“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
If you are a writer, you have to read more than the average person. If you want to be great at the craft, then you have to study the craft.
Not only do you have an excuse to read a lot (its your job!) but you can read a variety of books.
I usually try to read 25 books a year. I wish I could do more, but I know I can manage 25. I’ve compiled a list of what I read in 2015, including a few thoughts I had on them. I added a “read this if you like…” to each of them, so you can decide if it’s the right pick for you. They’re ordered based on genre, so if you can peruse the sections as you see fit.
GOOD OLE AMERICAN LIT
Sometimes A Great Notion, by Ken Kesey.
A lesser known great American novel. It reminded me of East of Eden but if it had been written in the 1960’s. I love how Kesey uses the multiple POV’s to play on Hank Stamper as a “bad guy”, when really Hank is a guy doing the best he can with what he has. What people expect from him is really based on what they want to get out of him. He doesn’t want to fight, yet everyone picks a fight with him. Phenomenal descriptions of the Pacific northwest northwest. Read this if you like: hearty American novels, literature of the 1960’s, literature of the Pacific northwest northwest.
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Every now and then I like to revisit an old favorite. Read this if you like: old favorites, want to experience reading a classic outside of the classroom.
Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee
Some literary nerds know the controversy behind the publication of this book. Basically this book is the original manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird, and when Lee originally brought it to her editor, he felt it needed serious editing but saw its potential. GSAW is that original manuscript, a manuscript that was never meant to see the light of day. Lee is now an elderly woman, mostly blind and deaf, and some argue that if she were able to advocate for herself, she would not have agreed to publish this book, but it was published anyway for the sake of MAKING SOME SERIOUS WORD DOUGH. Some people argue that it will tarnish Lee’s reputation, while hosing an old lady.
Here’s what you need to know: it is NOT as good as Mockingbird, doesn’t even hold a candle to it. But if you like Lee’s writing, you may still enjoy it. Approach it not with high expectations but with a sense of curiosity.
I read it for the same reasons I read Vonnegut’s posthumous works: I want to hear his voice. I don’t need another Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five. I just want to hear the man’s gravelly, whiskey-soaked, cynical voice. Reading GSAW, I heard Lee’s gentle, southern lilt albeit a little unpolished. And if my $27 helps bring in a little income for this beloved, elderly author, who has already done so much for me, then I can live with that. Read this if you like: Harper Lee just as she is.
Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
First of all, Jeannette Walls’ book The Glass Castle is a pillar of how memoirs should be written: letting the story speak for itself without too much embellishment. Half Broke Horses is written in the same direct and frank style and with the voice of her grandmother, who calls it like she sees it. An exciting and witty story of a woman who lived on ranches all her life. Read this if you like: stories of the frontier.
I Want To Show You More, by Jamie Quattro
I first heard about Jamie Quattro in a Runner’s World feature. Yes, I am that much of a dork. I love running so much that I read stories about runners. Her story “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” is one of the best pieces of dark humor I’ve read in a long time. But one of my favorite things about this collection is the experience of seeing all the stories a writer can do with the same 2-3 concepts. You can do a lot with very little. Read this if you like: surrealism, running.
Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
This is an old classic of Atwood’s, but I didn’t enjoy it as some of her other novels. This is not a nail-biter by any means and the story moves very methodically. Read this if you like: character-driven stories.
Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Talk about a guy, who is REALLY INTO WHAT HE DOES. Written by a Japanese author but reads like a classic English novel. Read this if you like: English novels.
The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner
Fun, light story about a showrunner in Hollywood. Checkout Weiner’s short story, “Swim”, on Kindle. If you enjoy that, then you’ll definitely love this book.
I hesitate to recommend it as “chick lit”, because Weiner has worked so hard to speak out against the biases against so-called-chick lit, and the last thing I want to do is undo that work. Having said that, there is something comforting about a story with female protagonists who are simply trying to get (and keep) their shit together, a theme that always draws me toward Jane Austen, Mindy Kaling’s work, and Gilmore Girls. Its not just about finding love (for Jane Austen maybe). Its about family and friendships. Its about finding one’s purpose, failing a hundred times at it, and having the grit to keep going. As a woman trying to get (and keep) my shit together, its comforting to have a story of someone going through the same think. Read this if you like: stories about women getting (and keeping) their shit together.
Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay
I read some reviews on Goodreads that criticized Gay for not bringing anything new to the feminist table, arguing that most of her ideas have already been covered in other feminist texts.
Here’s the thing: not everyone who considers themselves a “feminist” reads feminist texts, myself included. Nothing against them, I just have a lot of other things on my to-read list. I’m a fiction writer and have to read fiction writer things. For me this was the first time I was exposed to some of these ideas. If that sounds like you, you might enjoy this book. If you read feminist texts, then this book probably isn’t for you (unless you really enjoy discussions about pop culture, then you’ll love this book, because there are a lot of them in here).
It’s refreshing to hear someone say that we need birth control because women have sex for pleasure so get over it. It’s refreshing to hear an intelligent, well-read woman say she was into Sweet Valley High as a kid. It’s refreshing to hear a woman say that she is not a perfect woman but that she dreams of and strives for the best possible world. As another reviewer wrote, “It wasn’t perfect and that’s exactly the point.”
Read this if you: are sick of misogyny and racism in popular culture, give a shit about things women give a shit about.
Crow Planet, by Lyanda Haupt
I have this story idea and I needed to read about crows, and this is one of the first books that pops up in some searches. I would say this is a good place to start, but I wanted to know more. The author wrote about two things and didn’t go into either of them with very much detail. 1.) crows and 2.) her personal life. She gave some of the basics on crows, but I walked away wanting more. She touches a little bit on her own turbulent personal life, but I didn’t feel she revealed enough for me to really connect with the story. Read this if you like: crows.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
A must-read for any creator. Pressfield gets at the heart of what prevents a creative from doing their work. This book is divided on three parts. The first, and most quoted part, is about how creators let Resistance keep them from their work. In the second part, he talks about how to consider yourself a professional, which is not what you might expect. In the third part he gets a little woo-wooey by suggesting that creativity comes from a higher power, something you may or may not have experienced. Either way, this book will light a fire under your ass.
“You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study…Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it an overstatement but I’ll say it anyway; it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
Read this if you like: subject matter for creatives, if you are someone who wants to make anything great.
Write. Publish. Repeat. by Johnny Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright.
A must-read for all aspiring authors, even if you have no intention of self-publishing. You can skim and get the important bits, but at least understand what self-publishing is. This book basically presents a business model for self-publishing. That’s right, business model. The authors repeat it over and over again. Writing is the craft, but publishing is the business, and if you’re drawn to self-publishing, this is a business model to follow. The authors present the framework (plus some extras) for self-publishing. If its something you’re interested or curious about, pick up this book. Read this if you: are curious about self-publishing.
Leap, by Tess Vigelund
Besides interviewing people with similar experiences, Vigelund talks about the doubt and uncertainty around her decision to leave her job as host for Marketplace. As someone who has left a good job uncertain of what would come next, it was comforting to read the experience of someone who has been through the same thing. Read this if you like: if you’re leaving/have left something steady for a big change and don’t know what’s coming next, searching for your purpose.
The Art of Work, by Jeff Goins
Goins shows us how your “work” doesn’t have to just be the thing you get paid for. What is the legacy you’re leaving behind? How does your work contribute to the world? This doesn’t always translate into paid work or careers, though for some of the people Goins interviews, it does. But there are others that Goins interviews who find that their “work” is outside of whatever is paying the mortgage and always comes after many years of seeking. Read this: if you’re searching for your purpose or trying to “figure it out.”
SCIENCE FICTION / HORROR / SUPERNATURAL
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin
This book is like if House of Cards and Game of Thrones had a baby on an alien planet, except a lot less violence and rape. Le Guin writes about gender identity before it was cool. What would happen if we had no genders, and only identified during certain times of the month for the purposes of reproducing? Read this if you like: unusual science fiction, Margaret Atwood, political intrigue alien style!
THE BEST BOOKS I READ ALL YEAR. A story about Area X, a small region that was adversely affected by a mysterious event, and the Southern Reach, the governmental agency that sends expeditions to research the area but the expeditions never return. It reminded me of the TV show Lost, but waaay better written and with a better ending. Read this if you like: science fiction with a touch of literary style, unexplained things, stories without easy answers, J.J. Abrams original, non-reboot work.
Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler is one of those authors that I heard a lot about in a short period of time. It felt like the universe was telling me to read her work, so I picked up her Xenogenesis trilogy and read the first book. An alien race rescues the human race from extinction, but there is a pretty hefty compromise that comes with it. If put in that situation, I don’t know what the fuck I would do. Seriously. And that alone is a good enough reason to read this book. Butler poses tough questions that are hard to answer. I look forward to reading the second book in the new year. Read this if you like: moral ambiguity, Le Guin or Atwood.
Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig
I’ve been following Chuck Wendig’s blog Terribleminds for some time, and this is the first crack I’ve taken at his work of fiction. The story was constantly moving, and he writes with the same gritty style he uses on his blog. Read this if you like: dark and gritty with a supernatural element.
House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski & Johnny Truant
The most difficult book I’ve read in a long time, a postmodern, horror story written as a frame, a story within a story.
On one level is the story of the narrator, Johnny, who discovers a manuscript by a man named Zampano, detailing a (fictional) documentary of a filmmaker and his family who moves into an unusual house. They discover a corridor that is unaccounted for, making it larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Over the course of this documentary the corridor grows into a labyrinth of hallways. Attempts to explore and map the expansive interior of the house unfolds into tragedy and horror.
Wrapped around that is the story of Johnny, who has taken possession of this manuscript, and is haunted by…something. Within the manuscript is extensive research on mythology, architecture, and psychology that helps explain some of the events of the house. I found myself loving one frame and utterly despising the other. I loved, loved, loved the story of the house but found Truant’s story difficult to follow. In his attempts to understand the manuscript, Truant seeks out people who can help him understand it. These people just happen to be lusty young women, and Johnny fucks every single one of them. Once the women help him understand something about the manuscript, he fucks them. Lots and lots of fucking. So much fucking. I skimmed a lot of these parts so I could get to the parts about the house. But I am one of the rare few who did this. Go on to Goodreads, and you’ll find a lot of reviews from readers, who loved all parts of the book, so I think I’m in the minority here. Either way, it’s definitely worth taking a crack at the book. Read this if you like: horror, postmodern, creepy stuff, something challenging.
GAME OF THRONES!!!
Feast of Crows, by George R.R. Martin
Fourth book in the Song of Fire and Ice Series. Compared to the books before it, it moves pretty slow. There are no Red or Purple Weddings, just a lot of behind-closed-doors-politics and people traveling and searching for lost people. There are two big reveals, one of them being that you finally learn what Littlefinger is up to (and sheeeit, this guy can pull the long con!) Too many chapters with the insufferable Greyjoys about him I give zero shits. Read this if you like: the SOF&I series, give a shit about the Greyjoys.
There’s a lot of hullabaloo over news recently that Martin WILL NOT finish the 6th book in the series before the 6th season airs. That means the TV show will cover parts of the series that have not been published in the books yet. Disappointing for some readers, but I remain in solidarity. This shit is hard, people.