As a collective of freelancers who literally live and breathe content, we always have recommendations to give. While we always have our year-end roundup of books, this year, with the relaunch of Writers’ Rough Drafts, we decided to add podcasts to the mix.
As is CYC roundup tradition, we’ve each chosen our top two pieces of content that we consumed this year and written a bit about it. Of course, we have those honorable mentions that we all slip in at the end.
So, if you’re looking to expand your mind or expand your content intake in 2019, definitely take a look at some of the stuff we’ve pre-screened.
Anyone else staring at the calendar wondering where 2018 went? Somehow, this past winter, as I stayed tucked away in a pied-à-terre in Old Quebec City while working on the Become a Master Writer course, seems like years ago—but I have no idea where September, October, and November went! With such a flurry of a year (and a LOT of reading to finish that course!), I haven’t gotten in nearly as much “for fun” reading as I usually like. But I still managed to get a couple of recommendations pulled together from the reading I did get to do this year.
What can you learn from a 439-year-old man living in London? A lot, yet surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), he still struggles with many of the same ideas and decisions that the rest of us do with our mayfly-like 70 or 80 years.
I loved the way this book slowly unwraps this, as you’d think that a guy who has chummed around with some of the great figures of European history and lived a relatively amazing existence would have it more “figured out.” But that’s the thing with assumptions and observations; just because you think someone has it “all together,” it doesn’t mean that at all. We all have our own demons; they just take different forms.
In the end, which came so fast that I tore through the last third in less than 90 minutes (thinking it had ended abruptly, then realizing nope, I just read it too quickly!), we learn some of the most important lessons of life and living right alongside Tom Hazard. Most important, because in 400+ years of living, they’re still the things that matter most, whether it is 1600 or 2010 or 2430.
A great read for those who like the idea of sci-fi and fantasy but want their eternal life narratives to have some semblance of plausibility (a disease/mutation that slows your aging process rather than getting bitten by some supernatural being.) Also, anyone in the digital nomad/location independent/(semi)permanent traveler lifestyle will definitely identify with the main character and his challenges creating community and belongings as he maneuvers through centuries of locations and lives.
This was one of my most anticipated 2018 book releases, which is a lot of pressure to put on a poor little book.
It did not disappoint.
Usually not a fan of audiobooks, for this one I absolutely snapped up the audible edition, as it is read by Obama herself. There’s something about autobiographies and memoirs, read in the author’s voice, that tell the story that much more. You don’t have to infer the nuance; they share it with you themselves, in tone and vocal emotion.
Knowing that she had grown up in Chicago and eventually risen to be one-half of one of the most badass power couples on the planet, I was still shockingly unaware of how poor and hard-scrabble her early years had been in the South Side.
What I loved the most about this was how frank her honesty was and how funny (yet poignant) her storytelling came across. With a memoir of the first lady coming out barely two years after leaving the White House, I almost expected a bit of a manicured tale that read like a redacted government report. Instead, you get a glimpse into a life and existence most of us can only imagine, as it has been glamorized by Hollywood standards.
That and the beautiful story of cheese toast, which you get right at the beginning. I admire the hell out of a woman who can have that much of a life epiphany while eating cheese and carbs.
This year has definitely been a more introspective one for me, and I’ve started journaling a bit more to get these thoughts on paper. I’ve noticed my own reading material has gravitated toward nonfiction over the last year or so as a result (even though my true love will always be fiction). For 2019, I hope to dive back into more fiction.
I’ll admit, I was pretty skeptical about reading this. (I tend to be skeptical of most self-help books, to be fair.) After reading a few reviews and receiving a recommendation from a colleague, I thought I’d give it a try. It was almost a little too “woo woo” for me, but 2018 felt like the year to start embracing things I’ve often tried to write off.
I’m so glad I ended up seeing this book through from beginning to end. The chapters are short and digestible, and written in a such a conversational tone that the suggestions come off as a friend giving you helpful advice. A few of the suggestions that still stick out in my head are: Write down affirmations and repeat them to yourself every day until you believe it; replace “I’m a failure” with “What can I learn from this?”; and choosing to let go of energy and feelings that are holding you back.
After reading this, I’ve found myself recommending You Are a Badass to almost everyone I talk to—my friends, other freelancers, people sitting next to me in coffee shops (they probably don’t appreciate my unsolicited book recommendation, but alas, I’m looking out for the greater good). If you’re looking for something to give you a bit of inspiration, or possibly kick-start positive ways of thinking, definitely check out this book.
A New York Times culture podcast hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, Still Processing is one of my favorite podcasts of 2018 (and 2017!). I’ve been listening since they first started, and I highly recommend starting with the first episode. Specifically, I love their discussions about music and musical artists. It’s always an enlightening conversation to listen to! I’m really hoping their next season starts soon.
Honorable mention: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
I have a very active 3-year-old boy, so reading for pleasure is not tops on my list of priorities. I didn’t get to read much this year, unfortunately, but I’m hopeful that 2019 will afford me more time to read often.
I dig anything supernatural, so I was drawn in by the title of this book when I spied it at the local library.
Ghosts by Gaslight is written in the steampunk science fiction genre, which explores the scientific and industrial advancements of the 19th century to imagine a more advanced time. The 17 stories in this book, set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, include arcane machinery, futuristic inventions, and ghostly apparitions. The stories in this genre emphasize the economy, culture, and technology of that time and explore the inevitable, and sometimes frightening, advances in technology.
This collection of short stories is perfect for someone like me (and so many others!) who has only a certain amount of time to myself each day.
Two of my favorites were Why I Was Hanged by Gene Wolfe and Music, When Soft Voices Die by Peter S. Beagle. Although the stories in Ghosts by Gaslight are in the same genre, each one is unique and stands alone. I recommend cozying up with a mug of hot cocoa and reading the stories in no particular order. Just pick the most intriguing title and go with it.
I’ve always been a big fan of the comma. I even have (and sometimes wear) a shirt that reads:
“Let’s eat kids.
Let’s eat, kids.
Punctuation saves lives.”
Ah, grammar humor.
So, naturally, I was drawn to Eats, Shoots & Leaves when I originally read it years ago. This year, I reread the book, which explores how vital commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks can be.
The book gets its name from the story of a panda who walks into a bar, orders a sandwich, eats it, and fires a gun in the air. The waiter asks why the panda did it, and the panda hands him a manual and says, “Look it up.” The book has a definition of panda, which includes the poorly punctuated text “eats, shoots and leaves” instead of “eats shoots and leaves.”
The story above and the many examples in this witty book, including errors made in well-known works throughout history, prove the importance of the inclusion or exclusion of a comma. The meaning of a sentence can change drastically with or without one! The book covers the proper use of punctuation marks and provides examples of correct and incorrect usage.
Punctuation has gotten lost in the shuffle of text messaging, social media posting, and emoji use. But I still think punctuation is imperative to the understanding of our prose, and I know I’m not alone. (In fact, the author does not use the serial [Oxford] comma, which is a pet peeve of mine because I think using that extra comma makes things even clearer!)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a great read and an easy way to brush up on your skills while reading something fun.
Zadie Smith may be best known for the award-winning White Teeth, but any fan of that novel would be doing themselves a disservice if they missed out on NW. I picked this up looking for a 21st-century take on stream-of-consciousness, and recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful read that’s a little outside the status quo.
In four sections, Smith puts the reader into the minds of three characters dealing with the tangles of relationships, sexuality, and societal expectations in the culturally and socioeconomically diverse northwest London. The novel is more interested in how the characters react to the plot than laying out the events for the reader, and you’re very much experiencing life alongside the characters rather than being entertained by the things that happen to them (not to say that it isn’t entertaining!).
Since NW is in the stream-of-consciousness style, during each character’s section, we are locked into the perspective of that character giving us drastically different views of the place and time in which they live. One of the best aspects of this novel is how the sections have different voices; it feels like each part was written by a different person.
This poignant novel, filled with undeveloped strands and possibilities (just like life), examines the way that we experience relationships, location, and the effects of time. And just like any novel that has you searching for truth and navigating the complications of life, this novel stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
Created and hosted by “lady-scholars” Hannah and Marcelle, both professors at Canadian universities, Witch, Please is definitely my go-to podcast. As someone who grew up being entertained by the Harry Potter franchise and went to university for literature, hearing the Harry Potter books and movies given the English professor treatment is both fascinating and satisfying. Episodes are light enough for easy listening and car entertainment while also touching on some heavy subjects and diving deep into analysis.
One of my favourite segments is “The Boy Who Narrated,” where they discuss the events of the books while assuming Harry to be an unreliable narrator. It may not sound too exciting, but trust me, it completely altered the way that I see major aspects of the series (most notably, Snape).
Peppered with witchy music, magical sound effects, and plenty of puns and jokes, I often laugh out loud while listening. This podcast is a definite treat for any fan of Harry Potter, especially if you are a bit of a literature nerd as well.
Last year for Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a copy of It, the 800-some-odd-page brick about the evil clown, which probably conjures images of Tim Curry in greasepaint for most from my generation. It had been a while since I’d read Stephen King, but I was intrigued by this one.
The scariest parts of the book are the homelife and schoolyard horrors a group of 1950s kids face every day. In fact, it wasn’t the supernatural monster but the bad humans who had me reading through my fingers. Avoiding spoilers, I think that may have been the point.
The films do Pennywise and the Losers Club justice, but have never dived far into the weirdness of the book. Anyone who’s read it knows what I’m talking about. The sweat lodge, the Turtle, the Deadlights, the Black Spot, the Ritual of Chüd, Patrick Hockstetter—these things have been touched on at most if not outright ignored in the adaptations. So there’s a lot to discover for people who may feel they’ve already osmosed the plot through pop culture.
It was a fun, imaginative read that launched me into reading 19 more Stephen King books this year, because why not?
I got into a lot of weird podcasts this year, but Lore started it. I’d listened to the show once or twice before my girlfriend and I drove to Dallas a year ago to see host Aaron Mahnke at the Texas Theatre (she’s a big fan). And it still took me a few months to really discover it for myself. But once I did, I made up for lost time fast.
Mahnke is an expert storyteller, and Lore puts story first. Because that’s all lore really is.
He covers a lot of spooky, paranormal, and dark history topics you can find on plenty of other pods, but Mahnke comes at them in creative ways. He won’t title an episode “The Hinterkaifek Murders” or “The Diatlov Pass Incident” (both are well-trodden topics in Podcastland). Instead, he’ll get there in a way that first explores the broader context of those stories and the way they relate to deeper human truths. Sound high-brow yet? I haven’t even mentioned his live piano accompaniment.
So, yeah, this is the cobwebs-and-candles podcast you don’t need to feel guilty about.
I always try to read at least 50 books throughout the year, but recently I’ve gotten into the podcast scene, and there’s one that I have to continuously shout from the rooftops about.
TAZ is a roleplaying D&D comedy podcast by three brothers and their dad. This podcast changed my life and lifted me up when I needed it most.
I know, I know. How could a dumb D&D podcast featuring human fighter Magnus Burnsides, dwarf cleric Merle Highchurch, elf wizard Taako (y’know, from TV?), and exasperated DM Griffin McElroy possibly do that?
Let me ask you this. Do you love to laugh until you cry? Do you know jack-all about D&D and want to feel at home with four goobers who don’t know jack-all about it either? Do you love meeting amazing, diverse characters with wonderful representation who stay with you? Do you want to listen in awe at how storytelling can evolve with three years’ worth of painstaking love and care from its creators?
That’s exactly what all 69 (ha!) episodes of the first arc, Balance, did for me. Merle, Magnus, and Taako’s journey made me laugh, made me cry, and made me feel such genuine hope that we can always leave the world a little lighter and a little kinder than how we found it.
Besides, where else are you going to get profound quotes like this: “When someone leaves your life, those exits are not made equal. Some are beautiful and poetic and satisfying. Others are abrupt and unfair. But most are just unremarkable, unintentional, clumsy.”
But also quotes like this: “Bad news, compadres, this place is magic as hell.”
Listen, ya girl here is a Slytherin and loves books about the fey. With The Cruel Prince, Holly Black delivers a fantasy YA novel that features a large cast of fey, and everyone mortal and immortal alike is a Slytherin looking out for their own selfish interests and whims, as is becoming of anything involving the fey.
It’s like Black wrote a love letter to me, personally.
After her parents’ murder, Jude and her two sisters are stolen away to live in the High Court of Faerie as children. Ten years later, Jude is determined to carve out a place for herself in this world even as she hates and fears her fey overlords, none more so than Prince Cardan. Winning a position in the Court means defying Cardan and facing the consequences, but in embroiling herself in palace intrigues and dangerous deals, Jude discovers her own capacity for deception and bloodshed.
And I am so proud of her! You’re doing amazing, sweetie!
If you love dark, ambitious heroines and for your YA fantasy to have a bit of grit to it, definitely look into this one. As for Cardan, well, I guarantee he won’t be what you expect, but also how could he not be Like That™? Talk about a beautiful disaster of a fey.
I’m dying for the next book to come out. Soon. Soon, my suffering will end.
Honorable mentions: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace, Amid Stars and Darkness by Chani Lynn Feener, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, and Pestilence by Laura Thalassa
Damn, Melody. Way to steal my thunder. My podcast pick was also going to be The Adventure Zone, but when I saw Melody’s write up of it I was like … OK hers is way better than what I would have written. I’ll step aside.
I managed to sneak it in another way though because surprise! They released a graphic novel based on the series this year. So here goes …
After listening to the podcast earlier this year, my dear roommate and McElroy superfan informed me that the brothers were releasing a graphic novel of the podcast, starting with the first mini arc, “Here There Be Gerblins.” And immediately I laughed at how convoluted it all seemed. A graphic novel, based on a podcast of people playing Dungeons & Dragons? Weird, but I’m in.
We drove two hours to the live show and release party for the book and read it on the way back. It’s basically the equivalent of seeing your favorite book turned into a great movie, except kinda in reverse. Everything I imagined in my head while listening to these four nerds fumble their way through DnD is on the page, drawn brilliantly. It includes the iconic lines and fantastical scenery we expected, and inventive ways to include commentary made by Griffin McElroy, the DM of the game over the entirety of the Balance arc podcast run.
If you’re not really a podcast listener, you can give this a try, but the reading experience is much improved with a little background noise a la the magnificent podcast.
I read this in half a day. And then I set it down, thought about it bit, then picked it up and read it again. Long Way Down is a very quick read, and that’s not because the entirety of the story takes place in 60 seconds.
Jason Reynolds presents us with a hybrid poetry-style novel about a young boy named Will who must make a choice: to follow neighborhood rules and take revenge on the gang member who shot his brother, or to stop perpetuating the gun violence that took the lives of so many members of his family and community. As he steps on the elevator, gun in his waistband, ready to take his revenge, he is joined on each floor by the ghosts of those family members who were gunned down.
It’s harrowing, timely, and beautifully written. Definitely worth half a day, if not more.
Make 2019 the year you consume content voraciously. With everything that’s out there, you’d be seriously missing out if you chose to just sit quietly at home twiddling your thumbs.
You’re reading this, so you probably don’t do that anyway.
We hope at least one of these recommendations is to your liking. But, if you think we’ve overlooked a masterpiece, leave a comment below to share your recommendations with future readers.
We’re always looking for the next thing to immerse ourselves in.
Hope your new year is merry and bright and full of beauty.
Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing and the University of California, Los Angeles with an MFA in Screenwriting. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for literary and academic journals, and as an assistant to film and TV producers. In her free time, Erika enjoys playing games and writing screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is the Director of Production for Craft Your Content.