My 2013 in Books

So the last day of the year is finally here. I’m all set to go for 2014: I have my Vintage Typewriter calendar hanging on the wall beside me, Sharpies are at the ready to put a nice red tick in each day/box that I reach my goal of written words and my Erin Condren Life Planner* has been stickered to within an inch of its life.

In the meantime, let’s talk about books.

I actually managed to complete my Goodreads Reading Challenge this year, somehow finishing 56 books, most of them in sustained reading binges (I certainly didn’t read constantly all year). I have to say though, it wasn’t a great year for me in books, with many titles I was looking forward to getting my hands on for months ultimately disappointing me. But there were some gems in there too so if you’re looking for some New Year reading material, here are my recommendations…

(Note: not all of these books came out in 2013.)

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Favorite Fiction

There was a glut of psychological thrillers written by women this year, probably because of last year’s global Gone Girl obsession. (Have you seen the first still from the movie? I. Cannot. WAIT!) I get that, but I have to say that by July, seeing a comparison to Gone Girl on a book’s jacket was more likely to make me put it down than pick it up — mostly because it was slapped on every thriller and only a very, very few of them can ever even come close to the talents of Gillian Flynn. (Side note: Gone Girl is not even her best book. Find yourself Sharp Objects and Dark Places.)

One thriller that didn’t disappoint was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a book I came close to missing because the synopsis turned me off. A time-travelling serial killer? Um, no thanks. (Or: no, you’re grand, as us Irish would say.) But I’m so glad a review from someone I trusted pushed me back to this book, because it was brilliant. Easily the best thriller I read all year. Very inventive and genuinely unnerving. What more do you want?

Other notable mentions: The Rosie Project, which had me grinning with glee the whole way through and then left me in a puddle at the end. A pure joy of a book. Defending Jacob seemed to be an interesting but unoriginal courtroom procedural… until you get to a few pages before the end and then BOOM! The Husband’s Secret: not what I’d normally pick up but, again, so glad I did. An exceptional book with a gut-wrenching emotional punch. Also makes you seriously consider if honesty is really always the best policy…

Most Interesting True Tales

I was lucky to find a lot of juicy non-fiction this year. Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige-Hill is an absolute must read. Not only does it reveal the “real” world of Scientology (the world that lifelong Scientologists experience, not the take-away lite version the celebrities seem to get) but it made me understand, for the first time, why someone would head in that direction in the first place. Jenna holds nothing back and for her courage alone, she should be rewarded with readers. I just hope someone from Amnesty International gets around to reading this too.

Other notable mentions: Running Like a Girl is the book I hoped Run, Fat Bitch, Run would be. (But don’t get me started on that offensive turd of a book.) It’s actually perfect reading now, at the beginning of a new year, and I might have to pull it out for a re-read myself. Most of these books are written by people who were always fit, who don’t understand that if you’re not fit you can’t just run out your door and keep going. (The author of the Offensive Turd wasn’t unfit or fat—she was pregnant. But as I said, don’t get me started…DEEP BREATH.) But Alexandra genuinely started from zero, and her goal was just to survive the marathon, not to win it or anything. This book is enjoyable, funny and inspirational and I loved her explanation for how she went from the kind of girl who was somewhat of a couch potato to marathon runner: ‘I just decided to be able to.’

Also: The Good Nurse was a chilling insight into how a health care system actually helped America’s most prolific serial killer to kill. Frightening stuff. Song of Spider-Man was just pure entertainment, a firsthand account of the disaster that was Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway by the book’s writer (the guy who writes the dialogue). The best thing about it was the author himself, Glen Berger, who you just want to treat to a long beach vacation and a hug by the end. His opening? “Look, I know it’s just a f–king show…’

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Is It Just Me…?

A few much-hyped thrillers left me wondering if I was missing the point. How To Be A Good Wife? It kinda made me want to shove my own head in an oven it was so bleak and depressing, and I just didn’t believe that there was any ‘illuminating undercurrent about the female domestic experience’ or whatever arty-farty subtext newspaper reviews tried to convince me there was. The Silent Wife was exceptionally well-written, but not enough happened in its pages for me. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked didn’t have much stalking in it, and wins the award for the most pretentious, over-written, off-topic prose this year (or maybe ever?) Saying it didn’t contain stalking caused heated debate on Goodreads—you can read my review here but I’ve already deleted the more troll-like comments—but regardless of the legal fine points, this book wasn’t what it said on the tin. We were promised orange juice concentrate, and instead we got orange-flavoured water garnished with intricate orange cuttings. The Never List was more like The Never List Will Never Be Mentioned Again After Chapter One, and it had a plot that felt like it was shoehorned onto the characters. A real disappointment for me, as I was looking forward to reading it for MONTHS. Lost Girls was supposed to be a true crime book, but it spent all of its pages recounting what people with the most tenuous and irrelevant links to the victims had to say about what they thought might have possible happened. By the end, the author was reprinting entire comments from memorial Facebook pages and so, just like in life and in the investigation of their murders, these girls got lost again.

And um, The Fault In Our Stars? What’s up with that? Wasn’t I supposed to experience some kind of life-changing, life-affirming rapture amidst its pages? The internet had me believing I would and… well, it was just okay. Apparently though I am utterly alone in this opinion.

It Ain’t Lolita…

Tampa by Alissa Nutting is probably the most controversial novel of the year, a (somewhat) satire about a twenty-something female teacher who seduces her teenage male student. If the terms child abuse or rape haven’t come to your mind, reverse the genders and try again. And that’s what makes this well-written and original novel sit like a meal that didn’t agree with me in the pit of my stomach. It’s supposed to be a satire, but how can child abuse be funny? How can this extremely graphic book be on anyone’s favorite reads list? How are we supposed to feel about it? Honestly, I just don’t know…

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My Favorite Reads of 2014

I have to say if I were to recommend just one novel to you this year, it would be Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. It wasn’t necessarily the book I’d rate the highest out of this lot, but on the whole, it was the best one when you consider how well it was written, its page-turning factor and how much it made me think. Shriver uses food to question whether life is a lot like it: with hunger being the best part, with the actual eating of the foods we desire being the most disappointing part of the experience, are we just meant to be hungry? Is getting what we want—achieving our dreams, reaching the peak of our careers—the end of the joy, rather than the start of it? Considering that the main character nurses her morbidly obese brother back to health and that Shriver’s own brother died from a similar condition before she wrote this book, and Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque twist at the end, this book is really an unforgettable experience. I read it in April, and I still think about it now. (For those of you who have tried Shriver in the past and found her a bit wordy and heavy going, I would also say that this is perhaps her most readable book, so don’t let that put you off.)

And there’ll be no prizes for guessing my favorite non-fiction book of the year: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield. It’s actually the last book I read this year, and it was so much more than I hoped it would be. You can read my Goodreads review here.

So, that’s it. For some nostalgia and Beautiful Ruins love, re-visit my 2012 in books.

Tell me: what 3 books did you read this year (that I haven’t) would you INSIST I read in 2014? Or did you read any of the above and totally disagree with my take on it? Let me know in the comments below… And HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(And get well soon Michael Schumacher. Still can’t believe it but I do believe he’ll pull through.)

*If you make a purchase from Erin Condren through that link, we BOTH get a $10 credit. Woo-hoo!

‘Twas The Day Before Christmas Eve…

… and all through the house were the Ideal Homes-level decorations this blogger painstaking planned, selected, purchased, hung, arranged, made, tweaked, stared at for a while and then tweaked some more. And in the kitchen were the gingerbread and red velvet cupcakes this blogger baked and put into boxes decorated with the personalized Erin Condren gift labels she ordered in September.

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And in the corner of the living room were the presents she’d bought for family and friends, all wrapped in co-ordinated paper and ribbon and all placed just so under the tree.

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And on the couch was this blogger, exhausted and wondering when Christmas had begun her full-time job. Seriously: I love it, but this is the first time I’ve had my own place to decorate (as in, a place that was mine but also ONLY mine, and so no ‘discussions’ about tinsel or multi-coloured lights, for example) and as I was out of the country for a few weeks and arrived back December 1st, things have been a little bit hectic.

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Now normally I do a gift guide (because it means I can browse online stores for hours, guilt-free) but there just isn’t time for that this year. I also can’t tell you about some of the ah-MAZE-ing presents I found this year, because the people destined to receive them from me may or may not see this post. So instead let me direct you to last year’s gift guides:

(There’s still time to buy gift cards or, in case of emergency, print out a picture of the item, place it in a frame, wrap it up like you would any present and explain that it’ll be a January joy…)

… and show you some of my Christmas decoration pics, if you need something to procrastinate with today. I mean, no one’s actually doing any work, are they? It’s practically Christmas, after all…

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Marks and Spencer’s were selling a miniature Christmas tree in a mason jar with a bit of ribbon around it for €20. I bought this gorgeous jar in Seville, Spain for €5, spent €1.50 on fake snow and used a miniature tree that came with a set of six (it’s actually a placeholder, the placecard slots down into the middle of the star) and wrapping I’d already bought.

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Also discovered in Seville: a miniature ceramic Starbucks mug in the form of a hanging Christmas decoration! It can’t go on my tree as there’s no red allowed on there, but it does sit nicely on my kitchen window sill with my coffee machine decoration.

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Nothing goes undecorated, and that includes my cafetiere…

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Andrea (of Mousetrapped fame) brought me some US Christmas magazines, and Family Circle had a picture of framed prints wrapped in Christmas paper and hung on the wall like presents. I thought an even better idea would be to wrap some of my existing frames…

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I just had to have those sparkly gold mugs above when I saw them in Next (they’re sparkly! They’re gold! Think of how much coffee they hold!) and when I saw the matching cake-stand, it was game over. Of course, I’m not putting cakes on it. (I blame Pinterest for this level of craftiness. Christmas was so much easier before Pinterest…)

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A  big thank you to everyone who has read this blog this year and stayed tuned for news of an exciting 2014 project. In the meantime, have a VERY Merry Christmas!

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Catherine x

P.S. I’ll leave you with what has to be my new favourite Christmas song. How Christmassy is THIS?

How To Be A Good Guest Blogger

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The road to guest posting on other bloggers’ blogs is paved with both opportunity and land mines. It seems like a simple thing: you find a blogger you like, you drop them a line asking them if they’d like one less blog post to write next week and then you put in a stint as a special guest star on their blog. The blogger gets a break and hopefully some fresh content for their blog, and you get to introduce you and your titles to a whole new audience, some of whom might even become regular readers of your blog. In reality though, these transactions are an invitation to misstep, to indulge (perhaps unwittingly) in an awful blogger faux-pas (or ten). You may never get invited back again.

So what can you do to ensure that you’ll be a great guest blogger, and that each and every one of your guest hosts would only be too delighted to have you back again? Here are my tips…

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I realize this picture has only the most tenuous of links to the subject of this blog post, but look how pretty! From Papyrus. 

Follow the rules

I clearly state on my Contact page that guest posts are by invite only, but I constantly find messages in my inbox that begin ‘I’m wondering if you would be interested in a guest post…’ Half the time the other half of that sentence describes a post that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve ever talked about on my blog. The one I got this morning was about stocks and shares. Stocks and shares, people!

This happens because people just don’t pay attention to the information bloggers supply, and whenever they ignore it they are saying ‘I don’t have time to read this helpful stuff you’ve written, I only have time to ask you for a favor’. They may also think ‘Well, I know she doesn’t accept guest posts… but she’ll definitely want my one!’

The least you can do before you ask someone to take a guest post from you is to read their site. I sincerely hope you’re doing that already, but maybe now take the time to study their guest posts instructions too.

Write a good guest post—for you

A guest post, especially one that’s part of a blog tour or some other organized activity that aims to launch or promote your book, is kinda like a profile on an online dating site. It’s not just about what you’ve written, but what it reveals about you: as a blogger, as a writer and as an entertainer of the internet at large. The ideal guest post would:

  • get most people who read it commenting and/or clicking the “like” button
  • get a significant number of people who read it sharing it online, e.g. tweeting a link
  • get a good number of people clicking the link to your blog and having a look around
  • get a handful of people to subscribe to your blog, or start to follow you on Twitter
  • get at least one person to go to Amazon and look  at (or, heck, even buy!) your book.

And can we just be blatantly honest about guest posts for a second? Sometimes, people don’t read them at all. They don’t read them because, hey, they were tuning in to see a rugby game, and it’s not on because rain in Brazil made the Formula 1 qualifying session run long. So their eyes may skim the guest post but really, they’re waiting for tomorrow when the actual blogger will be back. So you have to get them to read your guest post. You have to convince them to stop and take it in. Otherwise, what’s the point? There isn’t one, and that goes for you and your host.

My personal checklist for a guest post goes something like this:

  • Would this be something I’d post on my own blog (or am I just half-assing it because it’s going on someone else’s)?
  • Is this really “me”? Am I recognisable? (Or am I trying to emulate my host too much?)
  • Is it entertaining?
  • Is it informative?
  • Is it an invitation to check out more stuff by me? (And by invitation I really mean a reason, not a long list of links the readers of my host blog won’t be clicking on.)

Write a good guest post—for your host

Don’t try to beat the blogger at their own game. It won’t appeal to the host’s regular blog readers, and you’ll look like a jerk. The worst cases of it I’ve seen have been practically rude, e.g. an advice blog where the guest blogger gave their own advice in the same style as their host, but contradicted the host’s most oft-repeated suggestions. I imagine she was gritting her teeth when she was setting that post up to publish. There’s a very fine line between tailoring your post to appeal to the blog’s loyal readers and doing a bad imitation of your host.

Let’s say that you’ve written a book of movie reviews, and you find a blog that writes hilariously sarcastic reviews of romantic comedies. That’s what the blogger is famous for, and that’s what all his readers show up to his blog to enjoy. Should you attempt to write a hilariously sarcastic review of The Notebook? No, I wouldn’t advise it. You probably won’t do it as well as your host, and the whole thing might come off as as unfunny joke, leaving everyone feeling awkward and embarrassed for you.

Don’t attempt a takeover. Just be a good guest.

Don’t be a diva

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for your host to print a little bio at the end of your text, with links to your website, Twitter account, etc. It’s nice to provide photographs that the blogger can use, maybe one of you and one of your book cover. And as long as you’re not demanding about it, it’s fine to ask for the guest post to be published on a specific date, although I would recommend asking that in plenty of time and being prepared to allow some leeway.

Anything else though, and you risk being annoying. Don’t send eight or nine photos to accompany a 800-word blog post—especially if your host only ever includes one or two images, because that’ll just lead him or her to believe that you never actually read their blog. Don’t send six different Amazon links. One is enough, and actually I prefer just to link to your website because it’s neater and simpler and you should have all your Amazon links there. Don’t demand publication at 8:01 am Eastern Standard Time when the moon is in Gemini. And don’t suggest that the flow of traffic will be from your site to theirs, even if you think it might be. The host blogger is doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Make things easy for your host

Your host is going to copy and paste the text of your guest post into their own blog, so make things as easy as possible for them. Don’t type it in an e-mail; put in a Microsoft Word document. No fancy fonts, no weird paragraph alignments, no superfluous formatting. Make your links live and embed them in the text. Attach it to your e-mail message.

If you want to be really good, type your text into your own blog (in a draft), switch to HTML view and copy and paste that. In my book this puts you straight on my Nice list.

If you’re including photos, label them. File names like DSC00023 aren’t going to help anyone. Try ‘authorpic.jpg’ or ‘novelcover.jpg’ instead.

Be nice

It’s only common courtesy to come back on the day the post is published and respond to any comments you see, and perhaps write a little comment thanking the host for having you. You should also make it your business to promote the guest post through whatever avenues you can, such as your own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc… BUT please don’t imply that you’ll be sending traffic to your host, i.e. more traffic than ususal. That’s a bit of an iffy statement on the annoyance scale.

Also, ask yourself. Don’t get someone who says they’re your assistant (um, oh-kay…) to e-mail and ask.

In all things, be nice.

Have you had guest posts on your blog? What could guest bloggers do to make it easier for you? Or do you have any tips for being a good guest blogger yourself? Or do you have some tales that go in the other direction, i.e. guest blogger horror stories? Let me know in the comments below…