Ranking the 20 Books I’ve Read this Year

What a fantastic year of books.

I had a goal to read 20 books in 2018. However, with two kids under two, a full time job, a dog and cat, a wife I enjoy spending time with, a house that is in constant need of repair, and a yard that is in constant disarray due to a particularly harsh rainy summer, 20 books was a lofty goal for me. Yet here we are, mid-September, and I have finished my goal. 3. Freakin. Months. Early!
*Round of Applause*
It may be the only goal I accomplish this year, but I’m still counting that as successful, and I owe it all to the 19 authors (1 author I read twice) who wrote incredible books that kept me interested throughout. Some were better than others. Some were much much better than others, but I didn’t finish a book and say, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on this.” In fact, there are probably 10 books on this list that could have easily been the best book I read this year….if it weren’t for the other 9.
So yes, a fantastic year of books.
I’d like to share my personal ranking of the 20 with you now as all are certainly worth a read. So here we go.
20: An Unexpected Grace by Kristin Von Kreisler: love dogs and I love dog books (Dog’s Purpose, A Man of His Own) so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite meet my expectations, but that’s not completely the author’s fault. The book started dramatically enough, but kind of mellowed and just strolled along from there. Not enough rises and falls.
19: Two From the Heart by James Patterson: I enjoy Patterson’s “Women’s Murder Club” series, and I’ve enjoyed some of his romantic tales (Susanne’s Diary for Nicholas & Sam’s Letters to Jennifer, for example), but for the most part, his books are just not emotionally gripping enough. They move at a good pace, but emotionally, I am not all that drawn in, which is a problem for me.
18: The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand: This book is probably a Top 10 in a down year, but I read too many great books this year. I read this because I wanted a beach book, and I enjoyed the different perspectives. But I think the story just didn’t resound with me…but it could with others. Still a good book.
17: Caraval by Stephanie Garber: Garber does a wonderful job creating a magical world; sadly, though, it’s really hard to get me locked into a fantasy world. However, as this is a series, I am still intrigued to read Book 2, Legendary, which just released the end of May.
16: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: Again, a victim of circumstance. Nothing is particularly wrong with this book, but it just didn’t grab me as much as the ones above it.
15: Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: I was intrigued by the book’s premise, but it took so long to build suspense for me, as I was expecting more energy in the middle and just didn’t see it. Once the book picks up with the climax however, it flew and kept me glued to the page.
14: The Bear by Clare Cameron: Bear was recommended to me several years ago by someone who knew I enjoyed Room by Emma Donohue, and I finally picked it up cheap at a book sale this summer. Both books are told from a child’s perspective, and while I found the concept so unique and mesmerizing in Room, I had a harder time following it in Bear. And even though this book had a bear chase, Room had more suspense for me.
13: The Other Half by Sarah Rayner: I read a lot of books this year set in England, but I didn’t enjoy the “Brit Speak” as much as I did in this book. I tried incorporating it into real life, but people just looked at me strangely, so I had to stop.
12: Abundance of Katherines by John Green: I’ve read many of Green’s books over the past few years, but didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Paper Towns and Fault in Our Stars. Also, Green fell victim to the books above it this year.
11: Mistletoe Secret by Richard Paul Evans: Evans is certainly a Top 3 favorite author of mine all time, and even this book didn’t crack the Top 10 (though he sneaks in with another book later). A good Christmas read.
10: The Girl Before by JP Delaney: This book is a bona fide winner in other years, and it kept me reading with its suspense, but I wasn’t quite as hooked as a couple of books you’ll see in The Top 5.
9: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: I love a good romantic story, and this one didn’t disappoint. This probably moves up a few spots if not for some of my beefs with the main character….but the fact that Santopolo creates a character that I care enough to argue with? Makes her a great writer, and this a great book.
8: Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin: If Evans is a Top 3 author, Martin is a Top 5, and I’ve never not enjoyed any of his books. Romance, intrigue, suspense, morality. This book had it all. The ending might have dragged a little too long, if I had to give a con.
7: One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr: I loved going on the journey with Flora Banks, the girl with amnesia, as she chased after a boy who, of all things, she remembered.
6: The Forgotten Road by Richard Paul Evans: Evans narrowly misses the Top 5 with the second book in a series whose main character is a wealthy, arrogant jerk that suddenly finds a conscience. The reason I enjoy Evans and Martin so much is because they create characters who either a)have a moral compass or b)are trying to find a moral compass. Both authors are guided by their belief in Christ that shapes their written words. In a world of constant chaos, we need characters like that. At least I do.
5: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown: A book with a mystery that leaves you guessing until the end. I love books where you spend pages trying to solve the mystery, only to be left surprised with the ending, anyway.
4: Woman in The Window by AJ Finn: As above, it’s suspenseful with a mystery you are constantly trying to solve. An edge-of-your-seat book that I didn’t want to put down. If you enjoy Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn, you’ll enjoy AJ Finn. Sidenote: this is becoming a movie with a great cast of actors/actresses.
3: My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry: I love love love discovering new authors, and even more, love finding out that this isn’t the only book of theirs that’s currently released! Jane quickly became a new favorite author with just this book, creating characters you think about long after you’ve put the book down. Just the right blend of suspense and intrigue.
2: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris: How is this book not #1?? Even I can’t believe it, and I made the list. I’ve never read anything like this. The “catch” in this book is unlike anything I’d ever read before. It made my mouth drop open. Paris also writes openly and brilliantly about a character with Down Syndrome, who I couldn’t get enough of. I don’t want to give anything away, but you need to read this book. And the only reason it’s not #1 is because….
1: The Neighbors by Hannah Mary McKinnon: This book literally came out of nowhere. Seriously. I’m at Barnes & Noble looking up books on my list of books I want to read. I go to find my wife, who is looking at something on a shelf, and this book catches my eye with its intriguing cover and tagline. I pick it up, say “Hmm, this sounds good” and put it on a pile of books that, 30 minutes later, I have to decide which are keepers and which are save-for-laters. I was on the fence between two books, and this was one of them. Something told me to keep it…and it was the best decision of the year.
This book has…a romantic story. Suspense. Page-turning quality. Characters you love. Characters you want to scream at. Characters you just shake your head at. A mystery that you’re trying to solve from Page 1 to 320. (PS, I convinced my wife to read this right after I finished, and she figured out part of the mystery I didn’t, but missed the part that I figured out that I thought was obvious). And that sinking “Oh No” feeling you get in your stomach when you’re afraid of what’s going to happen? McKinnon takes you there…and then she drops multiple plot bombs on you in a matter of….ten pages. You’re trying to recover from the first, and there’s the second, then another. And another. At least five near the end. I couldn’t breathe by the time I finished. And I LOOOOVE that feeling! It is so hard for a book to make me do that. That and cry are the two things that a fantastic book should make you do, and McKinnon got me further than most authors who have tried (For the record, there’s less than 5 books that have ever made me cry). Yes, this book benefited from the fact that I had low expectations going in, but the writing quality blew the others out of the literary water (note: “Literary Water” is a dry pond because water is bad for books. Duh!).
I am forever grateful for McKinnon and “The Neighbors” for reminding me, more than any other book did this year, why I read. And driving that passion home for me with a stake to the Literary Heart .
(note: the metaphorical stake is plastic because nothing can harm your Literary Heart. Also – steak. Mmmm…)

Where Were You When…A Life’s Journey Through Books

So the beginning of this is going to be a little strange, but just go with it.

So I’m trying to lose about 15 pounds before the new baby comes in July. To do so, I need to change some dieting habits, i.e. drink less soda, consume less sugar. My problem is if work gets a little slow, I’ll eat and drink more, but I don’t eat healthy. I eat cookies, or food from McDonald’s, and I drink soda. A lot of it.

So this past Tuesday, the brilliant dietitian that I am, I decided I would eat cauliflower and drink water. Which, aside from going to the bathroom more frequently (which I hate!), it was working well…until about 7:oo that evening when someone started poking me with a million knives. It turns out eating an entire Ziploc bag of cauliflower may be healthier in theory, but it’s not going to make you FEEL better in the long run.

So of course I ended up doubled over in the bathroom. And I couldn’t help but be reminded back two years ago when I turned 30 and had to go through my first colonoscopy. And as anyone will tell you, the worst part about the colonoscopy is the preparation of cleaning yourself out the night before, which basically means drinking something that tastes like bathroom cleaner, but is really a powerful laxative that leaves you in the bathroom for hours on end.

And, this of course, reminded me of “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell for the simple reason that this was the book I was reading at the time, and I remember how powerful it was, and immediately upon finishing, I had to look up every other book she has written because one just wasn’t enough.

And this got me thinking about the power of books, and how they’re with you through the ups and downs of your lifetime.

Like when I was in my early twenties, and me and my best friend KG decided that after ten years of friendship, we would try dating. (But if I’m being honest, I mean KG finally decided she wanted to date me, because I had been trying that for years) And anyone who knows anything knows that when you date your best friend, it could go either extremely well, or extremely poor. And unfortunately, our courtship went sideways almost out of the gate, and was also the beginning of the end of our friendship as we started growing even further apart. It was also around Valentine’s Day and I was beyond devastated, reopening old wounds and thoughts that I would never find the one. Not sure I was ever going to get out of the abyss, I picked up “Bluesman” by Andre Dubus III, and almost immediately became engrossed in this coming-of-age story about a teenager in a different time period, but for some reason, the story resonated with me so personally in that moment, and I couldn’t have asked for a better story to get me moving again.

Before that was of course the Harry Potter craze, specifically JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” I was 22 at the time, fresh out of college, and temporarily living in Northern Virginia at the time, isolated from friends and family, but venturing out on my own, really for the first time (I don’t count college). I ordered the book through Amazon, waited for it to deliver around 10 am on a Saturday morning, and then I did nothing but read the entire day. This gargantuan, 800-900 page book, but I couldn’t put it down, because I needed to know what happened before the media floodgates broke and ruined the ending, and I finally finished around 7 or 8 that night, exhausted but relieved. Sometime in the afternoon, I chowed down on some fish sticks, but never put the book down.

I mean….Don’t You Just Frickin’ Love Books?! 

Of course, I won’t ever forget being 15 years old. My mom took me and my sister to Waldenbooks and we were each allowed to pick a book. And for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I was drawn to one in particular, “A Bend in the Road” by Nicholas Sparks, and I don’t remember ever devouring a book so quickly, and being a hopeless romantic who couldn’t get a date in high school, Sparks made my heart ache by describing love that I was missing. Sparks is also responsible for my own writing journey, as his ability to evoke deep emotions within me that I didn’t know existed, created my own personal desire to write and do the same for others.

Years later, my girlfriend’s mother would give me a book she thought I would enjoy. It was called “A Perfect Day” by Richard Paul Evans, and was the story of a writer who was just starting out, getting his first book published. Suffice it to say that Evans was successful in not only writing a great book, but hammering home the point that writing was exactly what I should be doing with my life.

This is only a small sampling. I could talk to you about “Every Day” by David Levithan, or The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Or we could beckon back even further to anything by Roald Dahl, RL Stine’s “Goosebumps” series, the quirky stylings of Dr. Seuss, particulary Marvin K Mooney, Will You Please Go Now and Green Eggs and Ham, which I read religiously every time we had to go to the doctor’s office. But my point in writing this blog is simple:

Books are always there for us.

Through good times and bad times, books are there. They let us forget about our troubles if for only a few hundred pages. They inspire us to be better people. They make us laugh when we don’t want to, cry when we really don’t want to. They help us to find what we’re looking for, when we didn’t even know we were looking for that particular thing. They connect us to others, and help open our eyes to events to which we were previously ignorant.

Why do I want to be a writer, you ask? Because of everything I just said. To inspire and help others in the same way countless authors did, and continue to do for me.

I have never been more sure of what I was meant to do.

 

 

When to Introduce “The Event,” and Building Your Platform

Currently Reading: So I’m 240 pages into “Two by Two” by Nicholas Sparks, a tantalizing average of about 120 words per day. If this pace continues, I could read an average book in about 3 days, which would translate to approximately 120 books per year. How awesome would that be?!? Unfortunately, this pace will not continue (see: Life, cross reference: Shit Happens). What can I attribute to the current blistering speed? Two things. 1)Nicholas Sparks is one of my all time favorite authors. Probably top two, running neck and neck with Richard Paul Evans. He creates characters that you remember when you put the book down, and you find yourself daydreaming about the world when you’re supposed to be working. He was the first writer that made me want to write books. He also writes the type of books that I find myself drawn to writing – both he and Evans are often categorized into Women’s Fiction, but oddly I’m OK with reading books from a writer that caters mostly to women readers.

2) I’m in a good rotation at work right now. Let me explain. So even though my job title mentions nothing about customer service, essentially that is what I do: take payments from customers whose utilities are powered by the city itself. My job rotates into 3 stations on a monthly basis: two inside the lobby and one in the drive thru. Station 1 in the Lobby’s main task is to wait on all the customers that walk in the door. Also, they are secondary to answering the phones that ring non stop. Station 2 in the Lobby’s main task is being primary on the phones, as well as processing all incoming mail payments, which on Mondays turns into a giant shit show of busyness that starts around 7:40 and doesn’t let up until after 4. Needless to say, I hate this rotation the most. Station 3 in the Drive Thru’s main task is to wait on the customers who do not want to get out of their cars and prefer quick, wait-free service. Also, the drive thru station is located on the other side of the building, isolated from everyone, so it’s just you, a tiny enclosed room, and the radio. Can you guess which I love the most? So when the customers don’t come to the drive-thru and the phone isn’t ringing off the hook (yes, I’m still required to answer the phone there), I’m able to read, something not afforded in either of the other two stations. So if your work is caught up inside, you sit and stare at the wall waiting for a customer. In the drive thru, the head honchos aren’t around to spy and make sure you don’t look bored. So I read, and read a lot. Hence my progress.

“Two by Two” is one of Sparks’ best books in my opinion, but I’m surprised at how long it took to reach The Event. The Event is what occurs in every book (child goes missing, dead body turns up, etc.), and is usually mentioned in the book jacket when describing said book. Typically, The Event occurs in the first 50 pages and the rest of the book depicts the aftermath. But in “Two by Two,” I didn’t hit The Event until about page 220. It made me question whether or not I misread the book’s description or, at the very least, misinterpreted it. It’s just unheard of to be 50% into a book and wondering when something is going to occur that you’ve been waiting for since Page 1. In any event, as a Wannabe Writer, it’s good for me to see different ways to approach The Event and decide what works best for me and my novel.

The fun thing now about reading an author you’ve already read at least 15 times, you develop a fun game in predicting the outcome of the rest of the book. I’ll let you know if I was right or not.

Currently Writing: On Tuesday, I looked into a small, local publisher as perhaps a venue to launch my novel “Off the Record” that I completed several years ago. Upon investigating their submission form, I realized it was more complicated than I thought. I assumed it’d be a quick query letter and submitting a pdf file. Instead, there are in-depth questions regarding BISAC codes and whether or not you have your own publicist. I’ve decided I need to do a better job of building my platform. So on Tuesday, I found some books I wanted to read because right now, my online presence/platform is non-existent, and that is not good. In addition, I want to really think about my answers to these questions, because I probably have one shot with this publisher. So that’s where I stand right now: working on building my platform, which likely will include some redesigns to this blog. But don’t worry! I’ll still be bloggin’. I’ll also be editing/rewriting “Off the Record” as it stands, as well as editing/writing/rewriting another story I’m looking to publish. In addition, I recently thought of some short non-ficiton pieces I’d like to put to paper and see what they look like, because I think they have a potential viewership in the online market as well. So that’s what will be happening in the near future.

Distractions: None. Can you believe that? Ok, so it’s probably a lie. But I don’t consider “spending time with my family” a distraction. On Monday, we  visited a raggedy Pumpkin Patch because my wife J insisted on finding a pumpkin to carve for our 1-year old son E who will never remember this experience except by the endless pictures J decides to take, which will inevitably include several unflattering shots of Yours Truly that I hope don’t find their way onto any Social Media outlets. But who am I kidding? I actually enjoy carving the pumpkin. I love the smell of the inside once you cut the top off, and I love how slimy the seeds and innards are when you squish them between your fingers.

And because I love this, I was willing to drive out of my way on Monday afternoon in the cold and windy conditions; park my precious Rogue into a shady field; push my son’s stroller over a rickety, dirt path into a patch that looks like it’s where pumpkins go to die; ;carefully step over the broken pumpkins into uncharted territory that probably includes bugs that will eat at my sweet skin, while my wife and son wait patiently in the safe part of the patch; rip the only decent looking pumpkin off the vine with my bare hands like the Hulk because I don’t have tools, all the while pricking my fingers; drag the 10 lber back across said patch and hope that I don’t fall onto my face; kneel down so I can pose in the Patch of Horrors with my son; pose again because J didn’t like the light in picture 1; pose again because E moved slightly in Picture 2 (have I mentioned J is a P.P. -Photographing Perfectionist?); and then pay $12.00 dollars for The Experience of a Lifetime. J insists these will be memories we cherish lately, and really who am I to argue?

…but then again, $12 could have bought me a new paperback….damn.

Until Next Time, Keep Reading!!
-MP

 

The Last 48 Days

Currently Reading: Well, I finally finished “A Man Called Ove” (hopefully, right? It’s only been a month and a half!). I was pleasantly surprised; however, the ending did drag a little bit, and was also kind of predictable. Still, I like Backman’s writing style, would recommend this book, and would certainly read another one – he has at least two other published books out already.

After finishing “Ove,” I blew through “Love and Gelato” by Jenna Evans Welch. I was hesitant to read this book because of my own stubbornness: Jenna is the daughter of well-known author, Richard Paul Evans. The elder Evans is one of my favorite authors. Ever. I had a feeling this book would be good, but a nagging question ate at me: would “Love and Gelato” ever have been published if her father wasn’t well-documented? After all, her agent, Laurie Liss, is the same agent that represents Richard Paul Evans. What bothers me about this is what this means to me: sometimes, the book that gets published isn’t the best book, but it’s written by the person that has the “In.” It’s the same reason I’m bothered when I see a book by Joe Hill in prime position on a bookstore shelf. And it dates back to my high school years, when the “best athletes” on your high school teams were the ones who had parents that were well known within the community, not the ones with the most talent. It’s the harsh reality that Publishing is a business, and sometimes, it’s all about Who You Know. And unfortunately, I don’t know many people in the publishing business. I didn’t stay in touch with my writing professors from college, at least two of whom that have been published. But even if I did stay in good contact with them, is that how I wish to be successful? By piggy-backing the success of others? I don’t know. But it would certainly make my life a lot easier than it currently is.

Now wait!! Don’t get me wrong! This “Rant of the Slain” as I like to call the above paragraph does not in any way diminish the quality of “Love and Gelato” by Mrs. Welch. The book is a phenomenal YA read and makes me want to jet on over to Italy pronto (Wait, is that word even Italian? Ah, who knows). Welch has created characters that you remember when you shut the book. Characters that you think about while you’re at work. She’s created a world that parallels your own, a world you’d like to escape into, and are more than happy to dive into once the workday is over. That, folks, is damn good writing. Her father has that talent, and clearly she does too. “Love and Gelato” is a book not to be missed, and I love that you don’t have to be an 18-year old girl to enjoy it, even if the main character is. The only downfall is that “Love and Gelato” is Welch’s first book to be published, so we will have to wait awhile to read another.

Next on the reading list: “Two by Two” by another of my favorite writers, Nicholas Sparks. I read recently that Sparks’ movie production company has shut down, so “The Choice” may in fact be the last book brought to the Big Screen. This is truly a shame, because even though “The Choice” performed poorer compared to other Sparks’ blockbusters, it was one of the better adaptations, staying truer to the book than even its successful predecessors, “The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “Walk to Remember” and “The Best of Me” just to name a few.

Currently Writing: Well, not much, unfortunately. However, my brain has not stopped working, as I have thought up two more ideas (one being a screenplay I’d like to try someday), as well as the opening line of a novel that I thought up while eating dinner, though I don’t know the story behind that line yet.Here’s my problem: the ability to focus. I have several ideas up in the ol’ noggin that I’d like to put on paper, but I don’t know which to devote the majority of my free time to, and even when I decide where to place my focus, several other ideas jump into my head, and I don’t want to lose them, so I feel I need to get as much information about said idea down on paper before it escapes me. Does anyone else have this problem? It’s like Author A.D.D., but I’m pretty sure no good doctor on earth will write me a prescription to cure this. Maybe I just need to cut back on caffeine?

Distractions That Prevented Healthy Writing: Well, in a word? Me! I haven’t been my best writing self in the last 45 days. Saturday the 22nd was my birthday, and I took the next two business days (Monday and Today) off, and am finally able to sit down and do a little blogging/writing.

However, if I wanted you to feel sorry for me, I would tell you that work is a tough distraction. I work in Customer Service and more often than not, I’ll have a day where someone comes in and yells or complains about how bad city government is, and that their electric bill is way too damned expensive, and that they should be able to pay it later than 3 weeks past their due date, and we’re just cruel and hateful people because we shut off their service for lack of payment. And what is my allowed response? Smile and Nod. They call you a name? Smile and Nod. They swear? Smile and Nod.

Now look, folks. I…LOVE people! Why do you think I want to write these books and do this full time? So people can read them, enjoy them, and escape from the problems in their own life like I do when I read a good book. But working in customer service is tough. It wears. You. Down. When you come home dejected and devoid of energy, how do you muster the courage to write productive pages that aren’t just sad and angry gibberish? Too often, I come home and crash in front of the television, thankful just to be at home with people that love me, rather than at work dealing with people who, well, don’t exactly care about my well being.

I’m a tough guy, though. Don’t worry about my state of mind. But if you read this, I wouldn’t mind if you sent good thoughts my way, ESP-style, encouraging me to come home and find the energy to write, write, write! That’s the only way I’m going to change the world, right?

Until Next Time – and I promise it will be less than 48 days – KEEP READING!!
-mp