20th Century Fiction, Fiction

Number 1: A Second-Person Narrative

Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney

I admit, I was skeptical that a novel written in second person would be anything but a gimmick, but I was wrong. It is actually quite engaging. It is also well-suited to a navel-gazey unreliable narrator (the best kind!).

But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.

To all the reviewers on Goodreads who wrote their reviews in second person, I salute you. It is a temperamental style, and you are braver than I.

Biography, Nonfiction, Reviews, True Crime

Number 24: Addresses a Specific Topic

Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy

Tom Wicker

I did not know much about this era of American history when I began this book, but now that I’ve finished, I still don’t.

It is not the fault of the author, it is just that the subject is so banal, like evil. I fall asleep even thinking about it.

That’s why he was so successful.

Wait, was he successful?

It seems to me idle to argue that he was not a demagogue. If he enjoyed his success, he was not entirely sanguine about its cost in ruined lives and damaged careers.

That sounds successful to me.

Joseph R. McCarthy was a demagogue, certainly, but… he was also intelligent, energetic, audacious, personally generous… too avidly craving the affirmation of others, too recklessly seeking it in the battle he exalted, McCarthy too carelessly believed that the approval he won justified the means of its achievement… who fought desperately and with uncommon success to achieve the wrong dream.


Adventure, Dystopia, Fantasy, Pulp Fiction, Reviews, Science Fiction

Number 36: Recommended by a Favorite Author

The Heads of Cerberus: The First Alternative Worlds Novel

Francis Stevens

I admit I was not a fan of the last dystopian novel I read. So I went back in time a little to see what I could find. And lo and behold, the pioneer of the time travel genre herself, Francis Stevens!

I love science fiction for its timelessness. Despite, or because, it deals with the future, its tone has not changed much since it began. Sure, we aren’t still debating the morality of the microscope (like Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World), but the tension between skepticism of new technology and embracing it for the creative potential it unlocks is a consistent theme.

Heads of Cerberus was written in 1919, but it still feels current. I think part of the reason for this is because she does not try to imagine the technology that might exist in Philadelphia in 2118, which might read as silly today. Technology is stalled at 1918 levels, and society is the thing that is drastically restructured.

Stylistically, it works. Pulp entertainment at its finest!

Also, I took some liberties with the category. Rather than being recommended by a favorite author, The Heads of Cerberus was actually recommended by the Monster, She Wrote audiobook I was listening to. It has introduced me to some of my new favorites.

Fantasy, Poetry

Number 45: A Book With Illustrated People on the Cover

Electric Arches

Eve L. Ewing

It must be said, I love poetry. It’s such a visceral experience. It’s much more exciting than reading a novel. Poetry absorbs you, it take you under. It’s the only writing style that gives enough credit to the form of the words themselves, and we should appreciate poetry more. Turning the pages feels like an adventure.

I saved some cornbread for you in the skillet on the stove.

I saved some cornbread for you in the skillet on the stove.

I saved some cornbread for you in the skillet on the stove.

I saved some cornbread for you in the skillet on the stove.

There is not much else to say except I loved it (which I suppose is a weird thing to say about something that covers so many heavy topics, but it made me feel, and that matters with art). Electric Arches is a great book, and I finished it all in one sitting. Also the cover is especially cool.


Go ahead, hire that beta reader!

What have you got to lose?

Writing a novel is an all-encompassing, mind-expanding affair. There is nothing like the flutter in your heart after your ideas first take shape upon the page. Your pour your heart and soul and six months of daydreaming into this world you’ve created. It is, more than anything, a labor of love.

So, first off, congratulations! The fact that it exists at all is amazing, and you made it happen. Everything that happens next is just icing on the writing-life-hustle cake. Take a moment to celebrate.

Photo by Frank Cone on Pexels.com

Writing is also exhausting, and time consuming, and tedious, which is to say nothing of the glacial pace at which publishers move, a pace designed to try the patience of a saint (and let’s be real, you are not a saint). Even when you get that first draft completed, there are so many steps before you can see your name in print. There are synopses to write, formatting to tweak, and proofreading to do. It’s superficial, and very important. You will need a polished manuscript before you can submit it to an agent or begin self-publishing, and it never hurts to hire someone to help you get it there.

You can expect to need, at the minimum, a content editor and a proofreader, possibly a line editor as well. There will be rounds of edits, restructuring, and rewrites. All of this adds up to hundreds of dollars and hours of your life. But there is a much-overlooked professional that can save you big in the long run. Of course, I’m speaking of the professional beta reader!

Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com

Beta readers provide objective feedback on early drafts of your work so that you can fix the problems before you invest too much time into them. From plot holes to narrative inconsistencies, badly developed characters, to an over-reliance on clichés, a talented reader will alert you to your areas of weakness and provide suggestions for improvement. This will save you time at a fraction of the cost of a content editor.

So the question is: why should you pay for this service when you can probably find it for free? First off, you can absolutely find them among your friends and fellow writers, and you absolutely should. You want as many beta readers as possible, but the ideal range seems to be five to seven. Most people do not have seven people who can give them timely, concise feedback on their work, and that is where a paid beta reader comes in. Hiring a professional comes down to three main advantages: diversity, objectivity, and familiarity.

Diversity matters. When it comes to your novel you want as many different perspectives as possible to see it to avoid embarrassing errors. Professional beta readers are trained to spot areas of insensitivity toward other cultures, religions, and sexuality. What reads as unremarkable to some will read as offensive to another, and it is your job as an author to be aware of this.

Objectivity is crucial. Your friends are not objective. Fellow writers are not objective. People who know you simply aren’t objective. Your work needs objective feedback, and a professional is going to be much better at doing this. Since it is coming from a stranger, you will be more receptive to it.

And finally, familiarity with the genre pays off. Beta readers are passionate about books, and they tend to find their niche. Although theoretically a person could work with young adult to nonfiction to adult contemporary to serialized paranormal romance, there is so much amazing work out there that specialization happens naturally. As a result, they will be familiar with your genre and better able to help you develop its themes.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

With their affordability and versatility, a professional beta reader is a great investment for your novel, and when you find a good one you won’t want to let them go! Most beta readers get jobs through referrals, so ask your fellow writers who they use. If you’re not part of a writing community you can find them through advertisements on Reddit, Upwork, Goodreads, and Fiverr. There are also professional beta reader groups on Facebook. Beta readers are an underappreciated tool in your writing arsenal, don’t let them go to waste.

Dystopia, Fantasy, Reviews, Young Adult

Number 41: Involves a Second Chance

The Program

Suzanne Young

In this book’s defense, it was going to feel dated.

After all, The Program is a dystopian young adult novel set in Oregon with an exciting premise that, predictably, fails to deliver.

To start with the good, the writing is clear, several of the characters are engaging, and the author is particularly good at depicting action. The plot moves along quickly, and I could be curious to see where the series goes.

Okay good parts over, complaining parts ahead.

To begin, wow. Just, wow, were we ever pick-mes back then. This book is that mentality in 405 easy-to-read pages. It is peak Mary Sue, peak not-like-other-girls. It’s hard to be reminded of that cultural moment. And in book form, no less! I was certain one of my complaints was going to be this book’s abject failure to pass the Bechdel test, but the first page proved me wrong.

The air in the room tastes sterile. The lingering scent of bleach is mixing with the fresh white paint on the walls, and I wish my teacher would open the window to let in a breeze. But we’re on the third floor so the pane is sealed shut- just in case anyone gets the urge to jump.

I’m still staring at the paper on my desk when Kendra Phillips turns around in her seat, looking me over with her purple contacts. “You’re not done yet?”

Like most heroines of the era, Sloane is beloved by men, inexplicably liked by women (who are underdeveloped compared to the male characters), and totally incapable of relating to anyone who is not in love with her. It is possible this was relatable to teenagers in the Obama years, but teens today are more sophisticated than that.

Like many premises of the era, The Program is underdeveloped, and insensitive by today’s standards. To state the obvious: depression as a plot device is icky. Mental healthcare in America is a travesty. Conflating suicidal ideation, depression, and self-harm as being one and the same (which this book does frequently) is lazy writing. This may have been okay in 2012, but we can do better now.

Aside from being insensitive, it is underdeveloped. We don’t really understand why suicide has become contagious, why it is an epidemic, or why it seems localized to teenagers. Although this vagueness can work for stories that are more about the character’s journey than the setting itself, this book is very much about the Program as a character, and one girl’s journey not to be changed by it. In a very real sense, the Program functions as the villain, and it is a poorly understood one.

Which is all a bummer. I like dystopian novels. It’s a pity this one was not done well.

I glance past her to make sure Mrs. Portman is distracted at the front of the room, and then I smile. “It’s far too early in the morning to properly pyschoanalyze myself,” I whisper. “I’d almost rather learn about science.”

“Maybe a coffee spiked with QuikDeath would help you focus on the pain.”

Anthology, Financial, Nonfiction

Number 44: An Anthology

Women Talk Money: Breaking the Taboo

Rebecca Walker

This is one of those books that you know from the beginning is going to get you. Anytime you have a group of diverse individuals sharing their honest feelings on one of society’s biggest taboos, at least one of them is going to hit a little too close to home and give you too many feelings. And that certainly happened with Women Talk Money. There were parts that were emotional, parts that were maddening, and a few sections that made me uncomfortably aware of aspects of my privilege I never even considered.

It was motivating, and reminded me that radical honesty about finances is necessary. The only way forward is to lift the veil of shame and secrecy until we understand how to do better.

I will definitely be looking into these writers in the future.

We tell ourselves so many stories about money; that it is the reward for our hard work, that is signals what is valuable, that it cannot buy things that will give our lives meaning, that we will never have equality until women assess their worth in the same ways men do. But none of these stories feel completely true to me.

P.S. I would be remiss not to mention that Rebecca Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker, whose essay is featured as the foreword of this book. While Alice Walker has done admirable work, her anti-Semitic views are, to say the least, problematic, and I cannot blame anyone for passing on anthology for that reason.

This world and these rooms might not have been designed for you, but you have to walk into the room and take the knowledge you need. Walk out with it. Don’t take anything else home.

Biography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Number 3: Title starting with the letter “E”

Eve’s Hollywood

Eve Babitz

Words cannot express how much I love this collection. I read it every year and I always find something new to appreciate about it. Eve Babitz is commonly compared to Joan Didion, but I never understood it. In my opinion she is much more in line with Edith Wharton and Candace Bushnell, women who wrote savagely and frivolously, like pink stilettos, which is my favorite kind of writing. The difference being that they wrote about New York, and she wrote about L.A.

In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West.

Of all her books, Slow Days Fast Company is probably her best, the most polished and to the point, but I like the messiness of Eve’s Hollywood. It feels like being 22 and sitting by the pool with your best friend over mojitos. Although I am originally from LA county, I did not appreciate the beauty of it while I was growing up, but I did after I read this book. It makes me homesick in the best possible way.

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a ‘wasteland’ and other helpful descriptions.

Bodice Ripper, Fiction, gothic romance, Historical Romance

Number 11: A Book With Less Than 2022 Goodreads Ratings

The Demon Lover

Victoria Holt

I have a confession to make…

I could not finish this one.

I tried! After all, I take this challenge very seriously. I made a commitment. I will read two books a week until the end of 2022 if it turns my eye sockets to mush. If my apartment is on fire and my car rolls off a cliff, I will still read two books a week and report it here.

I mean, it was touch-and-go when I discovered the long-running Bravo classic Shahs of Sunset, which had nine glorious seasons to catch up on. But I am nothing if not ruthless in my binge-watching, and I am now caught up. So, I am back to the 52 Book Challenge like the book-challenge-blogger I aspire to be!

But I only read about halfway through this one because the content was… not great.

There was a lot to love about it. The setting was idyllic, the characters were sociopathic, the romantic lead was also named Kate. So far so good. After all, historical fiction is my genre, and while this was set in the regency era, it felt exactly like a time machine to the 1980s.

Tragically, the ’80s are a dated decade and nothing about them feels more dated than the way they talked about date rape.

So it was not a shock that the rape scene happened. In the context of its era, it was even rather demure. We don’t read the act itself as it was happening (thank you baby Jesus). Instead, the author mercifully treated the reader to a fade-to-black scene with all the scary bits cut out.

For that I thank her.

However, I am a finicky reader, and I have no tolerance for sexual violence. Even when it is absolutely necessary to the plot (and it’s rarely as necessary as writers seem to think), I spend the entirety of those scenes annoyed and wondering why. Why it is always so necessary to so many plots? Do we live in a world where with so many stories about people being violated?

Surely there are other forms of character development out there.

So I did not finish. Moving on!

To anyone who did manage to finish this book, send me an email. How did the whole romance turn out? Is there any way those crazy kids got a happy ending?

Celebrating Failure, Personal, Writing

I Got My First Rejection Letter! Five Things I Learned Failing to Publish a Romance Novel

Despite my attempts, I am not a serious person. I might know what a 401k is and have serious thoughts on the mpg of my hybrid car, but it’s all a facade. At my core, I am silly. I love rhinestones and tutus, I laugh at fart jokes, and I consume unhealthy quantities of bodice-ripping romance novels that I find in the Clearance section of Half-Priced Books.

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

So it probably won’t shock you to hear that I’ve also tried my hand at writing one of those aforementioned romance novels. It was fun, and the story was silly.

Basically I wrote a short (55k words) tale of a millionaire who turns into a merman four nights a month and the scientist who loves him. Naturally it was set in a compound in rural Alaska. As they say, create the art you wish to see in the world.

When I had written a sizeable amount, I did what anyone with a healthy amount of self-esteem (inflated ego) might do. I submitted it for publishing at a few ebook imprints. And then the waiting began.

While I haven’t had traditional success yet (no one has offered to publish it), I did receive my first rejection letter! And that’s almost as good to me!

Actual footage of writing the manuscript, aka proof that it happened

Aside from the fact that it was a fun little project to write, I learned a lot about the business of writing, and I can’t wait to try again. Look out world, there is so much more paranormal romance where that came from.

Thus, I figured I’d share some of my thoughts here in hopes that writing them will make me remember them later.

The five things I should have done better (and might in the future):

  1. Learn ALL of the genre conventions and stick to them. I read a lot, so I naturally assumed I could write without thinking. I was wrong. Art has rules that aren’t always visible to the consumer, and when those rules get messed with, the reader gets mad. Romance, in particular, is a formulaic genre, and you have to get it right. I did not. One of the rules of the genre is that the characters need to meet in the first chapter. Mine met about a quarter of the way in. This is a no-no, so I had to fix it at the last minute. This is how I wound up hastily tacking on a prologue. Needless to say,the work suffered for it .
  2. Make sure your first chapter (or prologue) is perfect. This seems obvious, but is easy to mess up. How I messed it up is avoidable: I wrote it when I was pretty much over the story. But people fail at this for the opposite reason, too. Writing gets better with practice, and your characters feel more real after you’ve been writing them for awhile, so your later chapters are naturally going to be better than your first. Clearly the beginning needs to be written later in the process than its name suggests. This brings me to…
  3. Write your synopsis while you are still excited for the novel. In my defense, I did not know this would be required. This is a bad defense, because if I knew I was thinking of submitting it, I should have checked the requirements early and often, but even better-planned people than me can get this one wrong. You don’t realize how much you will be sick of your story by the end of it. You think you will love your characters forever and never think about pushing them off a glacier while on a routing hiking trip (no one would ever know). But you might be, so plan for this. Write your synopsis when you are about two-thirds of the way done with the story, right around when you’re writing your first chapter. Your synopsis is your selling tool, it is going to create the interest in your novel. Write it while you’re still excited about the project.
  4. Know when to cut your losses. You know how that first book in a series is almost always the weakest? That’s still the one that got published. I guarantee there are worse novels that author wrote that never saw beyond the publisher’s rejection email. That’s normal. Writing is fun! If your book is never getting better, move on. I promise your next attempt will be better.
  5. Celebrate failure! Writing a novel is an accomplishment, even if it isn’t up to Harlequin Romance’s line of paranormal ebooks standards. Celebrate it! Taking a risk is its own reward and you are amazing for trying!

And, because I have no shame, I present the rejection itself to you:

The rejection letter in all its glory 😍