In the next few episodes, the SBTB reviewing team will be talking about our favorite books of the year! Lara joins us from South Africa to tell us about the books, fiction and nonfiction, that she read this year that made her feel good about herself. Tara joins us from Calgary, Canada, to talk about romances she read that changed her perspective – and taught her some history of lesbian pulp fiction. Carrie S. revisits zombie horror she adored and books that helped her get out of bed to fight the good fight, and Charlotte talks about revisiting her reading over the past year and how many books she loved.
I hope you enjoy this reading recap, and that you share with us your favorite books that you read in the past year, too!
Right now, for a limited time, you can get 3 months of Audible for just $6.95 a month. That’s more than half off the regular price. Choose 1 audiobook and 2 Audible Originals absolutely free. Visit audible.com/TRASHYBOOKS or text TRASHYBOOKS to 500-500.
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This Episode's Music
It’s time to feature my favorite holiday album from Deviations Project, Adeste Fiddles.
The track in the intro and between interviews is is The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, originally composed by Tchaikovsky. You can find this album at Amazon.
❤ Click to view the transcript ❤
Sarah Wendell: Hello there, and welcome to episode number 381 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell, and Zeb is next to me sneezing. Today, and in the next few episodes, you are going to hear from some of the Smart Bitches reviewing team as we talk about our favorite books of the year. Now, there are so many of us and in so many different time zones. I am so excited about this episode. Lara joins us from South Africa to tell us about books, nonfiction and fiction, that she read this year that made her feel good about herself. Tara joins us from Calgary, Canada, to talk about romances that she read which changed her perspective and taught her some of the history of lesbian pulp fiction. Carrie S. revisits zombie horror that she adored and books that help her get out of bed each day to fight the good fight. And Charlotte talks about revisiting her reading over the past year and how many books she loved. I hope you enjoy this reading recap and that you will share with us your favorite books that you read in the past year too. Which book was your favorite?
If you want to get in touch with us, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail if you’d like to be part of a future episode: 1-201-371-3272 is our number. Tell us about a book you really liked in the past year. And, as you’ll hear me say during the episode, it doesn’t have to be a book that was published in 2019. My theory is that any book that a reader hasn’t read is a new book to them, regardless of publication date.
Today’s podcast and transcript are brought to you by Striking Romance by Lindsey Brooks. If you like bodice rippers bursting at the seams with real history, you will love this sexy historical romance based on the shirtwaist strike of 1909. Sarah isn’t waiting for a man to come to her rescue. She knows if she wants labor reform she’s going to have organize it herself. Cliff sees her leading a labor rally and can’t look away. Getting involved with a Jewish labor organizer is the worst thing Cliff could do for his political career, but the magnetic attraction between them is impossible to resist. When word gets out about his infatuation, Cliff is given a choice: convince Sarah to end her strike, or watch her suffer the consequences. Can he seduce her to distraction, or will she reform his heart? Reviewers are describing this debut as unique, fresh, captivating, and sexy. Plot Trysts podcast loved the political discourse and the baths. Striking Romance by Lindsey Brooks is available on Amazon.
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I want to extend a very special thank-you to our Patreon community. I am able to record internationally and transcribe and all of the other parts of the next few episodes – and every episode, really – because of the support of the Patreon community, so thank you guys so very much for supporting the show.
I have a compliment this week, which is awesome!
To Ann-Catrin: There are squirrels who set aside extra nuts each winter in case you’ll need them because you’re so incredible, and they have all noticed. So enjoy.
If you would like a compliment of your very own or you’d like to join the Patreon community, please have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. It would be wonderful to have you join us. Monthly pledges start at one dollar a month, and each and every one is deeply, deeply appreciated, so thank you!
At the end of the episode, I will have an absolutely ghastly joke, and in the show notes I will have links to all – all, all, all – of the books that we mention in this episode. Let’s get to it. Here are our favorites of 2019.
Lara: Okay, my name is Lara. I am a freelance writer, and one of the most awesome parts of that is that I review for Smart Bitches –
Lara: – and I’m based in Cape Town!
Sarah: Which is slightly far away.
Lara: It’s, I mean, it’s, it’ll, it’s a minute. It’s a –
Lara: – it’s a process getting here.
Sarah: Take a, takes a little time.
Sarah: All right, so tell me: what are your favorite books that you read this year?
Lara: Okay, so I rated them based on the books that made me feel good about myself.
Lara: So number one –
Sarah: That’s a really good scale! I love this scale! Tell me all about it!
Lara: [Laughs] I try to, like, communicate with my gut and, like, which books did I read and just feel like, oh! Life is possible! We can do this! It’s going to be okay! And the first one that popped into my mind was The Blacksmith Queen by G. A. Aiken?
Sarah: Oh, I so understand that feeling.
Lara: Oh! Just, she’s so present in herself and so comfortable, and she’s not comfortable because she’s strong or because she’s skilled. She’s just comfortable because she’s Keeley, and Keeley is comfortable. And that sense of such a deep acceptance, to the point that you wouldn’t even really necessarily recognize like, oh, I am Keeley because I am strong. There’s just a sense of, this is who I am! The end. And I love that! So that book is probably going to stay in my top ten indefinitely.
Sarah: Oh, it’s such a good story for when you feel like crap.
Lara: It’s, it’s the slightly happier version of the, the Crows books? That’s when I want to feel just a tremendous amount of rage. I can’t, I can’t remember the author now. The Unleashing? Shelly Laurenston, maybe?
Sarah: Yes. They’re the same author.
Lara: [Gasps] Wait, what? [Laughs]
Sarah: You didn’t know this? G. A. Aiken and Shelly Laurenston are the same person!
Lara: Oh my God!
Sarah: [Laughs] You didn’t know that!
Sarah: Oh, that’s so funny!
Lara: I – [laughs]
Sarah: No, they’re the same person. That’s her, G. A. Aiken is her fantasy, not-as-much-romance penname. She wrote the Dragon Actually series –
Lara: Oh my God.
Sarah: – under that name, and she writes the Crows under, and the shifters under Shelly Laurenston, but it’s the same author, so you’re getting the same flavor.
Lara: Oh my God! So –
Lara: This is, this is very clear evidence of me not being on romance Twitter at all. Zero research about authors. I judge based on cover and description, and then I just go for it. So –
Sarah: Well, you have good taste!
Lara: – not knowing –
Sarah: You have great taste! What’s your next book?
Lara: Next one is Death of a Dapper Snowman by Angela Pepper. It’s a kind of cozy mystery, but it’s like a cozy mystery and a Stephanie Plum novel kind of squeezed together.
Lara: And I like that because sometimes my emotional capacity for, like, big, any kind of big emotion, be it positive or negative, is just not there, and I need something with very clear parameters, but with the people interesting enough that it’s not dull. And I really enjoyed that novel as a, just a, a little pause on life and the noise of it.
Lara: The next book is the one I reviewed recently, Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy, and this one has me puzzled, because usually a male character in a lead role in a book is such a massive turn-off for me, but this one is different, and I had a little bit of a Eureka moment when I was compiling my list. It’s because this is a man who by many measures meets the expectations of a kind of heteronormative, patriarchal man: he’s a warrior; he was loyal to his wife. Like, there’s a lot of stuff there that’s just, you would see it in a kind of patriotic film about a war. Like, this is the great noble hero. But inside he’s a bit of a mess! Like, there’s a lot of emotion there; there’s a lot of, I miss my wife. How do I live? Like, how do I deal with my grief? How do I deal with the fact that, because my body is aging, I am no longer the brave, noble warrior?
The next book on my list is one of the only self-help books that I’ve actually ever enjoyed. I am very much of the watch-Oprah-after-school generation, and –
Lara: – I would sit there, four o’clock, sitting on the couch – usually it’s hot, so I remember being stuck to the leather of our couch – and she would just have this parade of, of people telling me, there are solutions! You do this thing, and then you don’t want bread; or you, like, feel great; or you deal with trauma; or – there were just these neatly packaged little moments of, like, oh yeah, just read this book; it’ll be great! Those books were not available in our library, so they just kind of remained these myth-, like, mythical things, these self-help books. So there’s a quote in this book that explains why I love it, and it’s a little bit long, but it just, it makes me want to, like, scream like a battle cry flying into the sun kind of. That – [laughs] – that feeling.
While the main message of all bodies are beautiful does address the issue of narrow beauty ideals, in doing so it also reinforces the core belief that got us into this mess in the first place: that looking and feeling beautiful is a prerequisite to happiness.
Lara: Telling – [laughs] yeah! – Telling women to remember that you’re beautiful or that their stretch marks are beautiful is no doubt meant to be consoling and empowering, but it also keeps women’s attention fixed on their mirror image, on what they see, how they feel about what they see, and what others think about what they see. It keeps them stuck in the same self-objectifying, appearance-focused thought pattern that’s been fueling their insecurities all along.
Sarah: Wow. What book is that again?
Lara: It’s called Beyond Beautiful by Anuschka Rees.
Lara: She’s written one other book called The Curated Closet, which looks at fast fashion and sustainability and the choices that you make in clothing.
Sarah: Oh, I’ve heard of that one. I’ve heard of that one.
Lara: So this, I’ve, I’ve touched that one, but this one, I was sucked in by the cover and my sheer frustration with any kind of body positivity, because I actually don’t want to invest that much energy in my body. I want my, my sense of self to be – like, my body is a vehicle for it. I don’t want to have to think positive or negative thoughts. I don’t want it to take up so much mental space! This book has really helped me understand body neutrality and the freedom of that.
Tara Scott: I am Tara Scott, and I’m one of the reviewers at Smart Bitches. I also review at a couple of other places online, mostly f/f fiction, and I am in Calgary, Canada.
Sarah: Awesome! Is it cold as balls there?
Tara: Yes. Well, it’s not so bad right now. It was on the weekend. We get these warm winds that come in every so often, and we have one that hit right now, so all the snow’s melting, but it’s just this perpetual cycle of freezing and barbecuing.
Sarah: So big question; here we go.
Sarah: What were your favorite books that you read this year?
Tara: Ohhh, okay. So I feel like I’m betraying some of my babies, ‘cause obviously I’m not going to be able to list all of them, because I read too many books!
Sarah: It’s really hard to narrow it down!
Tara: It is! So I narrowed it down to five. Three of them are romance, two of them are not, and if anybody is dying for more recommendations anyway at the end all of this, especially f/f recommendations, they can come and find me on Twitter, and I will give them as many as they like.
So the first one that I’m going to start with is actually a book that I did review for the site, and it’s called Beautiful Dreamer by Melissa Brayden. Melissa Brayden holds a –
Sarah: You like her books!
Tara: I do like her books! I like her books a lot.
Tara: And I think part of it – I mean, part of it is just because she’s excellent, but part of it is also that when I started reading les fic, it was actually the same time that she started getting published, which is about eight years ago, and so I immediately fell for her writing with that first book. So now, like, it doesn’t matter: whenever she has a new book that comes out, I always read it, I usually love it, and even if I don’t love it, I always like it. This one I was super excited about because it’s small-town romance and I really like her take on those, and she does, like, really ti-, really, really charming dialogue. It’s always the kind of town that you want to go and just spend your life in, and the small-town aspect worked really well for me for this one, which made me very, very happy. There was a doughnut shop that I would like to go work out of every day and eat all their food at.
Tara: But really, the, the thing for me that stood out in this one was one of the leads, and her name was Elizabeth. She was so kind, she was so quirky, and she was just like all around this lovely person and would brook no bullshit from anyone, which I thought was amazing. She was really, really comfortable with who she was. The other lead, Devyn, was like, you’re a weirdo! And she’s like, yeah, and I like who I am. Like, that’s okay. And I thought that was really, really great.
Sarah: She loved her kindness. She loved her own –
Sarah: – kindness and didn’t see it as a flaw or a disadvantage.
Tara: Yes, and I find that’s the kind of thing that I’m having to have conversations with some of my friends recently. So I turned forty this year, so a lot of the people around me are in that, like, thirty-five- to forty-five-year-old range.
Tara: And the thing that I’m finding, that I’m having to tell a few of them over and over is, your kindness isn’t a problem, because people will tell them, you’re too nice. It’s like, actually, you’re strong as fuck. You are allowed to be kind. You just need to have better boundaries.
Tara: And, you know, Elizabeth has that down. She has that down so well. That is the kind of book that now I think I’m actually make my friends read this book, actually. I don’t care if they’re straight. They, they need to know this lesson. So anyway – [laughs] – I really love this book. And, but she also has this, like, thread of insecurity? She has some issues that kind of go back to her relationship with her mother, and that also is really relatable and makes a whole lot of sense. So yeah, I just, like, I want to go hang out with her. I love her; I want to hang out with her.
My second, I’m actually cheating, ‘cause it’s one book that has five books in it, but I’m not going to talk about all five –
Tara: – specifically.
Sarah: Cheating: this is actually an anthology of forty-two different books!
Sarah: You’re stuck now!
Tara: What can I say? It’s a little bit, anybody who’s listened to me on other podcasts will know that I have a tendency – or, like, best of lists – I have a tendency to, like, sneak other books in somehow, so this is how –
Tara: – I’ve snuck extra books in; you’re welcome! [Laughs]
Sarah: No, I, I do the same thing! The, the Washington Post was like, could you do four or five? And I’m like, you’re going to get six, and you’re going to like it. [Laughs]
Tara: Yeah, right? Come on, people want this! And everybody wants to know the bonus, so.
Sarah: Always! So what is your, what is your five-book/one-book set?
Tara: My five-book/one-book set is The Beebo Brinker Omnibus by Ann Bannon. So I had heard about these books kind of forever and finally got around to reading them this year, because Ann Bannon actually came on my podcast, and these are lesbian pulps that were written in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the thing that’s really cool is you can really trace how these books are directly responsible for the lesbian fiction and romance that’s coming out now. It’s not the only influence –
Sarah: Oh, cool!
Tara: – yeah, but it’s a very, very clear influence to what’s happening now, because her books saved Katherine V. Forrest’s life. Katherine V. Forrest wrote Curious Wine, which was basically the coming-out book for a number of other lesfic authors, and, you know, Karin Kallmaker loved her, Georgia Beers loved her, so she’s kind of, Ann Bannon is one of these foremothers that if you want to know how we got to where we are right now, watch a lot of Xena and read these books, and you’ve pretty much got a very –
Tara: – the gamut. So I’m just saying, if you read a lesfic book that was published in the early 2000s and there was a really tall dark-haired woman and a really short blonde woman with long hair –
Tara: – there’s a good chance it started out as Xena fanfic, which is fine and its own other thing? But Ann Bannon’s first book, Odd Girl Out, interestingly enough, was the second-best-selling paperback of 1957. I don’t mean second-best-selling pulp; I mean second-best-selling of all of the paperbacks.
Tara: Which is insane.
Tara: Yeah, like, these books were meant to be ephemeral. They were considered trash; they – like, they were supposed to just be read and thrown away, and I mean, the idea is that it’s, like, for these men who want salacious stories. She didn’t write for those men. She was trapped in a loveless marriage. She was writing these in her early twenties, and as she was newly married and becoming a mom, and she kind of poured her heart and soul into them. Her husband knew what she was doing. He was quite happy to take the cash and didn’t bother reading them, and that was fine. But because they were meant to be ephemeral, there’s this, like, rawness and vibrancy to them, because – if you get the omnibus, it has all the, like, forewords and afterwords that were, that she wrote for Cleis Press as they were reissuing them, and she talked about how she probably didn’t edit them as closely as she would have.
Tara: So I am going to give a content warning or trigger warning, because some of them are really rough rides, and I’m especially going to throw down a warning for the book Women in the Shadows: it’s fucking wild, and I needed a cuddle by the end of it. But the series also includes stuff like lavender marriages, because there’s a gay man and a lesbian that get married; artificial insemination, which I was like, that was a thing then?
Tara: Like, I had no idea! Interracial relationships – so she was, like, way ahead of her time, but at the same time she was exactly capturing the time as it was. So –
Tara: It’s only twenty dollars for five books, which I think is, it’s not bad, and especially if you’re trying to get that kind of time capsule, what was going on in fiction, and if you want the ones that are the, like, the least likely to hurt you, I would recommend the first one in the series, Odd Girl Out, or the prequel, which comes at the end of the omnibus and is called Beebo Brinker, which is actually included in, Oprah magazine did a list of, like, the fifty LGBTQ books you need to read or something like that, and that one was on there, so.
Sarah: No way!
Tara: Yeah, this is amazing stuff. She was incredi-, she saved, she saved lives. She got so many letters from women saying, I thought I was alone. I thought it was only me. Because these books were coming out at a time when it was illegal to be gay. So there’s, there’s a tremendous beauty in what she did, and she had no idea for decades what kind of effect it’d had on people, so I’m just telling everybody, read some of these books, all of them if you can stomach it, but if you can, definitely pick them up.
So my next book is the other nonfiction, and it’s actually one that I just finished in the past week, and it’s Shrill by Lindy West, to which I want to say, I know, I know, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long either.
Sarah: You know my rule: if, if, if it’s new to a reader, it’s a new book to them.
Tara: Mm-hmm! I know. It’s – but I should have read it a long time ago, because I’ve been a fan of hers for a while. Not as long as some, because I wasn’t following her when she was writing on The Stranger –
Tara: – but I did start following her. I probably fell for her first just for who she was on Twitter, because she did have that stance of, like, confronting trolls head on a lot of the time, and that felt really important, and then I started reading, and it was in that, that time when she was transitioning from writing for Jezebel to writing for outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian, and every time she wrote an article just felt like she was speaking directly for me, and I really, you know, loved all those articles, and I have no real good reason for why I didn’t read this sooner, but apparently some months ago I put a hold on the audiobook with my library, and I don’t even remember doing that, but I got an email a couple weeks ago saying, bing, it’s your turn! I was like, oh! Okay, well, that’s pretty cool.
Tara: I know, right? Like, thanks Past Tara! Way to deliver! [Laughs] So –
Sarah: I love when Past Sarah does stuff like that for me.
Tara: Isn’t that the best? I know. I’m going to be so excited in six months when there’s a whole bunch of other books that are going to come up that I am going to totally forget that I put a hold on.
Tara: This book spoke to my soul. It was –
Tara: – occasionally a rough read also, especially when she gets deep into talking about some of the harassment that she experienced, because she doesn’t sugarcoat it, and she often includes examples of the types of tweets and emails that she gets. But the way that she talks about fatness and misogyny and her abortion experience and why we shouldn’t be ashamed of our own abortion stories for those of us that have them. And there was one line that I hit in particular that just rang so true, I actually texted it to my husband, and she said, feminism is this long, slow realization that what you love hates you.
Sarah: Oh shit.
Tara: Right?! Like, just let that one sit a tiny bit.
Tara: How much media –
Tara: – how much media have you had to either give up or make your peace with because, because of that? Like, one movie –
Tara: – that I’ve had to make my peace with which I know is a fucking trash fire is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Sarah: Oh boy, yeah.
Tara: Yeah, like, that, that movie is just a problem. The only reason I’ve made my peace with it is because it was my favorite movie when I was six because of the time that I spent with my favorite grandmother. And even that, I know, is almost not even an excuse enough, but I have made a conscious choice. But there’s so much media I’ve had to give up because it’s true, because it’s coming from creators that don’t care about me, that stand for things – I mean, not that any of them care about me; like, let’s be honest, I don’t know any of these people that are creating content; that’s fine – but that, like, actively hate women?
Sarah: And think they can hide it but can’t, or just don’t bother.
Sarah: That makes me think of two things –
Sarah: One, when we are writing on Smart Bitches, I think all of us genuinely care about the community that we’re writing for?
Sarah: Like, I want people who come to the site to find books that are going to make them happy, and I, and I don’t care if they like something very different from what I like. I want people to find books that will make them happy. But I look at romance as a genre, and I see ways that it both loves and embraces women and ways that it compresses and denigrates women at the same time.
Sarah: Which is terribly painful.
Tara: Yeah. I –
Sarah: Even, even, even that hurts.
Tara: It’s true! I am afraid to go back and reread the romances that I was reading in high school or that my mom was reading, because I don’t know what’s going to hold up and what’s not, and there are some that are going to hurt a whole lot if they don’t hold up.
Tara: So I’m just not going to! [Laughs]
Sarah: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Tara: I pretty much stay in the f/f pool most of the time these days – I’ll occasionally, like, dip a toe out somewhere else – and so I’m usually mostly fine, except f/f fiction, especially if you look at that, like, little walled garden where Bold Strokes Books and Bella Books and Ylva Publishing and, like, those indie lesfic publishers live, has a bit of a biphobia problem, which sucks –
Tara: – when you’re a bisexual person who’s reading the books, and so it’s been getting better. It’s actually, I feel like it’s getting a lot better, although there’s still a ways to go.
Tara: But –
Sarah: I know this feeling.
Tara: Yeah! Like, when you go back to your, even reading some of the older stories, or when I, like, when I first got into reading it, you kind of never knew where you would end up reading about, like, the evil bi ex or the greedy bisexual, how dare you have dated both genders, and that kind of stuff, and it’s like, well – [frustrated air leak] –
Sarah: Why shouldn’t we be greedy? Why –
Sarah: – why shouldn’t we, right?
Tara: [Laughs] But then you start having the, like, I mean, this is getting into a whole other issue about, like, gatekeeping in different communities, but I mean, at one point there was an author who approached Sheena at The Lesbian Review, which is kind of the place where I started as a professional reviewer –
Tara: – and said, she’s married to a man. Are you sure she should be reviewing for you?
Tara: Yeah. And –
Sarah: God, the troublesome peens, I swear!
Tara: [Laughs] I know! It’s like, the, the way it gets in the way when I’m trying to type out reviews is awful!
Sarah: Just, it’s just, it’s just, it, it’s like a giant inflatable! It just gets in the way!
Tara: Yeah. Of everything! I know, it’s like one of those –
Tara: [Exasperated sigh] Like, I know how to read. I have my own brain. I actually have two degrees in literature. Like, I think I’m equipped to write these, but it was just that, like, this person had a block there that, no, like, I only write for lesbians, and I am a lesbian, and nobody else – it, I mean, this, it, this person goes down into, I know who it is, and I’m not going to name names, but they are also, like, a – surprise! – a TERF, so the biphobia and being a TERF seem to go hand-in-hand.
We got way the hell off track. Do you want more books?
Sarah: Yeah! Bring ‘em on!
Tara: Okay. Okay.
Sarah: Screw them biphobic TERFs! Let’s talk about books!
Tara: Right?! The next one is Anyone but You by Chelsea M. Cameron, which is a really lovely, super fluffy, enemies-to-lovers romance between a CrossFit instructor and a yoga studio owner. So the CrossFit instructor’s name is Tuesday, and she’s bought the building where Sutton has her yoga studio, and she’s putting in a CrossFit studio below it, and there’s, like, loud, blaring music and, like, people dropping loud weights and stuff, and it drives Sutton crazy. And it’s a first-person story from the, Sutton’s perspective, and it starts out, like, really, really antagonistic, and they’re just, like, shitheads to each other, and it’s hilarious?
Tara: And while it seems like Tuesday is just a dick, she, like, really slowly starts to open up, and the chemistry is really well done in this one, and it’s really interesting to see – I don’t think Sutton changes very much in this book, to be honest. It’s been a while since I read it, and I didn’t have time to reread it, but Sutton doesn’t change a whole lot, but everything is told from her perspective, so we’re seeing this massive shift in character arc for somebody else all through her eyes, and I thought that was really well done, and it was a really interesting way to do that. The other thing that I loved about this book, which I also actually love about several of Chelsea Cameron’s books, is that there is no angst. Like, there’s a ton of antagonism, but there is no angst, and I love that her books dependably are ones that I can reach for when things are rough, because they’re just like the fluffiest, loveliest – I always end up falling in love with the characters. They’re so much fun, so yeah, if you just want, like, a really fun one, that’s a really, really fun one.
And last, I saved my very favorite of the year, which is also actually the very first book I read this year, which is the first time that’s ever happened to me. So I have been excited about this book fro-, since January, so if you follow me on Twitter you’ve probably seen me gush about this one a whole bunch of times. [Laughs] ‘Cause I’m not subtle. So this one is called Thorn, and it’s by Anna Burke, and this is a lesbian retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” I have been dying for an f/f fairytale retelling that actually feels like –
Tara: – a fairytale, and Anna Burke totally delivered on this one. But I’m going to warn you, while it feels like a fairytale, it feels like one of those, like, old, original, dark ones, and it, there’s, like, no dancing teacups or anything like that –
Tara: – anywhere in this book. So I think she does a really beautiful job of maintaining the spirit of the original story, but she also presents something entirely new with this one. So the writing is gorgeous. Like, I just kept putting my Kindle down and walking away, because I just had to, like, savor the way –
Sarah: I love when that happens!
Tara: – it had been written. Like, it was just – [sighs] – it was so beautiful. And I was highlighting just, like, passage after passage after passage. I was like, I need to remember this! And then it was like, oh great, I highlighted the whole Goddamn book.
Sarah: [Laughs] Nice job.
Tara: Well, that’s useful! Right? High fives. But at the same time, I felt like the structure to this one was also interesting and worked really well. So the book is mostly told in the first person from the perspective of Rowan, who is, like, the Belle stand-in? I’m just going to use the names from the, the Disney Beauty and the Beast, ‘cause that’s really the only true one to me anyway, as somebody who was in grade school when that movie came out. So Rowan is the Belle character; the book is mostly told in the first person from her perspective, so we get to kind of see and feel everything that she experiences, and that real, almost like fish-out-of-water thing going on, because she goes from ha-, living in this, like, little cottage with her family to this, like, old-ass castle where everything is frozen around her. It feels very much like Calgary. [Laughs] No, that’s not true.
Tara: Feels nothing like Calgary! But, like, it’s just perpetual winter there, and there’s the Huntress, who is the Beast, but, you know, is, is, is a human woman, so, like, isn’t turned into – thank God, ‘cause that would have made the sex scenes real weird – but –
Tara: And she’s surrounded by, like, wolves, and she has this polar bear that she rides around, and it’s all very, like, almost primal? I’m try-, I’m not even sure the right way to put that. But at the end of most of the chapters we get a short scene from the perspective of the Huntress, and it’s told in the third, third person. So it adds this whole other dimension to everything that’s going on, because we do get to see the Huntress’s inner landscape, but it’s just in smaller pieces to what we get from Rowan, and it’s just, it works so well.
Like, I can’t get over Anna Burke. She has two books out so far. The first one was Compass Rose, which is this, like, sci-fi, like, climate fiction, dystopian, also fantastic, fun ride, and then she wrote this. Her next one, which I’m super excited about, is, like, a lesbian retelling of the Robin Hood thing. She’s just kind of, like, writing all sorts of fun adventure stuff, and yeah, I, like, I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s so freaking good.
Carrie S.: Okay, so I am in Sacramento, California; I’m Carrie S. on the site; and specifically I am sitting on my bed in my bedroom, having shut the door, which means that every pet in the house shortly will decide to knock down the door to come in.
Sarah: Well, of course; that’s how this works.
Carrie: Right, yes. So that’s the kind of, like, professional recording studio that I have access to, is, you know, my bed in my house.
Sarah: Well, I’m, I, I’m currently speaking into a tub lined with foam, and my dog will freak out in about, oh, ten minutes, so no worries! We’re all super professional!
So what are your favorite books of 2019?
Carrie: Okay, so! Ooh, I made a list.
Hands down, my favorite book this year was Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. And I found that this year I was very specific about the kind of book that I wanted, and it didn’t matter what genre it was in, but I wanted it to have some sort of message of hope. And even the tone could be different; like, some were kind of cynical and some weren’t, but the idea had to be that, you know, the good fight is worth fighting, by golly. And Hollow Kingdom, it, it is revealed as the story progresses that there has been an e-, an apocalyptic event, and a crow, a domesticated crow and a dog have to travel down I-5 from Seattle, and they go on a mission to rescue animals that are trapped in houses. And the voice of the crow is so profane and so funny, and he loves humanity so much, and the fact that his, all of his experience with humanity is with, mm, humanity that maybe we wouldn’t always value very much, he just, like, he can’t believe that humans invented Hot Pockets. Like, this is the most amazing thing, and we even invented a machine that can heat Hot Pockets; he’s so excited about this. So the idea that not only does he value humanity, but he’s not valuing humanity of, like, you know, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the fact that we went to the moon. He’s excited about just everyday, struggling, imperfect, messed-up humanity, and I thought that book was amazing. That’s my number one pick for sure.
Sarah: There’ve been a number of people talking about how much they were surprised at the degree to which they enjoyed reading this book.
Carrie: Yeah. Like, it was affecting on so many levels. It was this incredibly emotional experience. Like, I cri-, you know, when they say, you’ll laugh! You’ll cry! Well, I did, you know, all of those things, and I frequently did them simultaneously. And it was also a book, which is pretty rare for me now, where when something, where things happened where I would actually, like, kind of shriek, not because they were scary, but because they were affecting. You know what I mean? Like, I was immersed in that book, and even though some really awful things happened – hence all the crying – I also came away with it feeling hopeful and happy and, you know, like, okay, maybe I will get out of bed tomorrow. You know, it’s been a hard year for me personally, so I was very selective about what I read. And basically what I was trying to read is things that say, eh, is it worth getting out of bed tomorrow? Yeah! Yeah, like, there’s a machine that can heat Hot Pockets in thirty seconds. Like, why would you not be excited about life? Why would you not value humanity and want to get up and fight the good fight?
In terms of romance, I have to say that I was really picky about romance this year, ‘cause I was kind of like, at the end of every romance book I’d be like, oh, I give them a year! But even –
Carrie: No, I was the Ebenezer Scrooge of romance this year, but even given that, there were some standouts that I really enjoyed, and one was Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. I really liked the representation of somebody with chronic pain, and I crave her pajamas, and I, as somebody who’s struggled with chronic pain this year, I felt not just represented, but a lot of the internal ableism things that I, I am working on, I could see her doing things like, she takes her pain medication, some of which opioids, without any shame or any embarrassment. That’s what the doctor has prescribed for her, that is part of her plan, and so she, you know, that’s what she does.
Carrie: And I just felt really affirmed by that. I actually, yesterday, finished the graphic novel Mooncakes and had a similar experience when a character takes out her hearing aid to talk on the phone, which I had never seen, and I was so excited, because I take out my hearing aid to talk on the phone, and the audiologist is always like, just hold the phone over the microphone, and no, you know what, that – no. That doesn’t work.
Carrie: And so the, like –
Sarah: My son and I both read that, that novel this year, and we loved it.
Carrie: I loved it for many reasons, but I was, like, thrilled. Like, there’s a picture of her on the phone, she’s got the hearing aid in her hand, and I’m like, I’ve never seen that before. And that, and I do that all the time; walking around, waving this hearing aid around with the phone up to my ear. So yes.
And I, and also, like, both Mooncakes and Get a Life, Chloe Brown were diverse, you know, fun romances. They’re very different from each other. And then I have two historicals. They were Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean and The Wallflower Wager by Tessa Dare.
Carrie: And, you know, like, both of them kind of tonally had some kind of weird flaws, but they had some really great funny situations and heroines that I very much admired. They were both, like, very heroine-heavy, I have to say. Like, I, I don’t even remember who the heroes were in those books. Broody, broody guys. But I really loved the heroines, and the heroines, again, they’re, even though they’re both historical, is they’re tonally very different, and the characters are very different, but they have kind of a common thread of just being very comfortable with who they are in the world, and a world that often doesn’t accept them, and funny also, very, very funny. I recommend Wallflower Wager for the scene where the goat has a baby goat. It’s like three pages, but it’s worth the price of the book. Yeah.
Sarah: Are there any other ones you want to mention?
Carrie: Well, I have a bonus, which is that last year Grady Hendrix published We Sold Our Souls, but –
Carrie: – now it’s is out in paperback, so I’m like, well, I can announce it as new, because it’s new in paperback!
Sarah: Sure! Well, I mean, my, my rule is if a person hasn’t read it it’s a new book to them, so maybe someone hasn’t read that yet!
Carrie: Okay, well, then, you know, someone hasn’t read it, and they should read it right away. And I have read it – I read it last year – but I, any time people say, well, what’s a good book? Like, that just flies out of my mouth, regardless of the context or what I think this person would like or what year it is. I thought that book was amazing.
But it has it’s, you know, what all of these books have in common, even though these books are wildly different from each other, is that, there’s that theme of, you know, why get out of bed? Well, let’s get out of bed because – and then, you know, it has that very affirming message that, you know, that mix of, of funny and scary and touching that I like in any genre, and that ver-, just deeply affirming message of, of strength and of valuing relationships, friendships and romantic relationships, and of just why it’s worth fighting the good fight, whether you’re going to win or not. That was my common thread, and all those books, you know, have that a lot.
Sarah: Get up; keep going.
Also, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter? I kind of went back through books that I’ve read, and I realized I had forgotten about that one, ‘cause I read it really early in the year, but –
Carrie: – as soon as I saw the cover it was like I was right back in the book. You know, it was just such an immersive book, and it is a very creepy urban fantasy. It does have a romance, but it’s, it’s definitely not a romance, and it’s not, doesn’t have very much of the humor that I have in the other stuff. It’s pretty dark stuff, but I would recommend it to people who have grown up knowing that the Fae are not Tinker Bell, or more to the point –
Carrie: – that Tinker Bell straight up tried to murder a bunch of people in the original novel. You know what I mean? Like, if you are able to associate the Fae with horror, then this is kind of going to be your jam.
Yeah, and again, at the end of the day, right, it’s like, oh, should we get up now? Okay. I guess we will. You know what I mean? So yeah.
Charlotte B.: I am Charlotte B. I am currently on my couch in Atlanta, Georgia, where it is thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit outside, which is extremely cold by our standards, so I am, I’m under a mound of blankets like the height of my head.
Sarah: [Laughs] I went to college in Columbia, South Carolina, and thirty-two degrees was cause for some panic.
Charlotte: If it, if there was any moisture in the air, they probably would have closed my office. [Laughs] Like –
Sarah: Oh, I’m sure!
Sarah: If there was any precipitation whatsoever, they’d be like, nope, we, no. Nope. Uh-uh.
Sarah: And there’d be no milk or beer or cereal or bread in the grocery store.
Charlotte: Oh, my mother already called me to make sure I had milk, because it was getting below freezing last night.
Sarah: [Laughs] Oh, I miss that!
Charlotte: Yeah. [Laughs]
Sarah: So I am curious: what were your favorite books that you read this year?
Charlotte: Okay. So this was, I sat down for like an hour last night with my Kindle, and this was so fun, ‘cause I read so much good stuff this year, and it –
Sarah: Oh, that’s the best!
Charlotte: Yeah, and it was great, because sometimes you forget that you, like, a book that you loved, and then you’re like, I read that this year! That was so wonderful!
Sarah: It’s like when, when your, when your phone app serves you a picture that you don’t remember and you’re like, oh, I remember that! It was wonderful! You get that same feeling!
Charlotte: Yes, exactly, exactly. Okay. So these were my, like, and they’re, they are so different than each other, these books, but it was that kind of year. So, interestingly, none of them are historicals, and I used to read a ton of historical, but this year, I, I think, like a lot of people, I found myself in this place where I kind of couldn’t deal with some of the dynamics of historicals anymore, and –
Charlotte: – yeah. Like, I just, I, I went a lot into, like, kind of the fantasy/sci-fi space, and then also into contemporary, which is rare for me, actually.
Charlotte: Yeah. But, so, first of all, a book hands-down that I completely love, and I also love it because it has the best title ever, ‘cause it just says what it is completely on the label, is Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny.
Charlotte: This book is like – so I have actually, I read it early in the year. I have reread it since then. It is like a complete wish-fulfillment book for, like, the overstressed professional woman, because it is about this, like, high-achieving doctor who is a single mom. She has this kind of awful ex-husband. She is Black, he was White. She’s got two daughters, and she hires Rafe, who is a buff male nanny, and, to take care of her, her girls, and love ensues, and usually I would not be into kind of boss/employee, but the consent dynamics are navigated really well, and he’s just like a complete wish-fulfillment human being, and she’s like this really hard-working, smart, but, like, super over-stressed, you know, high-achieving single mom with these, like, adorable but very realistically portrayed daughters and this awesome group of girlfriends, and he turns out to be this, like, super supportive, yet also handsome, muscle-y, motorcycle-riding, nurturing man, and it is like balm for the soul if you are a tired professional woman, and I am a tired professional woman!
Charlotte: So I love that book. I love it. I recommend it to people all the time. It’s, it’s just good stuff, and it, I smile every time I look at the cover. It’s also a good cover.
So a couple other books I really loved this year. Like many other people, I loved Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. I have recommended that to so many people. Really liked that book. I’m sure other people will talk at length about why they loved that book, but I really liked that book, and it has an amazing cover.
Sarah: I have seen so many people on Twitter who are, you know, my, my Twitter feed is, is a mixture of different groups, and I have people –
Sarah: – in just about every group who are still talking about this book.
Charlotte: I mean, honestly, like, I recommended it to my dad, who is seventy-two years old, and he’s reading it and loving it.
Sarah: Oh! That’s so cool! What does he think so far?
Charlotte: So he’s like, the beginning is kind of slow, and then, and I was like, yeah, the beginning actually kind of is, because, you know, it really drops you in, like completely in media res. There is not, there’s no chapter where it’s like, in a world where people –
Sarah: Once –
Charlotte: – mysteriously live on strange planets, you know.
Sarah: – upon a time there were lesbians –
Sarah: – in space.
Charlotte: There were lesbians in space, yes.
Charlotte: When you get to the main kind of part of the story, there are a lot of sci-fi novels that have this structure of what’s essentially a locked-room mystery on a planetary scale. Alistair Reynolds – he’s a Scottish sci-fi writer – wrote a book called Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, and the main novella in that has a similar kind of setup of, like, the puzzle planet where you’re dropped someplace, and you’re trying to sort of solve the mystery of the entire planet? But I, I, yeah, I think that book is fantastic, and it makes that kind of idea new in an awesome way, and the characters are fantastic. It’s easy to forget that they’re teenage girls, and then they will just say something and you’re like, oh my God, you are such teenage girls?
Sarah: They’re ruthless, too!
Charlotte: They are! They are, but they’re like, they’re funny and they’re complicated, and I especially love, like, I love the central relationship in that book, which I don’t want to spoil at all, but it is very complex and super emotionally realistic, I felt like. And I also like that some of the characters actually are good? Some of the people in there, ‘cause I, I kept waiting for them to turn out to be secretly evil, and they weren’t, and I was like, okay, I actually appreciate that, ‘cause the person who seems to be good being secretly evil is actually what you start to expect, so.
Charlotte: Yeah, I love that book. So good. So good.
Sarah: I love that it’s the kind of book that hangs out in your brain.
Charlotte: Yes. Yeah.
Sarah: Like, after you finished it, half of, or a portion of your brain is still in that world.
Charlotte: Yes. And it is also a book, I would really like to know who did that cover, because that cover is unbelievable.
Sarah: Oh! I, I can answer that question if you give me a second.
Charlotte: Yes, ‘cause it is a –
Sarah: If you want to go on to the next book –
Sarah: – I will, I will, I will find the answer for you.
Charlotte: Okay, ‘cause that is a fan-, it is a fantastic cover.
The third book that I really loved this year, and it’s als-, I’ve also reread this. So Ilona Andrews is a big comfort read for me –
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Charlotte: – always. Like, yeah. And I went through some hard stuff personally a few months ago, and I did a massive amount of Ilona Andrews rereading during that time, but I also discovered that their new book Sweep of the Blade was out, which is part of the Innkeeper series, or it’s in the Innkeeper universe.
Charlotte: The main character of the Innkeeper series, the heroine is her sister, who has been off – in the Innkeeper books, she kind of appears close to the end. She’s been, like, off adventuring in the galaxy. She, she married this, like, vampire warlord dude and, like, went off with him, and then things turned out really badly for them, and she’s been on her own as a human in this world where she is physically much weaker, trying to protect her daughter, and this secondary character in the Innkeeper books who’s this vampire knight has sort of fallen for her, but she is, doesn’t want to allow herself to fall for him, and it is a great book. It is, it is a romance, but it’s also, it has a lot of politicking in it and a lot of sword fighting in it, which I also enjoy. So it’s got this woman struggling with what is her true destiny, like will she kind of lean into this thing that she is incredibly good at about, at kind of becoming this diplomatic, political leader, letting herself love this person who from the start just completely, like, adores her and respects her, and I think that’s why I liked it so much is because the dynamic is completely, like, the hero loves her competence?
Charlotte: He loves how – yes! And so that is so appealing. [Laughs]
Sarah: And there’s a lot in common –
Charlotte: You know?
Sarah: – between that dynamic and the dynamic of Rafe, too. You’re inverting –
Sarah: – the, the, the power and caretaker dynamic in, along –
Charlotte: Exactly, mm-hmm.
Sarah: – different gender lines, so yeah, it makes total sense –
Sarah: – that – I, I love heroes – I love competence porn, and I love when heroes and heroines respect each other’s competence? Love that too.
Sarah: Also, the artist of Gideon the Ninth –
Sarah: – is Tommy Arnold, and if you’ve seen the cover for the next one, Harrow the Ninth, he posted on Twitter that he injured his writing hand, and he drew that with his non-dominant hand.
Charlotte: Oh my gosh!
Sarah: So he’s, like, ridiculous talented, but that’s Tommy Arnold, if you like to give credit.
Charlotte: That is the best cover I have seen in –
Sarah: It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
Charlotte: – many years.
The other 2019 book that I really loved this year, which is very different –
Charlotte: – than the other ones that I’ve mentioned is this book called –
Charlotte: – A Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson? It’s totally different in, like, feel and vibe than all the other books that I enjoyed, because it is, it’s much sort of gentler in its tone.
Sarah: Which you would not tell from the title! [Laughs]
Charlotte: No. [Laughs] It’s got very much a vibe of, like, sort of Naomi Novik –
Charlotte: – a little bit.
Charlotte: I would say Robin Hobb. It’s fantasy, and the heroine is a librarian, which I love, and she sort of discovered – it’s, it’s set in a magical Victorian world, and she discovers a dangerous thing that’s going on. She has to team up with a prickly and extremely hot young master sorcerer to –
Sarah: Of course she does.
Charlotte: Of course she does, and –
Charlotte: – he’s very misunderstood, you know.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, I met him before –
Sarah: – and I will meet him again, and that is okay.
Charlotte: Yeah! I like him every time I meet him, you know?
Charlotte: He’s got floppy hair. They always have floppy hair.
Charlotte: But that’s – yeah! It was trope-y, but I, I enjoyed it, and Victorian settings are less common, and I like them, so.
This is not a romance at all, but it, this book stuck with me so strongly all year, and it’s, it’s really excellent. It’s 2018, it’s actually a novella, and it’s called The Black God’s Drums, and it is by a writer named P. Djeli Clark. It is very inexpensive or free online. There’s a lot of great free science fiction around right now. It is excellent. It is steampunk alternate history in a world where basically the Civil War, U. S. Civil War ended in an armistice that is partially overseen by an extremely powerful and independent Haiti as a dominant regional power.
Charlotte: It involves airships. It involves lady pirates or lady airship captains.
Sarah: Somebody right now listening to this just jumped up and went to go buy it.
Charlotte: Oh, there’s more! It’s set in New Orleans.
Sarah: Okay, yep, sold! Gone.
Charlotte: [Laughs] The focus feels very small and personal when it starts, like it’s sort of a little, little girl running around the streets, stealing stuff, making trouble, and then it broadens out to this epic scale involving kind of gods and magic and saving the world from an insurgent former Confederacy, all in the span of, like, a very, you know, maybe, maybe fifty pages? It’s fantastic, really good, and because it’s short you can sit down and read this, like, very satisfying and completely realized world in like an hour. So good. I’ve recommended that to a ton of people too.
And you know, it’s like the best thing when you recommend a book to someone and they read it and they’re like, I loved that! What else can you recommend? And I’m like, oh, let’s begin! [Laughs]
Sarah: That, that’s, that’s –
Sarah: – that’s the very most favorite part of my whole entire job is when someone says –
Charlotte: Oh gosh.
Sarah: – oh my God, you recommended this book, and it was perfect, and it was what I needed, and it, that is the most favorite, most gratifying, most joyful part of my job. Like, that’s quite literally what I do, and it keeps me going every day, so I’m so glad you got that feeling! It is the loveliest feeling.
Charlotte: It really is. It’s like books are magic, you know, and it feels like –
Sarah: It’s true!
Charlotte: It feels like you gave someone else the magic.
Sarah: And you shared that magic.
Sarah: Yes, you shared the magic!
Sarah: And that brings us to the end of our first of three, possibly four episodes with the Smart Bitches reviewing team as we look back at 2019 and the books that we read that rocked our world.
I would love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail at 1-201-371-3272.
I want to thank Carrie and Tara and Lara and Charlotte for taking time to talk to me. Next week it’ll be more writers talking about more books, ‘cause that’s how we roll here, and I don’t know about you, but I love hearing other people talk about books that they loved reading, especially when it means that I’m going to go then reserve those at the library, buy them, and add them to my list, right? ‘Cause that’s how this works.
Thank you again to our Patreon community, whose support enables me to have the software and the technology to do international recording and connect me with the writers around the world. Thank you so much for supporting the show. If you would like to join our community, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. It would be wonderful to have you join us.
I know that you know what the music is, but I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s time! It is time, it is time for my favorite holiday album. This is Adeste Fiddles from Deviations Project. I feature it every year, and this is “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” originally composed by Tchaikovsky. You can find this album wherever you buy your funky music, and if you’re like me it’s really exciting when you get to play it. And sometimes I play it in July ‘cause, well, it’s awesome!
Coming up on Smart Bitches this week, we have reviews, we have a new Gift Guide, and the first of our two monthly Whatcha Reading? posts, where we tell you what we’re reading, and you tell us what you’re reading, and then, again, we’re all going to go find more books. It’s going to be great. We always have Help a Bitch Out on Tuesday. We have Books on Sale every day. I hope you will stop by the site and hang out with us.
I will, of course, have links to every book we mentioned. It will be quite a list, so if you go to the show notes at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast, you can find the titles we mentioned if you missed one ‘cause you’re driving or dyeing wool or cleaning or doing something equally dope. Wait, I got an email from somebody; what are they doing? Jewelry making. That’s so cool! Hello to you! I hope it’s sparkly.
Now, of course I end with a bad joke. This joke was sent in by a listener, because you are all marvelous! This is from Kim, and it’s adorable, and I kind of want to change the name of my dog so that when I’m trying to get him to come up the stairs I can use this joke.
What French cheese is best for coaxing bears out of trees?
Give up? What French cheese is the best for coaxing bears out of trees?
[Laughs] Come on, bear! Come on, bear! I want to change Buzz’s name to Bear so I can tell him to come up the stairs. Camembert! I wish for cheese! Get up here! [Laughs more] Thank you, Kim, for that terrible joke!
Thank you again to Carrie and Lara and Tara and Charlotte, and to all of you for listening. We wish you the very best of reading, and we will see you back here next week.
Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcasting Network. If you would like to find more outstanding podcasts to try, visit frolic.media/podcasts.
[coolest Christmas music]
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.
Today’s podcast and transcript is sponsored by Striking Romance by Lindsey Brooks. If you like bodice rippers bursting at the seams with real history, you’ll love this sexy historical romance based on the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909.
Sarah isn’t waiting for a man to come to her rescue. She knows that if she wants labor reform, she’s going to have to organize it herself. Cliff sees her leading a labor rally and can’t look away. Getting involved with a Jewish labor organizer is the worst thing Cliff could do for his political career but the magnetic attraction between them is impossible to resist.
When word gets out about his infatuation, Cliff is given a choice: convince Sarah to end the strike or watch her suffer the consequences. Can he seduce her to distraction, or will she reform his heart?
Reviewers are describing this debut as “unique, fresh, captivating and sexy.” Plottrysts podcast loved the political discourse, and the baths! Striking Romance by Lindsey Brooks is available on Amazon.