My 2016 Reading Year

You guys I have been trying to write this post for weeks. WEEKS! Normally I LOVE writing about books, talking about books, sharing about books… this post feels like pulling teeth. What gives?

Safe to say that 2016 was a REALLY WEIRD year. For me, that weirdness extended to my reading. I read some AMAZING books at the start of the year… and then my track record went downhill. Fast. There were a lot of not-so-great reads, a lot of tried-to-reads. When I look over my books from the past year, one word escapes my lips: “Huh.”

That said… it’s not like it was a waste of a reading year. It’s NEVER a waste when you’re reading. All in all, I read 46 books (53 including all the “tried to read” books). Not quite as good as last year, but I’m not complaining.

I still made it a point to read diversely. Looking over how I did…

  • 31 books by woman – 67% of my total. (In 2013, it was 30%. Last year, exactly 50%.)
  • 11 books by people of color – so 23.9%. (In 2013, that number was 4.3%. Last year it was 19.5%.)

That second number seems embarrassingly low… even though it’s an increase over the past years. The sad thing? That’s my number when I’m paying attention. When I’m actively trying to read books by people who don’t look like me. Think how low it would be if I didn’t pay attention.

As far as picking favorites… well, the three books featured in my Winter Reading Recap are all up there: Station Eleven, The Fifth Season and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. That’s like, the motto of 2016: started out promising, ended with a dud.

BUT. There were some other gold stars amidst the “whomp, whomps.” They deserve highlighting.

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

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At magical Hedgebrook, there is a magical library, filled exclusively with books written by alumnae. I spied Orleans on the shelves one night before dinner and brought it back to my cottage. I think it took me all of three days to devour it.

This story is set in New Orleans – but not as we’d recognize it. Ravaged by hurricanes, decimated by an illness known as Delta Fever, the city has been cut off from the rest of the country – literally, by a huge, guarded wall. Those who live within the walls are mostly divided into tribes based on blood type (a safety measure against spreading Delta Fever). ISN’T THIS ALREADY FASCINATING?? Smith does an AMAZING job creating a world that seems at once totally foreign and totally plausible. And if the setting weren’t enough – well, there’s the can’t-put-it-down plot as well.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

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I had actually read this book years and years ago, back in high school… but weirdly, I remembered nothing about it. With the upcoming movie, I figured it was time for a re-read.

How did I not remember this book?? It is so crisp, so evocative, creepy in the best way possible. The man in black and the gunslinger are like two archetypes out of myth, yet they’re still their own well-rounded characters. This is a quick read, since it’s on the shorter side, but I’m looking forward to getting into the full series now.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I’m not normally a romance fan, but Book Riot is always trying to get folks to read different genres, and they’d recommended this one. Well, Book Riot, you were right. This book is pure unadulterated fun.

A modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, the book focuses on the Bennet family of Cincinnati. Our modern Mr. Bingley is a doctor and a reluctant contestant on a Bachelor-like reality TV show (of course), and Mr. Darcy is his neurosurgeon friend. Will Jane and Mr. Bingley find happiness? Will Jane and Mr. Darcy get over themselves and fall in love??

Well, of course. You know how this story ends. That’s part of the fun of it, though – knowing the outcome, and seeing how Sittenfeld reaches it.


I’m ending 2016 by re-reading an old favorite, To Capture the Castle. I figure if any year deserves a gentle ending, it’s this one.

What were your favorite books of the year? Any duds?

Oh, and if’n you’re interested in reading diversely in 2017, might I recommend the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge?

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Winter Reading Recap

It feels weird to even THINK the word “winter” when Seattle hit 80 degrees last week. Part of me thought, “Screw it, I’m too late, I’ll skip this recap.” But then again… how can I pass up on talking about the books that kept me company during the 4pm dusks, the crazy windstorms, the rainiest winter on record? The books that you cozy up with next to a fire–those are the books worth talking about.

I’m continuing the trend of 2015 and reading ALL THE BOOKS. Ok, maybe not all. But a LOT. I read five books in March alone. Which I realize for some would probably not be defined as “a lot,” but for slow-poke me is something to brag about.

So I’m not going to tell you about ALL the books I read this winter, because we’d be here for ten years. Instead, you get the highlight reel.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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I sometimes do this thing where everyone and their mom recommends a movie/TV show/book, and I say “Ok cool!” and never actually get around to viewing/reading it. That happened with this book. So many people told me how fun it was, and I said “Ok cool!” and never got around to reading it.

Why do I do these things??

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is written in the form of emails, school newsletters, classified correspondence, and random interjections by Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter. Which COULD make for a terribly annoying book, but Semple pulls it off. This is fun. It’s a quick read with characters who seem at once outlandish and totally relatable. The book is set in Seattle, and man, does Semple nail this city. Or at least, a certain population of the city. Having grown up in Seattle, in a similar community to what Semple describes, the descriptions hit close to home.

There was one thing people hadn’t mentioned about this book–one thing that surprised me. At its heart, Bernadette has a message about creativity and success and what it means to be an “artist”–which is always going to involve some amount of failure. It’s about letting go of the past, picking up where you left off and starting over. Which can be a terrifying thing–until you realize that everyone does it, all the time, and most of the time things turn out alright.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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See story above re: everyone recommending a book and me ignoring it. You’d think I’d learn. Right after finishing this book, I dispatched this tweet to the universe:

This was a beautiful, haunting book about the end of the world—or rather, the end of humanity as we know it. The two are NOT the same, and I’m always struck by books that make that distinction. (Oryx and Crake has a similar theme.) Civilization may end, but the world itself is gonna keep on truckin’, altered and 100% fine without us.

This book explores so many themes it’s difficult to sum up, but I finished with one distinct impressions: it’s a book that really gets it, that gets what it is to be human and see everything that’s broken in the world and also see the tremendous, almost-so-big-it’s-painful beauty of the world.

I was lucky to hear Emily St. John Mandel speak at Seattle Town Hall shortly after reading this book. She is obviously an insanely smart woman. It was interesting to hear all the different sources she pulled from to create Station Eleven, from the history of pandemics to Elizabethan England to Star Trek to Calvin and Hobbes. Like Austin Kleon says–steal like an artist.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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I don’t read much fantasy these days–which is odd, because thinking back on my childhood reading habits, I almost exclusively read fantasy. My grandparents introduced me to Redwall and I proceeded to read every single book in that series. I wanted to be Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons. And Harry Potter? What would summer have been without counting down the days to the next Harry Potter release? (Late apologies to my parents for insisting that they pre-order two hardback copies so that my sister and I could both devour it immediately.)

The Fifth Season made me realize that I need to read more “grown-up” fantasy. It winds together three separate-yet-connected stories set in a world beset by seismic and volcanic activity. Every few hundred years or go, a “fifth season” arrives–basically, a new “season” trigged by an earthquake or volcanic eruption that kills off most of the population. However, there are people called “orogenes” that can both trigger and control these earthly activities. Can you guess who our hero is?

Jemisin creates an enthralling, complex world full of political intrigue. The Fifth Season is heart-wrenching in parts, but it was so beautifully written that I couldn’t put it down. Apparently there is going to be a second book in this series…I’ll be first on the waiting list.

What have you been reading lately? Now that the weather’s warming up, I’m starting to take the books outside…if there’s anything dreamier than reading in a hammock, I don’t know what it is.

I Know We’re On a Road Trip But Please Let Me Read My Book

What’s that? Oh, that picture-perfect sunlit butte ahead of us? Yes, I see that. That’s really beautiful.

Yeah, sorry, I know my nose has been in my book for the past 100 miles. I know I’m missing out on a lot of things outside the car windows.

Ok. I’m going to go back to my book for a bit.

What? Yes, that’s a cool rock. Really nice rock. Back to the book now.

…no, you’re totally right–this is a part of the country I haven’t seen. I’m glad to see it! America the Beautiful, here we come.

Here’s the thing though: when else do you get hours of quiet and seclusion where there are no demands on your time? When literally all you can do is sit? Especially when you’re driving on rural highways — bye bye, cell service. No Instagram here. Since we don’t have one of those fancy newfangled cars with built-in TVs, I can’t binge-watch Parks and Recreation for the fourth time. The only thing you can do besides stare out the window is read a book.

Yes yes, I do like staring out the window. I love road trips. I love seeing the country change; I love pairing music to the passing landscape. I love the opportunity to talk, to take detours and pitstops and be open to adventure.

But this book is getting really good right now.

Yes, I see that waterfall.

Look, the protagonist just found out some key information and is about to–sorry, no time to explain. We have two hours of drive time left and I can totally finish.

Me and books and road trips will forever be a thing. I promise to look up every once in a while. But now I’m going to read.

Addendum: If there are any foals or alpaca farms or cool birds of prey I require immediate notification. I brake for cute animals.

(Written with a loving wink to my husband, who loves to point out basalt, and my father, who loves to point out Spanish moss.)

2015 Reading Recap

In the past, I’ve done seasonal reading recaps — but even if I hadn’t done my blog hiatus, that wouldn’t be possible because this year I read 46 BOOKS. (52 if you include my “tried to read” list).

How you ask? NO CLUE. In 2013, I read 23 books. In 2014, it was 24. I really don’t know what happened this year. It’s not like I read a bunch of short books, either. (Goodreads says my average book length was 297 pages.) Maybe I was just hungry for words.

So this year you’ll get the highlights reel — the books that stood out.

My main reading goal this year was to read diversely. Inspired by a Book Riot video, I made a point of paying attention to the authors I was choosing and ensuring I wasn’t reading all white dudes. How did that shake out?

  • I read 23 books by women authors — so exactly 50% of the total books I read.
  • 9 books were by non-white authors — 19.5% of my total.

That second number definitely could be higher — but here were my numbers before I started “paying attention”:

  • In 2013, 30% of the books I read were by women authors. 1 book was by a person of color (so, 4.3%).
  • In 2014, 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color. (I started this diverse reading experiment in October 2014).

So it DOES make a difference. And I have to say — I discovered some authors I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and absolutely loved. In fact, two of them have made the 2015 highlights reel…

Wait for it…

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Let’s start things off on an upbeat note, shall we? The Sixth Extinction lays out the argument that the earth is in the middle of a massive extinction event (there have been five other such events that we know of), and this one is being caused by humans. FUN, HUH? I’m not going to pretend that this is an uplifting read–but it IS an interesting one, and I think an important one. You’ll never look at frogs or bats the same way again, let me tell ya.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer

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This book took me a loooong time to read. Like, a year. BUT. That’s because it’s A) physically large, which means I can’t take it on the bus, and B) DENSE. I would read two pages and then just sit for ten minutes, chewing them over. A guide to writing science fiction and fantasy (or really any type of “imaginative fiction”), Wonderbook is one of the most in-depth writing guides I’ve encountered. Most talk high-level theory — how to find motivation, how to find story ideas, how to “be a writer.” Wonderbook says: “What is a beginning? What should be in the beginning? What about the middle? The end? How do you build your world? How do you flesh out the characters? What info do you hide and what do you reveal?” It’s incredibly in-depth — and for me, came at a pivotal time in my book edits.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

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I read most of this book on a plane and struggled not to annoy strangers with my awkward snort-laughter noises. Jenny Lawson is The Bloggess, who apparently is a rather famous Internet Person, but I was not aware of this when I picked up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I was drawn to the cape-wearing, skull-holding mouse on the cover. And if that weirdness appeals to you, you will most likely enjoy this book. A lot of it focuses on Lawson’s childhood in rural Texas — a childhood which involved baby raccoons wearing homemade jeans, turkeys following children to school, and live bobcats being thrown at boyfriends. What’s not to love?

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

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This is a quiet little book of weird, surreal stories. It is, as the title would indicate, about almost famous women — women who teetered on the brink of long-lived fame but never quite made it, for one reason or another. And these stories are fascinating. Did you know there was a wealthy British heiress who dated Marlene Dietrich and raced speed boats and operated an island in the Caribbean? Or that there was a set of conjoined twins who toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1920’s? When I finished each story, I’d run off to Google to learn more.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

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I read this book as self-assigned “work homework” — but ended up totally enthralled. Written by one of the founders of Pixar, Creativity, Inc. asks the question: how do you inspire creativity in a corporate environment? But the book is so much more than that. Catmull eloquently yet simply explains his viewpoints on creativity, storytelling, and how we perceive the world and others in it — all of which encouraged me to reevaluate how I tackle those issues. Plus, there are great behind-the-scenes details about the making of the various Pixar movies… and who doesn’t love a Pixar movie?

City of Thieves by David Benioff

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Earlier this year I started dabbling with a historical-fiction story, and a friend loaned me this book as a good example of the genre. I devoured it — a couldn’t-put-down, stay-up-all-night kind of read. It tells the story of Lev Beniov, a young man living in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, and his adventures trying to secure a dozen eggs in a city that is literally starving. It’s a masterfully told tale — made even better by the fact that it’s based on true events. (The author is Lev’s grandson.) And even though some horribly gruesome events take place, the book overall manages to have a lighthearted feel. No clue how Benioff pulled that one off.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, this was a surprising book; it went places I didn’t expect, and I liked it the more for that. This is the story of Alex Woods, a boy who’s struck in the head by a meteorite, and as such has a rather unordinary childhood. He eventually befriends a Vietnam veteran, Mr. Peterson, who shares with Alex his love of classical music and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t want to tell too many details, as I don’t want to spoil anything. But in a nutshell: this book dealt with some unexpected moral complexities and handled them in a compelling, non-preachy way.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Book Riot had been preaching this book up and down, so I finally picked it up. At first I was skeptical — I hadn’t realized that the whole thing was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into it. But as it turns out, Woodson is a great writer — you don’t even notice that you’re basically reading one long poem. Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of Woodson’s family, of her childhood split between South Carolina and Brooklyn, and of her burgeoning love of writing. I think it’s technically considered a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you — this is one everyone can enjoy.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I read quite a bit of Adichie this year — including Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists — but Half of a Yellow Sun gets the honorable mention for being such a total gut punch. I mean that in the best way possible; this book grips you and won’t put you down until the last page. Set in the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun follows several points of view through the Nigerian Civil War (or, as the characters in the book would call it, the Biafran War). Adichie is a freakishly good writer; she creates characters that evoke both love, pity and disgust within the span of a few paragraphs. So, you know, real people. And even though you know how the story will end, you’re placed so solidly in this world that you hope maybe, just maybe, it will end differently.

What books stood out to you in 2015? I’m wondering if I can hit 50 next year…

The Writings of Martin Luther King

Last week I was searching for a new book to read and stumbled upon The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr. — on sale for less than a latte. And I realized, I’ve never actually read King’s writing before. The fact that I never encountered even one of his speeches during all my years of education seems somewhat shocking. So I decided, what the hey, it’s on sale.

It comes as no surprise, but King was a great writer. This book collects a series of his speeches, ranging from the years 1956 to 1968. It includes the well-known ones — “I Have a Dream”, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” — and a lot of others, ranging on topics from segregation, education, India, nonviolent resistance, and the Vietnam War. All, of course, have one universal theme in common: civil rights.

When I read “I Have a Dream”, I closed my eyes and imagined standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the sun warming my face, as I looked out at the Washington Monument from the exact spot where King delivered his now famous speech. King’s words inspire you to think, to pause, to reflect on what you are doing for the greater good. They’re also relevant — civil rights are still an issue in this country (and, oh hey, the world at large). Today being Martin Luther King Day, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my favorite passages from the book so far.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. –“A Time to Break Silence

There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men. —The Social Organization of Nonviolence

Whatever career you may choose for yourself — doctor, lawyer, teacher — let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in. –“Speech Before the Youth March for Integrated Schools

I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. –“I Have a Dream

At the Lincoln Memorial, the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Christmas Tradition

It amazed me the day I learned that people open Christmas presents at different times. Growing up, I thought everyone opened them on Christmas morning, like us. We couldn’t open any gifts prior to Christmas morning, without exception (which led to some very early wakeup times for my poor parents). You had to wait for Santa, after all.

Well, there was one exception.

On Christmas Eve, my sister and I were allowed to open one present each. Just one, that was it. And we couldn’t pick out the present — Mom picked them out, and she always knew exactly which ones to go for, placed strategically under the tree. She’d go and get them and deliver them to our waiting laps.

They were always books.

Now, I know for some children this would be a major disappointment — but not us. We knew those gifts were going to be books, and we were always excited about it. I can’t remember many specific books we received — I think there were several years of the Redwall series, probably some Calvin and Hobbes, Stephen King in later years — but I DO remember the end result: curling up with a brand-new book on Christmas Day, wrapping-paper carnage strewn about the floor.

As an adult, I’ve continued the tradition in my own way; all the kids in our life get books for Christmas. This year, two received The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (one of my favorites as a kid). The little boy who recently moved to the big city gets Snowy Day (recommended by this great picture book blog). The almost-a-teenager gets Snow White and Rose Red, a book I absolutely loved at her age. The 3-year-old who believes in the “fairy tree” in her grandparents’ backyard gets Flower Fairies of the Garden.

I’m not always big on the holidays, and I often feel down about the consumerism of the season — but books? That’s one Christmas tradition I can 100% get behind.

Reading Diversely: A Follow-Up

Back in October, I shared a Book Riot video about reading diversely (aka, reading books written by non-white authors). The video’s creator, Amanda Nelson, encouraged readers to take a look at their “numbers” — the number of authors they’ve read vs. the number of authors they’ve read who are non-white — and try and improve those percentages.

So I accepted the challenge. How has 2014 stacked up after making it a point to read more diversely?

To recap from the last post:

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30%. 1 was written by a person of color, so 4.3%.
  • As of October, I’d read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (4.7%).

And now, two months later?

  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 24 books. Exactly 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color (Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami, and Octavia Butler).

12.5% obviously isn’t great — but it’s a lot better than my percentage last year (and the percentage this year was on track to be, before I decided to pay attention). It makes me hopeful that when I look back at my 2015 reading list, it’ll be more well-rounded. Or, as a recent Book Riot post put it:

We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help even know which perspectives to try out. — “The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

How has your reading year shaped up so far? (I realize we still have 2 weeks of 2014 left…I personally plan on getting one more book squeezed in there!)