Here is my favorite blog post of the year, a list of my favorite books read in 2015. Although the publishing dates range from 2001 to 2014, they all found their way to the top of my reading list last year and I’m very glad they did!
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This novel is inspiring, imaginative, unique, and fulfilling. It’s a story I want so badly to be true that sometimes I ignore the label of fiction it possesses.
Journey. Expedition. Adventure. None of these words quite capture the magic felt while cruising the Pacific’s current with Pi Patel, a zoo-keeper’s son who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean with a murderous bengal tiger.
Without cramming Life of Pi‘s theme into a single word or phrase, it is about… Humanity. Peace. Storytelling. Faith. And how we interprets these things. What we choose to believe and how we push away the improbable as impossible.
I recommend it to anyone who wants to be inspired by imagination.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
One of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I have ever read. Burroughs’ brilliant storytelling mixes pure truth with dirty humor in this memoir about his struggle with alcoholism.
I recommend it to lovers of creative nonfiction, people who want to understand what creative nonfiction is all about; and anyone interested in getting a first-person perspective of an alcoholic.
A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan
There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. That gray area is a main reason I loved this story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and leaves you slightly dazed and confused.
I recommend it to readers and writers who want to think about time and those who enjoy blurred boundaries.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
This collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War is must-read! Klay’s writing is concise, dense, and relevant to our time. While some stories may draw you to tears, others may outrage you into action.
I recommend it to every American.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. Like Redeployment it is a story of our times, portraying an insiders view of Iraq in the years before America declared war. But don’t mistake this novel for a war story, it is a story of human nature through and through. The story is one I will not easily forget.
I recommend it to thoughtful readers who are curious about human nature and why we do the things we do.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Set in the Minnesota summer of 1961, Ordinary Grace is an enriching story about real life and untimely death. It is filled with memorable, flawed characters; written in a clear, comforting voice; and set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart.
I recommend it to readers looking for an honest, realistic, heart-felt story. Also to anyone looking for an exceptional audio book!
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City is a story about the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the notorious mass murderer, Dr. H. H. Holmes. While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller, making the story very entertaining. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre.
I recommend it to fiction lovers who crave a little history.
Elegies of the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen
Through detailed looks at side characters, we get a gradual picture of the main character’s life. Elegies is a story of unique structure that will make you take a close look at the people in your life and the impact left lingering long after they disappear.
I recommend it to readers and writers who crave something other than the lovable main character in the typical obstacle-based plot.
Below are a few book-to-movie adaptations I’ve recently read and/or watched.
Into The Wild – I have not read the book but the movie blew me away. The main character chose a way of life that many of us only dream about.
Life of Pi – LOVED the book! Disappointed by the movie.
Hunger Games Trilogy – I love both the books and the movies. I think the film adaptions have done a great job at capturing the world of Panem and the cast is exceptional! I recently reread the Hunger Games series in preparation for the release of the final movie adaptation. **SPOILER** The only part I didn’t like about the movie adaptation was the prologue at the very end. The characters seemed much too happy. The ending of the book holds much more wonder and darkness.
The Kite Runner – I fell in love with The Kite Runner novel this year. The characters spoke to me; their actions infuriated and inspired me. Its a novel that will stay with me for a long time. I have been avoiding the movie adaptation because I hold the novel so high, there is no way the movie will meet my expectations. (Or am I being too pessimistic?) If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, please comment with what you thought.
The Great Gatsby – As one of My Favorite Books of All Time I made sure to see the 2013 movie adaptation in theaters. I thought it was a great adaptation with an excellent cast and superb staging/scenery.
Pines – I watched the ABC TV series, Wayward Pines, this summer and LOVED it! It was one of my favorite TV shows of the year and I’m glad to hear they are coming out with a second season, even though they created the first assuming it would be the one and only. After watching the show, I read the Blake Crouch novel it was based on and was sourly disappointed. The novel was poorly written and contained large sections that I found irrelevant to the story. See my full review here.
Writing Prompt based on The Bath, a short story by Raymond Carver
Write a short story about a very emotional scene without describing the emotions or thoughts of the characters.
Be a minimalist writer. What does that mean?
- Keep descriptions to a bare minimum.
- Think action over description.
- Keep time moving.
- Short, to-the-point dialogue.
- Use generic terms like “mom”, “dad”, “birthday boy”, and “baker”.
- Only include names if necessary.
- Cut all unnecessary characters, setting details, background info.
The most insight we get into the character in The Bath is this: “She saw a car stop and a woman in a long coat get into it. She made believe she was that woman. She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.” Even though this communicates her thoughts, it still is describing an action–make believing–not a thought.
Tobias Wolff captures his childhood in a pool of childhood adventures written in quick, smooth prose.
Wolff wastes no time with his writing. He knows exactly where he’s going and jumps directly into the scene. Wolff’s opening sentences widen your eyes and narrow your vision. He jumps time swiftly, skipping weeks, months, even years in single sentences without jarring the reader.
First sentences of chapters:
- The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
- Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
- My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
- When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.
- I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.
A Memoir Point of View
The distant, introspective nature of memoirs always strikes me as curious. Wolff writes in the first person, but I felt disconnected to the story, as if Wolff is writing the memoir in order to discard the old memories instead of capture their timelessness. His rebellious youth, disjointed family life, and lack of respect seem like a distant life, even for the reader.
This Boy’s Life leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that seems certain to lead to destruction. If I didn’t know the main character went on to live a long life filled with writing, I would have guessed the book to end with his death or imprisonment. He was surrounded by dangerous people and cared very little for his well being. At times, I felt shivers go up my spine.
A Memorable Quote
“Like anyone else, she must have wanted different things at the same time. The human heart is a dark forest.”
Although Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story authors, I didn’t enjoy his memoir as much. He’s certainly a fantastic writer and his childhood was filled with smirking adventures, but the story did not capture me.
The girl on the train is Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic who rides the train into London every morning. Rachel peers out the train window at a particular house where a young couple live. She images the perfect life this young couple must live. Until one day, when the woman that lived at the house disappears and Rachel may have saw something that could help the police find her.
You could argue that every major character in this novel is majorly flawed. The main character is an unemployed, alcoholic stalker. And she is just the tip of the iceberg. The cast is polluted with angry, obsessive, violent, lying, cheating characters. Not to mention there is a murderer in the mix.
**SLIGHT SPOILERS** My favorite part of this book was how much of a stalker the main character/narrator was without realizing it. She was oblivious to the strangeness of her obsession with this couple she watched on her daily train ride. Then we learn about her interaction with her ex-husband, then she reaches out to the husband of the missing lady, and to push it really over the top *SPOILER* she goes to the therapist who is also a suspect in the police investigation.
Multiple 1st person POVs
The point of view is always 1st person but different chapters jump into different characters’ heads. I enjoy this style of writing and thought Hawkins distinguished the characters’ voices well. I do wish she would have introduced all the characters’ POV closer to the beginning. I was jarred out of the story when Anna became a third 1st-person POV so late in the novel.
Its nothing fancy but, as a writer, I saw this quote is a great example of how to add flair to a boring action. There are so many times when our characters have to knock on doors, walk across the street, cook dinner, and endless other actions that are needed to move the plot forward but are thoroughly boring.
Hawkins could have written this like “I knocked and Scott opened the door” or “Scott let me in after I knocked” or she could have skipped the action all together but instead she adds mood to the sentence.
From this sentence, we can deter that Scott was waiting for Rachel to arrive, that he was anxious for her to get there. Hawkins successfully sets the mood of the scene before our narrator even walks in the door.
This was a solid story, solid writing, good suspense but it didn’t capture my attention like I thought it should have/could have. The book has received a lot of hype in the media lately so my expectations for the book were very high.
Writing Prompt based on Black Box by Jennifer Egan:
Write a story in Tweets.
Write a story in 140-character-or-less segments.
It will be jerky.
It will be minimalist.
It will challenge your way with words.
And, hopefully, it will be fun!
Jennifer Egan’s short story, Black Box, was originally published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Therefore, each segment was required to be 140 characters or less. It is best understood, and appreciated, by reading the story itself, so please do so.
Creative nonfiction, even more than fiction, is forced to speak the truth about human nature. There are no futuristic apocalypses, zombie attacks, superpowers, or otherworldly beings to distract us. Rarely is there constant-page-turning suspense or a mansion with secret rooms behind the bookshelf.
This is why I admire authors of nonfiction that capture my complete interest with their unnatural insight of the real world and twist it into beautiful prose.
This is why I admire Augusten Burroughs.
“I have four hours to kill before dinner. In the past, this would have been just barely enough time to obtain a comfortable buzz and establish my relationship with the bartender. Now it seems like more than enough time to perhaps write a screenplay. Alcohol time is very different from sober time. Alcohol time is slippery whereas sober time is like cat hair. You just can’t get rid of it.”
Dry is a memoir of Augusten Burroughs’ struggle with alcoholism. It follows Burroughs though his early 20’s when he works in advertising during the day and drinks all night, every night. When his coworkers pressure him into rehab, he begins to see what he has been blind to for years.
Its a beautiful, heart-felt struggle filled with lots of laughs! Burroughs has the uncanny knack to make the reader laugh out loud even when the material is dark and heartbreaking. His over-the-top dramatic comparisons and downright hilarious.
“The problem is, I’m a slob to begin with. So when you combine alcohol with a slob, you just end up with something that would appall any self-respecting heroin-addicted vagrant.”
“Augustin Burroughs is a wickedly good writer…” -Chicago Sun-Times
His balance of description, action, insight, and humor kept me interested until the very end.
My test for a great writer? They leave me wanting more. The following quote ends a chapter, and left me wanting to go on and on and on.
“Tonight the speaker is talking about how people in recovery are always looking for these big, dramatic miracles. How we want the glass of water to magically rise up off the table. How we overlook the miracle that there is a glass at all in the first place. And given the universe, isn’t the real miracle that the glass doesn’t just float up and away?”
After reading Dry, every existing Burroughs book has been added to my reading list. There are endless lessons I could learn from his writing and it doesn’t hurt to be entertained along the way!
It doesn’t happen often, but I enjoyed the TV show Wayward Pines more than I enjoyed the book it was based on. I fell in love with the show instantly! The creepy mystery surrounding this seemingly perfect little town didn’t make any sense and I needed to know why.
This M. Night Shyamalan-directed show on FOX captured the creepiness of the town to perfection. During the day Wayward Pines, Idaho is a peaceful law-abiding town where everyone knows there place. But why is no one allowed to talk about their past? Why can’t Ethan connect with anyone outside this town? And why is there a rotting corpse in a house just outside of town that doesn’t seem to worry the sherriff?
One thing the TV show left out is Ethan’s flashbacks to a time he was tortured during the war. I think this was an excellent choice by the TV writers. The flashbacks don’t have any effect on the present story. And the scene itself is not as enticing as the main plot. Every time the flashbacks came up, I just wanted to get past them and back to the main story.
The book was at a disadvantage because I already knew what mysteries lie in the page ahead but the main reason I didn’t enjoy the book was because the writing was weak and wordy. Although there was some good dialogue in the book, it also seemed forced at times.
The paragraphs were the shortest I’ve ever seen throughout an entire book. Paragraphs were often only one or two sentences long, and sentence fragments were common throughout. Most writers know how to use this style to create a quick-reading, high-suspense feel but because Crouch wrote the entire novel this way, it didn’t have that effect.
I did love the first chapter. Because our main character wakes up in Wayward Pines not knowing where he is or what has happened to him, it places the focus on the town and small details about our character. It was an effective way to focus the reader on the strange aspects of the town.
Although I don’t plan to ready the other books in the trilogy, I loved the TV show and will be thrilled if they come out with a second season.
What TV shows/movies do you like better than the books they were based on? Or does that sentence seem like total blasphemy to you? 🙂
Here are two EXCEPTIONAL novel intros that immediately hooked me. Please let me know what you think in the comments. What are your favorite first chapters?
Log Entry: Sol 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days in to what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned in to a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”
And it’ll be right, probably. Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.
This intro does so many great things:
Bold use of “fuck” in the first sentence. A sure way to gain the attention of your reader.
It quickly explains the situation. Our main character is alone on Mars after some kind of accident.
It sets the mood. Dangerous. Life-threatening. Unhopeful.
It develops character. An astronaut. A survivor.
It sets the tone of casual, journal entry format. Fragment sentences and the use of “cause” instead of “because.”
Its develops setting. On Mars, obviously. And the Wikipedia reference sets us in recent time.
If this genre in any way interests you, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to pick up this book!
I woke up shaking.
I panicked at first, thinking I was having a stroke or something. Then I opened my eyes, relieved, as I remembered it wasn’t me that was shaking, it was my apartment.
Outside the wall of dusty, industrial-style windows beside my bed came what sounded like a regiment of giants rhythmically striking concrete with their rifle butts in a parade drill. But it wasn’t the jolly green marines. I knew it was the elevated number 1 Broadway local, rattling to shake the dead back to life next to my new fifth floor Harlem loft apartment. Hadn’t gotten use to that train yet.
I winced, covered my head with my pillow. Useless. Only in New York did one have to actually pay for the privilege of sleeping beside an overpass.
But I was so broke I couldn’t even afford to complain. I sat up. I couldn’t even really afford to sleep. I couldn’t even afford to think about money. I’d spent it all and then some; my credit was in the sewer. By that point, I was in tunnel-vision mode, focusing my entire life on one desperate need: to figure things out before it was too late.
(False) shock to hook the reader. The world is shaking!
Character- building. A broke New Yorker with something to prove.
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up? Whatever it is, it will tell us a lot about your current life situation. The same is true for fictional characters, and Patterson gives us that before we even know our character’s name.
Sets the tone. An honest first-person narrator open to telling us his struggles.
Develops setting. A dingy New York apartment next to the train tracks.