best of 2020: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up on Friday, with reading stats. But first, as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

To state the obvious, this year has been different from those that have come before. Every year something’s different: I started an MFA program, finished an MFA program, moved across the country, back again, into a van and then to a new state, started teaching college, etc. This year has seen upheaval and pain and tragedy nationally and globally, and that probably skewed my preferences and ratings some: I gravitated somewhat toward fiction that took me away, even when that fiction handled heavy themes. It’s also worth noting that personally, while I saw some difficulties this year (a serious bike wreck, and the challenge of teaching online), I’m in a fairly good place. I’m still really in love with my new home in West Virginia. And the trails group I’m a part of here has had a banner year of fundraising, land acquisition, trail maintenance and the building of new trails. I’m thrilled to be riding and working with such a great group and in such a cool landscape. The larger world is distressing. My small one here has been fairly good. My reading feels like it reflects that dichotomy some.

With no further ado, back to the business at hand: some of my favorite reading of the year. I’ve divided these into a few tiers, and mentioned some narratives I encountered outside of books that I loved, too. And as is tradition, please also check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of-the-year list here, too (with a couple of titles in common with my own, naturally!).

My two favorite books this year were both novels, and both new publications:

First honorable mentions:

Next round honorable mentions:

Other special mentions outside the world of books:

  • The Wire – television series
  • Shameless – television series
  • The Red Line – television series
  • Orphan Black – television series
  • “Seeing White” on Scene on Radio – podcast
  • The Dark Divide – movie

And a few charities close to my heart just now:

  • the usual suspects: Planned Parenthood in TX and WV, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and various BLM chapters
  • BINC
  • Nuçi’s Space
  • and the Black Student Union at my own West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Whew. That was a lot of content. I think it’s a good thing that I had so much good stuff I appreciated to share with you. It’s always interesting putting this list together. While I give books a numerical rating when I review them, I don’t do this best-of-the-year list based off those numbers; I try and go back and review the ratings but observe which titles stuck with me over time. (So the books read in the last month or so don’t get the same kind of cooling-off period that earlier reads too. It’s not a perfect system.) I think it reflects patterns not only in my reading but in my thinking. These are the books (etc.) that have proved most memorable over time. I hope you find something here to appreciate, too.

See you Friday with those statistics. I hope you read something awesome this week.

*ten years later*

Ten years ago yesterday, I published my first post here.

Early in 2019, when I was on the road full-time in my van, I got a phone call from an old friend and we did some catching up. He was interested in the van travels, and said, “you know, if it were ten years ago, you’d have a blog to report on this whole trip.” Well, I’d missed the memo that blogs were no longer hip, and indeed did have a van-travel blog, as well as an alive-and-well book blog (that’s where you are now, for reference). Nobody had told me it wasn’t cool anymore. And yet here we still are, Brad.

This blog has brought me good things. I used a few of the reviews I’d written here to apply for my job at Shelf Awareness, which has been nothing short of life-changing. (I’ve written reviews for pay for a few other publications, as well, but the Shelf is my longest-standing employer, and I hold dear the relationships I’ve made there.) I’ve been privileged to interview famous authors and authors I greatly admire (frequently these are the same people), and I’ve been offered more review copies than I have time to accept. I’ve felt a part of something larger than myself, and my reading has taken turns I’m not at all sure it would have otherwise. I’ve kept track of every book I’ve read for ten years now, which is itself a feat.

I’ve also lived a life in these ten years. I’d been married a few years when the blog was born, and am now divorced. I was a newly minted librarian, and would later take different jobs in the library system, then move cross-country (away from my hometown for the first time) and leave the profession. I moved back to Texas, then took that van trip and earned a second master’s degree and started a new career, and a new life here in West Virginia.

My friend Liz said recently, “change never doesn’t come,” and I’ve been thinking about that. In another conversation with Liz, we talked about how difficult it is to judge something like, say, a book at two different readings. There are too many uncontrolled variables in the experiment that is life. The world changes (The Stand doesn’t hit the same in 2020 as it did in 2010); we change as people. I have been many versions of myself in the last ten years. Certainly, these are the best-documented years of my life, thanks to this blog (and Facebook), for better and for worse.

I’ve published 2,282 blog posts and reviewed 1,250 books, 111 movies, 59 plays, and a smattering of readings, television shows, and performances of various kinds. (I’ve also occasionally told personal stories or waxed on about bicycles, etc., and you’ve been very patient with me.) It’s overwhelming to think about. I am both proud and humbled that anyone reads this blog at all.

Thanks so much for being here. I guess we’ll just keep going and see if blogs survive another ten years. Books and reading, at least, I’m not the least bit concerned about. Cheers, y’all.

best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

best of 2019: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up Wednesday, as per usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

The short best-of-the-best list:

Honorable mentions:

Note that these are overwhelmingly new releases, which bodes well for the publishing industry in general (and probably reflects my reading habits) (and credit to my lovely editor Dave who sends me such great books to review).

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link. It includes none of my choices but that’s okay – more to choose from! Bonus-bonus: their Best Children’s and Teen Books.

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back Wednesday to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2019.

best of 2018: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.) None of these were audiobooks, but a few were new releases, so I’ve marked those with *.

These three books and one essay got a rating of 10.

And while I gave rather a lot of 9’s this year, I’ve chosen my favorites (from today’s perspective, at least) for you here, for a shorter list.

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link, and includes two that I had the good luck to review (Everything Under* and Convenience Store Woman*).

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2018.

my favorite craft books

As we approach the time of year when I usually do lists, I was inspired to add this one, when a dear friend from my MFA program asked me for craft book recommendations in particular. (Abby is usually a fiction writer but is entering her cross-genre semester in nonfiction, so a special emphasis there.) Another dear friend from my MFA program, Okey, used to enjoy this blog and said he especially looked here for craft recommendations. (We lost Okey after this past summer’s residency, unexpectedly, and we are all still reeling. If you haven’t already, please consider this scholarship in his name. It’s a great cause in the name of diversity and inclusivity.)

So. Here’s a list in two tiers, followed by a link to all the craft books I’ve read. Keep in mind that these are the books that have worked best for me, and your mileage may vary. I put a * next to the ones for nonfiction in particular, for Abby and for anyone else who may be interested.

Very favorites, in no particular order:

Well loved, in no particular order:

And, click here to see all books with this tag, which will include titles not listed here.

Thanks for stopping by, as always. Was this list helpful for you? Is there another list you’d like to see me work on? (In the past I’ve done movies, children’s books, audio favorites, science books, LGBTQ…) Let me know, and maybe I’ll put one together!

best of 2018, first half

As I mentioned Wednesday, it’s been an outstanding year in my reading life. I feel so fortunate. I think like I’ve given almost every book Jeremy assigned me this semester a rating of 8 or better: what a guy! Such success motivated me to share a list of my favorite books I’ve read this year, to date. Of course, the full list is still due to you at year’s end.

These are among the best of the year, so far, with ratings of 9 or higher.

And I have two favorites, above and beyond.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush is just published this week. It is a somber book about climate change and injustice; but despite the bad news, I eventually found Rush’s search for empathy and peace uplifting, and her prose positively glitters.

Philip Connors has a new book coming out in August, and I was lucky enough receive an advanced reader’s copy, based on my admiration of his first, Fire Season, a book that changed my life. The forthcoming A Song for the River may be even better. I am reeling. Like Rising, A Song is a sad book. Both made me cry, more than once. But this book, something of a sequel to Fire Season, is as beautiful and vital and true and alive as anything I’ve ever read.

I don’t know how I got so lucky as to read two books in the first half of this year that could each be the best book I’ve read in years. Happy reading this weekend and onward, friends.

best of 2017: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year.

Not as usual: none were audiobooks, because I read no audiobooks this year. Few of these are new releases (they are marked with an asterisk*).

I gave a single rating of 10, late in the game, to an essay I’ve read over and over, and it keeps getting better every time. I still have not written about this essay. I still think you should go into it blind.

  • “The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard – nonfiction

I’ve refrained from going back and changing any ratings that I gave at the time; but I have split the books that I rated 9 into two groups, as I judge them now. This list is overwhelmingly nonfiction, since that is most of what I’ve been reading this year.

So. The top three which received ratings of 9, are:

The rest of my 9-ratings, all wonderful reads:

I gave plenty of 8s–too many, perhaps–and I’ve gone through and compiled you a slightly shorter list of my favorites from those books.

I hope this lengthy list gives you some good ideas for your own reading! What are some of the best books you’ve read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2017, what’s changed and what’s a surprise. Happy holidays and happy reading, friends.

best of semester 1

Today I am traveling north and east to West Virginia for the residency that begins my second semester in WVWC’s MFA program. All semester, I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read for school (along with the odd Shelf Awareness review). So, you’ve been seeing these books as they come; but I wanted to make a note, for your information and my own records, of what I loved most this semester. As always, these are only my personal reactions.

The best (and most useful to me) craft books I read were

I had less success with The Art of Subtext, The Situation and the Story, and The Art of Attention (which I did not finish and therefore did not review). In fact, I’m beginning to fear that Graywolf’s The Art of series is not for me (recall also The Art of History), which is a shame, because I’m generally a fan of Graywolf Press, and I love the idea of these succinct pocket-sized craft books.

The memoirs/essay collections I loved most, and found most useful, were

I hadn’t realized until I made this list that five of these six books were written by women. Interesting, and perhaps not surprising.

What I am able to take from these talented writers and make my own is another question. Having reviewed books for a number of years now (see my first review for Shelf Awareness!), I feel fairly comfortable pointing to what I appreciate, and articulating why. (Most of the time.) But making it my own, that’s a newer challenge I’m still working to master.

And so, into semester 2.

best of 2016: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up tomorrow. But first… I always like to list my favorite books I’ve read in the closing year. As in the past, these are not necessarily new publications, although several are. Without further ado:

I rated just one book with a 10, so the best book that I read in 2016 was

I gave several a rating of 9:

There were, happily, as ever, lots of 8’s. Special mentions go to:

I also voted this year for The National Book Critics Circle Awards. Five for fiction: Smoke, Lily and the Octopus, The Wangs vs. the World, A Robot in the Garden, and The Throwback Special; and five for nonfiction: Joe Gould’s Teeth, Bellevue, Detroit Hustle, Gods, Wasps & Stranglers… and, for that final slot, I struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the categories for poetry, criticism, biography, and autobiography, where I didn’t feel I’d read much.

Finally, I wouldn’t want you to miss Shelf Awareness’s best of list. You’ll notice one nonfiction and four fiction titles that cross over from that list to this blog post (or vice versa).

It’s been another amazing year, and I can’t wait to see what 2017 holds. Thanks for coming around again, friends.

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