What I read last month: August 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

August was a bear of a month. I was out of town for 16 of 31 days, stretched over three different trips. That’s a lot of time spent packing, unpacking, visiting, and traveling to and fro, not to mention my WDC17 prep and followup.

Despite the harried pace, I was lucky enough to find some great reads. I give mostly three-star Goodreads reviews, and August gave me two five-star books.

Here’s what I read:

Magazines

I read the summer issue of Tin House on the beach, starting with Daniel Wallace’s Sea Girls. I also polished off the previous issue, which included Leslie Jamison’s un-put-down-able essay about Amy Winehouse.

Catching up on a big stack of New Yorker short fiction, I found myself most transported by Will Mackin’s Crossing the River No Name and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Show Don’t Tell.

Books

The Unseen World

★★★★★

This is the rare book that I finish and think, “there’s nothing I would’ve done differently.”

The Unseen World is a clever, well-executed novel. The characters are compelling and their lives are set against a delightful backdrop.

There are some plot developments I anticipated (and was glad when they finally arrived), and some surprises that made for lovely Easter eggs at the end. I was about to call the ending too tidy, but the epilogue completely made up for it. Just like Moore’s previous book Heft, I recommend this to just about everyone.

World Made By Hand

★★

When I got around 85% of the way through this book, I realized it wasn’t all going to come together in a big bang at the end.

I’m going to spend some time chewing on this one, and considering why the author did these things the way he did.

In the meantime, I’ll say I enjoyed the setting and the world-building was good. This book reminded me why I think post-apocalyptic fiction is so neat. I love seeing writers ponder what humans would do if the world as we knew it came to an end.

The book could’ve used a little more resolution at the end, re: the different factions, how we should feel about them, and how they might work together (or not) going forward. We spent a lot of time learning about the various folks living around Union Grove, and sometimes I wondered to what end.

Perhaps the biggest issue for me was the female characters. I’m not sure why the end of the modern age resulted in all the women reverting to traditional gender roles. Many of the cult members came from the military, but they couldn’t have included any women who had formerly served in the military? There weren’t any gay people at all, or women who did something other than tend the home and support the men? I’d buy it if many, or even most, of the women did this. However, it would’ve been more believable to have a token woman vying for her rightful place within the town leadership. Or even a man who rejects the new (old) mountain-man lifestyle. As it was, the characters were too divided into types for a book released in 2008.

The Hate U Give

★★★★★

Every once in a while, I come across a book I want to read slowly, but can’t. The Hate U Give was one of those books. I knew I was cutting my time with these characters short by devouring it so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself.

From page one, the main character, Starr’s, voice is so on point and compelling. There’s no getting-to-know-you period, no slogging through act one to get to the action. I was hooked from the very beginning. The narrative sucked you straight into the world of the story, and I experienced everything vividly, right alongside the characters.

This is a really important book, and it’s pulled off superbly. I want to go tell everyone to read it. We need more books like it, to bring us out of the hashtags, the generalizations, the racist talking points around privileged white dinner tables.

I saw another reviewer criticize the character Hailey — a white friend of Starr’s who claims she isn’t racist, but reveals over time that she actually kind of is — as an unrealistic caricature. I wish that were true. The Haileys of the world grow up with no requirement to develop empathy or deep understanding of people who aren’t like them. Successful contemporary fiction like The Hate U Give could change that.

Though this book is billed as YA, it holds nothing back. So, buyer with a younger YA reader beware, and The Hate U Give is every bit as valuable and relevant to adults as it is to YA readers.

My only substantive criticism is that a few of the longer chunks of dialogue started to lose the voice. It’s easy to slip into a little monologue in service to the message and have it come out not quite how the character would say it. But, all things considered, this effect was mild, and offset by the excellent flow in most of the book’s dialogue.

All in all, The Hate U Give is an important and compelling read, and I highly recommend it to just about anyone.

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World

★★★

This is such a fast read, you have no reason not to read it.

Unlike David Allen’s Getting Things Done or Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this book won’t give you a full action plan to improve your life. It’s more like a compass to point you in the right direction.

Of course, given its length, the author really can’t get into detailed how-tos and action items. If you’re looking for that, go with a longer book like those I mentioned above.

However, this book gives a nice kick in the pants and a reminder of what’s important.

Other stuff

I also grabbed a copy of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat from the library and I’m in love. The illustrations are delightful, and Nosrat’s tone and style make the subject matter super approachable. I’m not finished yet, but I already know I’ll need to buy it for my kitchen shelf. I’ve renewed it the maximum number of times and don’t feel I can go on without it in my life.

Enough about me. What are you reading? Shoot me your recommendations in the comments!

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Books of 2014

Ah, the new year. Time to refresh my Goodreads reading challenge!

Even though my blogging efforts are focused primarily on The ADHD Homestead, I plan to use this space for news, announcements, and fun stuff — like a review of the books I read last year.

While I fell short of my 30-book goal for 2014, I still feel good about completing 19 books, including some meaty non-fiction reads. As any nursing mother of a newborn can attest, I had lots of built-in reading time in 2013, so I sailed through 28 books. I had to learn how to make (and protect!) time for books in the year that followed.

For 2015, I’m challenging myself to a very manageable 20 books. Hopefully I exceed that goal. In the meantime, here’s a ranked list of my 2014 reading. I can’t claim too much precision, but I can promise that the top four or five books in each category are well worth your time.

What should I read this year? What were your favorites from last year?

Fiction

  1. The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
  2. Etched on Me – Jenn Crowell
  3. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands – Chris Bohjalian
  4. Landline – Rainbow Rowell
  5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick
  6. Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories
  7. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. The Kitchen House – Kathleen Grissom
  9. The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais
  10. Boys Like You – Juliana Stone
  11. Veronica Mars – The Thousand Dollar Tan Line – Rob Thomas
  12. The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger
  13. The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Non-fiction

  1. The End of Night – Paul Bogard
  2. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East – Scott Anderson
  3. Difficult Conversations – Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton,  & Sheila Heen
  4. Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion
  5. Create Your Writer Platform – Chuck Sambuchino
  6. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules – Jo Frost
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Excerpt of the Week #3

This week’s excerpt is from a newly resurrected novella. I’ve always been partial to it, but novellas can be tough to publish. I finally found a publication accepting longer stories with a June 30 deadline. I’m struggling with the flow and tone in several spots, but I like how my main character’s voice shines through here.

On my way out I heard it. Somebody was playing a high and mournful guitar solo, dragging a note out to just the right length before tumbling onward. I felt like I was walking through his open heart. I had to stop and listen, strain my ears through all the soundproofing in the walls. God, I loved listening to someone who could improvise like that. There are vocalists who can do it, too, but I never could. It was the one place where my voice still felt inhibited, like I had something stuck in my throat.

I heard another door open down the hall and shook it off, smoothing my arm hair down where it had been standing on end. When I walked past the room with the guitarist, I took a look out of the corner of my eye. The arm hair stood back up again and a chill went right down to my ankles.

— from Nightswimming (YA short fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

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Excerpt of the Week #2

Fishing through the pile of guest posts and creative non-fiction I’ve been working on this week, I felt inspired to share an excerpt from my young adult novel manuscript. I recently decided to switch the perspective from third person to first person, which had the somewhat unexpected effect of taking me way back in the editing process — if it’s not a first draft all over again, it’s nowhere close to a final draft, either.

I love intense, well-written fight scenes — think the Nate-Brenda breakup scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under (disclaimer: contains excessive profanity and, of course, spoilers) — and I worked for a long time on this one. Of course, switching the perspective forced me to tear much of it down and rebuild. Here’s a piece of the new scene:

John rubbed his eyes with his palms, letting out a long breath that puffed his cheeks out around his lips. Just a few minutes earlier I’d wanted to stand my ground in that room until I’d saved our love somehow, but now all I could think about was getting out of there. My heart was growing little tendrils, reaching out through space for somewhere warm and safe and, most importantly, nowhere near John or his house. I needed to find Claudia.

“Look, I have to go. I have plans with Claudia later.” I settled my messenger bag across my shoulder and turned to walk out the door.

“Mariana, hold on.” I turned around, tried to keep my eyes cold, felt my body tense as he stood and walked toward me.

“Can I have a hug?”

“Why?” We stood facing each other in the doorway for a moment, waiting to see who would blink first.

— from Standing on the Precipice (YA fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

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Attract more visitors to your website with a polished site description

This post is part of a series of easy tech tips for writers. To see past tech tips, click here.

A friend recently asked me a great question: how can I help people find my website?

This task — referred to as search engine optimization, or SEO — is a big one. You can make a career out of it.

Of course, you’re a writer, not an SEO expert. We want to keep it that way, so I’m giving you just one piece of homework to make your site look professional and click-worthy in a list of Google results. Anyone can do it — I promise.

I’m featuring self-hosted WordPress sites today because I see a lot of writers using them. If you want to request a tech tip for your non-WordPress site, please drop me a line in the comments.

First of all, let’s look at how your site appears in a Google search for your name.

site description in Google search results

click the image to see a larger version

[Tip: tell Google to hide private results (visible only to you) by clicking the option circled in red in the upper right.]

My search result includes bio text from my site’s front page, plus some unfortunate alternate text from my headshot. That just won’t do. I want to edit that little blurb under my site title. The word count is tiny, but its position is powerful.

You can take control of that text by editing your site’s metadata: descriptive content that visitors can’t see, but search engines can. Sound too technical? Don’t fret. WordPress has some handy plugins to help you out.

To get started, log into your website’s admin portal and navigate to Add New under the Plugins menu on the left-hand sidebar. Using a plugin to edit your site’s metadata eliminates the need for you to interact with the code directly. I recommend Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin*, and I’m going to use it in my example here.

Search for WordPress SEO and install WordPress SEO by Yoast. The plugin has great features in its settings page, but I’ll let you explore those on your own. For now, we’re just going to navigate to the edit window for our site’s main page — the one people see when they visit www.yourdomainnamehere.com.

Yoast plugin in WordPress search results

click the image to see a larger version

You’ll see WordPress SEO has added a new box to the edit page. This box allows you to specify a custom title and description for your page. It also provides a handy preview of your new and improved search result.

yoast plugin inline settings

click the image to see a larger version

When you’re finished, save your changes by clicking Update.

The WordPress SEO plugin will automatically notify Google that something has changed on your page, but you won’t see a change instantaneously. Google doesn’t pull information from your site in real time — that would take too long, and most people expect search results to start showing up before they’ve even finished typing. Instead, Google periodically scans the web — including your site — and stores up-to-date information on their servers. The GoogleBot gets around relatively quickly, though, so your information should update within a week.

It really is that easy! Any questions? Let me know in the comments!

* I have no affiliation with Yoast, nor have I received compensation of any kind in exchange for recommending this plugin. I just happen to like it!

Additional References:

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Yoast’s Definitive Guide To Higher Rankings For WordPress Sites

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Excerpt of the Week #1

This week I’m introducing a regular feature I’ve had on my mind for quite a while. With Excerpt of the Week, I’ll share around 100 words from one of my active projects every other Friday. You’ll be able to find them all by clicking here or following #ExOTW on Twitter. Feel free to share your own excerpts in the comments!

I thought of my apartment, the stairs creaking and flexing as I hauled my feet up the two flights to my door with its three locks and its crooked lettering bearing the characters “3F.” Soon, I told myself. Soon. You’re almost there. Outside, an ambulance shoved its way through a line of cars. I tried to steal a look into the yellow-illuminated interior, where I could see a paramedic moving to and fro, head down. An ex-boyfriend had called this habit sick, voyeuristic, but in truth I was feeding my anxiety, trying in vain to see if everyone was okay.

— from The Test (flash fiction)

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