The Best Books I've Read

The Best Book I Read This Month: Description by Monica Wood

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The best book I read this month was a writing craft book called Description. Don’t let the title fool you, though—the book is about more than writing descriptions. It talks about point-of-view and dialogue and plot and story. At 168 pages, it is one of the richest craft books I’ve ever read.

Written by Monica Wood, Description is an old book. Published in 1995 by Writer’s Digest Books, it’s now out of print and I had a devil of a time finding it. I’m glad I did, though. The book is a master-class in the importance of word choice in every aspect of the writer’s craft: description, character, setting, point of view, story, and narrative. My highlighter got quite a workout.

So many writing books are either pompous (“To be a real writer, you must do XYZ”) or overly justified (“It’s important that you do this or no one will read your work—or something equally catastrophic.”) Wood’s Description is neither. It is concise and direct. It gives writers the power of choice and provides examples of each type of choice. For example, “Show, Don’t Tell,” Wood cautions, is a common but frequently misunderstood piece of writing advice. She says it’s not about always showing and never telling, but rather knowing when it’s better to show and when it’s better to tell.

Each chapter concludes with a summary of the chapter’s main points, which will prove helpful when I need to refer back to it during my revision passes. It also includes a handy list of additional tips and tricks in the back—something that could easily be turned into a revision checklist.

I have a strong suspicion that I’m going to be coming back to this book again and again as I write and revise from here on out.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Death by the Bay by Patricia Skalka

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The best book I read this month was the fifth and latest in Patricia Skalka’s Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series, Death by the Bay. The book is my second favorite in the series, behind Death in Cold Water—the series’ third entry. Like the rest of Skalka’s Cubiak books, it’s a relatively short book, and I was able to read it cover to cover in a single day.

Unlike the previous Cubiak books, this one is based on—or rather inspired by—true events. (I can’t say what events because that would give away too much of the mystery.) It’s a complex mystery, with plenty of twists and turns, and while the solution to the mystery was satisfying, I found the end of the book (the scene post-solution) to be far too convenient. There’s also a point-of-view switch in that last scene that didn’t work for me. But those are my only quibbles with what is otherwise a very solidly crafted mystery.

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I read only one book this month: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. It’s a very long book—almost 600 pages—but it really was a very good one. I’m glad I stuck with it. (It’s not cumbersome. I’ve just had a rough July and have not had much focus. In any other month, I would have devoured this book in a matter of days.)

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Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book (which I highly recommend), Kadish’s novel tells parallel stories, one historical and one modern. The historical story follows Ester Velasquez, a young Portuguese woman who serves a rabbi living in 17th century London. The rabbi is a charity case, blinded in the Inquisition and sent to London to “educate” the Jewish population there. Ester and her brother are orphans he’s taken into his care. The modern story follows two historians—a British historian facing retirement and an American graduate student—as they uncover the details of Ester’s life. Helen, the Brit, is closed off and abrasive. Aaron, the American, is lost but riding on his charm. (Confession: I did not find him very charming.)

Of the two story lines, I found Ester’s far more intriguing and enjoyable. I disliked being pulled out of her story for the next segment of Helen and Aaron’s story. Ester is a fuller, far more layered character than her modern counterparts, who came off as self-pitying more than anything else. Ester, by contrast, brimmed with ambition and emotion and obstinacy. Whereas Helen and Aaron seemed defined by their selfishness, Ester—while also being selfish in some ways—also showed a gift for selflessness in her devotion to the rabbi and her commitment to her friend, Mary.

But please don’t let my dislike of Helen and Aaron dissuade you from reading this book. It’s worth it to get to know Ester.

The Best Books I Read This Month: The Sixth World Series by Rebecca Roanhorse

The best books I read this month (yes, books—plural) were two books by Native American author Rebecca Roanhorse. The books—Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts—are the first two of Roanhorse’s four-book Sixth World series.

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The series is set in the future, after climate change and other disasters have destroyed life as we know it in North America. The disasters have left the Navajo Reservation (Dinetah) isolated and independent—and awakened Navajo gods and monsters. It is Maggie Hoskin’s job to deal with them.

In the first book, Maggie reluctantly teams up with a medicine man’s grandson to track the source of a zombie outbreak. In the second, she and her small guerrilla group set off to rescue the grandson when he is taken off the reservation by a doomsday cult. The world-building in both books is excellent. Trauma is a continuous theme across both books, and I expect it will be throughout the series. In Trail of Lightning, there is a clear sense of how desperate life is on the reservation. In Storm of Locusts, the world widens a bit and we start to get a sense of how broken civilization is outside Dinetah.

Throughout, the world is steeped in Navajo lore—and that’s what I liked the most about these books. This isn’t fantasy with fairies and dragons and elves and other elements reminiscent of medieval Europe. This is fantasy with Navajo gods and demi-gods, a world in which trauma awakens people’s clan powers. (Maggie’s powers are killing and speed; the grandson’s are healing and persuasion.) And even with the presence of gods and demi-gods, there is no deus ex machina. Maggie and her fellow human beings are on their own, more pawns and playthings of the deities than protectees.

There is no title or release date for Book 3 in the series yet, but I’m already eager to read it. Roanhorse can’t write it fast enough!