Tag Archives: fiction

Top 10 Fiction of 2016

I read 158 books in 2016 and have a few favorites. Here’s a look at the best fiction.

Novels:

  1. Freeman by Leonard Pitts Jr. – Exploring freedom and humanity in the aftermath of the Civil War.
  2. Roots by Alex Haley – Following multiple generations from freedom in Africa through the harrows of slavery to eventual freedom. This is the story of America.
  3. Copper Sun by Sharon Draper – Much like Roots, this book tells the story of slavery from Africa to America, but instead of generations it follows one girl. I read it one night.
  4. Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson – This book mixes memoir with fiction as the author explores her family’s native roots and ties to the Dakota War.
  5. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – I’m not usually a fan of fantasy, especially when it’s not very clear what’s happening, but I rolled with it on this one and really enjoyed this story of a persecuted group of misfits with the power to control seismic activity.
  6. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – This is fan fiction for a fictional universe created for another fictional story. Follow all that? Plus, it’s a lovely homage to Harry Potter.
  7. Frindle by Andrew Clements – Read this to my kids and we all loved it. It’s about how words come to be.
  8. Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate – Another outloud book for the kids and another 5-star book from Katherine Applegate. This story mixes the power of imagination and a child’s perspective on being homeless.
  9. Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff – This story of a girl in search of a family is a quick read, but touching.
  10. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – This is a sad, but I think ultimately hopeful story. It’s probably my favorite book club book of the year.

Continue reading Top 10 Fiction of 2016

Show Your Work: Time Travel Story

I’m trying to write a novel. Again.

Writing fiction is scary work for me. It’s hard. And I don’t think I’m very good at it. Plus there’s practically zero financial incentive.

But nobody writes books to make money.

You have to do it because you love it. Because you have a good idea inside that you can’t help but share with the world. It helps if the process of writing you occasionally find enjoyable.

I don’t know if I have a good idea or not, but it’s inside me and wants to get out. Every now and then there are times when the writing process is amazing. But especially with fiction there are long stretches when the words are wooden, the sentences flat and I wonder why I’m wasting perfectly good time that I could be doing nearly anything else.

I’ve started and stopped this latest novel a few times now. I’m trying again.

The motivation this time is that I realized the story I’m wanting to tell is a story I’d like to read to my children. I read to my kids nearly every day. We read lots of different books and now that we’re reading middle grade novels and not rhyming picture books, I really enjoy it. I love reading a book that captures my kids attention. I love reading a book that has wonderful words, spectacular phrasing and dialogue that makes me try to be a performer and not a mere reader.

I wonder if I can write that kind of book.

I probably can’t.

I’ve written three novels and have never been able to get them past a second draft to a point where I’d say they’re finished. I have a hard time following through.

It’s not that I’m lacking confidence, it’s that I’m trying to be realistic.

Yet I have this idea. It keeps working on me, spinning in the back of my head, trying to become something. It’s about a reluctant time traveler.

Top 15 Fiction of 2014

I read a lot of books this year, so I’m offering my top 15 fiction books (here’s nonfiction).

I don’t think 2014 had as many home run reads as 2013 did, but there are still lots of good reads in this year’s list.

  1. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
    A beautiful, sparse, partially illustrated and wonderfully wacky story about a girl and a squirrel-turned-superhero. While it touches on over-the-top comic book superhero themes and ideas, it’s more down to earth with family issues and interested in deeper ideas like poetry. Yes, squirrels writing poetry! I read it out loud to my kids and it was an absolute joy to read. The voice and the flow of the language was very unique and just fun. I mean, c’mon, “malfeasance” is just fun to say.
  2. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
    A summer of tragedy in a small Minnesota town in 1961, as told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy. It has an edge of mystery to it, but it’s mostly about this boy and his family, their relationships and ultimately a coming of age story. It deals with faith and tragedy honestly and realistically and is just saturated with perfectly honed writing. I was especially impressed by the clarity of the characters.
  3. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
    This is the greatest novel you’ll ever read about six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers devouring a small town in Iowa. It might also be the best book you read all year. It’s funny, weird, rambling, and full of the profanity and sex you’d expect from a 16-year-old narrator. It starts off as another story of an outcast teenager, struggling with life and his attraction to his girlfriend and gay best friend. But it turns into apocalypse by experimental mutant insects. It gets there (and holds together) thanks to the wonderful narration of 16-year-old Austin, a wannabe historian who lays it all out and explores the weird connections and fascinating underbelly of an economically depressed community in rural Iowa. It’s as if my two favorite genres—funny yet painfully honest teen novel and post-apocalyptic sci-fi got together to create a genetically modified hybrid super-genre that kicked every other book’s ass.
  4. Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
    Astrid Jones has never felt safe since moving to a small town. Her mom is image-obsessed, her dad is checked out, her sister is a people pleaser, her best friend lives a double life and, oh yeah, Astrid has a girl friend and hasn’t told anyone she’s gay. Not even herself. Since she can’t confide in anyone, she spends a lot of her time lying on picnic tables, sending her love to random passengers soaring past at 20,000 feet. In many ways it’s your typical teen finding out who they are story, but it’s so well-written and funny and fresh that there’s nothing typical about it.
  5. Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
    Martin is invited to join an elite group of black businessmen, but he discovers they’re part of a secret society that wants to repay the evils of slavery by enslaving whites. It’s a fast-paced thriller wrapped around a thought-provoking idea. It’s terrifying, which is both as it should be and a little disturbing for what it says about myself.
  6. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
    Why do we read any other vampire novels? This one is it. Incredible. It starts with a young vampire awaking in a cave, disoriented and injured, suffering from amnesia and remembering nothing of what happened to her. As she pieces together the mystery it’s revealed that her dark skin is a genetic modification that allows her to stay awake during the day and survive the sun, but she’s hated by what amounts to vampire white supremacists. The action shifts from shadowy attacks to a court room like showdown and the intensity just ratchets up.
  7. The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout
    A post-apocalyptic far-future where a boy wakes up in a broken ark to find himself the last human in the world. He has to adjust to a new world with a robot for a companion. It’s a great little kid’s story. I read it out loud to the kids and we all loved it.
  8. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
    Such a great and powerful story of a Gilly, the foster kid bouncing to a new home and starting over yet again. The defensiveness and fight or flight mentality is so spot on. She’s the world weary teen, wearing her guts and her prejudice on her sleeve, so eager to out-smart everyone and prove herself. It’s a quick read and the end comes too fast—you’ll be fighting the tears.
  9. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    A husband comes home to find his wife missing, but nothing is quite as it should be. This mystery is a captivating page-turner that in the end was just plain terrifying, not from any horror but from the sheer craziness of what a person is capable of. 5 stars for being an incredible read. 4 stars because it gives me the willies.
  10. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
    A short and lovely tale told from the perspective of a captive gorilla in a carnival-like mall. Not only is it a great little story, but the voice of Ivan is spectacular. I might be a bit biased since I listened to the audiobook and the voice work was very good, but the tone and voice of Ivan was just unique and so well done. I could listen to Ivan pontificate all day long.
  11. Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes
    An alternate history where Europeans are enslaved by Africans. We see an Irish village sacked by Vikings, the people sold off in slavery, and forced to endure the passage across the Atlantic to an Islamic colony in North America at uneasy truce with the Aztec nation. It flips our racial expectations in a jarring way that’s hard to get used to (so used to the typical slave narrative, I realized halfway through that I was imagining the enslaved whites as blacks). Not only is it a jarring situation, but it’s a powerful story of master and slave.
  12. More Than This by Patrick Ness
    Desperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.
  13. Like No Other by Una LaMarche
    A lovely Romeo and Juliet story between a Hasidic girl and a black teen in modern day New York.
  14. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Malinda starts high school by calling the cops on a major party. She’s lost all her friends and everyone hates her, but the worst part is she tried calling the cops because she was raped at that party and never told anyone. Her freshman year continues to get worse as she tries to cope (or not cope) with what happened to her. Despite what feels like a cliche story (though I’m not sure I can name many teen girl is raped stories) it has a great voice and realistically moves through the aftermath of a traumatic event.
  15. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
    A workaholic mother sends her family off for Christmas vacation without her and as her marriage is on the brink she discovers a magic phone that connects her with her husband from 15 years earlier in the midst of another relational crisis. Complicated? Yes. It’s probably not as coherent as it could be, but it’s full of humor, warmth, random asides and near time travel. That’s always fun.

If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Experiments in Fiction: Fiction Unboxed

If you like to see the bleeding edge of fiction, check out the work of Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright.

These guys host the Self-Publishing Podcast and write a lot of books. They follow a serial format—think of a TV series for books. They release individual episodes, collected into a season that makes up each series. And they’ve done a ton of different series.

Platt and Wright have the successful Yesterday’s Gone series, Truant wrote Fat Vampire and Platt and Truant wrote Unicorn Western.

Now I don’t think these guys are perfect. They’re on the bleeding edge, and I think it shows. Yesterday’s Gone is weird. The setup is so bizarre I didn’t get past the first season, but the suspense was pretty great. Fat Vampire is a hilarious concept and I liked the first one, but the sequels fell flat. Unicorn Western is another great concept, but I wasn’t hooked.

That’s just my opinion though. Yesterday’s Gone has nearly 700 reviews on Amazon averaging 4.5 stars. And these guys crank stuff out. Yesterday’s Gone has four seasons out and Unicorn Western has something like nine, and it only started in early 2013.

Now these guys are taking the experiment further and trying to write, edit and publish a novel in 30 days. It’s National Novel Writing Month on steroids. They’re also offering to share the process with the world, thanks to their Fiction Unboxed Kickstarter project.

They’ve got all kinds of rewards (including a free copy of the Scrivener writing software that I highly recommend), but the main idea is that you can see nuts and bolts of how they crank out stories so quickly.

It’s kind of a cool concept. Plus, the project has already met its goal, so it’s going to happen. If you want to support it, jump on board and reap the rewards.

I’m not in love with everything these guys crank out, but they’re out there and doing it. That’s impressive. And it’s worth watching.

Salvage the Bones: Tough World & Then Katrina Hits

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn WardSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a brutal novel:

  • Teen sex that might not be rape but isn’t exactly consensual
  • Dog fights
  • Teen pregnancy
  • A mom dying in childbirth
  • An overwhelmed, distant and alcoholic single father
  • Rampant poverty

And then Katrina comes down and blows everything to hell.

It’s a tough read (good thing I didn’t read it; the audiobook was very well done). But it’s also got heart. It won the 2011 National Book Award and there is some light that shines through the darkness: the language was poetic, the 14-year-old pregnant narrator loved the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, and when the action did pick up it had a great pace and feel.

But getting through it all was tough.

Sometimes books are like that. Sometimes life is like that.

Top Fiction Books From 2013

I read 146 books in 2013. When you read that many books you end up with a lot of favorites.

If you want to read more, be sure to check out 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Last year I offered a straight top 15 list, but this year I’m going to break it out a bit. I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction and I really love fiction. It’s hard to compare the two, so it seems unfair to put them in the same list. I’ll share my nonfiction favs later. We’ll also give a few honorable mentions…

Top 10 Fiction of 2013:

  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
    An astronaut is abandoned on Mars and has to find a way to survive for years until rescue can come. It feels like the forever how-toing and survivalist stuff should get old, but it’s captivating. Impossible to put down and just incredibly engaging. I can’t stop recommending this one. Plus it was self published and got picked up for major release (which is why it’s not available until February).
  2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
    A time travel story that replaces all the pesky science fiction with romance. That makes it much more approachable than you’d expect and incredibly fun. It’s a love story where the time-traveling husband first meets his wife when they’re both in their 20s. But she actually met first him when she was 6 and he was in his 40s. Confused? Don’t worry, it’s awesome.
  3. Wool by Hugh Howey
    I kept hearing people talk about the self-published phenomena of Wool and I finally grabbed an omnibus edition from the library (I hate cliffhangers). Howey also grabbed headlines by scoring mainstream publication while maintaining his digital rights, which is pretty great. Howey weaves an incredible world that’s engaging and fascinating, while also being hard to put down. I  plowed through this book wanting to see more of the world and know what happens next. Great characters, great world, great fun. (And for the record, the sequels hold their own. A rare case when the trilogy didn’t kill the story.)
  4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    I basically fell in love with Rainbow Rowell as one of my new favorite authors this year. I read all three of her books and saw her at a reading (delightful!). It’s tempting to put all three of her books in my list and if I did a top 15 I probably would. Attachments is pretty great with its late 1990s email monitoring setup. Eleanor & Park is probably her most popular and while it’s great, it’s probably my least favorite (but still in my top 15). But Fangirl gets the top spot for exploring the life of a freshman college student having a difficult transition (I can relate), exploring writing and also diving into fan fiction with a fun sendup of the Harry Potter world. I didn’t want it to end.
  5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
    This was kind of an unexpected favorite. It’s much more of a literary novel (and an Oprah pick!) and it took a little getting used to the literary style, but once the book got going I really got into it. It’s the story of a mute boy and his family that trains dogs, and, well, ultimately it’s a retelling of Hamlet. I’m kind of slow on the uptake with that kind of stuff though. I just enjoyed the story for what it was. For me the story really hit its stride when the boy was on the run with his dogs.
  6. Kindred by Octavia Butler
    Another surprise favorite, I listened to Kindred while running. I’ve read Octavia Butler before and found her to be a little intense. Kind of severe I guess, which felt odd in the more fantasy works I’ve read. This one is entirely realistic, except for the fact that Dana is inexplicably drawn from the 1970s to slave-holding 1800s Maryland. Another time travel novel with no time machine! I love that concept. It’s a perfect scenario for Butler’s intense style, and it was riveting.
  7. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
    John Scalzi became one of my favorite writers this year. His reimagining of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is just great. It kicks off an entire series and it’s full of mind-bending surprises, sci-fi insight and just plain grunts doing their thing. Good stuff. Perhaps the only reason Scalzi didn’t make the top five is because his stuff has an unassuming quality that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s just a good read.
  8. The Passage by Justin Cronin
    This pre- and post-apocalypse vampire story is incredible in its breadth and depth. It’s long and takes some getting used to, which is probably why it’s not higher on the list, but the worlds it takes you to are fantastic. The narrative jumps around, sometimes entire generations, but you keep getting various glimpses of the tragedy unfolding. You see a post-apocalyptic hidey-hole and then generations later a compound that’s found a way to survive. My biggest complaint is that it turns into a trilogy and starts to get bizarre. I thought The Twelve was kind of a letdown and I’m less eager for the third installment.
  9. Feed by Mira Grant
    I remember being amazed at the pace and imagination of this zombie tale. It’s the story of two adventure-addicted bloggers in a world where humanity has learned to live with their zombie infestation. The bloggers land on a press tour with a presidential candidate when a mysterious plot threatens them all. It moves at a breakneck pace and Mira Grant is not afraid to kill off main characters, which makes it a thrill ride. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is because it spawns two disappointing sequels that really kill the mood. (Notice a theme? Trilogies are really killing good stories. I know it’s tempting, but leave well enough alone!)
  10. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
    This one feels like an odd choice for the top 10 list. It’s the story of a troubled teenage girl and the ex-boyfriend who died with his share of secrets. She’s trying to sort out his death and the secrets while maintaining some semblance of life. I loved the snapshots of her after school job delivering pizzas. I’m a sucker for those vignettes of real life. But it’s just a funny, quirky, poignant book that I really enjoyed. No time travel, no zombies, no space flight—just good characters and a page-turning story.

Honorable Mentions
Every year there are some books that don’t make my top books list but are still worth a mention. Here are a few honorable mentions:

  • Best Post-Apocalyptic Story: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
    I read a lot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It’s fair to say I’ve read all the major books. It’s hard to find a new one and I usually find myself reading zombie or vampire variants that aren’t quite the standard post-apocalyptic story. But this one was a surprise standard. It has a very weird voice that takes some getting used to, but once you do it’s the story of a pilot and his dog living with a totally prepared military guy and wanting to get out and explore. The simple details are wonderful. The only thing that kept it from being a top pick is the barebones style that took a lot of getting used to.
  • Worst Post-Apocalyptic Story: Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse by James Wesley, Rawles
    Wow. This book is so bad and so great at the same time. The writing and storytelling is atrocious. The survivalist insights are amazing. The author is a real deal prepper and knows his stuff. But the story is straight up propaganda (I wouldn’t even say it’s thinly veiled). So it’s painful to read, but strangely captivating. The story does become addicting and I had to know what happened, but then he’d throw in some ridiculous political comment and I was laughing at it.
  • So Close But Not There: Reamde / Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
    Anytime you’re reading a book that’s more than 600 pages you’re making a serious commitment and the author needs to hold up their end of the bargain. Stephen King is one of the rare authors who can do this well. Neal Stephenson is almost there. Reamde was pretty good. Maybe top 15. An incredibly suspenseful story that just unfolded in bizarre complications. I enjoyed it. But there were definitely moments where I wondered about the pacing. Did it really need to be this long? Could we have shaved off a few hundred pages? That’s a problem. Then there’s Cryptonomicon. It had this great World War II mystery being played out in the past and uncovered in the present. Really engaging (except when he spent pages and pages explaining weird math concepts). But then the ending came too abruptly and with some weird leaps. You don’t spend a thousand pages on a book and then rush the ending. I dropped it a full star on Goodreads based on the abruptness of the ending alone. Even worse? It’s supposedly the first in a series. I like Stephenson’s writing, but the length makes me wary.
  • Too Good Not to Mention: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
    I already mentioned this one above when I put Fanmail in the top five, but Attachments needs some more love. Let’s be honest: It’s a top 10 book. The only reason I didn’t put it there is because I don’t like to give one author multiple spots. Arbitrary and stupid? Maybe. This is just a feel good love story. You’re rooting for the geek as he struggles to make sense of his life, gets himself in some trouble and wonders if he can ever get out.

There you go. The best fiction of 2013. Now I’m ready to get back to my 2014 reading (currently Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is making a good case for the 2014 top 10).

If you want to read more, again, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.