2017 Reading Challenge

I enjoy reading challenges.  I collect all of the ones I can and do my best to at least take inspiration from them when choosing my reading material throughout the year.  There are even themed challenges, pushing readers to expand their horizons in certain genres or by reading from diverse authors, or perhaps by making themselves read something written that challenges political or social ideals and norms.

What is reading for, after all, than expanding our horizons?

With that in mind, I made my own reading challenge this year.  I haven’t picked a number I want to read, but I’m hoping to improve on 2016 (21 published novels and a load of editing work and fanfiction).  If you’d like to follow along, I’ll be posting reviews as I go and I have made a list with some recommendations.

A book chosen just for the cover.  Stop by your local bookstore and just browse the shelves.  Which covers catch your eye because they’re colorful or unique?  Without reading the blurbs or reviews, take it home.  If you don’t have a local bookstore, I recommend these great reads with bright, fun covers:

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A book longer than 500 pages.  Now, length doesn’t necessarily mean quality, of course, but challenge yourself to stick with a story you can’t finish in a typical weekend.  I recommend Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or, if you’re up for a real challenge, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (I reviewed it a while ago — the mass market paperback clocks in at over 1,000 pages).

A collection of short stories.  In contrast, find some bite-size stories perfect for a lunch break or morning commute (if you take public transportation, of course).  Some of my favorite short story authors are Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, and Flannery O’Connor, but I’ll also be browsing the anthologies at my local library to find some new material.

A collection of poetry.  Not everyone feels a kinship with poetry.  It can be a bit of an acquired taste…but if you want to dip your toes in, try Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

A classic everyone loves.  Hey, they’re classics for a reason, right?  I recommend anything by Jane Austen (I’m looking at you, men), The Lord of the Rings, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

A comic book or graphic novel.  Good stories are good stories, even if they include pictures.  A fantastic introduction to this genre is Batman’s The Killing Joke, a classic that gives us great action, incredible graphics, and a peek into the backstory of the franchise’s most well-known and popular villain.  For new stuff, I’m going to be reading Watchmen and probably The Long Halloween.

A self-published novel.  Indie authors need love, too.  I recommend R.R. Virdi’s The Grave Report Series, but you can find tons of reviews for self-published and small house books at A Drop of Ink Reviews.  Don’t forget to write your own review and share it on Amazon, Goodreads, and/or your own blog or other social media.  Word of mouth is still the best way to find new readers and new books.

A book that challenges your political or religious/spiritual beliefs.  Now, the point of this is not necessarily to change your beliefs, but to understand the other half.  If your views change, then hey, whatever.  If you stick to your guns, then you at least can be a little bit more informed the next time you get into a Facebook argument with a stranger 😉  If you are agnostic or atheist and looking for something Christian to try out, I highly recommend Ken Ham’s New Answers series for a rundown on science and creationism.  I haven’t decided what I’ll be reading for this part of my challenge, but I welcome recommendations on your favorites.

A memoir or autobiography.  If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your librarian or research “creative nonfiction”.  David Sedaris has written some wonderfully hilarious and enlightening essay collections (one of my personal favorites is “You Can’t Kill The Rooster”).  If you’re into film/cinema, have ever seen the hilariously awful B-movie The Room, or just need a good laugh, read Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.  I currently have a copy of Lynn Wilder’s Unveiling Grace waiting for me on my bookshelf to fulfill this challenge.

A book published more than 100 years ago.  Learn a little bit about history from the people who lived it!  Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published in 1899, is an eye-opening portrait of the Victorian woman and the birth of what historians call the New Woman movement, a precursor to later feminist/suffragist movements.  It’s also just a really well-written story with great characters and lots of interesting detail.

A book published more than 200 years ago.  Keep on going back!  While the novel didn’t come much into vogue until the early to mid-1800s, the Age of Reason still produced a plethora of great essays and poems.  Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” are two of my long-standing favorites from the 1700s.  Shakespeare is always a great choice, too 😉

A historical novel set in a time period or place you don’t know much about.  Naturally, there are certain historical events and time periods most people are pretty familiar with — World War II, the French Revolution, the European medieval period, etc, etc.  But what about those lesser-known people, places, and events?  Browse the historical fiction lists on Goodreads for some great suggestions.

A book from a genre you rarely peruse.  Broaden your literary horizons!  While there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite type of book, branching out can lead to some great discoveries.  I’m going to try reading more horror and science fiction for this challenge.

A nonfiction book about a subject you aren’t familiar with.  One of the best direct benefits from reading is learning.  While you don’t need nonfiction to learn, that unexplored aisle at your library or local bookstore probably has some real gems.  You might even discover a new hobby or want to read more about the person/place/event from your perusal of the historical fiction shelf.

Back, Back, Back it up: Protect Your Work From Catastrophic Loss

If you sat my husband down and said, “Hey, what’s with your wife and her Dracula paper?”, he’d probably roll his eyes and tell you a sad story about the time I accidentally deleted one of my thesis papers in college.  My Dracula paper is infamous in my immediate circle — not just because I still have an obsession with that novel, but because I also spent an inordinate amount of time writing it.  I checked out probably forty books from the library and printed a metric ton of online material.  I drafted and rewrote it and spent over a month perfecting my thesis…only to lose the damn thing when I pulled my USB drive out of the computer too soon.

I tried everything I could think of to get it back and even enlisted a computer programmer friend, but, for whatever reason, the data was gone.  Since it was the night before the last day of the semester, I had to convince my professor to give me an extension (God bless you Dr. Davis) and then spent the first few days of Christmas vacation rewriting it from scratch.  My husband (then fiance) was my complaint soundboard.  Needless to say, he wasn’t happy.

Moral of the story?  BACK UP YOUR WORK.

Right now.  Do it.  Don’t hesitate another minute.  A good rule of thumb is to think 3-2-1:

Make 3 copies of your work, in two different formats, with at least one offsite copy.  All these backups should be independent of one another.

Your work is precious and irreplaceable, so don’t lose it.  Especially when technology makes it super easy to makes copies of everything.

Here’s a list of recommendations:

  1.  Flash drive.  Portable, cheap, universal.  You can put them on keychains, bracelets, necklaces, and store them pretty much anywhere.
  2. Cloud storage.  My personal favorite is DropBox because it’s free, everything syncs automatically when your computer is online, it’s easy to use, and it’s offsite, so I can access my work from anywhere (a boon when my laptop died and I had to borrow one so I could keep writing).  Other options for cloud storage are Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Amazon Cloud.  You can find plenty of options with a quick online search, both free and paid.
  3. Email.  This one is simple: email yourself (or a trusted associate) a copy of your work.  Most email programs have folders for storage and allow fairly large file sizes through.
  4. External hard drive.  This is like a flash drive on steroids.  Where those tend to stay under 100 GB, external drives often have several terabytes’ worth of space.  These are a good option if you need to store large files like videos and photos in addition to your writing.
  5. DVD/CD.  Like USB-based systems, disks are cheap, portable, and universal.
  6. Print.  It can get pricey to print copies of your work, but when your computer crashes, you’ll be glad for that 3-ring binder of all your latest masterpieces.

So back it up.  All of it.  Check on your backups regularly to make sure that they’re in good working order and updated.  You don’t want a year-old version of your novel hanging around if something happens to the current version.

While working on this post, my darling toddler came up and tapped my off button…if I hadn’t set my WordPress editor to autosave periodically, I’d have lost my work.  Not much, but still.  Make sure whatever programs you use also automatically save and sync your work.

Book Review: Grave Beginnings by R.R. Virdi

4.5/5 stars

This indie book was a fantastic read.  It opens with a man trying to claw his way out of the shallow grave he’s been buried in – or the body he now inhabits was buried in – and trying to determine his identity.  I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t be able to keep reading?

Set in New York City, the story follows a soul who calls himself Vincent Graves.  Vincent is shuttled between bodies periodically, forced to determine the cause of their supernatural deaths and take care of the creature responsible.  Why?  Who knows.  Vincent can’t remember who he is or even what his real name is, but the powers that be promise the information when he’s earned it.  In the meantime, he solves paranormal mysteries under a time limit – for Grave Beginnings, he has thirteen hours to find out who and why and figure out a way to kill the creature responsible.

What I loved most about this book was the characters.  Vincent is a very real, very three-dimensional person who leaps off the page with his ego, his sharp wit, his determination, and his resolve to do what needs to be done.  The other characters, even those you only see for a page or two, are also very real and unique without resorting to being cliched or trope-y.  I feel like these are characters I can learn to obsessively love over the course of a series.

I also have to give props to Virdi for uniqueness.  For spoilers’ sake, I won’t say who/what Vincent has to kill, but it’s not a creature you see regularly in supernatural/paranormal novels.  I love dragons, werewolves, vampires, demons, and ghosts as much as the next person, but when those are the only monsters we ever get to read about, they can get old quick.  Virdi gets props for going with a lesser-known monster and also describing it with a lot of terrifyingly beautiful imagery.

So…why the half star taken off?

Grammar.  I feel like this could have gone through one last proofread/line edit before publication.  There were no grammar issues that impeded understanding, but they were noticeable.  Little things like commas where there should have been semicolons, redundant phrasing, etc.  Small, so only the half star taken off.

Overall, though, I really liked it.  I don’t feel like I wasted my money buying it and I’ve already added book #2, Grave Measures, to my Books-A-Million wishlist (my husband put me on a book-buying freeze until I finish the 6+ I have on my shelf waiting to be read 😦 ).  If you like monsters and sarcasm, you won’t be disappointed with Grave Beginnings.

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Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

4/5 stars

I really, really enjoyed this book.  It took me a while to plow through (the paperback version clocks in at a whopping 1,080 pages, plus a foreword and afterword) but it was definitely worth it.  The only other Stephen King novel I’ve read so far is Carrie, so it was very interesting to see his evolution as a storyteller going from a fairly short novel about a troubled, telekinetic teen girl, written in 3rd person with epistolary elements, to a massive tome about a 30-something divorcee who time-travels to stop JFK’s assassination.  Despite their differences in subject matter and overall tone, there are still the elements I’ve learned to really like about King’s writing – sharp wit, strong insight into human nature, realistic characters, and supernatural/science fiction/paranormal elements that blend seamlessly into the narrative of normal people leading normal lives.

That said, in my opinion, it was just a tad too long.  Out of the 1,080 pages I read, I would say about 150-200 of them were unnecessary.  The bits about the swing-dancing teens in Derry, the references to It (I guess when you’re as famous as Stephen King, you can allude to your own work and get away with it, but still), some of the details about the Templeton family, and so on – while interesting and well-written, I don’t feel like they really added that much to the overall story arc of Jake Epping trying to change the past.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to just about any reader.  Sci-fi fans, paranormal/supernatural fans, history buffs, and just about anyone should really enjoy 11/22/63.  The ending was amazing (and amazingly heart-breaking) and I’m looking forward to hitting Books-A-Million soon to grab some more of King’s books.

Book Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

3/5 stars.

Disclaimer: I am not a huge sci-fi fan.  It’s just not something that tends to appeal to me, though there are exceptions, with Star Trek: Next Generation being the biggest.  That said, I did enjoy The 5th Wave enough to recommend it to people who do like science fiction.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book.  I didn’t mind spending money on it.  I plan to read the rest of the trilogy because I want to find out what happens.

So, I knocked off two stars because of the way it’s written.  It jumps back and forth between points of view, Cassie and Ben, and it can get a bit confusing because this happens at least a dozen times.  It’s difficult to keep the story line straight when things change so often.  There were parts in the action scenes where time seemed to skip, or things weren’t clearly explained so I wasn’t 100% certain what was going on.  I see that a lot in action scenes, where bullets are flying and things are exploding and you’ve got a lot of detail to cram into a short space and make it seem real.  It’s a tough trick to pull off, and while the book was good overall, I don’t think Yancey quite pulled that off.

But, I am looking forward to starting book #2 in the series, so definitely go out and buy The 5th Wave if you enjoy sci-fi, aliens, dystopian fiction, or all of the above.

The Book High

Today is going to be a very distracted day for me.  I am exhausted.

While “exhausted” is nothing new to me (mom of a toddler here), this is a different kind.  Mental exhaustion.  I’m tapped out.  Coming down off a rollercoaster ride type exhaustion, although really, I’ve been mostly sunk into an armchair the last three days.

Three days ago I picked up Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, a book that’s been on my to-read list for quite a while.  I’d just finished Catherine Coulter’s Bombshell and I was looking for another good mystery, but something deeper and not of the police procedural type.  And thus began my rollercoaster ride.

Ending a good book always feels kind of like coming down off a high of sorts.  It’s always been that way.  I remember sitting in bed one night and feeling this way after I finished The Sword of Shannara.  I’d gotten it as a Christmas present and, not even 12 yet, it was the biggest book I’d ever read.  One of the best.  To this day I am still obsessed with Terry Brooks’ work.

It was the same after I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Dracula, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and the myriad of other great books I’ve come across over the years.  I bought into the propaganda they peddled in libraries and shows like Reading Rainbow when I was young– books can take you places, teach you things, amaze you, infuriate you, leave you breathless, and, most of all, hungry for the next one.  I’ve already got Frog Music and Behind the Scenes at the Museum checked out and waiting on my desk.  It’s like how addicts start planning how to get their next fix while lighting up the first.

By the way — support your local libraries.  They help junkies like me get our high in safe, cheap/free ways.  Like a literary methadone clinic.

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advleg/advocacyuniversity/toolkit/talkingpoints