May/June 2020 Reads
Well, friends, we’ve passed Day 100 of Coronavirus quarantine, and it seems I’ve spent all 100 of those days escaping into fictional worlds. I’ve read over 50 books in the past two months: a mix of queer romance, short horror, and how-to-write books. I can’t really explain why those are the genres that are calling to me, except that maybe the world feels full of horror right now, but also full of love. I want to confront horror and lose myself in love.
Also, on a more practical level, I’m a soft spooky queer trying to write a book.
When not reading, I’ve written half of the first draft (50,000 words) of a new novel since April, so it seems I’ve spent a lot more time in imaginary worlds than in the real one. I guess it’s that or doom-scrolling through Twitter, which I’ve been really, really trying not to do. But we all do what we have to do to get us through this, right? Hope you’re keeping it together, fellow lit-pals.
Here are the 18 best books I read in May and June, split into fiction and non-fiction (which, to be honest, is just books about how to write fiction):
A Perfect Balance, Laura Ambrose – I enjoyed all three of the lesbian romance novellas in this series (this is the second one – there’s also A Hidden Hope and An Unheard Song), but this one was my favourite. All the characters in the series are professionals in the book world – an editor, a debut author, an author with a successful first novel struggling to write the second, etc. – and the insights into the book world rang totally true. This makes sense as Laura Ambrose is a pen name for Laura Lam, author of several excellent sci fi/fantasy novels. All three books are super-cute and sexy, and I wish there were more.
Spirited, Julie Cohen – Haunting, tender and true, this is just the love story I wanted to read. This is the book that got me back into reading after a bit of a slump, where I wasn’t really enjoying anything I was reading. It cast a spell on me. It’s still a couple of weeks until this is out, but you can pre-order it now (and I recommend you do).
Wranglestone, Darren Charlton – This was an unexpected joy: the gay zombie love story I didn’t know I wanted to read.
Thrall, Avon Gale & Roan Parrish – I didn’t know I wanted to read a millennial, queer retelling of Dracula told entirely through emails and IMs. But then this book crept up on me, and what fun I had.
The Threefold Tie, Aster Glenn Gray – An adorable, beautifully-written male/male/female historical romance novella. The emotions and characters felt real, and the prose is well-crafted and full of poignant observations. I’ve read quite a few ebook-only romance novellas recently, and although there are some real gems out there, a lot of the books feel like they’re dashed off in a hurry. But this is one of the gems: it feels like the author has lingered and really taken care.
Nothing Can Hurt You, Nicola Maye Goldberg – I read this a while ago as a proof, and I’ve been waiting to talk about it as I loved it so much. It’s tender and brutal, and it still haunts me.
We Are Okay, Nina LaCour – I bought this last year at the wonderful Gay’s the Word bookshop in London, and it leapt off my bookshelf at just the right time. I read it all in one night, immersing myself in the protagonist’s lonely, grief-drowned, but ultimately hopeful world.
The Voice in My Ear, Frances Leviston – Such a strange, memorable and distinctive collection. It perfectly merges the real and the surreal, and it’s maybe the best story collection I’ve read this year.
Ningen, Laura Mauro – I can’t resist a deep-sea horror, particularly short-form. This is beautifully crafted, and that final image still haunts me. I’m excited to read more from Laura Mauro.
Dark Matter, Michelle Paver – Utterly absorbing and ultimately heartbreaking. I’m a nerd for anything about the frozen north, and this is the best Arctic-set story I’ve read. I first read this back in 2014 and loved it, and I was happy to find it’s even better on a re-read. One of my all-time favourite ghost stories.
The Forbidden Game trilogy, L.J. Smith – I don’t usually include books I read for Teenage Scream podcast (lovingly dissecting the best and worst of 90s teen horror) on these lists because, to be honest, they’re not usually very good. But this is a genuinely good, entertaining, imaginative trilogy of young-adult fantasy/horror. If you read it as a kid, revisit it for the nostalgia – but even if you didn’t, it’s worth reading as an adult. I understand now why so many listeners requested it for the podcast!
Objects in Dreams, Lisa Tuttle – I’ve read a few of Lisa Tuttle’s novels, and they’re always fun, fantastical and satisfying. But her short fiction is dark. These stories explore the horrors of domesticity, particularly rural English horrors – not a crumbling mansion to be seen, but instead a new take on spooky houses.
Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From the Road, various – I’d never heard of Crystal Lake Publishing before reading this, but I’m impressed; they’re putting out some really good stuff. I particularly liked Kristi DeMeester’s ‘A Life That is Not Mine’ and Michael Bailey’s ‘The Long White Line’.
Nox Pareidolia, various – Another horror anthology; I’ve been reading a lot of them lately, and most of them aren’t great – but this one is. Stand-outs for me were ‘8×10’ by Duane Pesice & Don Webb; ‘Hello’ by Michael Wehunt (never thought I’d read a horror story about a Lionel Richie song – and that it would actually be creepy); ‘The Little Drawer Full of Chaos’ by Annie Neugebauer; ‘When the Nightingale Devours the Stars’ by Gwendolyn Kiste.
How to Write Fiction:
Writing Vivid Settings, Rayne Hall – Don’t let the old-fashioned cover put you off; this book is very useful. I don’t usually struggle to write settings, but I found so much useful stuff in here, particularly the use of smell.
Romancing the Beat, Gwen Hayes – We’re getting really into the nitty-gritty of writing here, and this isn’t so much for the beginner writer as it’s very structure-based. It’s a fast, fun, no-fuss guide to structuring a romance story.
The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carol Oates – I thought this would be a quick, sweet read. But it’s more like heavy clotting blood: thick, dark and resonant. Definitely one to keep and return to.
Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre – There’s so much variety here, whatever type of horror you’re writing – or even if you’re writing another genre entirely – there will be something useful for you.
Want to keep up with what I’m reading? Follow me on GoodReads.
What are the best books you’ve read recently?