I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing

Watching the Detectives

Given that today marks the theatrical release of a new film version of one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels, Death On the Nile, I’ve written a post dedicated to mystery stories. They were, after all, one of my first literary crushes and, honestly, I think the suspense and dark subject matter of murder stories were what ultimately led me to fall so much in love with Edgar Allan Poe and tales of horror.

I suppose my interest in mystery and detective fiction grew out of playing the board game Clue as a kid. I had such fun trying to solve the crime—even more so when we got the Clue: Master Detective edition—and to this day, Clue is still one of the games that I will never turn down, even if it’s just me and my son playing together. In addition to playing a lot of Clue the game, I also saw Clue the movie and I watched more than a few episodes of Matlock with my mom, who was (still is) a big fan of crime and detective dramas.

I guess it’s no surprise that, as I got older, I gravitated toward mystery stories. In the seventh grade, I checked out every book by Agatha Christie that my junior high school library possessed. I also sought out her novels in second-hand bookshops. Death On the Nile and The Murder of Roger Akroyd (both featuring the detective Hercule Poirot) were among my all-time favorite mysteries. Aside from Christie, I read several other mystery authors and series throughout my teens and twenties including Poe’s mystery stories, Dorothy L. Sayers, some Sherlock Holmes, Mary Higgins Clark, quite a number of books from Harlequin Intrigue, and Dead Until Dark, the first book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Series (the wonderful Beth Foxwell got the author to autograph a copy for me!). Getting to interview mystery writer Jan Burke for the journal Clues was definitely one of the highlights of my professional career (you can read that interview below if you’re so inclined). For that opportunity, I owe a debt of gratitude to the amazing Beth Foxwell.

My love of mystery and detective stories wasn’t confined to books, though. As I mentioned, I’ve watched my fair share of mystery shows and films like Charade. Even ones that weren’t strictly mysteries but had an element of the genre to them, such as The DaVinci Code or The Prestige captured my attention as did things like the “Who Pooped the Bed?” episode of It’s Always Sunny. I think the writers of that episode were just as crazy about mystery stories and “the big reveal” as I was. The ability to craft an intriguing, suspenseful plot while dropping strategic hints for your reader along the way is pure genius to me!

However, I once read a book where the author had left all these red herrings with regard to suspects and then the murderer turned out to be just some random, nameless guy instead of one of the actual characters. I was so angered by that ploy that I vowed I’d never read another book by that author. That’s because, for me, the best part of reading mystery/detective fiction or watching a mystery/crime show, was trying to solve the crime myself before the big reveal at the end. I would pay attention to the details the narrator or director gave, examining clues and pondering how each piece fit into the puzzle (or not). Sometimes I solved the crime; sometimes I didn’t. Even when I didn’t, it was fulfilling to me to go back and see how it had all unfolded, noticing what I’d missed.

I suppose that’s probably why I never really got into Sherlock Holmes. With a lot of those stories, I felt like Doyle didn’t give the reader enough information to solve the crime for themselves, that we were just supposed to bask in Holmes’s brilliance. Oddly enough, I did enjoy the TV shows House and Sherlock, both of which were based on the Sherlock Holmes character and stories. I think my interest in the former was solely due to Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of the main character. Similarly, I adored Cumberbatch as Sherlock (and Martin Freeman as Watson). Also, as dark as that show could be, it had some fabulous moments of hilarity (almost everything involving Irene Adler, for instance).

While I’ve gotten away from reading murder mysteries over the past decade and a half, the hubs and I recently watched the show Only Murders in the Building and it was so fantastic that it rekindled my love of mysteries. Who knows? Perhaps there’s some suspense in my own professional future. In the meantime, I will be eagerly awaiting Season 2 of Only Murders and looking to check Death On the Nile off of my watch list.

On Writing

Every Day I Write the Book

"Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position."
— Stephen King, On Writing

The two biggest things that seem to stop writers from actually writing are lack of time and “writer’s block.” The only way you beat those things is by picking up a shovel, but that’s often easier said than done.

Regarding lack of time, it’s a reality that many writers don’t have the luxury of just sitting at home and scribbling or typing all day because they’ve got a different job that actually pays the bills. When you spend 8 to 12 hours a day working your “day” job, not to mention family and other obligations you may have, finding time to devote to your craft can certainly be difficult. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. If you feel called to write, if it’s in your blood to tell a story, then you have to make time for it even if you devote only 30 minutes a day to doing so. Examine your schedule and habits. Be flexible. Could you write on your lunch break or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office or while you’re waiting to drop off/pick up the kids? Think about how much time you spend on social media every day; is that time that could be better spent writing? Writing is just like any other job—you have to put in the time and effort in order to see results. If you carve out the time to do it regularly, then it’ll become a habit. Ideas will start coming to you like little sparks and those sparks of inspiration will ultimately fuel your creative fire.

Aside from a lack of time, one of the most common complaints I hear from writers is that they either have a lack of motivation to actually sit down and write or they’re just not sure where to begin when they do. This so-called writer’s block is really fear or anxiety and the only way you’re going to conquer that fear is by—you guessed it, facing it (find some suggestions on how to do that here).

Are you overly concerned about correctness? Holding yourself to an unrealistic standard of magically getting it right on the first pass? If that’s the case, then you have to find ways to turn off your inner critic/editor because creativity is unrestrained. If you can’t do that, you’ll find yourself constantly getting stuck on things that don’t matter at the moment, never finish a project, and never be happy with what you write. Unfortunately, many writers tend to forget that the creative process is just that—a process. For perfectionists or those who have worked as editors, it can be particularly hard to just pick up the shovel and get to work. As someone who has made a living editing other people’s writing, I get it; I struggled with that for a long time. You get so concerned with fixing things that you forget that this is only your first draft. You don’t have to get anything right at this point. In fact, you can make a complete mess of things and that’s totally OK because you have that awesome gift called revision. You can take all the time you want to improve things later. For now, just accept that you’re going to be wading through a whole lot of shit.

What if you’re just not feeling it? Well, then consider what inspires you. Whether it’s something you need to do or an atmosphere you need to create, make it happen. There are going to be some days, however, when you do all those little rituals that get you in the mood to write and you still don’t feel like doing it. Those are the times when it’s most important to hold yourself accountable and do it anyway. Write something, anything, even if you’re just writing what you think about a particular scene or part, making notes to yourself, interviewing a character, or writing something else entirely. If you keep at it for long enough, you’ll spark an idea and that little a-ha moment is all you need. The point is, you’re not going to get there if you never pick up the shovel and get to work. Like Andy Dufresne, you’ve got to crawl through the river of shit in order to come out clean on the other side. If you’re finding it hard to trust that process and need someone to help you, I’m here.