far.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Only one?

I love David Mitchell, especially A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Right now I’m enamored of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series.

I’m also obsessed with this hilarious book my husband gave me as a gift called Bigfoot: I Not Dead by Graham Roumieu.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading? 
Weird visual elements like the footnotes in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.

Innovative design like Anne Carson’s Nox.

Books that have you wondering “what exactly is this?” like Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, and Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways and Picturing and Poeting.

Also, books that are particularly good at conveying the feeling of a certain time of year or a certain place. I’m thinking here of a book I reread over and over again as a kid, mainly because it made me feel especially “Halloween-y.”

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Ideal: I’m writing this during winter in Minnesota, so someplace soft, warm, and full of blankets.

Reality: Any time I can find a quiet moment and a (relatively) quiet spot.

Cover imageWhich books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
The poems of Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Robert Hass, and Dean Young.

The novels of Alice Thomas Ellis, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, and David Mitchell, Waterland by Graham Swift, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

The graphic novels of Lynda Barry, and Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home.

The short fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri, Charles Baxter, Adam McOmber, and Christine Sneed.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I teach writing, which, consequently, means reading and commenting on a lot of student work. This means that during the academic year, I’m often not reading much aside from what I read for classes or for my own research, which is not necessarily a bad thing–I love to geek out over my research reading, and there’s much to be learned from reading and engaging with student work. Summer’s when I have some time to pleasure read a bit.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
It used to be physical book, no question, but lately, I’ve found that the only way I can pleasure read during the academic year is via audio books. I listen while making dinner or doing housework–A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series) got me through piles and piles of dirty dishes!

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?IMG_20141209_185850154
I don’t plan my future reading, but since I was a child, I’ve been a careful recorder of my past reading. I have a notebook where I’ve been keeping track of every book I’ve read since I was a kid (with some gaps in record keeping—or, perhaps, in actual reading–during those foggy, early-parenthood years). Looking at it today, here are a few things I’ve noticed:

* I read a weird amount of Agatha Christie for a 12-year-old girl.

* How hilarious Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl seemed in 1994 (sleep in full makeup so your boyfriend never has to look upon your un-made-up face!).

* I had forgotten how much I loved The Westing Game and Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe series! I can’t wait to read these with my sons!

* I loved me some tear-jerkers in high school and was also strangely obsessed with Paul Harvey.

What are you reading now?
Mostly work stuff: end-of-semester papers by my students, a cool book about literary citizenship called The Write Crowd by Lori A. May, and the texts I’ll be teaching next semester, but on my reading list for winter break are T. H. Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake and the Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake by John MacGillivray, two books I’m reading for research for a novel I’m in the middle of.

Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer, author of Any Anxious Body (Broadstone Books), and the forthcoming Charmed Particles (Dzanc Books, spring 2016). Her short fiction has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton) and Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions). Her poems and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals. She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. 

You can find out more about Chrissy on Twitter (@ChrissyKolaya) or her website.

Ten Best Holiday Rom-coms on Netflix Instant

12DatesOfChristmas

Photo from Wikipedia.

This is a joint post with the fabulous, festive Jenny Vinyl, cross-posted on her site.

It’s probably a given most of you are streaming Love Actually this holiday season, even if you hate it. It’s Christmassy, it has swoon, it’s got Hugh fucking Grant. But after the credits roll, you’ve probably still got wrapping and card-writing and a craving to watch people kiss in the snow. These ten other holiday romances on Netflix Instant are all sweet, funny choices that pair well with hot cocoa. Plus you’ll see those stars from 90210 or Saved by the Bell aged over a decade and sporting earmuffs and holiday cheer.

12 Dates of Christmas
The movie begins with a dig at Nicholas Sparks, and one of the characters, in talking about the tragic death of his wife, says it was “no great Lifetime Channel tragedy.”  Zing!  This is not one of those Christmas movies.  The movie-equivalent of a Christmas cheese ball, 12 Dates is sweet and tasty and nutty and a little bitter all at once.  Kate (Amy Smart) is set up on a blind date with Miles (Zach Morris. I mean… Mark-Paul Gosselaar) for Christmas Eve.  (Do people really go on blind dates on Christmas Eve?)  The problem is she’s still hung up on her ex-boyfriend (Benjamin Ayres), whom she ditches Miles to see, and she’s kind of a jerk to a bunch of additional people along the way.  No worries, though, because at midnight her day starts again with Amy waking up in a department store, after having been spritzed by some apparently magical perfume and fainting.  She ends up reliving Christmas Eve twelve times and by the end has learned some important lessons.  I’m a sucker for stories in the A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life vein: anything that shows you what a tool you’ve been and gives you a do-over until you get it right.  It’s probably not hard to see why movies with these themes are so perfectly suited to Christmas, when we’re all supposed to have a little holly in our hearts.

All I Want for Christmas
Young boy Jesse (Jimmy Pinchak) sends a video into an “All I Want for Christmas” contest sponsored by a toy company looking for some good publicity.  He asks for a husband for his widowed mother Sara (Gail O’Grady).  The toy company sees bank, and Sara agrees to the dating competition reluctantly, in exchange for the exorbitant amount of money she needs to keep open their community center, named for her husband.  However, after going on a series of dates, the toy mogul’s son (Greg Germann), who has been orchestrating the publicity stunt, begins to have feelings for her, and when they are caught kissing on camera, events begin to spin out of control.  Meanwhile, their neighbor and good friend Ben (Robert Mailhouse) is basically already family to Sara and Jesse — and also he’s in love with Sara.  Watching Greg Germann of Ally McBeal and Amanda Foreman of Felicity as Ben’s girlfriend (in a role that was too small!) was part of the treat of this sweet film.  Who will win Sara’s heart in the end?

Christmas Bounty
Within the first few minutes, we see Tory Bell (Francia Raisa), a Manhattan school teacher, crawl out a window, skitter along the ledge several stories up, and jump onto a moving vehicle to save a student she thinks is being abducted.  Tory can do this without killing herself because, we soon learn, she’s a former bounty hunter.  When a criminal she once put away gets out and threatens her, she has to travel back home to Jersey and work with her bounty hunter family (including an ex-boyfriend, Mikey “Muscles,” played by Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, who is a real-life WWE star) to re-capture him. Corny and silly and actually a lot of fun, Christmas Bounty is what happens when Tory and her New York hoity-toity boyfriend show up in Jersey.  If you like Christmas, Jersey stereotypes, and wrestling, this is the holiday movie for you.  Tory trying to get her less-than-classy family to not be themselves was laugh-out-loud funny.  (Pinky-out drinking and British accents abound.)  The scenes with Mikey are sweet, and the messages about being true to yourself and appreciating your family are touching.  Plus, there’s a wacky dance sequence at the end credits.  The family that bounty hunts together…

Christmas Crush
If you like your holiday movies with a dash of high school, look no further than Christmas

Photo courtesy of IMDB.

Photo from IMDB.

Crush. In this film, Georgia (Rachel Boston of Witches of East End) returns home and attends her high school reunion, hoping to reunite with her old flame, Craig. The problem is she’s boyfriendless and works as a fashion assistant, which is, apparently, somehow embarrassing to her and her father? (I had to double-check that this movie was made after the economy collapsed.) Meanwhile her old friend Oliver (Jonathan Bennett) is also back in town, and we know he’s really the guy for her because he’s better-looking than Craig, and also his shirt is untucked. Sometimes I don’t get the appeal of the friends-to-lovers plot–If two people secretly like each other so much, why aren’t they together already?–but it feels realistic here. And the two leads are so likeable: Georgia is the type of girl you want with you when you get a promotion or bad diagnosis; and Oliver is wry and funny, a refreshing change from the often too-earnest male lead, and his banter with Georgia is playful. There are some wooden characters and a couple musical numbers here (’tis the season), but there’s also a food fight montage and a sweet takeaway: find the one you can be goofy with.

Dear Santa
Dear Santa is a sillier version of the more subdued All I Want for Christmas.  Both movies feature children seeking spouses for their widowed parents and are set largely in community centers that are in honor of the departed spouses but are in danger of closing.  Crystal (Amy Acker), a spoiled, rich, careless society girl, stumbles on a “Dear Santa” letter from a little girl looking for a new wife for her dad.  When Crystal’s parents threaten to cut her off by Christmas if she doesn’t find some way of supporting herself, she decides to track down the girl and her father Derek (David Haydn-Jones) and fulfill the little girl’s wish.  Amy Acker is winning in a warm if pretty ridiculous role.  Crystal immediately inserts herself into Derek’s life, volunteering at the soup kitchen he vowed to his dying wife to keep open, teaching his daughter Olivia (Emma Duke) how to ice skate, and taking her shopping.  Contrivances, cliches (gay soup kitchen cook dressed in pink chef’s hat and apron), and light gender stereotyping (fathers apparently are incapable of taking young daughters clothes shopping) abound in this holiday tale, but it remains cuddly and cute throughout.  Crystal goes up against Derek’s awful girlfriend Jillian (Gina Holden) — we know she’s no good because her accessories are knockoffs — and in the process proves there’s more to her than “shopping and lattes.”  Oh, and did I mention this was directed by Jason Priestly, late of 90210?

Desperately Seeking Santa
One of the frequent Christmas film plots is a variation on The Christmas Carol, showing the importance of love, family, and community over cold-hearted profits. Desperately Seeking Santa fits into this stocking. In it, Jen (Laura Vandervoort), an uptight-yet-likeable marketing exec, must come up with a way to increase her shopping mall’s profits to gain a promotion–and eventually save her stores. She creates the idea of a Sexy Santa contest to find a guy with “the sex appeal of Brad Pitt and spirit of Santa” (what?). Enter David (Nick Zano), a tough-yet-sensitive Bostonian who needs money to save his family’s pizzeria from corporate raiders–and who first meets Jen when she cuts in front of him in the coffee line and he calls her on it (this is a serious offense; I’m Team Everyone Else in Line). The sense of community is strong here, both around David’s family pizzeria and Jen’s shopping mall world, and adds to the fun and warmth of the film. Though it features a carousel kissing scene that gave me a bit of vertigo, the story is sweet and solid, the romance with swoon, and has increasing conflicts that made me wonder how it was all going to end happily. But, like Christmas, it all comes together.

Holiday Engagement
If you like your roms heavy on the com, Holiday Engagement may be your flavor. Hillary (Bonnie Somerville), a former reporter, gets dumped by her “serious snag” lawyer fiancé and is faced with going home for Thanksgiving manless. Like Christmas Crush in its popular holiday theme, Holiday Engagement focuses on the pressures of holiday perfection: to return home with a man on your arm, not to mention a perfect job and life. So Hillary hires actor David (Jordan Bridges) to be her fake fiancé for the trip, after meeting him when he’s working as a giant cell phone mascot (which completely sold me on this gem, by the way. Mascots FTW!). The two return home, where much deception and hilarious awkwardness ensue as Hillary and David fall for each other for real. More sharp in its humor than others on this list, Holiday Engagement brings the laughs. It also has one of the more fun, relatable heroines and some tender moments between the leads and Hillary’s mother, Meredith (played by Shelley Long). Relationships are a family affair, after all, warts and all.

Photo courtesy of IMDB.

Photo from IMDB.

Holiday in Handcuffs
Melissa Joan Hart with a bad perm, Mario Lopez brought home for the holidays by gunpoint–if Holiday in Handcuffs doesn’t fit the definition of holiday rom-com classic, I don’t know what does. In terms of old skool star power, ridiculous plot, and S&M humor, it can’t be beat (see what I did there?). Much like Holiday Engagement, this one fits a trope popular to holiday films: bringing home a fake date to meet family expectations. Trudy (Hart), pressured by her family to have a “real job and serious boyfriend,” bombs a job interview and gets dumped by her guy right before Christmas. Throw in a bad hair day, and she becomes so desperate she kidnaps David (Lopez) by antique gunpoint, like one does. What follows is a series of hijinks, misunderstandings, gunshots, moments of truth, references to Reagonomics, chess, hockey, a mistletoe kiss, and Mario Lopez probably suffering from Stockholm Syndrome on his way to falling in love.

The Mistle-tones
Bright and cheery as a gumdrop, The Mistle-tones is like Christmas on steroids, with bright colors, musical medleys and holiday puns throughout. At the beginning, one character is even described as “peppermint-barking up the wrong tree.” It’s all weirdly, completely delightful. Holly (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) dreams of joining the Snow Belles holiday performing group–a dream which is squashed when the evil group leader, Marci (Tori Spelling), rejects her. So Holly starts her own Christmas singing group, along with her hilarious and diverse cast of co-workers. Eventually she blackmails her uptight boss, Nick (Jonathan Patrick Moore), into joining when she discovers his secret talent for karaoke and pelvic thrusting. Nick helps the group improve while falling for Holly. Evil Tori Spelling, fun melodies, and a hot hero in a three-piece suit–if that doesn’t make you smile as much as I did, then you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. The film also features an unconventional ending and Reginald VelJohnson as Holly’s dad, who, for the record, is the man I’d like to have explain to me the true meaning of Christmas too.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Snowglobe
Angela (Christina Milian) loves the idea of a perfect, traditional Christmas, while her loving-but-boundary-challenged family is more preoccupied with lounging around her apartment, setting her up with strangers, and making Christmas lasagna instead of goose for their deli.  When a mysterious snowglobe arrives in the mail, Angela finds herself waking up inside, with its winter village and relentlessly cheery residents.  The town has some funny quirks (dishes spring complete from the inn’s oven — no prep or cooking required) and since they are confined to a snowglobe, it’s no wonder they seem a little sheltered.  The residents have never heard the story of the birth of Jesus — or any other stories.  In the village, Angela meets sweet, naive, simple Douglas (Matt Keeslar), who is thrilled just to skate around the ice park, shovel snow all day, and exchange primary-colored mittens and earmuffs with everyone he meets.  I get why Angela wants to keep escaping into the snowglobe for the perfect winter town, but the attraction to the doofusy Douglas, when the her cute neighbor Eddie (Josh Cooke) clearly has a thing for her, takes some suspension of disbelief.  Hijinks ensue when Douglas follows Angela from the snowglobe back into her world.  This sweet story understands why we may sometimes want to retreat into an idealized world but shows us that “perfect” may be something we didn’t realize we had all along.

Writers Who Read: Jenny Vinyl

JennyVinyl1The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Jenny Vinyl.

Who are you?
I’m a writer of short essays as well as history and memoirs about my family, though I’ve always enjoyed writing in many forms — fiction, creative non-fiction, and sometimes poetry, too.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
This is tough because I’ve rarely revisited my childhood reading as an adult, so it’s hard to remember!  I devoured The Babysitter’s Club series, and I loved Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  I’m sure I read Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt several times in middle school.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom, is a collection of short stories I could not put down when I first read it, about 10 years ago, and I’m always recommending to readers looking for something new.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I love British stuff and stories with weird, quirky characters.  I enjoy relationships that don’t follow a “normal” A to Z trajectory (meet, fall in love, marry), which is one of the reasons I love Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing.  I also relish plots that involve erstwhile rivals teaming up, even temporarily, to defeat a mutual enemy.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I always read at night in bed.  In fact, someone recently gave me a book pillow to facilitate in-bed reading, which has been exciting.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing? 
Most 19th century British lit, which is so smart, clever, and charming —  these books tell the stories I most love to read.  For non-fiction, David Simon’s work and Studs Terkel’s oral histories have been influential.  Roxane Gay and Tina Fey write the kind of funny, thoughtful, and insightful essays I try to emulate.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life? 
I usually do both every day and mostly for fun, but for those times that require a little more motivation, I set up tasks and reminders.  This approach has helped me “chip away” at a project I didn’t want to abandon but was slogging through and has worked for both reading and writing.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I’m definitely a physical book person, though I do read ebooks and audio books for convenience.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I keep a TBR and participate in book clubs and challenges, but it usually doesn’t feel like pressure.  I am often reading a bunch of works at once and setting things aside temporarily to revisit later.  I used to hate not finishing a book I started, but in recent years I’ve had no problem with DNF, which has freed me to be more adventurous in my reading.  So I set goals and plan and timeline, but it’s a very low-stress situation.

What are you reading now? 
My big reading project right now is Anna Karenina.  It’s what I’ve been picking up in between other works and is probably going to take me months!  I’ve also been enjoying comics — Saga and Hawkeye were recent favorites.

You can find me at jennyvinyl.wordpress.com and @jenny_vinyl on Twitter.

Top Ten Ways to Spot a Rom-Com Hero

128px-Romanticfilm_svg

I’ve been watching many a rom-com this holiday season in preparation for a post with Jenny Vinyl on the best holiday romances on Netflix Instant (coming soon!). In all this viewing I’ve been carefully honing my ability to spot the heroes of these films–you know, The One versus The Others. Because there are definitely other potential love interests in many of these movies: current boyfriends, hot bosses, old crushes, cute neighborhood waiters. But I’ve gotten my ability to spot The One down to a love science. How do I tell? Here are ten clues to spot a rom-com hero:

1.) He fights with heroine, especially upon first (re)meeting. He calls her on her bullshit. He’s honest–annoyingly so sometimes. This makes a romance sizzle with sexual tension, and we all know that’s the fuel that makes romances run.

2.) He is somewhat unkept or casual. He’s got his shirt untucked, or the top buttons of his shirt undone. His hair’s a little messy. This all means that he’s casual and natural and not vain, or maybe just that he doesn’t own a comb.

3.) His attraction to the heroine is obvious. He loses the power of speech when he sees her. He looks longingly after her. He can’t stop fighting with her.

4.) He makes the heroine laugh. He can be goofy. He starts food fights. He drags her onto a carousel and then kisses her. He’s genuine fun–something the heroine’s often been missing in her life.

5.) He’s built–yet somehow we don’t usually see him working out?

6.) He’s manly (see unearned muscles, above) but also sensitive. He shows that he cares for his relatives and/or community. He pulls his weight at the family pizzeria.

7.) He’s often also a bit vulnerable, getting over a heartbreak or death of a spouse or the realization that he’s the “get-back guy” to make his ex-girlfriend’s other lovers jealous.

8.) He values people over profits. He’s not on his phone all the time. (Wait, is that realistic?)

9.) The heroine can tell him the truth–even when it’s embarrassing or ugly, even when she’s held him hostage over the holidays.

10.) He recognizes and expresses the heroine’s unique talents and gifts. And if that’s not the best, most romantic holiday present, I don’t know what is.

 

Romantic film icon created from Nuvola icons from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Writers Who Read: Nancy Slavin

photo-bookjacketThe Writers Who Read series continues this week with novelist Nancy Slavin.

Who are you?
I’m a mom, writer, educator, editor and publisher, but not necessarily in that order. My literary novel, Moorings, came out in 2013 and I’ve got others in the works. People can find me at http://nancyslavin.com or on Twitter @NancySlavin1.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
My three beloved books as a young person were Little Women, of course, by Louisa May Alcott, but also, Henry Sugar and 6 Other Stories by Roald Dahl, and Danny the Champion of the World by Dahl. Those books can give you a hint of how old I am.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
There’s really never an “always” book for my recommendations, as I seem to cater my ideas to those who may “need” a certain book, in my humble opinion. But for a long time, my “always” book was The River Why by David James Duncan.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
Authors who play with language and have a mastery of language are the kinds of books to which I’m drawn. Beyond great writing, I connect with those authors because their deep devotion to language means that their words, metaphors, and, ultimately, their conflicts center on the struggle and the importance of learning to love one another.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I love reading at night, in my super-cozy bed, when my partner is home (but in another room so I don’t keep him up) and my child is miraculously asleep in her bed. Those nights when I have time and space and a book so good it keeps me awake are rare treasures.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?MooringsCoverFinal.ebook
As a young person, my parents realized I loved poetry. One of the first of many poetry collections they gave me was Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, by Maya Angelou, which helped form me as a young girl. I had an amazing high school English teacher, Mr. Rick Goodale-Sussen, who was an Americanist; he introduced me to Walden by Henry Thoreau and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, among others, but those two books gave me my life’s journey of unraveling the myth of the American Dream. Also, because of Suss, as I called him, I became an English major, and in college, I loved trying to imitate the poems in The Blue Estuaries, by Louise Bogan, and I got a lot out of bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman, in terms of understanding Westernized culture in a fair way. And now I’m an English Lit. instructor, so a lot of classics and canonized literature are still big influences, which is a little old school, I know. But, for example, Hamlet by Shakespeare teaches me new things each time I teach it about language, and conflict, and interpersonal struggle.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I don’t feel balance in my life, ever, especially with the advent of the Internet and social media, which only adds to the daily frenzy. On any given day, I’m usually reading a student paper or story, an editing job, an essay, book or series of poems for my classes, and reading a book for pleasure that may take me months to finish. I also always have writing projects going – I do something for my own creative writing life in the early morning, usually after journaling a few pages in a notebook. I try every day to write something, either on a big project like a book, or something smaller (like this post!) or a poem or an essay I’ve been wanting to write or saw as an intriguing prompt. I don’t get too caught up in pushing myself to write on a project that is nothing but struggle – I put it aside for a while and work on something else. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll write a lesson plan for school or one of my freelance or volunteer jobs, plus queries, proposals, and grant requests. I see a mess, not balance, but reading and writing are both something I do every single day.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I was against e-reading devices for a long time, but I have to say now I like my silly device because I can read at night, in bed, and not use a light. However, a good old musty book is still my preferred form because a real book helps me feel intimately connected to another human being. My device will never accomplish that.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
For an English instructor, I’m a colossally slow reader, thus I don’t participate in clubs that make me finish a book by a certain time. I have books piled on my shelf as “to read” and sometimes they get picked, sometimes another book pre-empts what’s on my self. I definitely believe reading books is a spiritual experience –  I always seem to read the very book I needed to read at the exact right time. The more surprising the experience, the better.

What are you reading now?
Well, by the time this post gets up, my book surely will have changed, but right now, I’m reading Carry the Sky by Kate Gray (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). The books weaves poetry and story quite well, with characters that are odd and flawed, but with beautiful language and a good storyline. I’ll be thinking about Gray’s book for some time after I’m done with the last page, and that why I read.

Writers Who Read: Tracy Manaster

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Tracy Manaster. IMG_1100-0.JPG

Who are you?
Tracy Manaster, author of the just-released YOU COULD BE HOME BY NOW.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
Is it cheating too terribly much to list a series? Maude Hart Lovelace’s BETSY-TACY books are among my all-time favorites. Betsy in particular is so fully-realized, ambitious but very, very fallible–a little vain, a little melodramatic, and not always the best at balancing her desire to be a writer with her rich social world. I suspect it’s obvious why I identify so strongly with her, though of the two of us Betsy is by far the better dressed.

When I was in the fourth grade, I practically memorized D’AUALARIES’ BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS, with its rich, gorgeously-illustrated collection of gods behaving badly. Then, when I was an Archaeology major in college, I found I could easily stay on top of my Classic courses thanks in no small part to D’Aualaries, provided I dialed the PG rating up to NC-17.

Tracy's work at age 6

Tracy’s work at age 6

And in the spirit of honesty (and despite the fact that my love for, say, LITTLE WOMEN would sound far more impressive) I’ll admit to at one point being hopelessly addicted to THE BABYSITTERS’ CLUB’s entrepreneurial spirit and general sense of can do.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
I feel like I’m chief proselytizer for the cult of Brian Hall. Looking over my own early stabs at fiction, I can readily pinpoint whether a story was pre- or post- my first reading of Hall’s THE SASKIAD; very little pre-Saskiad is salvageable but just about everything post has at least a phrase or an idea that’s worthwhile. With The Saskiad, I really began to understand all the crazy, graceful things that could be done with point of view and to start attempting them myself.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading? 
I’m often drawn to what I’ll call “Westerns that aren’t Westerns.” Part of the appeal is the landscape–it’s what I grew up with and also happens to be stunning, moody, and dramatic. And so much of the usual Western is driven by trope and by type that it’s incredibly satisfying to see works that look beyond that and (even better) blow it apart. Sherman Alexie comes to mind here of course, as do Judith Freeman (read RED WATER. Read it. Now.), Larry Watson, and Molly Gloss.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Ideally? In bed, all day, with zillions of blankets and a big mug of coffee nearby. But my life is busy and very full, so that’s not something that happens often.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
That’s a hard one. As I massage a first draft into a second (and every draft thereafter, but first to second is where they seem to congregate) I try to be ruthless in changing or cutting lines or phrases that call to mind other writers. In my actual approach to writing, I think I owe a huge debt to Mildred Walker (another bossy parenthetical: go read WINTER WHEAT. I suspect that had she been Milton and not Mildred we’d all have been assigned it in high school), who would go into a work with a simple, moving (to her) fact in mind (a certain strain of wheat was a hybrid of Russia and US grains, for instance) and constantly write toward it. Often, I’ll write with an image or bit of scientific trivia I picked up who knows where that I know I want to include toward the end. The initial draft becomes an exercise in getting the narrative there.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
Badly, in that I don’t have enough time for either. If I have a block of at least an hour, I’ll error on the side of writing. Reading is something I fit in where I can. Audiobooks help; with two kids I spend a lot of time in the car. And I always carry a book or two on me. If I’m meeting friends somewhere I will try to get there early enough to read a page or so.

Of course, there are some books that are so compelling they devour my writing time (and all my free time) until I finish them. I used to beat myself up about that, calling myself lazy or not a real writer. But writers learn through reading and books that hook me that thoroughly are fairly rare and a wonderful pleasure, so I’ve learned to relax a little.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Another hard one. Audiobooks as so convenient and hearing a text aloud I can pick up on language level ticks and tricks I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m a better reader with ebooks, less apt to succumb to the temptation of peeking at the end and more likely to actually look up words with which I’m unfamiliar. But despite that, there is nothing like a physical book. Maybe if ebooks came with that paper and binding smell…

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
There are so many books I want to read and re-read that I think I would paralyze myself if I attempted a rational and strategic approach. I do keep a running list of books to recommend and give to other people. I won’t be citing it here as we’re closing in on the Christmukkah giving season, but it is lengthy and quite detailed.

What are you reading now?
I had ambitions this year of reading DON QUIXOTE in Spanish (I’m about halfway through) and with less than two months before 2015 rolls in, my answer should be “I’m reading DON QUIXOTE in Spanish, per my New Year’s resolution.” But Ernie Wood, who I’ll be doing a reading with in Austin this January, just published his ONE RED THREAD. And Mary Doria Russell’s EPITAPH will be out soon, which means I’m re-reading DOC (which means I’ll probably wind up re-reading THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD; I can get obsessive). A friend just gave me Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s BITTERSWEET and everyone keeps publishing their best books of the year lists. Quixote has been around since 1605. I suspect I can get away with waiting one more year.

Cover-YCBHBN

 

I’m Tracy Manaster Alifanz on FB, @tracymanaster on Twitter, and non-existent on Pinterest as I have neither the time nor the headspace. My debut novel, YOU COULD BE HOME BY NOW, is (per Kirkus) “a scintillating drama that’s touching, funny and impossible to put down” and (per my five-year-old twin daughters) “exciting because it has a little blue truck on the cover.” It’s available on Amazon and at your favorite bookstore.

Writers Who Read: Kassandra Lamb

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with mystery author Kassandra Lamb. I’ve had the pleasure of beta-reading Kassandra’s Kate Huntington mystery series, and have especially enjoyed the long-term romance between the main couple in the series.

Image00005Who are you?
I am a retired psychotherapist/college professor turned mystery writer. Some of my favorite things are dark chocolate, the color blue (peach is a close second), and my grandsons (these are not in order of importance). I drink a ton of iced tea every day–after all, I live in Florida. This may explain why I am often still writing or reading at two o’clock in the morning.

I write the Kate Huntington mystery series, the Kate on Vacation cozy mysteries and the occasional stand-alone story or novel. I also blog about psychology and other random topics on the misterio press website.


What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
1933-LittleHouseOnThePrairie
I had a huge girl crush on Laura Ingalls Wilder. This was long before Little House on the Prairie was on TV. I even wrote her a fan letter one time. I got a very nice note back from one of her grown children telling me that she had passed away, the year before I was born. Guess I should have done a little research first, but hey, I was only ten.

Anne of Green Gables was another childhood favorite of mine. In general, I loved historical stories that showed how children lived in earlier times.

And then along came Nancy Drew, and I’ve been reading mysteries ever since.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell. This book moved me more than any other I have ever read. It is the saga of the residents of a small Southern town during the tumultuous times from the 1950’s through the prime years of the Civil Rights movement.

The author, a black woman of my generation, has a remarkable ability to get inside the heads of every single character, from the white redneck alcoholic to the black teenaged boy who makes the mistake of talking to a white woman in a pool hall one evening. And she manages to portray every one of them with at least some degree of sympathy, even the bigots!

Of course, the fact that I grew up during the era she is describing, and in a family that was involved in the Civil Rights movement, probably explains some of why I love this book.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
Strong, realistic female characters who also have a soft side (whether they like it or not.) When characters stay with me for days afterwards and I find myself wondering what they are doing at the moment, that’s when I know I’ve read a truly good book!

What is your ideal time and place to read?
On my screened-in porch on a Sunday afternoon, weather permitting, and in bed at night.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Stephen King’s On Writing is my favorite craft book. I love the way he wove a memoir-style story around writing advice.

Mystery writers who have had a strong influence are (in order of importance) JA Jance, JD Robb (yes, I know she’s Nora Roberts in disguise, but I really only like her mysteries), Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis, Faye Kellerman, Laurie R. King… I could go on all day; there are so many great mystery writers out there.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
Balance? We’re supposed to find balance? Nobody told me that.

Seriously, I don’t do a good job of this at all. I need to make book dates with myself or something.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I never thought I would say this since I tend to curse technology on a regular basis, but I love e- books! It is so convenient to be able to carry a whole library around on my kindle in my purse. And I can convert every book to a large print edition–so much easier on my tired old eyes.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I do have a TBR list but I don’t plan other than that. I’m thinking I should do this. I’m making it one of my 2015 New Year’s resolutions to read at least two books a month. I used to read one to two a week, before I started writing. Now all too often the time I used to spend on reading stories is spent on producing them.

What are you reading now?
I just finished a book by one of my favorite indie mystery writers, Teresa Trent. She writes a cozy mystery series set in the fictional town of Pecan Bayou, Texas. I like to read a cozy now and again when I want a lighter read, and her characters have more depth than one normally finds in cozies. Now I have to decide what to read next… Maybe I’ll re-read Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.

When Kassandra isn’t reading or writing, she’s most likely hanging out on Facebook, or she’s online buying toys and clothes for her grandsons that they really don’t need. For more about her books, check out her website at http://kassandralamb.com.

Her newest Kate Huntington mystery was just released yesterday. Check it out!Fatal48 Ebook FINAL

FATAL FORTY-EIGHT, A Kate Huntington Mystery

Celebration turns to nightmare when psychotherapist Kate Huntington’s guest of honor disappears en route to her own retirement party. Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, has been kidnapped by a serial killer who holds his victims exactly forty-eight hours before killing them.

With time ticking away, the police allow Kate and her P.I. husband to help with the investigation. The FBI agents involved in the case have mixed reactions to the “civilian consultants.” The senior agent welcomes Kate’s assistance as he fine-tunes his psychological profile. His voluptuous, young partner is more by the book. While she locks horns out in the field with Kate’s husband, misunderstandings abound back at headquarters.

But they can ill afford these distractions. Sally’s time is about to expire.

Apple ~ Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Kobo

Jane the Virgin & Writing with Confidence

photo (9)As I mentioned when I blogged about Orphan Black, I believe great Tv shows can teach us about great writing–whether on-screen or off. I have a huge crush on Jane the Virgin right now, and a lot of it is because it’s a show that shows great confidence in its writing.

I discovered Jane the Virgin, the new CW show about a virgin who finds herself pregnant after an OBGYN mishap, this weekend. Already I love it so much that I’ve made it my reward for revising chapters in the muddy middle of my novel. (For those of you knee-deep in revising, you know this is no small thing.)

I love the show for its supremely likable lead (Gina Rodriguez as Jane), its quirky humor, its warm depiction of family, and its two swoon-worthy male leads. But, above all, I love the show because of its confidence–something I’d be wise to emulate in my own writing.

Jane the Virgin, based on a telenovela, isn’t your typical primetime show. It’s narrated by a smooth male voice, for instance, telling us Jane’s story. When new characters are introduced, their often hilarious titles pop up on the screen. Though telenovelas are different than soap operas, it also features what comes to mind when we think of soaps: an ensemble cast, dramatic secrets, complicated family and romantic relationships, stunning revelations–even murder.

In the wrong hands, these soap elements, narration, and clever captions could come off as strange or cheesy. But the writers behind Jane the Virgin know what they’re doing. They’re writing a telenovela, and they’ve kick it up to eleven. They celebrate its soap elements, they parody them. They fully commit to its shocking reveals, its romance, its humor. The writers aren’t just penning a script; they are writing it in neon pink.

This is confidence, and it’s something writers, myself included, sometimes struggle with. It’s hard to be bold in writing anything, because often being bold means you’ll alienate readers as much as you’ll gain them. But to not be bold in your writing means to write a thriller without fear, a literary fiction with mousy sentences, a romance without swoon.

So when I’m writing this week, I’m thinking of Jane the Virgin and trying to bring that boldness to my own words. Because if something deserves to be written, it deserves to be written in neon pink.

1 2 3 7