Favorite Staff Reads of 2020

This has been a crazy year, to say the least, and during our time in quarantine, many of us have turned to books. Books have been both a source of enjoyment, a place of solace, and an escape from hectic times. Our staff writers have taken the time to reflect on books that were meaningful to them this year for all of these reasons and more. From fiction to nonfiction, old to new, there is something on this list for everyone. Everyone here at the Spellbinding Shelf wishes you a Happy New Year and (hopefully) a longer to-be-read list!


Staff Writer Rikki Tremblay

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma—Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is a leading expert on trauma studies, and this book is a must-read for academics, professionals, and laypeople alike. You get a thorough and grounded definition and discussion of what trauma is—not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Van der Kolk then covers various paths to recovery beyond just the orthodox approaches to trauma. You’ll learn how to use new techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acting, and yoga in the treatment of trauma.

As someone with cPTSD and recovering from past trauma myself, this book was such a gift. My copy of the book is heavily dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, and scribbled with notes, break-throughs, and revelations throughout. It’s not always an easy read because it will unearth ancient hurts and spark painful—but cathartic—connections at times. I’m happy to have read this book at the beginning of 2020 because I felt better prepared and equipped to survive the collective trauma we’ve all experienced the rest of the year!


Staff Writer Abhilasha Mandal

The Turn of the Screw—Henry James. This book is a horror novella published in 1898. It’s unique due to the psychoanalytical angle it takes on the main characters of the story—Miles, Flora and their governess. It is also largely open to interpretation.

Bly Manor, where they live, is haunted by two insidious spirits who seek to consume Miles and Flora. The governess learns of this and puts all her energy into protecting the children. But is what she’s seeing really there? There are several moments in the story that make you question the governess’s mental disposition. Also, even though she is very descriptive of her protective feelings for the children, some parts of her interactions with them suggest she is not disclosing her innermost feelings for them, especially the boy, Miles.

There is, in fact, much debate among scholars on the hidden meaning of this book. It has also received a lot of critique because it is suggestive of some things that are now inexcusable. But it is a gripping read, and it is best to read it and interpret it for yourself. The thrill doesn’t diminish upon rereading. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes psychological thrillers or gothic drama.


Staff Writer Melanie Wilson

The Alchemist—Paulo Coelho. My favorite book of 2020 has been The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it for the first time this year and I can understand why it’s a classic. My favorite quote from the book was “This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you.”


Staff Writer Lauren Kuhman

The Hobbit—J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a plethora of good books—all of which were strong contenders for the title of my favorite book of 2020. However, I think that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit stands out the most. I have never really read any fantasy novels, and whenever I approached any of Tolkien’s most famous works I was offered a slew of positive, yet cautionary advice on how some of them are lengthy, uneventful reads. Nevertheless, I was (and am) determined to begin the adventure that is The Lord of the Rings series. Since I had never before read these books—or even really watched the movies—I thought it would be appropriate to start at the beginning. While I have yet to begin any of The Lord of the Rings books, I still loved The Hobbit. It was an engaging read that, while being classified as a children’s book, was as exciting and mysterious as any adult novel I’ve read. Additionally, as a novice fantasy reader, I thought it to be a good introduction to the genre and incited me to seek out similar novels. 2020 has been an absolute whirlwind of the year with travesty, drama, some thrills, and complete horrors, so having the ability to tumble down waterfalls in wine barrels was a welcome relief from the very unique and complicated year that has been 2020.


Staff Writer Jaycee Graffius

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—Douglas Adams. This book had me laughing for days! I would sometimes have to put the book down and just giggle nonsensically at the matter-of-fact way in which the book would make absolutely absurd assertions. Each character was delightfully relatable, which is an impressive feat seeing as one of those characters was a hippie/former galactic president with five heads, and they each brought their own comedic flair to the story without feeling redundant. This book reminded me a lot of my favorite podcast, “Welcome to Night Vale,” which also uses absurdist humor to create a peculiar world. I’ve already purchased the entire series and cannot wait to explore the galaxy with my trusty towel!


Staff Writer Amanda Thomas

Shadow and Bone Trilogy—Leigh Bardugo. Young Adult Fantasy had always been my favorite genre, but when you’re deep into your English major, you learn to sample other genres like contemporary and speculative fiction, which leans towards more mature and controversial themes than fantasy and romance. Not to mention how monotonous the YA genre can get when there is a certain trope that authors tend to trend towards. It had been so long since I’d read a YA novel that when I came across this trilogy by Leigh Bardugo with the brilliant cover design, interesting titles, and intriguing summaries, I decided to give it a try. Let’s just say, this trilogy sparked my love of YA fantasy again. While it has its shortcomings, the introduction into the “Grishaverse” detailed a rich fantasy environment with political intrigue that truly felt engaging and unique. I was drawn into this world and fell in love with its characters and the structures of magic that were utilized. It has also inspired me to continue to read into this universe created by Bardugo as the stories and her writing has continued to improve. While I’m still thankful for being able to expand my horizons and read more “adult” types of fiction, reading YA feels like coming home to the type of reading and fantasy worlds that made me into the book lover I am today.


Staff Writer Sharon Enck

Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923—Edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton. If Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe had a book-baby, it would be Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923. It is my favorite read of 2020 because it mixes three of my literary loves: the horror genre, the short story, and narratives from a female perspective. Combining the beautiful turns of phrase a la Austen, with the spine tingling, teeth gnashing grittiness of Poe, Weird Women gives the reader lushly written tales of horror and the supernatural.

There is definitely something jolting about having topics like cruelty, murder, and loss being described as though they belong between the covers of Pride and Prejudice. And if you thought that Louisa May Alcott was only sugar and spice and everything Little Women, you would be deliciously wrong. I was pleasantly surprised to see that that particular author has a dark side as well as a heartwarming one. Among the distinguished list of female writers is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (yes, “The Yellow Wallpaper”) along with some new voices that I am thrilled to have discovered.


Communications Coordinator Roxanne Bingham

A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—Suzanne Collins. This is the prequel to The Hunger Games and I loved getting a look at the mind of President Snow. It was really interesting to see how much The Hunger Games had changed between his mentoring and the games we know. I love villain origin stories, and seeing exactly how he became a villain was so satisfying. I hope she writes more prequels of some kind because I want to know more! 


Managing Editor Jade Stanton

What We Owe To Each Other—T.M. Scanlon. This book provides a possible answer to some of the complex questions at the heart of morality and ethics: how should we judge whether an action is morally right and wrong? Why should we concern ourselves with morality in decision making? Scanlon posits that our conception of morality should be based upon what actions could not be reasonably rejected by others. In this way, what we owe to each other—and, by extension, our views of morality—are ever-evolving and depend on the specific circumstances of individual situations. 

Full disclosure: I heard of this book by watching The Good Place, which aired its fourth and final season this year. While I will caution readers that this is a very (very) dense read, I found the ideas it presents to be very relevant to 2020. Between the pandemic and the civil unrest we have seen this year, it’s hard to deny the importance of morality and decency in today’s world. My favorite thing about this book, however, is that it’s underlying assumption is that, by the very nature of our shared humanity, we owe each other something. To quote The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye, “we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” This sentiment, while always important, feels especially poignant given the turbulence of this year. While we may not know what next year holds, let this be the message we carry into 2021.


Editor-in-Chief Mackenzie King

Tess of the Road—Rachel Hartman. This is probably one of my favorite books of all time, not just 2020. It is set in the same fantastical universe as Hartman’s other books, Seraphina and Shadow Scale (which I also recommend!) but it follows the protagonist’s younger half-sister. It has the main features of any vaguely medieval fantasy novel, with dragons and kings and mistresses, but Hartman’s take on the genre is refreshing and unique. Fantasy has always been my favorite genre, so it was a breath of fresh air to read a fantasy novel that did not fall into the usual tropes. 

Tess is suffocating under the weight of her past “failures” and believes, in the words of her father, that she is “born bad.” Tess’s rebellious streak is highly relatable and her emotional responses draw you even further into the story. Even though I have not personally experienced all that she has, Hartman’s beautiful prose makes you completely understand the complexity of her character as she struggles to accept her past, her mind, and her body. All of the characters are remarkably human and real—even the non-human characters! The mystery of Tess’s past unfolds throughout the book, working through her traumas and disappointments until she eventually accepts them. I would have never thought a book about the main character simply travelling would be so compelling, but it is utterly fantastic! Also, the sequel, Tess of the Sea, will be released soon!

Survival of the Wordiest: My Month of NaNoWriMo

50,000 words in 30 days. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the ultimate writer’s challenge, runs from November 1st through November 30th and is not for the faint of heart. So, why would I, and thousands others, commit to such a lofty goal?

For starters, there is a huge sense of accomplishment in hammering out what could have taken you months or years in just thirty twenty-four hour periods. It is an effective way to start that project you have been meaning to get to for however long, and—if I am being completely honest—you can rack up some serious bragging rights! 

Yet, NaNoWriMo is not about creating a perfectly polished publishable piece of prose (try saying that five times fast) in 30 days. No, this is about getting that “shitty first draft” (thank you Anne Lamott for that bit of priceless advice) out of your head and onto paper, Google Doc, Word Doc, Scrivener, papyrus scroll, or whatever system works for you. Your NaNoWriMo project is simply the shell of what will, hopefully, become your novel. 

Before one begins NaNoWriMo you may want to identify what category of writer you fall into. Are you a Planner, a Pantser, or a Plantser? 

The Planner is one that does just that: plans. They create detailed  lists, outlines, character sketches, mind maps, world charts, and the like. They are going in armed with as much information that they can have about their novel. A Planner could work for a month or more before NaNoWriMo even begins to achieve their best possible result. Their novel idea might have been knocking around in their brain long before they decided to join the challenge.

The Pantser is one that literally “flies by the seat of their pants.” This is the writer that is pretty much winging it. They have an idea of what they want to write about, but generally have not outlined anything or delved much into character or plot. They are making it up as they go, and following whatever road presents itself to them in the process.

The Plantser, as you might have guessed, is the union of a Planner and a Pantser. It is the best of both types, and involves some outlining or mind mapping, but not so much that there isn’t a little room for spontaneity. 

I am of the Pantser variety and what is known in the Nano world as a “rebel.” My project was not a novel, but a collection of short stories that I have been dreaming about for three years now. Since it doesn’t fall under the novel category, I join the rebel ranks which include nonfiction writers and purveyors of poetry. My first love will always be the short story, and also as a creative nonfiction writer I wear the rebel badge proudly.

While I do not profess to be much of a planner, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do my share of preparation before November 1st. Here are a few of the tricks I employed during the month to keep the creative juices flowing, and the stress level relatively manageable. 

Support System

I warned my family. Many times. This was too big a project to go it alone, and I needed my husband and daughter to understand that I had to write a minimum of 1,667 words per day to reach the goal. In the end they were my accountability partners, cheerleaders, and figurative punching bags when things got tough and I needed to vent!  

Adding to my corner of the writing ring, I enrolled in a class here at ASU designed specifically for NaNoWriMo participants. Starting in October, the class was centered around one goal and one goal only—to get you to 50,000 words. Among the tools and assignments was the craft book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, motivational videos, taped lectures, and required word count screen shot submissions for extra accountability. A strong writing community grew out of this class—and while I was often too busy to actively socialize, I got some great advice and motivation out of my classmates.

The NaNoWriMo website itself ended up being a terrific source of support with national and local “write ins” and badges that you could earn for completing tasks like writing for seven, 14, and 21 days straight, among others. Their website became that one constantly open tab so I could enter my word count (even if it was just a couple of hundred words) quickly and easily. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see those numbers creep up each time I logged a session. 

Music to My Ears (and writing fingers) 

A couple of weeks prior to the start of NaNoWriMo, I read that having some writing rituals could help put writers in the best possible and creative headspace. This was nothing new to me, but one ritual in particular stood out as being especially helpful: music. Normally, when I write for a class I use the Rainy Mood website to create some nice background noise, but several sources recommended creating playlists to match the mood and tone of the novel. Since I was writing a collection of short stories, I ended up tweaking this idea and coming up with several playlists. Interview with a witch story? I listened to a lot of Stevie Nicks, and instrumentals. Coming of age story with a mother/daughter duo and a John Hughes obsession? The Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles soundtracks became my muses. 

What Light Over Yonder Window Breaks

To bring a little ambience and atmosphere to my writing sessions, I added the element of fire. I started burning scented candles to help bring a little atmosphere to all those hours I spent bent over the laptop. There was something very soothing when, in the midst of some major writer’s block, I could breathe deeply and get a whiff of ocean air, vanilla toffee, or cafe fresco. Did it help the block? Not necessarily, but it did keep me from pitching my laptop out the window. 

Timing is Everything

When creating a writing schedule, I had every intention of writing first thing in the morning to begin my day. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. My writing schedule ended up being as pantsy as my process. When I discussed how difficult it was to write 1,667 words in one sitting (particularly when you have no outline, or other details to work off of) to my instructor, she recommended chunking.

This was one of many “aha!” moments during the month, and something I was already doing with my college coursework. Splitting up my writing sessions ended up being my savior. I would shoot for two sessions of 800 words, but often I would write bits and pieces throughout the day. In this regard, my obsessive rule of having a pen and notebook available at all times was on point. I was constantly jotting down bits of dialogue, action, setting and character details. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. My family swears I didn’t hear a word they said for the whole month!

The Finish Line

Yes, I made it. On day 30 with just hours left in the challenge, I finished at 50,120 words, which broke down into five short stories. Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the days that I struggled to get to that 1,667 words. Despite not knowing what my characters were doing or saying, or where the story was headed. Even those days where I was just so mentally exhausted from life stuff (being a student, wife, mother, and employee) that I just couldn’t fathom writing one sentence—much less hundreds of words—it was worth it. Knowing that I was completing work that would have taken far longer to write in such a short period of time kept me going. 

So, What Now?

Just because November 30th has come and gone, and just because I won NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it is over. Yes, I wrote over 50,000 words. But they are some of the messiest words ever to grace my Google Drive, and that is because I heeded all the advice and did not edit anything while I was writing. I. Just. Had. To. Get. The. Words. Down. So, I know I am going to look back at the work, scratch my head, and ponder “What the heck was I thinking?”

The real work of hard editing is ahead of me. I wrote drunk for thirty days and now I soberly have to edit (thank you Hemingway). But, to quote another writer, Jodi Picoult, “You can’t edit a blank page.” You also can’t submit blank pages to a publisher, an agent, or a literary magazine.

Would I do it again?

In a word? Yes. While the process was demanding, it was extremely motivating. NaNoWriMo took over my life for 30 days, and it was exactly the kick-in-the-pants that I needed to make strong progress on a three year-old idea.

There are a couple of things I would do differently. Although I am a Pantser, I would conjure up some more story ideas prior to NaNoWriMo’s start. It was tricky to both brainstorm and write in such a short amount of time. While I did like splitting up the writing, I would try to do more of it in the morning hours—evenings became difficult for me to write after long days of classes, work, and family responsibilities. I can see myself planning an extra hour in the morning to get a jump start. Other than that I am definitely on board for next year, and I even have a new collection in mind. 

Are you a NaNoWriMo writer? What was your experience? And if not, would you consider taking the challenge and losing yourself in wordsmithing for a month?

Write on!

Adulting in Wonderland

There are some books that one should read only as a child because they sit better with those who are still impressionable. Then there are stories that are written for children but can only truly be appreciated by adults. Alice in Wonderland is one such book. The first time I read it I was in kindergarten. Back then, I felt like it was a regular magical story about a young girl who has a colorful dream. Like every other kid who read it, I was fairly surprised and disappointed to find that it was just a dream. Reading it again as an adult, knowing how it ends, I am in love with the metaphors and the little nuggets of worldly wisdom disguised as childish humor.

Alice is the embodiment of childish innocence. In contrast, her sister, to whom she excitedly relates her dream in the end, is nearly an adult—and more somber for it. She ruefully acknowledges that Alice will grow up to be a woman and Wonderland will be tucked away in some corner of her mind.

In the backdrop of Alice’s innocent young mind, Carroll paints pictures from real life but in funny, quirky shapes and colors. On the outside it looks exactly like something a child would dream up. But to grown-up eyes, it seems wretchedly familiar. I’m not sure if Lewis Carroll intended for readers to find symbolism in this book. It’s possible he really was just writing it for a pre-teen audience and inadvertently put some satire in there. But a great book is like a mirror: you often find exactly what you wish to find in it.

As for me, I imagined the whole rabbit hole saga to be a metaphor for introspection. Alice falls so slowly down the famed rabbit hole that she can pick books off the walls, flip through them, and put them back. When she finally lands, she is in a long hallway with numerous doors that are all locked.

Falling forever and landing nowhere is exactly what an introspective spiral feels like.

Throughout the book Alice drinks potions and eats mushrooms and literally grows and shrinks countless times. It’s a dream, so of course, she doesn’t think it’s odd after a while. Several times she is induced by one or more of the many strange characters to ask herself, “Who am I?” This brilliant metaphor for an identity crisis and personal growth is so prominent, it makes you wonder why this book is not reclassified as “for all ages”.

The various characters created by Alice’s sleeping brain are fantastical but accurate depictions of the kinds of people we know in real life. There’s the Hatter and the Hare, deep thinkers who are misunderstood and branded as “mad.” The Mock Turtle (of mock turtle soup), whose greatest sorrow is that he has no sorrow. And of course, the Queen of Hearts, who likes to execute anyone who ever annoys her. The world has probably seen too many leaders like the Queen and misjudged too many revolutionary thinkers like the Hatter.

The best part of the novel is quite possibly the trial at the end. It is a satirical take on how justice is served, or is often not served, as the case is in our society. If people like the Queen had their way it would probably be “sentence first, verdict afterwards!” Underneath the surreal nonsense, it depicts how prejudice, unfair treatment of witnesses, and misrepresentation of facts are often a large part of court trials. Reading this chapter makes you think that Carroll was frustrated with the judicial system and thought it was a farce. The style in which it is written suggests that it was a cathartic exercise for himself.

Whether Carroll wanted adults to enjoy his book or not, he scattered enough of his brilliant thoughts and ideas about people and society all over the story to engage mature readers. Like all great classics, it is still relevant and has something for people in every stage of life.

The 2021 Tucson Festival of Books


Have you been itching to find new books and connect with fellow book lovers and authors? If so, mark your calendar for Saturday, March 6 and Sunday, March 7, 2021! On those days, the Tucson Festival of Books will take place. This year, the organizers of the event have adapted to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and are excited to offer a new, all-virtual experience for readers like you. 

The two-day event will take place completely online and will showcase live author events for adults and children from many categories. In addition, it will feature familiar venues, such as the Arizona Daily Star stage, the Pima County Public Library Nuestras Raíces stage, and the Western National Parks and Science stage. Most content will be provided live or with live Q&A, with select sessions on demand.

The event creators are very enthusiastic to provide a safe yet engaging experience in the midst of the cancellation of last year’s festival due to the pandemic. “We value the safety of the Tucson community and are excited to share this immersive, virtual experience with all book lovers and fans of the Tucson Festival of Books,” festival executive director Melanie Morgan said in a statement to thisistucson.com. 

When March arrives, don’t miss this amazing, one-of-a-kind festival! More information about the festival can be found here.


Location: Online
Date: Saturday, March 6, and Sunday, March 7

6 Bookish Crochet Projects to Snuggle With This Winter

Is there anything better than snuggling with a cup of hot cocoa, a good book, and a nice crochet project? I don’t think so. That’s why this winter I’ve found six incredible crochet projects for us crafty book nerds to enjoy. From cute plushies, to sweaters, to bookmarks, there’s a project here for any book lover this holiday season!


Mrs. Weasley’s Christmas Sweaters from Harry Potter. These adorable hand knitted sweaters were a yearly gift from Mrs. Weasley to her many children while they were away at Hogwarts. Just thinking about these sweaters and how loving Mrs. Weasley was throughout the series never fails to warm my heart, especially since they were the first gift Harry was ever given after years of neglect from the Dursleys. Now we can recreate the magic of these enchanting jumpers with this pattern from CrochetWithMeg on Etsy! This pattern also provides diagrams so that you can use any letter you want for the center design, so you too can make a sweater for each member of your family!


Flowery Bookmarks. While I often use anything from wrappers to receipts to mark my page in my books, sometimes it is nice to have a proper bookmark to hold my place. These pretty little bookmarks make it look as though a daisy is growing from between the covers! This free pattern by Aseem Creations guides the reader through making the flower, attaching the stem, and making the cute little tassel at the bottom. This pattern is perfect for a reader who is looking for a quick, practical project this winter.


A Cthulhu Plushie from Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu—one of the terrifying old gods from H. P. Lovecraft’s disturbing pantheon of unknowable monsters—isn’t often described as cute. In fact, his giant tentacles, leathery wings, and appetite for human flesh make him a perfect storm of nightmare fuel and existential terror for those who read his story. However, thanks to the incredible pattern creator Alysha, now Cthulhu is a must-have for those long winter nights. Follow this free pattern and within a few hour you too could cuddle with your own manifestation madness!


An Elvish Coat. Elves are a staple of the fantasy genre. With their spiky ears, elegant styles, and aloof attitudes, they are often the aristocrats of their respective stories and are usually sophisticated in style and mannerism. This Christmas, stay warm and cozy by making the pinnacle of elvish fashion, a long flowing coat with this free pattern by Morale Fiber. The pattern includes instructions on how to make a long button up coat with wide sleeves, a pointed hood, and a corset back. This elaborate design would be perfect for a cozy night in, so if you’re looking for a longer project this winter break, this is the craft for you.


Katniss Everdeen’s Winter Cowl from Catching Fire. This cozy neck warmer was worn by Katniss in Catching Fire during the snowy winter months in District Twelve looked toasty and soft. Can’t you just imagine wrapping yourself in it and then overthrowing the government? Well, imagine no more! Thanks to this pattern by Jazodee on Etsy, you can topple any empire you desire in fashion. It also includes alterations for sizing, so it can fit a revolutionary at any size!


Coraline’s Gloves from Coraline. Coraline Jones’ adventurous spirit made her a compelling protagonist, and her desire to stand out from crowd was especially relatable to the book’s young readers. Coraline Jones desperately wanted these gloves while back to school shopping to make sure that she stood out at her new school, much to her mother’s chagrin. You too can make a statement this winter with these iconic gloves! With this free pattern by Mad Hooker Crochet, you’ll be adventure ready in no time!

Book Review

Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light by Apryl Stott

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Children’s Literature
Pages: 40
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

This year has been exceptionally stressful. I’m not going to sugarcoat it—life has just hit every single person with a thick, hard, brick. However, in the “season of giving,” no book could be more suited to bring some light in the darkness than Apryl Stott’s Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light. This children’s book is a perfect holiday gift or family read both because of its winter-esque imagery, but also its message. As opposed to telling the stories of typical holiday novels and children’s books, this picture book takes the reader on the journey of a young girl named Coco and her best animal friend, Bear (who is also a bear). Coco and Bear go around the woods attempting to share gifts with the other forest friends to show how kind and loving Bear is, despite his grizzly appearance. However, when this doesn’t work, Coco and Bear discover that kindness and light isn’t about tangible gifts, but continuous selfless actions for others. 

Thoughts

I remember reading Christmas stories when I was a kid at school, or seeing The Grinch and A Christmas Carol on T.V. However, I didn’t really appreciate the value of such stories because they were continuously played. However, this Christmas I wanted to revisit my childhood and longed for a story that would bring light in the darkest of years and emphasize one thing everyone needs in life—kindness. 

For adults, this book may be simplistic—however, if you look deeper than the short script and thin pages, you’ll find characteristic artwork, a heartwarming plot, and an inspiring message. The truth is books like Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light are not just for children because it conveys a strong message in simple language; one that is too-often forgotten. Coco and Bear could not have been more different, but they were connected by their inherent friendship. That love is what ultimately allows the other forest animals to see Bear better: it wasn’t elaborate gifts or active promotion of how good Bear was, but their actions that demonstrated Bear’s character. I appreciated this message, not only because of the tense and stressful climate of the past year, but especially because it is the holiday season. It is not about what we physically give others, but how we show respect and kindness to our family, our peers, our neighbors, and most of all to strangers.

I’m not going to tell you how this book ends, but I will note that perhaps this holiday season we can all bring light and kindness to our friends, family, strangers, and most importantly ourselves. And remember this season and as we approach the new year—“When life gets dark as winter’s night, share some kindness, bring some light.”

P is for Problematic: A Critical Review of of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery Series—From a Fan!

You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Y is for Yesterday, when the series ended with Sue Grafton’s death. I read the series this year and I enjoyed it. The main character, Kinsey Millhone, is a no-nonsense, witty, assertive, peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich-eating badass and private investigator. 

And while I did enjoy the series, there is much to be critiqued. There are problems. You could say it is

p r o b l e m a t i c. 

Because the term “problematic” can become partisan or dismissed as simply meaning “offensive,” let’s get clear on what it means. As simply as possible, problematic means presenting a problem. Olly Thorn adds that problematic means presenting a “social or political problem to do with some issue of fairness or social justice.”

It’s even more important to discuss the problematic nature of something that we like, or put another way, to critique our “problematic faves.” And Grafton’s series, especially the Kinsey character, and even larger—the genre of mystery—are many people’s favorites, including mine. I’m not saying don’t read these books; I’m saying when you read them, do so critically, aware of what injustices it may be reproducing. I hope this is a call that we do better moving forward in the genre. 

There are many problems in Grafton’s series, including racism, copaganda, victim-blaming, and more, but I will discuss here: sexism, fatphobia, and classism (with a sprinkling of ableism and xenophobia). I write of these problems separately, but please know that they are inherently more complex and interconnected. The intersectional relationships between fatphobia and sexism or between fatphobia and classism, for examples, are extremely complicated. 


S is for Sexist. How could a series that stars a hardboiled female private eye be sexist? And it’s true that when A for Alibi was published in 1982, it was groundbreaking: a lady private investigator? And written by a lady? The character Kinsey defied previous stereotypical and limited female roles in the mystery genre: either “femme fatale or corpse.” Throughout the series, because of her professional identity and career, other characters often assume Kinsey is a man, which she always sassily and satisfyingly rebuts. “Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.”  

But still, there are problems. In Y is for Yesterday, Kinsey believes, “The odd but unremarkable truth about women is we’ve had the aggression bred right out of us. Many of us are constitutionally unable to handle any kind of confrontation without bursting into tears.” This kind of generalizing about women as a whole is problematic in and of itself without regarding the intersections of gender, racism, disability, class, etc. It’s also problematic in regards to considering women as biologically weaker and that a “feminine” quality of expressing emotion during conflict is negative. Female characters in Grafton’s books, especially beloved Kinsey, regularly judge or comment on other women’s bodies or refer to other women as “bitchy.” Internalized sexism is readily seen when women habitually disparage themselves or other women, especially in regards to body-shaming them. It’s also seen in references to women as the “weaker sex,” which is, unfortunately, a surprisingly common theme in a series featuring a strong female main character!

And let’s talk about the trope of the strong female character, because that is harmful as well. Strong female characters might superficially seem feminist and anti-sexist, but it’s more complicated than that. What makes a female character “strong?” For a female character to be strong, it usually means she expresses masculine traits and eschews feminine ones. The problem is not masculinity, but rather that we associate strength with masculinity. Like other strong female characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Kinsey reasserts masculine traits like having a willingness to commit gun violence; being tough and physically fit; needing to assert dominance in most situations; detesting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion, cooking, and make up—just to name a few. The work here is to change the way we see strength, to see strength in typically feminine traits or feminine expression. The response to the damsel in distress trope of the past isn’t to create harm as an overcorrection to the strong female character trope. 


F is for Fatphobic. [content warning: fat-shaming, weight] As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image, Grafton’s series was often difficult to read. Diet culture and fat-shaming feature as main characters of the series in their own right, unfortunately. Kinsey is constantly exercising to “stay slim,” analyzing the calories of every food, skipping meals or bingeing on junk food, and making harmful judgments and evaluations of other characters’ bodies. If you share the same struggles with diet, weight, and shame as I do, I might recommend skipping this series entirely.

Personally upsetting to me was Grafton’s descriptions of Kinsey’s friend Vera Lipton’s body. From books B through J, Vera is described with words like “big” and “bulky.” In J is for Judgment (how fitting), Kinsey says, “She’s a big gal to begin with: maybe five feet ten, 140 pounds on a good size frame. She’d never been apologetic about her generous proportions.” As a woman who is exactly five feet ten myself, 140 pounds is not remotely “big.” 

Especially concerning and harmful is how Grafton writes about a fat and lonely hotel clerk named Arlette who tries to argue for body acceptance:

“Fat is beautiful, Kinsey,” she said to me confidentially as I filled out the registration card. “Looka here.”

I looked. She was holding out her arm so that I could admire the hefty downing of excess flesh.

“I don’t know, Arlette,” I said dubiously. “I keep trying to avoid it myself.”

“And look at all the time and energy it takes,” she said. “The problem is that our society shuns tubbos. Fat people are heavily discriminated against. Worse than the handicapped. Why, they got it easy compared to us. Everywhere you go now, there are signs out for them. Handicapped parking. Handicapped johns. You’ve seen those little stick figures in wheelchairs. Show me in the international sign for the grossly overweight. We got rights.”

Her face was moon-shaped, surrounded by a girlish cap of wispy blonde hair. Her cheeks were permanently flushed as though vital supply lines were being dangerously squeezed.

“But it’s so unhealthy, Arlette,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks…”

“Well there’s hazards to everything. All the more reason we should be treated decently.”

What’s frustrating to see in this excerpt is Arlette arguing for fat acceptance and an end to fat-shaming, which I wholly support. However, Grafton presents it embedded in disgusted and judgmental descriptions about her body, which makes Arlette’s claims seem foolish and absurd. Not only is there fatphobia is this short quotation, but also sexism and ableism.

We know that fat-shaming, especially embedded in concerns about “health,” like Kinsey claims in the above excerpt, only do more harm than good. Shaming people for being fat by claiming you do so for their health not only doesn’t reduce their weight but actually leads to unhealthy outcomes: both increased disordered eating in response to public shaming, and rejection and the significant mental health tolls the shaming takes on our bodies. 

Sure, A is for Alibi was published in 1982, at the height of diet culture, the low-fat movement, and a time where fat-shaming was common (and unfortunately still is today). The book does reflect the culturally acceptable beliefs and behaviors of the day. However, there are 26 books in the series written over three decades, with the final book being published in 2017. Yet, diet culture and fat-shaming is a huge ongoing theme that never gets corrected or addressed. It doesn’t matter if Grafton shares these fat-shaming beliefs with Kinsey or if she is writing them as solely belonging to Kinsey—the harmful consequences are the same. 


C is for Classist. Kinsey (and arguably by proxy, Grafton) really hate poor and homeless people. Grafton’s series is rife with classism, which is the “systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” Not only does Grafton write Kinsey into being in awe of rich characters’ homes and fashion, but she writes about homeless and poor characters and their associated negative qualities in extremely harmful ways.

A theme of the books places the responsibility on individuals instead of systems and structures: “bad apples” in the police force instead of structural problems with policing, criminals who “choose” crime instead of structural problems that leave them desperate, fat people who “choose” to be fat instead of the stronghold of food engineering and advertising. Likewise with classism. However, homelessness is not an individual’s failure—it is a structural failure of the society. Yet, Grafton continually writes that being poor or homeless is a personal lifestyle choice rather than being a victim of mental illness, poverty, and capitalist structures designed to keep people in poverty and out of homes. Even though homeless characters in W is for Wasted work heroically and without pay for Kinsey to solve that book’s case, she continually assesses them as smelly, unhygienic, and morally weak for living in poverty and having substance addictions.

In an intersectional medley of oppression in Y is for Yesterday, fat and homeless woman Pearl comes to live with Kinsey’s kind neighbor. Kinsey tells Pearl she is both taking advantage of the neighbor and illegitimately receiving disability support. Though Pearl’s hip is broken, Kinsey saw her hanging clothes on a clothes line and therefore believes Pearl is faking it, which is extremely offensive and harmful. Kinsey says, “Little sympathy I had for moochers and human parasites.” It should go without saying that no oppressed human deserves to be called a “parasite.”

Grafton writes a scene in V is for Vengeance that is an interesting and disturbing intertwining of classism and ethnocentrism, which entails the evaluation of other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Throughout the series, Kinsey disparages Rosie’s homemade Hungarian dishes as “repulsive” and focusing on animal parts typically considered “disgusting” in xenophobic perspectives. “By the time she finished telling me how tender the feet should be… my eyes were beginning to cross.” Kinsey more than once through the series spits out Rosie’s lovingly prepared meals. Such an ongoing “joke” throughout the series made me cringe every time. We get it: “foreign” food is gross and weird—ha ha. Pearl and another of her homeless friend are the only characters in the series to genuinely enjoy Rosie’s cooking, relating their subordinated social class with the unimaginable enjoyment of “gross” foods and lack of taste.


Grafton’s series itself won’t change as the years go on, but our reading of it will change, because we change with times. A 2020 reading of the series shows some of the problems and perpetuated harm still present in the series. So, read the series with a critical eye.

Better yet—if you’re a fan of mystery, crime fiction, and thrillers and are willing to join me, let’s read some incredible books from LGBT+ and mystery writers of color. Both of these groups have largely been historically excluded from the mystery genre. A classic psychological thriller written by lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is gripping, suspenseful, and existential. New publications by black women mystery writers like My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole are fun and creative tales that seek to disrupt the status quo rather than perpetuate it.

And if you can’t get enough of a series featuring a hardboiled protagonist, check out Michael Nava’s series featuring a gay and Latino defense lawyer named Henry Rios. Nava’s queer framing of the mystery and crime genres challenge what we expect.

Maybe it’s time to get some new favorites.

5 Speculative Fiction Books for Beginners

Speculative fiction is my favorite genre, so I’m beyond excited to share some recommendations! Speculative fiction includes books that are written about events or societies that are theoretically possible, but don’t actually exist. This definition can be a bit tricky to understand, so I like to think of it as the genre where realistic fiction and dystopian/science fiction overlap. It’s a great genre for readers like myself who enjoy a little bit of everything. In hopes that you’ll eventually fall in love with the genre as much as I have, I want to share five speculative fiction books that are a great place to get started!


Life After Life—Kate Atkinson. Life After Life is the story of a woman named Ursula Todd who relives her life numerous times in twentieth-century England. Each life is an alternate possible reality in which she vaguely remembers the events of her past lives and is able to avoid events which would otherwise have lead to her death. This book is a great place to start for anyone who enjoys character-driven novels. Not to mention the best part: it has a sequel!


Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Butler’s work, or at least recognize her name. And there’s a reason for that! Parable of the Sower was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1994 after its release and recently became a New York Times Bestseller again in September of 2020. The novel follows the life of a young woman named Lauren Olamina as she navigates Butler’s vision of America in 2024. I was completely engrossed in this novel when I read it. It is definitely a must read for anyone who is looking to ease out of teen dystopian novels and into adult dystopias.


The Road—Cormac McCarthy. This was my first speculative fiction novel and let me tell you, I was floored when I read this book. The novel follows a man and his young son as they travel across the remains of a post-apocalyptical North America in search of a better life. The pair are accosted with difficult weather and unwelcoming travelers during their journey. I will warn you that this novel is intense, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys realistically unhappy endings as much as I do.


The DreamersKaren Thompson Walker. Romance and domestic fiction fans, you’ve found your next read! Walker’s novel tells the story of a small town in California that is plagued with a deadly sleeping disease. The novel focuses on a young college student named Mei who is suddenly pulled out of her typical college lifestyle because of the strange disease. Mei finds a companion in one of her classmates, and together they attempt to save the town from the sickness. This novel is a great option for fans of bittersweet realistic fiction who are looking to expand their reading horizons.


1984—George Orwell. I doubt there’s much need for me to introduce this book to you. I’m sure you’ve heard of it one way or another, and possibly even read it in high school, or just for fun. Orwell’s novel had to make this list, though. 1984 is a classic in the genre of speculative fiction. His vision of life in the year 1984 has been the inspiration for many other speculative fiction writers who came after him. He certainly inspired some of the writers on this list. So, if you’ve read my list and now you’re wondering which of the five novels to start with, this is the one!

Author Interview with Hunter Codner

During brunch a few weeks ago, I was gifted a new book by a friend for my reading pleasure. The New Deep by Hunter Codner was emblazoned on the front cover. Any day that begins with the collection of a new book is a great day to me and to many fellow bibliophiles, but what my friend said next changed the context of this particular book: it was written by a coworker of my husband.

It’s not unheard of for book lovers to be avid writers as well—for many it’s our dream to write that novel, build our own world, tell our own story, and the biggest step towards that goal, in the words of Stephen King, are to “read more books.” So I took a second long, good look at this new book in my possession. At the fabulous artwork on the cover, at the professional matte paperback finish of it, and finally at the name of the author, which suddenly rang a bell to me as an individual my husband had mentioned speaking and working with. For me, it hit close to home: it made the goal of publishing a novel so much more real and tangible. I took it home and, with a stack of TBR books on my nightstand, I devoured The New Deep in one evening, late into the night. I was enamored with the rich characters and sci-fi world of Hunter’s debut novel, and in addition to wanting to tell the world about the success and triumph of an acquaintance from our very own neighborhood, I had a need to ask him about how he went about making “the dream” happen. So as follows is my interview with the author of The New Deep, and I hope that his story provides some ideas for my fellow writers considering the avenue of self-publication, and inspires you to check out Hunter Codner’s excellent new addition to the science fiction genre.


  1. Did you always set out to write and publish a novel? 
    I’ve wanted to write a novel for a while now, but I never got past the world-building stage. I finally decided to push through and do it after I went to Gen Con last year and saw all the folk in author’s alley. From there, I knew that I wanted to write and publish a book.
  2. What was a big motivator for you to develop your idea and pursue a novel-length story?
    There were two enormous motivators for me to push through with the story. One was that I knew I absolutely wanted to write a book and share it with people. The second was that I had been working on my science fiction world for over a decade and finally had the drive to do something with it. Then inspiration struck—surprisingly, not from any science fiction source but from D&D. I had this idea of a spaceship that wasn’t really a ship but instead a giant mimic, and I went from there.
  3. What were some of your biggest challenges?
    One of the largest challenges was striking a balance between my job, my hobbies, and trying to write. After finding that balance, I hit a hard wall about fifteen thousand words into the story. I had to eventually just take time off work so that I could push myself over the wall and finally finish the story.
  4. When you finished, what were your first thoughts?
    I didn’t really believe it, but I was also super pumped—not as much as my husband, though. It was like being on a super tough hike, and finally, I had reached the first significant milestone. Right after I finished, I started researching about the next steps for the process.
  5. How did you begin the proofreading/editing process, and how did you get in touch with an editor?
    For an editor, I lucked out in that I had a friend who wanted to become an editor and was going to school for it, so I offered my book. Unluckily for her, I’m a new author, and at that time, I was even less knowledgeable than I am now and just sent her first draft, untouched. Bless her heart, she was patient with me and worked with me for almost an entire year and through many drafts/revisions until we had a workable product.
  6. What motivated you to pursue self-publishing rather than using a publishing company?
    I decided on self-publishing after I finished the first draft, and I saw it was only the length of a novella (after the editing process, it did reach novel-length). I didn’t think that a publishing company would want to take up a thirty-thousand-word story from a new author (and after some research, I was correct). After researching self-publishing, I realized that Amazon had made the process so easy that there was no real reason I shouldn’t.
  7. What was your biggest source of information for the process of self-publishing?
    Oh man, the site two sites I think I visited the most were Reedsy and the Kindle Direct Publishing main site. Reedsy is a great blog with articles about writing and publishing that really helped me figure out the process and things I needed to get done. The KDP site has an FAQ section that goes through everything. They cover not only the things you need for publishing through KDP, but also guides on typesetting, layouts, and cover design. Besides those two though, there are so many different sources of information for people wanted to self-publish: one quick Google search, and you’ll have a tsunami of useful info.
  8. How did you go about choosing the designs and getting copies of your book printed?
    Lucky for me, my husband is a graphic designer and artist. He insisted that not only did he want to draw the cover of the book, but also draw chapter art. Later, when I was typesetting and laying out the interior of the book, he also found me a great font to use for chapter headings and cover. As for physical copies, surprisingly, Kindle (Amazon) does that as well, and it’s pretty straightforward. While I highly recommend hiring someone to layout out your book, Amazon does have step-by-step guides on how to properly layout your book for print.
  9. What has been the most rewarding thing about self-publishing your first novel?
    The most rewarding moment was when I finally hit publish for the physical copies on Amazon. I had spent maybe a week and a half working on the layouts for the book, then uploaded them and ordered my proof copies to make sure everything was ready to go as we believed. Thank God we did. In the flurry of getting the book ready to publish, I had missed so many tiny things that it made the book look sloppy. My husband, editor, and I spent a weekend pouring back through the book—both digitally and physically—until we felt that we had caught everything. So, when I finally hit publish the next weekend, it was a sigh of relief.
  10. What advice do you have for other writers? Would you suggest for them to pursue self-publishing?
    My advice would be that no matter how ready you think that the first draft is for someone to see, it’s not. Don’t send anything before the third draft to an editor, and look for some good honest beta readers to look at your story, too. As for self-publishing, I suggest going through the process even if you don’t plan on hitting publish, just so you know each point of the process of publishing a book.
  11. Lastly, we like to ask all of our featured authors to share their current read.
    Sure, currently I’m listening to the audiobook version of the first Redwall novel.

You can purchase Hunter Codner’s debut novel The New Deep at Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to the author for providing this ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.

Practicing The Craft: 4 Books to Help You Become a Better Writer

As NaNoWriMo comes to a close for another year, many writers are celebrating their 50,000 word successes. What does it take to keep going for a full 30 days of writing 1,667 words per day? A little inspiration, motivation, and a lot of perspiration. Many, yours truly included, have turned to craft books this year to get a little nudge, and learn more about what it takes to create a great story.

For those seeking some inspiration and deeper knowledge about their craft, here are four books specifically written to do just that. These authors will lend support, motivate, teach technique, and at times be that friend over your shoulder whispering “you can do this!” It is never too early to get the jump on next year’s NaNoWriMo challenge!


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—Stephen King. You will see King’s book On Writing in just about every list that has anything to do with advice for creative writers. The dedication page sums up the tone of the book as King quotes Miguel de Cervantes, “honesty’s the best policy.” King sets the reader up for a no-holds barred look at the craft of writing. Part memoir, part instruction manual on how to write well, King is unflinching with details on his own personal journey and the demons that have accompanied him. His writing advice is similarly honest, and he uses examples from well-known authors to make his points. My favorite piece of advice is one that you have probably heard (but honestly, I don’t think a writer can hear enough) is, “read a lot and write a lot.” Despite what writers desperately want to believe, King claims there is no shortcut. On Writing is a humorous and honest look at what goes on behind the scenes.


Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative WriterEdited by Bret Anthony Johnston. With acclaimed authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Robbins, Naming the World has some serious writer power. Broken up into sections to tackle such topics as getting started, dialogue, character, point of view and tone, this book unleashes the advice of many different writers coming from a variety of genres. At the end of each short piece is a writing exercise to practice what you may have just learned—and let’s just say that my copy is highlighted and annotated to death.


Thrill Me: Essays on FictionBenjamin Percy. With a biting sense of humor, Benjamin Percy implores writers to do what he was advised to as an emerging wordsmith: “Thrill me.” Through a series of well-curated examples including literature, film and television, Percy breaks down the finer aspects of writing. Through the examination of such topics as activating setting, using lyricism to create beautiful literary music, and creating the perfect balance of peaks and valleys to pace a story, Percy can help you fine tune that work that just isn’t, well, working.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeAnne Lamott. If you only read one section out of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, let it be “shitty first drafts.” Particularly helpful for the perfectionist in all of us, Lamott begs writers to shed their inhibitions and just get it down on paper. She gives permission to play without fear of consequence (or later editing)—because playing is where the really great work happens! Through personal experiences, she guides the writer through various stages of writing a story including the shitty first draft, but goes deeper into the psyche. By offering thoughts on writing groups, finding your own voice, and even the ugly green-headed monster, jealousy, she tackles what goes on in the mind of a creator. Lamott also addresses creative nonfiction writers, and Bird by Bird doles out some serious inspiration and craft advice, with a dash of humor.


So…what are you waiting for? Grab a book or two, and start hammering away at your next great story or essay. As Jodi Picoult says, “You can’t edit a blank page!” Happy reading and writing!