required reading

If there’s one thing that I am absolutely certain is a necessity when it comes to being a good writer – it’s being an active reader. Nothing expands your imagination (or your vocabulary) quite like sinking your teeth into a really good book. And nothing makes me want to sit down and churn out a best seller like reading someone else’s.

Originally, I intended to make this a list of the best books I read in 2015. Instead, what I’ve got for you today is what I’m going to call my “required reading” list. While it doesn’t encompass all of the good books I’ve ever read in my life – that list would be way, way too long – it does include the ones that have really affected me.

Series

The Arcana Chronicles by Kresley Cole – Goodreads
3 Books (Incomplete) – Young Adult Urban Fantasy
Why it’s Required: Excuse me if I do a good bit of gushing here, I’m still reeling from finishing the third book last week. This series is an absolute, no questions asked, requirement for one reason. Not the plot – even though the plot is without rival in creative genius. Not the romance¬†– even though the love triangle between the female lead and her suitors¬†is the first¬†to ever leave me just as torn as she is. This series is a must read because of the characters.¬†Never before have I read a series where every. single. character. delivers the emotional punch that they’re supposed to. They made me laugh. They made me cry. They made me scream, and shiver, and grin, and blush, and by the time I was finished I felt as if I knew them.¬†Any writer who reads these books will walk away feeling the compulsion to do better by their own characters.

Black Dagger Brotherhood by J.R. Ward – Goodreads
13 Books (Incomplete) – Adult Paranormal Romance
Why it’s Required:¬†Each one of the Brothers is complicated, engaging, and¬†smoldering, and the friendships forged between them are what give the books their backbone. The political conflicts¬†that pull through each book add another layer of interest to the¬†series as a whole. But most importantly,¬†Ward approaches a romance novel in a way¬†that no one else approaches a romance novel.¬†If there is an unspoken rulebook about things that you should and shouldn’t do, she throws it out and carves her own path. She takes the risk. And, based on¬†her success, maybe the rest of us should, too.

Dragonlance: Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman РGoodreads
3 Books (Complete) – Adult Fantasy
Why it’s Required: I’ve read a good bit of fantasy in my day, and while I’ve liked most of it, none of it has stayed with me the way Dragonlance has. The biggest takeaway that I took from Weis and Hickman was a tremendous amount of worldbuilding. It was a foreign concept to me when I first read the series, but it’s now one of my absolute most favorite parts of starting a new project. In addition, the characters are compelling, the story is unique, and the books are impossible to put down from start to finish.

Dragonlance: Legends by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman – Goodreads
3 Books (Complete) – Adult Fantasy
Why it’s Required:¬†The Legends trilogy is a follow up and spin off to Dragonlance: Chronicles – one of many in the greater Dragonlance Universe, and definitely my favorite of the ones I’ve read. With all the good that was packed into the original books, Legends had the added bonus of being focused on my two favorite characters, Raistlin and Caramon. Twin brothers who couldn’t be more different, it was through them that I learned a lot about¬†complex characterization – especially in fantasy settings with the balance between good and evil.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling –¬†Goodreads
7 Books (Complete) – Young Adult Urban Fantasy
Why it’s Required: Could any list of amazing books really be complete without mentioning Harry Potter? I practically learned how to read with these stories. Rowling was the first person to teach me that writing could create a world apart from our own. That, through reading, we could travel across the world, make new friends, and have amazing adventures. Beyond the nostalgic factor, the Harry Potter series is still a must read for anyone who wants to convey themes of love, loss, friendship and sacrifice in their writing.

Immortals After Dark by Kresley Cole – Goodreads
16 Books and 2 Novellas (Incomplete) – Adult Paranormal Romance
Why it’s Required: While I’d been a casual romance¬†reader¬†for a while before I picked up a copy of “Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night,” it was Cole who introduced me to the world of paranormal romance. I¬†went immediately from casual reader to full blown junkie, and in all the years since I’ve yet to find a series that does it just as good as IAD does.¬†And while the men are brilliant and the sex is steamy, it’s the ladies that steal the spotlight. IAD is filled with female leads (and side characters!) who are sexy, deadly, hilarious and flawed in ways that make them all the more relatable.

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater – Goodreads
3 Books (Incomplete) РYoung Adult Urban Fantasy

Why it’s Required:¬†A ragtag group of friends that have come together to make a family. Magic and witchery around every corner. A brilliant but imperfect female lead. Sad but tough boys who don’t know how to talk about their feelings. Come on. What’s not to like? I especially love Stiefvater’s way of turning the YA love triangle trope on its head¬†by making everyone in the main cast¬†a little (or a lot) in love with everyone else.

Stand-Alones

(I realized as I was compiling my favorite stand-alones that I seem to have a leaning towards books that hinge on being “difficult to read.” A lot of these books deal with potentially triggering themes such as suicide or sexual abuse. Keep that in mind moving forward.)

By the Time You Read This, I’ll be Dead by Julie Anne Peters
Goodreads – Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
Why it’s Required: I’m just going to come right out and say it – the ending of this book f*cked me up big time.¬†We follow the main character¬†after a failed suicide attempt, as she gears up to try, once more, to end her life. Peters pulls no punches when examining mental health and how depression can destroy us from the inside out.¬†No spoilers here, but I will never forget the last chapter. It’s probably going to haunt me the rest of my life.

grl2grl by Julie Anne Peters
Goodreads – LGBT Young Adult Short Stories
Why it’s Required: Yep, another Peters book. The woman has such a way with words I couldn’t help but to include her twice. grl2grl is on this list for purely personal reasons, but I’m going to subject you to them anyway. I read it at the perfect time in my life – fourteen, and just beginning to try to understand my sexuality. The book is a collection of unrelated short stories about¬†young women dealing with sexual identity, relationship ups and downs, and gender expression. It’s honest, it’s touching, and¬†it’s a recommended read for all LGBT ladies¬†or the people who love them.

Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Goodreads – Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
Why it’s Required: First and foremost, anyone who hasn’t already is hereby under strict orders to read at least one of Hopkins’ books¬†in their lifetime. Her way of writing novels through short poems¬†– while done, not as well, by others – is brilliant, and was a huge game changer for me when I first discovered them. Identical is my favorite of them all, though. The book examines the relationship between twin sisters Kaeleigh and Raeanne, who are both harboring unthinkable secrets. Beyond the super creative formatting, the book had me feeling all kinds of emotions, and the plot twist took my breath away.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Goodreads РYoung Adult Romance
Why it’s Required: I have a small confession to make… I have a bit of a Sarah Dessen problem. Her writing is so compelling and so easy to read that there may have been a time in my life when I was reading every single one of her books I could get my hands on. But my absolute favorite is Just Listen. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is Owen Armstrong. Owen is the love interest to the main character, and I think he officially established my “type” when it comes to fictional guys. That type being bad (and sad) boys with anger issues and hearts of gold. I just can’t enough of them these days, and Just Listen¬†is the origin story.

Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess
Goodreads – Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
Why it’s Required: In this dark novel about childhood sexual abuse, Wiess¬†manages to weave a beautiful story about justice and freedom from danger. In every chapter there are so many relatable, inspiring quotes that I can’t stop myself from highlighting every single one and reading them over and over again. There’s not much I can say without giving too much away, but I can’t recommend this book enough.

And that’s all, folks! Check out my to-read shelf on Goodreads to see what I’m going to be reading in the coming months, and leave a comment if you have suggestions for something you don’t see listed.

“the surrendered” by case maynard

As most of you know, if you’ve been around here for a while, ¬†Case Maynard¬†is something of my partner in crime when it comes to writing. Our paths have become intertwined recently, as we’ve set out to work on Gifted together, but we’ve been very involved in¬†the other’s projects since forever. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader, and vice versa.

Recently, Case¬†was offered a publishing deal with Blaze Publishing¬†for her debut novel¬†“The Surrendered.” (I touched on this very briefly in an earlier blog post.) I don’t think I could possibly be more proud of her. After the first few rounds of edits were completed, she sent the book my way so I could read it over and offer my own feedback. (Like I said, very involved.)

With her permission, I’ve compiled some (spoiler free) info and my own thoughts about this young adult novel set to release in September.

The Plot

After a financial collapse devastates the United States, the new government imposes a tax on the nation‚Äôs most valuable resource‚ÄĒthe children.

Vera “Vee” Delancourt is a sixteen year old girl – and a slave. At age ten, when her parents stopped paying their fees,¬†Vee and her twin brother, Oliver, were surrendered to work in the Mills. With only two years to go until freedom, the twins are trying their hardest to keep their heads down and not make any waves – something that doesn’t come¬†naturally to fierce-spirited Vee.

Soon, not making waves goes from difficult to impossible when Vee stumbles upon a nauseating discovery. Young girls in the Service Mill are being abused in the worst kind of way by the men in charge. Desperate to protect them, Vee is spurred to action Рand a series of events quickly unfolds that forces her and two of the service girls to flee for their lives.

Outside of the fence, Vee¬†and the other girls are shown an unexpected kindness and taken in by a family of farmers – whose farm is maintained with slave labor. It’s soon after¬†that Vee discovers a whole slew of people who’ve been trying¬†to take down the System in their own ways – including the gorgeous¬†but antagonistic Cason Hale.

While Vee may have mixed feelings about her new allies, she has to accept their help Рespecially when the Master, in an attempt to force her to return to the Mills, makes a threat that changes everything. Although unsure of who her enemies and friends really are, Vee must do whatever she has to in order to stop the Master and save the enslaved brother and other children she left behind.

My Thoughts

After sitting down and tearing through the whole book in about six hours, I was left feeling a tornado of emotions. This is a story that grabs you by the throat in the first chapter and refuses to let go, long after you’ve read the last sentence. Case pulls absolutely no punches, flooding you with the rage, confusion, fear, disgust, and anguish that Vee feels at every twist and turn. This was my absolute favorite part of reading. While every writer¬†strives to¬†elicit a raw, emotive response from their readers, few¬†manage to do it as well as Case does with The Surrendered.

Vee Delancourt is a protagonist that¬†you can’t help but feel connected to.¬†She speaks to what all of us are at our core¬†– flawed in more ways than one, but trying. Angry and guarded, Vee has been through more pain in her short sixteen years¬†than most people should have to experience in a lifetime – and there’s more pain to come. But through it all she keeps her jaw clenched and her eyes on the prize. She will do what needs to be done to protect the people she cares about – or she will die trying.¬†You will root¬†for her to succeed as if you’re the one¬†fighting against a System that wants to exploit and abuse you.

Of course, Vee isn’t the only compelling character in the book. Cason,¬†an intense boy Vee’s age with a dark and painful past, is endearing in the way that only a bad boy with a heart of gold can be.¬†Jane, a mysterious young girl with an unexpected connection to Vee and Oliver, will intrigue you at every turn. Ramsey, a service girl who’s fallen¬†victim to the predators at the Mills, reminds readers of¬†the dark reality and¬†lasting effects of the abuse she endured. ¬†Matthew, Cason’s best friend, stays good natured and optimistic¬†– until tragedy wipes the smile off his face and changes him forever. John William and Miss Ann, the farmers who take Vee and the girls in, always have a good dose of endearing southern hospitality to dish out.¬†And Oliver, Vee’s discerning¬†and courageous¬†twin brother, manages to give¬†her – and us¬†– hope that things will work out in the end.

In fact, hope remains one of the¬†many themes running through the book. Vee¬†and her allies refuse to accept the status quo, and it is their hope for a better future that makes that future possible at all. The heart¬†of the story asks the question – How far down can the oppressed be pushed before they start pushing back? And when they do, can they really change things for the better? Vee certainly hopes so, and she’s risking it all on that hope.

There are other questions posed, as well. How well do we really know the people around us? At every plot twist, Vee and the readers discover that almost nothing is really how it appears – and almost no one is really what they say they are. How far would you go to save¬†innocent people? Vee must make impossibly hard¬†decisions to protect other children being controlled¬†by the System that once owned¬†her. And finally, is love a weakness that can be exploited… or could it be our greatest strength?

At the end of reading, with all of the questions I still had about Vee’s fate,¬†two things were made very clear: 1)¬†this book was awesome, and 2) I could not wait for the second one. The Surrendered, and the series to follow, is not something that you want to miss out on – I guarantee it.

The Surrendered by Case Maynard will be released September 20th, 2016 and will be available at most major online retailers and select bookstores.¬†If you are¬†interested in¬†reading and reviewing an ARC of the book in August, please contact Blaze Publishing. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Case on her website, and connect with¬†her on Facebook¬†and¬†Twitter¬†for any and all updates, including the cover reveal, teasers, and more!

I received no compensation for this post and am in no way professionally affiliated with Blaze Publishing or The Surrendered. All opinions expressed are my own.