Writers Who Read: Rita Arens

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Rita Arens.RitaArensBlueCropTwitter

Who are you?
My name is Rita Arens, and I live in Kansas City, Missouri. I’m the author of the contemporary young adult novel THE OBVIOUS GAME and I edited a parenting anthology, SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK and co-edited a food writing anthology, ROOTS: Where Food Come From and Where It Takes Us. I’m the deputy editor at BlogHer.com and I write the blog Surrender, Dorothy. I’m married and have one daughter.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
CATCH-22, though I realize it’s an acquired taste.

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 have an odd affection for unreliable narrators, though I don’t write them myself.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I’ll read anywhere, any time, but I really like reading outside in a hammock in the early evening.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?TheObviousGame.v8.1-Finalsm

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I read more when I’m writing less and vice versa, though I do tend to read about a book a week either way. Reading constantly makes my writing better.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I read ebooks faster, but I still do love holding a physical book.

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’m very active on Goodreads and had a reading challenge for myself for 70 books in 2014, mostly just to see if I hit that naturally. I wasn’t pushing to achieve it. I’m in one book club at the moment with like-minded friends. I get tons of industry newsletters and have a lot of authors whom I follow, so I’m constantly adding to my TBR list and my library hold list. I do all that because I like to keep up with my favorite authors and because I like to try out different types of stories and TBR lists help me achieve that variety.

What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading LITTLE BROTHER for my book club, SCARLET with my 10-year-old daughter, and I just started EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU from my TBR list. And I have a hankering to reread PET SEMETARY and WOOL just because they’ve both crossed my thoughts lately.


You can find out more about Rita on her website, Twitter (@ritaarens), or Goodreads. You can also check out her novel The Obvious Game, and the anthologies Sleep is for the Weak and Roots.

Best Winter Romances on Netflix Instant

This is a joint post with the lovely Jenny Vinyl.


Winter: nights are long, dark, and cold.  When all you want is to wrap up in your Snuggie (™) and hibernate, these winter-esque romances will warm your heart even when the rest of you is shivering.  But be warned: like winter, many of these are a little more dark. To help with the shivering darkness, we’ve suggested some hot steaming drinks to enjoy while you swoon.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters
In this movie, people turn to the camera in the middle of the scene and start commenting on what’s happening. It’s French, so I expected some artsy-fartsy stuff like that. Talking heads also narrate, though they are out of the action and a little less jarring.  Two of the romantic leads, Arman (Vincent Macaigne) and Amelie (Maud Wyler), literally bump into each other in their meet-cute.  But while this is a romantic movie, the stories of Arman and Amelie and their friends deal with some heavy issues having to do with violence and medical emergencies, including a mugging and attempted kidnapping, knifing, stroke, and depression.  Small moments, with lots of diversions and digressions, make up this film, which isn’t action-packed.  Rather, the characters and their lives are illuminated with little vignettes that are sweet and sad.  As the title would suggest, the film contains plenty of winter scenes and also features a chalet with snowy woods and mountains.  There are lots of winter coats, heavy sweaters, and girly, chunky scarves on both men and women.  If 2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a little too dreamy and philosophical for your taste, just focus on Arman’s hair, which combines a bald spot and comb-over with long-ish locks in the most epic way possible.

Drink: Pair this with mulled wine — warm, yet sophisticated, just like this foreign-language film, and will get you just tipsy enough that you can still read the subtitles.

Chalet Girl
Kim (Felicity Jones) is a champion skateboarder who lost her mother in a car crash and is now, with her father, in reduced circumstances, if not financial straits.  While she’s taking care of her apparently inept and unemployed father, she lands a short-term job at a posh ski chalet in the Alps being a “chalet girl” for a rich family with a cute-but-engaged son, Johnny (Ed Westwick).  During her few months in the Alps, she meets some cool people, including real-life snowboarding champion Tara Dakides, and grows close to Johnny through her chalet girl duties, and a series of mishaps.  She also has time to teach herself snowboarding, which she has a natural knack for, with some local friendly ski bums.  Unfortunately, any time she tries to do a big jump, she flashes back to the accident and chokes.  Though something of a rags-to-riches tale, this fun little film presents class issues in a more realistic way than I’ve seen portrayed in other rom-coms just aiming to take advantage of a mismatched class couple.  Plus, there’s no prince charming rescue here: Kim determines her own life, including entering a snowboarding contest with a hefty grand prize.  Be sure to watch through the credits for some fun outtakes.

Drink:  Curl up with a spiked hot chocolate for lots of scenes of young debauchery and ski bunny outfits amidst a background of snow-covered mountains.

The Giant Mechanical Man
The Giant Mechanical Man is one of the smartest romances I’ve seen in a while, and definitely has the most likeable leads I’ve encountered in some time. Tim (Chris Messina of The Mindy Project) and Janice (Jenna Fisher from The Office) play two lost and lonely thirtysomethings, unable to fit in with the people around them–who all seem concerned with cars and shallow conversation and upward mobility. Janice is a laid off temp worker who gets a job at the zoo, where she meets Tim, who’s just started working in sanitation. She doesn’t know it, but he’s also the giant mechanical man she’s seen around town–a performance artist in silver makeup and stilts who “makes people feel less lonely.” I’ve had a strange fear of stilts for years, but I still love that quirky addition to the story and Messina’s character, and the opportunity it presents to show the bleak and beautiful winter cityscape. The supporting actors are also great, playing characters that are sometimes unlikeable but nevertheless three-dimensional. And Tim and Janice are emotionally relatable, their difficulties and dialogue feeling achingly real. I rooted for them hard…and was breathless to see the moment that Janice realizes who Tim really is.

Drink: Serve with well-steeped black tea with just a touch of honey to counteract the bitterness. Sip with a side of pie.

Ice Castles
Ice Castles, a remake of a 1970s tearjerker of the same name, follows figure skater Lexi (played by real-life top women’s skater Taylor Firth) as she rises to fame in the skating world. Unfortunately, coached by the tough, controlling Marcus (Henry Czerny), Lexi’s increasing success means her distance and eventual breakup from her steady hockey player boyfriend, Nick (Rob Mayes). The acting of the two leads, Firth and Mayes, feels sweet and genuine here–which is pretty incredible given that Firth has no other acting credits (or so says IMDB), and the other movie I’ve seen Mayes in, John Dies at the End, is about as different from this film as whole milk is to a shot of tequila. In a strange plot twist near the last third of the movie, Lexi has an accident rendering her blind which felt like her “punishment” for her troubles with Nick–despite those troubles stemming from her honestly struggling to handle her fame versus becoming conceited and dismissive. The accident does bring Lexi and Nick back together, though, as he helps her learn to skate without sight. The end hits a nice note of triumph and romance that brings the feels even with the earlier script wobbliness.

Drink: Serve with a wholesome cup of hot apple cidar mixed with your salty tears.

North & South
This BBC miniseries, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th-century novel, appears dark and dreary.  Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and her family are forced to move from the idyllic south to the industrial north, where life is dependant on the manufacturing industry.  Everything is overcast and dirty, and Margaret is stoic, but unhappy.  The family befriends Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), an owner of one of the cotton mills, though Margaret dislikes him for being gruff and mean, as well as too focused on money and status.  As Margaret slowly begins to understand her new town and the people in it, she grows to see beauty in unexpected places and to correct some of her own misunderstandings and assumptions.  Fans of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy will enjoy the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton, though they are far from being Pride and Prejudice knockoffs.  The series is infused with observations on class, gender, and consumerism, and the two leads bear that out.  Mr. Thornton’s smoldering, brooding appeal is hard-earned by work and socioeconomic sufferings; Margaret is social justice-minded and often outspoken in her attempts to understand and befriend the mill workers.  Their friendship, even when adversarial, is marked by the kinds of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and quiet longings that make hearts swoon.

Drink:  Pair North and South with bleak black coffee; stir in some sugar after Margaret meets Thornton.

While You Were Sleeping
This one will likely be a rewatch, but like an old warm afghan, While You Were Sleeping is worth snuggling up and watching again. In the 1995 film, Lucy (Sandra Bullock) gets a chance to save the life of the man she’s in love with from afar, Peter (Peter Gallagher), when he falls on the train tracks. He winds up in a coma, and through a series of misunderstandings that could only happen in a rom-com, his family comes to believe Lucy is Peter’s fiancé. And they’re overjoyed, welcoming the lonely Lucy into their world. But then enters Peter’s brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), who’s suspicious of Lucy even as he finds himself increasingly draw to her. Set around Christmas and the icy January after, it’s got enough of a big, loud family and belly laughs to keep you warm–not to mention the unexpected romance between Lucy and Jack, which Bill Pullman manages to inject with a surprising sexiness. Rewatch to at least remind yourself that sometimes it can be good to slip on the ice.

Drink: Serve with hot cocoa laced with peppermint schappes–warm and comforting, with a kick of something unexpected.

Writers Who Read: Kristi Belcamino

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Kristi Belcamino.profile pic2013

Who are you?
Kristi Belcamino is a writer, photographer, and Italian mama who also bakes a tasty biscotti.

In her former life, as an award-winning crime reporter at newspapers in California, she flew over Big Sur in an FA-18 jet with the Blue Angels, raced a Dodge Viper at Laguna Seca, watched autopsies, and conversed with serial killers.

During her decade covering crime, Belcamino wrote and reported about many high-profile cases including the Laci Peterson murder and Chandra Levy’s disappearance. And because of her police sources, she was one of the first reporters in the country to learn that the passengers on Flight 93 had fought back on 9/11. She has appeared on Inside Edition and local cable television shows. Her work has appeared in such prominent publications as the Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, and Chicago Tribune.

Her first novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, was inspired by Belcamino’s dealings on her crime beat with a serial killer who police and FBI agents linked to the kidnapping and murders of little girls.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Secret of the Seven Crows by Wylie Folk St. John
This is Paris by M. Lasek
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

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 like books that show light shining in a dark world.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
In bed at night.

hiresBADcover (1)Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Lisa Unger’s writing, Hemingway, Ian Fleming

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I write from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical book

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?
No, but I always have a stack of books on my nightstand waiting to be read. A book doesn’t go on any of my bookshelves until it is read.

What are you reading now?
Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

You can find out more about Kristi on her website, Twitter (@kristibelcamino), or Facebook, and you can check out BLESSED ARE THE DEAD at these booksellers:

Barnes & Nobles

2015 Book Non-resolutions

Along with my writing and personal resolutions for the year, I’ve thought about what I want to read in 2015. Although, because often I feel guilt or pressure to read certain books, I’m trying to not commit to any book challenges to keep the joy in my reading. Trying.

Still trying.

But there are definitely specific genres, authors, and books I’d like to read this year, and I’m including them below. I’m calling them book non-resolutions, to allow myself slack if I don’t read any of these and instead just read some erotic noir Ghostbusters fanfic or whatever.

Here’s where I’d like my reading to go in 2015:

More Classic Female Authors, More Contemporary Men
Last year 71% of the books I read were penned by women. Though I love supporting women authors, I’d prefer to read closer to a 50/50 author split between genders (or at least 40/60 one way or another). I’ve noticed most of the male authors I read are classic or literary fic guys, and most of the women are contemporary. I’d like to shake that up a bit and read more contemporary male authors, and then more classic female writers. (Edith Wharton, I’m looking at you.)

More Horror and Dark Fantasy
I’ve loved reading supernatural horror from my early teen years when I discovered Stephen King and then mainlined Dean Koontz. I’d love to read more of the scary stuff this year, like King’s Joylandmore Graham JoyceKraken, and Horrorstör, because if a ghost story set in an Ikea-like building isn’t the best premise ever, I don’t know what is. I’m set to read House of Leaves and Hell House for book club, too. I’m already on my way here, as right now I’m reading Muriel Gray’s Furnace.

Big Romance Authors I’ve Missed–Especially Historical Romance
I read a lot of romance last year, but it was my first year really binging on it, and I focused mostly on contemporary since this is what I write. I’m embarrassed as a romance author to admit some of the historical romance I haven’t read yet, like Georgette Heyer or Sarah MacLean, who I’ve heard time and time again write fantastic books. I’m at the beginning of a Courtney Milan, and she’s another historical author I’d like to read more. I also need to read contemporary from Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nora Roberts, and Julie James. I also want to read A Bollywood Affair and a Susan Kearsley novel, because I keep hearing amazing things about both.

Other Books That Bring the Swoon
In 2015 I also want to read more literary and commercial fiction not classified as romance that’s reportedly still romantic, like Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (much recommended by Jenny Vinyl), Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (on the nightstand) and her upcoming Carry On, and Crazy Rich Asians.

Parenting Books
I’m quite bad at reading about kids or parenting in my downtime–I’d almost always prefer to read about dragons over babies–but as a special needs parent I recognize I should read a bit more than I do, especially about the experience of people with autism. I’d like to read the ebook of Look Me in the Eye that I bought on sale too many months ago, plus check out Why I Jump and delve into Far From the Tree.

Writing Books
I really enjoy writing craft books, and would like to read a few awesome ones in 2015. I’m tentatively thinking of Syd Field’s Screenplay, K.M. Weiland’s annotated Jane Eyre, and maybe Making a Literary Life, which more than one of the Writers Who Read have enjoyed. Any suggestions from writers out there? I’ve noticed there are a lot of strong opinions on writing books in particular.

What kind of books do you want to read this year?

Writers Who Read: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with author Andi Cumbo-Floyd.Andi

Who are you?
I’m a writer, editor, writing teacher, and farmer who loves to sew, take slow walks, and enjoy my dear friends and family.  My husband and I run a small farm in rural Virginia, where we raise goats, chickens, cats, and dogs for the fun of them.  When I’m not playing with Great Pyrenees, I write books about the history and legacy of slavery, edit work for clients in a variety of genres, and coach writers at various stages of their writing journeys.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis – That book reminded me – still does – that magic is real.

Double Spell by Janet Lunn – I don’t know why this book stuck with me, but it was only a couple of years ago that someone here online helped me find the title.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – Oh, Mrs. Whatsit and Charles Wallace – sometimes I think they are two parts of my personality.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  Love the honesty of the book. Love that it’s about a woman in early middle age.

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 am a total sucker for any book that involves myths and history – The Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a good example.  I also love any story that involves fairy tales or groups of people – particularly women – living in community, as in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I have two – the bathtub in midmorning after I’ve finished the first few hours of work.  Then, at night, in bed before I fall asleep.

book coverFinalWhich books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I’d say Lamott’s Traveling Mercies because I so appreciate her honesty, her vulnerability, and her humor.  But then my style is more lyrical, I think, so books like On Looking by Lia Purpura and Seasons of the Body by Brenda Miller are big influences.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I think I must be reading in order to write well, so I try to read 100 pages a day of anything – books, blog posts, magazines – and write 1,000 words.  That seems to be a ratio I can fit in most days, and it gives me a goal for each day so that I choose a book instead of my phone.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I read all three, but I definitely prefer print books.  I love to see them, feel them, smell them.  But I almost always have an audio book in the car, too.

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?
In the past, I have done all of those things, but now, I mostly just read what comes to hand next.  I do have a reading goal for each year – 2014 was 50 books, and I was just short – and I track that on Goodreads.  Sometimes I put books I want to read there, too, but mostly, yeah, it’s what I hear about and then sticks that I move to when I need a new book.

What are you reading now?
I’m in the final third of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and I’m loving it. An introvert myself, the book affirms something central about who I am in the world.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and writing coach. She blogs most days at andilit.com, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too.

New Year, New Word

photo (9)My friend Eva KL Miller reminded me on New Year’s Day that, along with resolutions, she also chooses a mantra word for the year.

I had already mapped out my resolutions for 2015, specifying what I wanted to do, how much, and how often, but I hadn’t chosen a word. So, inspired by Eva, I took a look at my resolutions and tried to see what united them.

One theme emerged: connection. This surprised me, given I’m pretty introverted, but so many of my goals for the year are focused on connecting with others. Calling family and friends more. Making an effort to sit down with my kids, both who have special needs, and teaching them together. Blogging here, but also commenting on others’ blogs and tweeting authors when I’m loving a book they’ve written. Even my health goals to eat better and move consciously feel like trying to connect better to my body versus the disconnection and mindless eating that I’ve often experienced in the past.

My writing goals for the year are also focused on connection. I’m aiming to write at least 100,000 fiction words I either submit or publish. I’m one of those writers who has a lot of story ideas, which I often get very excited about right when I’m in the middle of another project. I don’t want to end 2015 with a bunch of half-done stories, so I’m attempting to focus on finishing and connecting my words to readers.

What are your resolutions for 2015? And is there a theme that unites them?

Ten Best Search Terms in 2014

It’s the end of the year, so that means it’s either time to a.) reflect on my life and habits and goals, or b.) laugh about some of the weirder search terms that people used to find this site in the past year. I’m going the latter route.

1. “manscaping book”: this struck me because not just one but two people searched for it. Is there a manscaping guide out there? Should I buy it for my male relatives?

2. “email rich gg”: if such a creature exists, I am not her, so you should direct your Gmail elsewhere.

3. “the magicians land PDF free download” and “read the magicians land for free”: this is not that kind of site. My apologies to all ye mateys.

4. “bloody girl sex”: I can’t even.

5. “melty writing”: sometimes, yes. I’m working on it.

6. “g.g. sex 18 yes”: yikes. And no.

7. “who is belles mom in Christmas Bounty”: I hope you found out because I’m too lazy to look.

8. “gry angrew”: how my name is spelled in the old country.

9. “Jane virgin bouncing breasts”: forget the dudes on the show, this person is squarely on Team Jane.

10. “lady bites b”: this is truly a problem.

Happy New Year!

Writers Who Read: Gill Hoffs

The Writers Who Read series continues this week with the lovely Gill Hoffs.Gill Hoffs

Who are you?
The one, the only, Giiiiiiiiiillllllll Ho-o-o-offfffffs!  You’ll have to imagine the drumroll, cymbal clash, and ringmaster’s flourish with a whip.  I was raised along the west coast of Scotland and now live in Warrington in the north-west of England with my scientist husband, seven-year-old son, fat cat Coraline and never quite enough chocolate.  I’m a vegetarian atheist with a psychology degree, sweet tooth and immense loathing for veg, twelve tattoos including my old dog’s name and a hammerhead shark, dyed red hair, and wonky specs (my son keeps playing with them).  I used to work with children with emotional/behavioural difficulties, but now I write and do talks and workshops and generally have a blast with words instead.  My short stories, guestblogs and articles are online (see gillhoffs.wordpress.com for links if you want a nosy) and there’s some fiction and nonfiction in print, too, including a story a month in the twelve Pure Slush anthologies that make up “2014: A Year in Stories”.  I’ve two books out, “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) which is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, and more recently “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014) which is about a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland that I’m somewhat obsessed with.  If you’re a descendant of someone involved with the tragedy or know anything about it then please do get in touch.  Apart from that if you could keep your fingers crossed for me while my novel, a maritime thriller, is out on submission with agents I’d greatly appreciate it!

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
“Slugs” by Shaun Hutson, “Riders” by Jilly Cooper, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams.  I was quite a precocious reader and sometimes deliberately read a book with a cover (or author) likely to shock the children and adults at school.  When you’re unhappy somewhere and getting unpleasant reactions anyway you might as well go for broke and at least have some control over it.  For me, quite apart from my love of racy fast-paced and sometimes melancholy reads, the tut-tutting of book-snobs gave an added frisson of excitement to my reading material.

Wild - HQ - for posterWhat is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
“Dancing on Ice: A 1930s Arctic Adventure” by Jeremy Scott to anyone interested in history, nonfiction, atypical love stories and adventure.  “Blacklands” by Belinda Bauer (along with the rest of her canon) to folk who like crime/thriller novels.  “How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting To Kill You” by The Oatmeal to people who want something to make them laugh.  I sent Jeremy Scott a fan letter after reading his book – I was that impressed with it – and he very kindly replied.  He is every bit as witty and charming as he appears in his autobiography “Fast & Louche: Confessions of a Flagrant Sinner”, which I would also heartily recommend.

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 can’t resist gruesome detail, strong plot, and a countryside or maritime setting.  I think it was Joss Whedon who said something about how you have to earn the reader/viewer’s relief at a character’s survival in a predictably fatal situation by killing off someone else beforehand, to show the reader/viewer that yes, the writer is willing to go *that* far and no-one is ‘safe’.  Anything with drowned villages, secret passages, caves, haunted antiques, or bodies lost in ponds is a must-read too.  Recommendations are very welcome!

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Anytime, anywhere, though if I read while moving I tend to feel queasy (boo, hiss).  I always read at least a couple of pages (usually a multiple of 9) in bed before I go to sleep – it tends to clear my head of the type of thoughts that seep into my dreams and prey on my generally positive attitude, and the 9 thing is because I like to finish on a page number that adds up to 12 (or, of course, 3).  It’s a daft superstition but helpful if my cat, Coraline, knocks my book off the nightstand and I lose my place.  Although I have many beautiful bookmarks that I’ve been given over the years, I have a terrible habit of leaving a book open, face-down, to keep my place – I quite like the white creases that develop along a much-read book’s spine.  They’re like laughter lines on a face, visible reminders of past enjoyment.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Too many to recount!  “Mirror” by Graham Masterton, “The Small Assassin” collection by Ray Bradbury, “Sleeping Murder” by Agatha Christie, “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly, “Dancing on Ice: A 1930s Arctic Adventure” and “Fast and Louche” by Jeremy Scott, “The Stake” by Richard Laymon, “The Wasp Factory” and “Complicity” by Iain Banks, “Toady” by Mark Morris, the Inspector Lynley mysteries by Elizabeth George, “Stardust” by Neil Gaiman, “The Sad Book” by Michael Rosen, everything by Dick Francis, “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton, “The Palace of Curiosities” by Rosie Garland, “Mauve” by Simon Garfield, “Limeys: The Conquest of Scurvy” by David I. Harvie, and absolutely everything by an amazing crime/thriller writer called Belinda Bauer.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
Whichever I crave the most, I indulge in.  I can have spells of only reading things online, emails, social media and the like then get a sudden desire for a certain book, often one I’ve read before (perhaps a couple of hundred times) and start binge-reading whatever takes my fancy.  I do the same with writing unless I have committed to a piece or project or know it’s something I really need to do.  Some writers I know worry when they spend time away from writing, in case they don’t return to that creative flow, and there’s a common idea that you must write at least a little every single day – outside of social media, I mean.  I don’t necessarily agree, not for every writer, anyway.  I have faith in my brain and its tidal nature and trust that sometimes it needs the input of other people’s words in a frenzy, and other times it needs to spit words back out as fast as I can type them or scribble.  Forcing the process leads to what I can only equate to a sulky, sullen, resentful teenager in my head rather than the imaginative weirdo I prefer.

Choose your preferred book form: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Definitely physical, and preferably from roughly the period the book was first published – I find modern editions of the first Agatha Christies and Dick Francis’s jarring and uncomfortable.  I like the smell, the feel, the cover, the reassuring weight of it in my pocket – everything about them, especially ancient inscriptions by whoever first bought/gifted it and author signatures.  I have an antique book of Robert Burns’ poetry (not that I’m a fan, I’m not, despite growing up close to his cottage) with the beautifully inked message “Presented to:- Robert D. Poplis, by his friend Edward Gibbon Esq. for reciting to him and others “Tam O’Shanter,” April 12th 1888″ – that’s one loooooooong poem – and I’m a sucker for hand-cut pages (especially if the last few are still uncut as I can’t help but wonder if the reader grew weary of the book or died before finishing it), old inscriptions, and doodles or items secreted within pages.

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?
Definitely not, everything about that gets my hackles up and makes me remember forced reading at school, which I loathed, especially when we all had to read aloud in turn and I got told off (a LOT) for reading ahead.  I understand the usefulness of this for some readers and certainly wouldn’t discourage it but for me, no, absolutely not.  I have piles – and I do mean plural, spread across various shelves and tables and areas of carpet – of TBR books, some by friends and acquaintances and label-mates, some gifted by loved ones or picked up in charity shops or on a whim, and sometimes I’ll read something because I *should*, for research or review purposes, but generally I go on instinct, and quite often re-read a favourite comfort book before venturing into new terrain.

What are you reading now?
“The Guillotine Choice” by Michael J. Malone, “Longshot” by Dick Francis, “Shipwreck” by Sam Willis (I tend to have a lot of books on the go at the one time), “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly, “Broken Monsters” by Lauren Beukes, and “Mrs Pig’s Bulk Buy” by Mary Rayner  and “Haunt: Dead Scared” by Curtis Jobling at my son’s bedtime.  I also tend to pinch my husband’s copies of New Scientist.  Some of that’s worse than a horror story.

You can find out more about Gill on Twitter (@gillhoffs) or on her website.

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).

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