2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge

Falling Woefully Short on My 2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge

In January 2015, I set myself the ambitious goal of reading 50 books during the year. In April, I was 11 books behind schedule, and just never really got on track. I knew 50 books was an… aggressive amount of literature to consume in a year—that’s nearly one book per week, and I’m no longer an English Literature major where 75% of my assignments are reading novels. But I thought, Hey, why not go for the challenge?

The answer to that question is ain’t nobody who buys a house, has a full-time marketing job and a husband, travels, and maintains a healthy interest in video games and movies got time to read a book a week. I love reading. I wish I could be paid to read all day long. But I don’t necessarily want to chain myself to books for a whole year to complete some arbitrary reading goal. Yes, I could exchange the dozen or so hours I spend playing Guild Wars 2 per week reading, but why would I do that when I’m having fun gaming? I wouldn’t, and I won’t.

That all being said, the fact that I miserably failed my reading challenge doesn’t exactly feel good. I didn’t even hit 25% of my goal! I read 12/50 books. I read only twelve books in a whole year. That’s averaging one per month, and five of them were re-reading Harry Potter books in the last three months of the year. That is embarrassing. But I’m seizing this opportunity to make a realistic 2016 reading goal and keep it. I’m doubling what I read in 2015 for 2016—24 books. That’s two per month. Totally doable, especially since I stacked the deck:

I didn’t hit my other goal of finishing my Harry Potter re-read before the end of the year, so completing The Half-Blood Prince on Jan. 3 counts as book 1/24. I’ll start The Deathly Hallows this week, so there’s book 2/24 for January. I’m going to force myself to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that’s been sitting on my shelf for six months, I have a half-read Tiffany Reisz novel I found in a moving box in November to finish, and I got a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas that I’m going to use to buy The Bell Jar because I’ve been meaning to read that book for longer than I care to admit. Look at that, I’ve got books planned into March!

Goals can be easily accomplished when you set a plan for yourself and give yourself the tools or time needed to succeed. Maybe that’s the underlying theme of 2016 for me: Make a plan. Achieve my goals.

2016 Goodreads Reading Challenge

 

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Re-EXPeriencing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Cover photo via.

I’m part of the lucky generation that got to grow up with Harry Potterliterally. Although Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1998, I somehow avoided reading it until two years later… when I was 11 years old. I must have had friends tell me I needed to read it, likely my best friend Karen, who influenced much of my reading in my younger years. In the spring of 2000, my mom bought me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban all at once, and I immediately devoured them.

(Side note: I was a bit of brat about books in my pre-teen years. Check them out from the library? Oh no. I must own every book I want to read. Every. Book. Fortunately, I did actually read about 95% of the books I was purchased. And I was definitely never hard to shop for during the holidays.)

Not long after I inhaled the first three Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released. My mom took me to Borders to buy it, but when we got there, there were none available for the general public. You had to have pre-ordered the book months in advance. Me being new to the Harry Potter ‘verse, I had no idea this was something I was supposed to have done. I was actually pretty devastated that I couldn’t just go buy the next book in my new favorite series at my favorite book store. To my eternal gratitude, a woman who overheard our exchange with the Borders employee told me and my mom that there were stacks of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at Walmart, all up for the taking. My mom immediately drove me to the nearest Walmart and there inside the doors were palettes of the book. I gleefully grabbed the best one from the pile and went home to read. Like the first three books, I read this one in one sitting. Unlike the first three books, it made me bawl my eyes out. Cedric Diggory’s death, to my memory, is the first time a book broke my heart. I was still just 11.

The next year, the first movie was released in theaters. I was there opening weekend, mother in tow, and I loved it. It was so close to the book! (With a couple noted and aggravating changes, but you can’t keep everything.) I applauded at the end with the rest of the theater. My favorite book series had come to life! I saw it twice more in theaters.

I saw the second movie twice in theaters, but it didn’t hold quite the same magic as the first. The first movie was just a little bit closer to the book, just a little closer to my imagination, just a little bit better… The Chamber of Secrets would actually be the last Harry Potter movie I saw in theaters before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1.

But then it was 2003. I was 14 years old, about to start high school, and full of teen angst. Harry was 15 years old and full of teen angst. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out, and I had my mom take me to Walmart to get it on the release date. I sat down and read the book in 25 straight hours. I stopped for nothing. I toted the book to the bathroom; I took my meals in my bedroom. And I accidentally cracked into a Budweiser that was in the fridge thinking it was a Diet Coke because I couldn’t take my nose out of the book long enough to know I had grabbed the wrong can… (I still can’t drink Bud to this day, though, why would I want to?)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was and is still my favorite Harry Potter book. I identified with Harry in that book so acutely—the angst, the unfairness! Blindly charging forward on what you think is right and getting beat back because you were wrong. Granted nothing I ever did right or wrong was on the level of Harry Potter… but man I wished it was. The escapism of all books helped me get through my childhood, but it was far and away Harry Potter that led the charge. Dreaming of Hogwarts took me far from my problems, but still allowed me to work through the universal teenage issues I faced.

In 2005, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released, and Harry and I were both 16. Fortunately I could drive, so I drove myself to Walmart at midnight to pick up the book. Shit got real in The Half-Blood Prince, and like all the other books, I sat down to read it in one sitting. How convenient all these books were released in the summer so no pesky school could get in the way of me staying up all night reading! This is actually the book I’ve re-read the least to this date.

And finally, two years later in 2007, I had graduated from high school and was preparing to begin my first year at Ball State, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released. Again at midnight, I drove myself to Walmart and bought the book. Again, I read it through the night—and had to take my first ever break from reading a Harry Potter book. I passed out around 8 in the morning and had to pick the book up again during the next day. I no longer had the reading stamina of a 14-year-old. I cried a lot over those two days. More tears than most any other book I’ve ever read. My heart broke over and over again because the characters I had grown up with were dying and suffering, and there was nothing I could do but read on and cry. I was even lucky enough to relive all of this when The Deathly Hallows Pts. 1 and 2 were released in theaters in 2010 and 2011!

I’ve never written all this out before, and no one probably cares. But I can’t help but think it shows just how lucky I was to be the same age as Harry as I not only read his story, but also grew up with him. Only a sliver of a generation got to experience this, and now no one else really can the way we did. The books are all out there. An 11-year-old kid can knock the whole series out in a week and not know what it’s like to wait for seven years to know why Harry’s scar hurt him so badly, or to wait for Ron and Hermione to finally kiss, or to understand all of Snape’s motives. I in agony for two years to know if Sirius Black, my favorite character, was really dead or not. Kids today need only wait a day. Or a few hours, as many will likely gravitate toward the movies first, seeing bits and pieces on an ABC Family Harry Potter weekend. That’s no way to know and love Harry Potter, but that’s probably how many children—and adults, let’s be honest—will come to know him.

And that leads into my most current re-read of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Each time a new book was released, I would re-read the whole series. Well, to be transparent, when The Half-Blood Prince and then The Deathly Hallows came out, I started with The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix, respectively. My nearly-adult self didn’t have time to mess with a pre-teen’s problems. So while I have read The Sorcerer’s Stone probably five or six times (there were definitely a few re-reads during the years in between book releases), I haven’t read it in years, and not since the final book came out.

Knowing all of Harry’s story, from the conclusion of The Deathly Hallows to the extra material J.K. Rowling has produced throughout the years, reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a surreal but wonderful experience. I cracked open the book last week (literally, cracked. After half a dozen read-throughs by myself and one or two from Terry, the 15-year-old spine is getting pretty weak), and was flooded by memories. I was also truly astounded by how much is foreshadowed, teased, and teed up in this book. When Ginny sees Harry at Platform Nine and Three-quarters and is obsessed with him as only a 10-year-old can be, it was the strangest sensation thinking, Huh, they get married and have kids together. Or, likewise, when Ron can’t stand Hermione in their first few months at Hogwarts, thinking, Well, we know they have some additional problems when they’re a bit older, but they get married, too. And then everything with Snape… Every time he shows up and Harry is suspicious of him, every time you think Snape is doing wrong, every time Snape is horrible to Harry… This whole read-through I knew he loved Lily. So much of what he did in this first book was to help protect Harry because he loved Harry’s mother. Harry’s hatred of Snape kicks off in The Sorcerer’s Stone, but he later names one of his sons after him. Let me tell you what I never saw coming when I was 11.

It’s surreal how much changes and develops from an 11-year-old kid learning he’s a wizard to the darkest wizard of all time’s second rise to power and subsequent defeat. From the basic Elixir of Life to bring Voldemort back to learning about the complexity of the seven deathly hallows… everything springs from this book. Reading it with the knowledge of the whole series behind you, while not exactly illuminating any new knowledge, it certainly shows how carefully J.K. Rowling crafted this world and why it’s such an enduring, important, and spectacular series.

While my 11-year-old self would be appalled that it took me four days to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I enjoyed taking my time with the book and reliving my childhood again. I’m looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series over the next couple weeks, especially the later books that I’ve only read a couple times. Hopefully there are a few extra nuggets of foreshadowing I can pick up on. And hopefully I don’t cry quite as much as I did the first time I read the books. Though I’m not getting my hopes up.

Have you re-read Harry Potter recently? If not, I highly suggest you dive in for a re-read. You’ll be surprised with how much nostalgia is packed into the first 309 pages of the series. Go on, you know you want to…

EXPeriencing ‘The Mistress’ by Tiffany Reisz

First things first, when an erotica novel makes you cry (multiple times) because of All The Feels, you know you’ve got a good book on your hands.

Two and half years ago, I read my first-ever erotica novel, The Siren by Tiffany Reisz. I blogged about that experience on my old blog, and you can find it there on Life’s Distractions. You can also find the article I mention, “You Can Take the Smut-Peddler Out of the Seminary but You Can’t Take the Seminary Out of the Smut-Peddler,” on Huffington Post. Based on that article title alone, you can probably tell what kind of author Tiffany Reisz is, that is, a very talented and funny one. The interactions I’ve had with her on Twitter alone will testify to that, but her books will even more.

Back to those, her books. Or I should say, back to The Mistress specifically, the 4th and final book in her Original Sinners: The Red Years series. (She started a prequel series, The White Years, and the first of those books is up next in my queue.) I wrote a review about the first book in this series, and here is my review about this last one, but you’ll notice that I’ve not written anything on the two books that come between The Siren and The MistressThe Angel and The Prince. Let’s just say, some shit. goes. down. in those books. Which, for the sake of spoilers and ruining almost literally everything that happens to all of the characters, I won’t get into too many details here. But, I will reiterate what I said in my review of The Siren: the characters are what drive these stories. They’re so layered, they’re so complex, they’re so real. When you take such different characters as Nora, the dominatrix turned erotica author; and Wesley, her teenage roommate/intern; and Soren, her lover/ex-lover/lover; and Kingsley, the king of NYC’s underground BDSM scene, and make them all likable and dislikable as appropriate (sometimes the same character at the same time), and make the reader care about all of them in some capacity and pray for their happiness, that’s a book worth reading.

I enjoyed The Mistress because of the characters the most, and it’s important that I followed them on the whole journey. You can’t read out of order or skip books in this series, that’s for sure. I became pretty attached to the characters from book one, so their journeys climaxing coming to a head culminating here in this book had me gripped from page one (it helped that The Prince ended on a huge cliffhanger). I read a review on Goodreads that said they didn’t love The Mistress because it felt like the characters had lost themselves. I disagree. In fact, I think the exact opposite: I loved The Mistress because it felt like all of the characters had found themselves. There’s a great deal of tension between the characters I mentioned above (plus a couple more ladies), and in The Mistress they’re forced to spend time with one another under truly dire circumstances. Their frustrations and misgivings with each other build over the whole book, and each one is forced to come to terms with what they truly want, what they need, and who they love. I believe some people may not enjoy The Mistress because they don’t get the ending they want. But I believe the characters all ended up where they’re supposed to be and who they’re supposed to be with (Despite an interesting little hiccup there with that ending. Thanks, Tiffany.) And that makes a very satisfying read to me.

Another important note to make is similar to one I made in my review of The Siren: the sex scenes in the novel serve to further the plot, not to service serve the reader. And there are relatively few sex scenes in The Mistress. In 458-page novel, I think you can count all the sex scenes on one hand. And there’s a large chunk in the middle where there is nothing at all. As I mentioned, some shit has gone down in the series, and as it all culminates here, there’s not a lot of room for sex when you’re fearing for characters’ lives.

Yes, an erotica novel where you’re worried not all the characters you love are going to make it through, and the danger has very little to do with whips and canes in the bedroom.

Seriously, this is one hell of an erotica series. I can’t recommend it enough. Start with The Siren, get drawn in by the characters, get a little beat up, and come out on top with The Mistress. You won’t regret it.

Find Tiffany Reisz’s books and where to buy them on her website: www.tiffanyreisz.com.

EXPeriencing All the Light We Cannot See

I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. Ever since I was a kid and would devour American Girl and Dear America Diary books, I’ve loved stories that put you in one person or a couple people’s shoes during a certain event in history.

Specifically, I’ve also always been drawn to WWII stories. Perhaps it’s because I was of an age where every couple of years a Holocaust survivor would visit our school and share their horrifying experiences. Maybe it’s because the war is a collective memory/stain that much of the world shares, no matter where or how old you are. Or maybe it’s just because I know my grandpa served in the Navy during that time. Whatever the reason, I’ll always gravitate to a WWII story, especially when it’s well-written and features a range of emotions. Bonus if there’s a coming-of-age element to it.

All the Light We Cannot See is just that: a well-written novel spanning several emotions, both for the characters and the reader. It also happens to be a great Bildungsroman. (There’s your vocab word for the day. Also appropriate given the arrival of my newest Out of Print purchase this week.)

All the Light We Cannot See primarily focuses on two characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is a girl of six when the story starts in 1934 and she goes blind from congenital cataracts. “Bilateral. Irreparable. ‘Can you see this?’ ask the doctors. ‘Can you see this?’ Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life” (27). This blindness adds several layers of hardship, suspense, and triumph to the story that would not have been present had Marie-Laure been able to see. With the amount of WWII stories out there, any new perspective an author can introduce helps make a story come alive, especially when they can add so many additional sensory elements (see below quote). When Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris in 1940, they go to the town of Saint-Malo on the sea to live with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne. He is reclusive and afraid of the outside world, but he and Marie-Laure build a strong bond. Marie-Laure will live out the rest of the war in the tall house tucked away in Saint-Malo.


“Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom to the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.” (146)


Werner Pfennig will make his way to Saint-Malo, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Werner and his younger sister Jutta are orphans living in the town of Zollverein, “a four-thousand-acre coal-mining complex outside Essen, Germany” (24). When their story begins, Werner is eight, and he and Jutta are being raised at Children’s House, “a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines” (24). Needless to say, Werner and his sister had a rough childhood. The highlight, though, is when Werner is 10 years old and he finds a crude radio, fixes it, and discovers a French science program for children. The show holds wonders for Werner and his sister, and is in part why he begins to tinker more and more with radios. As it turns out, Werner has a near-prodigious ability to understand and repair radios. Despite his impoverished circumstances, Werner’s abilities with radios attract the attention of the “right people” (AKA, Nazis). After fixing one Nazi family’s radio when other repairmen couldn’t, a series of events allows Werner to be selected to study at a “brutal academy for Hitler Youth.” From there, Werner joins the war, traveling across Europe to track down the German resistance from Russia to, eventually, Saint-Malo in France.


“Werner unscrews the backing and peers inside. The tubes are all intact, and nothing looks amiss. ‘All right,’ he mumbles to himself. ‘Think.’ He sits cross-legged; he examines the circuitry. … He tries to envision the bouncing pathways of electrons, the signal chain like a path through a crowded city, RF signal coming in here, passing through a grid of amplifiers, then to variable condensers, then to transformer coils. …

He sees it. There are two breaks in one of the resistance wires. … Could two men have missed something so simple? It feels like a gift. So easy! Werner rewinds the resistance track and splices the wires and plugs in the radio. When he turns it on, he half expects fire to leap out of the machine. Instead: the smoky murmur of a saxophone.” (82-3)


We follow Marie-Laure and Werner as they navigate childhoods cut short by war and by duty—duty to family, to country, to survive. As we follow their journeys, we get peeks at the future, flash-forwards to Saint-Malo and where their stories will converge, as we know they must. I call them flash-forwards instead of flashbacks, because while the story does start in 1944 when their paths are about to cross, the bulk of the novel’s timeline takes place previous to that point in time. The flash-forwards provide a heightened level of suspense while you’re reading so you can’t wait to get to that point, but by no means are you simply reading the rest of the novel just to get caught up.

Seeing how Marie-Laure copes with her blindness and following her as she discovers Braille novels is a journey itself. Additionally, her father helps her navigate her sightless life by building wooden models of where they live so Marie-Laure can learn the layout by touch to travel and explore on her own. Watching her struggle and then triumph is definitely a bright spot between a lot of darkness.

On the flip-side, watching Werner’s journey from orphan to Hitler Youth to Nazi is… not wonderful. When Werner is sent to the school at Schulpforta, it’s like some weird shadow-negative version of Hogwarts. He lives in a dorm with other boys his age, takes specialized classes for his coming profession, and learns new skills he never thought he would have the chance to even begin to learn. But instead of wizardry, it’s Nazism, and all the other boys are like extra-evil Slytherin jerks. (I’m a Slytherin, so I’m not hating on them, but they were a bunch of jerks when Harry was at school.) The boys must do as they’re told, blindly following commands. And if they don’t, well, let’s just say there’s no Skele-Gro in the infirmary…

Something I appreciate most about All the Light We Cannot See is that it really doesn’t leave many questions unanswered. Just recently I was listening to an episode of the Nerdist Podcast and the guests were talking about how they don’t always love or want shows that just end, leaving all kinds of questions because we’re just cut off in the middle of someone’s story. More often than not, we want stories that can be wrapped up in a nice little bow with no nagging thoughts, no but-whys and but-hows. All the Light We Cannot See has a good bow. It may be a little messy and tugs at your heart and mind for longer than expected, but any story that leaves you pondering and considering and weighing is a good one. And this is one of the better ones because even while I continue to think about it, I’m not trying to write the ending for the characters I wasn’t given. I know their endings—some extending well beyond the end of WWII—and I’m satisfied.

If you’re like me and love a well-written historical fiction novel, a compelling WWII story, or both, I suggest picking up All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. You won’t be disappointed.

EXPeriencing Book Madness 2015

The amount of anguish some sports fans feel when filling out their March Madness brackets is comparable to the anguish I feel when filling out my Out of Print Book Madness bracket. It truly makes a difference when you care about the subject matter of your bracket. Do I care if North Carolina State beats LSU in March Madness? Nope, not one bit. Do I care if Where the Wild Things Are advances instead of Go Tell It On the Mountain? Yes. I care quite a lot.

I’ve already blogged about my love for Book Madness, but just as March Madness is covered for a solid month on every sports channel and website in the country, Book Madness deserves to be gushed over on every book/media blog on the internet. It’s just so fun. It’s books vs. books for god’s sake, of course it’s fun!

Book Madness is new and inventive every year, but this year there are two elements that make it extra fun: all the books are books OOP has t-shirts/products for, and John Green filled out a bracket and shared it for all to see.

In past years, Book Madness has centered around a specific theme (Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Heroes vs. Villains, etc.), but this year is a little different. According to the site: “For our 5-year anniversary, we are returning to the classics – specifically those that you, the fans, have recommended over the years to become part of the Out of Print collection.” I don’t know quite how huge OOP’s fan-base is, but it’s both big and small enough that when fans want a new product, OOP delivers. They’ve been heavy on the nostalgia lately with the their Where the Wild Things Are products and other children’s literature (The Little Prince, Corduroy, Good Night Moon), but they definitely have it on lock with the classics, too (To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Slaughterhouse-Five). And one of the coolest things about OOP? You can buy stuff with those book covers on them! How could you not love that? And then you get to pit them head-to-head in a tournament where the winningest bracket gets a $500 gift card to then buy all those products? Amazing.

The other cool thing about 2015’s Book Madness was getting to see John Green’s bracket. Ours really couldn’t look more different. Like seriously. Our brackets are almost 100% different. For instance, Hamlet is against Ender’s Game in Round 1. I have Ender’s Game going to the Elite Eight. John Green’s bracket says, “Really? Hamlet” and has Hamlet winning it all. So that’s where we stand against each other. In case you’re curious, here’s John Green’s bracket, and here’s my Final Four:

OOPFinal4

To Kill a Mockingbird won it all before in 2011 (defeating The Great Gatsby, no less), but I have faith. I believe the people will come through and show our love for Harper Lee. Or maybe I’m still just too excited that Go Set a Watchman is coming out. Whatever.

Books rule.

Visit Out of Print’s website to fill out your own Book Madness bracket before they close on the 22nd!

Also, with every purchase you make from Out of Print, they send a book to a community in need. Awesome clothes and an awesome cause. You can’t beat that.