Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 - The Year I Nearly Dropped Out

This year marks a real low in the number of times I've posted something to this blog. Sometimes I think I should just give it up altogether since there are such long intervals between posts. One of the key pieces of advice about blogging successfully is consistency, and I've really failed in that aspect this year. And it's not like I'm contributing a lot to the world of thought when I do write something. Plus, the world is in such a contentious mood, and sometimes it seems safer to just not say anything.

But I feel sort of invested in what I've written--if not this year, at least the posts from the past. Even more than that, I like the idea of having a place to muse about my readings, even if that doesn't happen very often and even if I'm not "successfully building an audience." I would really miss the Musing Reader if it went away.

At the beginning of the year, I joined the reading challenge on Goodreads, and I set the modest (or so I thought) goal for myself of reading 20 books. I didn't make that goal, either; I read 15 books, which at least is a "C" for the year (teacher, ha ha). I tell myself I would have done better and might have even finished the challenge if I hadn't bogged down in the late summer while I was doing the final edits for my third novel, which came out in September. I didn't count it as one of my 15 books, although I read it (with an eye peeled for inconsistencies and typos) at least twice during late August. I still haven't read it as a finished product, so I think it's going to be one of the first on my list for 2017. I also bogged down in reading a very dry historical book that is research for the next novel percolating in my mind.

In addition to the numerical challenge on Goodreads, I used the "Read Harder" challenge from Book Riot and the "Dare to Live Fully" challenge from to give some structure to my reading for the year. Because of those challenges, I read a book published last year, a book published in the 19th century, and a book published in the decade I was born; I read a dystopian book and a horror book, two genres that normally would not be on my list; I read another of Shakespeare's plays; I read a book that had strong political themes and a book that featured religious differences. I read a steampunk novel, a samurai mystery, and a couple of self-published books by local authors. It was an interesting year, although I didn't find myself really engrossed or invested in anything I read.

In keeping with my end-of-year tradition, here are my nominees for my regular categories:

Best Discovery - The book I enjoyed most this year was Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. Maybe it's because I read it shortly after the presidential election, but I was so relieved to read something in which the characters were kind to each other.

Saddest Disappointment - I was bitterly disappointed by Johnny Osage, both because I have really enjoyed other books by Janice Holt Giles and because it is set in the same time and place as my first novel. I was looking forward to it for those two reasons and actually had been putting off reading it because I didn't want to be influenced in writing my own work; unfortunately, I found it to be both boring and disturbing (if those two things can co-exist).

Biggest Accomplishment - In 1995, I started reading George Orwell's 1984. It was the worst possible time for me to read that book because I was a brand-new mother undergoing the shock of that significant life change, and it was just too depressing, so I quit. This summer, my daughter was reading it as a pre-assignment for her senior English class, and I decided to try it again. It was still a depressing and miserable book (and I'm glad I finished it during the summer rather than closer to the election), but I finished it this time. Good for me.

Once is Enough (Books I will probably never read again) - This probably applies to just about everything on my list this year.

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Only So-So - I thought Dearly Beloved by Anne Morrow Lindbergh would be better than it was. This book would have been much better, in my opinion, as a short story than stretched and padded as it was to create a full novel.

Favorite Re-Read - There was only one book I read this year that I'd read before, and I'm a little sheepish about admitting it since it's a picture book. But not really - it's a very touching book with a good message, so Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is a book I'll probably read again and again.

Favorite Historical Fiction - I read two historical novels that I enjoyed pretty well this year. The first was The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (one of the few books I blogged about this year). The other was one of the books my son left in his bedroom when he moved away to college - The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. I'll admit I read it just because I needed a "book set in Asia" for one of my reading challenges, but I learned quite a bit about Japanese culture, religion, and mythology - and it was a quick, fun read.

Biggest Reading Failure - I guess my biggest reading failure of the year was that I started off so well, reading three books in January. But then I hit a snag between February and June and read only three books in those four months. I don't know why.

Favorite Classic - I read three works this year that could be considered "classics": 1984 by George Orwell, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (another read from my daughter's senior English class), and The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew had quite a few faults, but it wins my vote as "Favorite Classic" simply because I really, really didn't like either of the other two (I described them both as "miserable" to my family).

Favorite Love Story - I didn't read anything that could be considered strictly a romance this year, so my favorite story about love was Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. One thing I really enjoyed about the book was that the father was a loving, gentle man rather than a stereotypical harsh, distant father. Love wins in just about every situation when Opal is dealing with others, like the girl who seems snobby and the brothers who seem to be bullies. It just seemed that the characters approached the world the way a dog does - with acceptance and love. Very refreshing.

Besides the books mentioned above, I also read Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson; A Lasting Bond by Angie Richardson; Snakebite by Beryl Wealand; Arkansas in the Gold Rush by Priscilla McArthur; Motherhood, the Second Oldest Profession by Erma Bombeck; and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

I'm setting my goal for 2017 at 20 books once again. Here's hoping I make it - and that I'll find time to muse.

Monday, June 20, 2016

In Appreciation of Good, Old-Fashioned Anticipation

Sometimes, I just have to laugh at myself.

My favorite band, the Avett Brothers, have a new album coming out at the end of this week, June 24. I've known this since March, when Seth Avett wrote a long, lovely letter announcing the new album and the place it marks in the brothers' lives and careers. From March to June seemed like such a long time to wait, but I know how to wait. After all, Christmas comes but once a year, right? And there is something kind of cool about waiting for the release of new material (or for a Christmas present), and that something is the thrill of anticipation. There's the wondering what it will be like, and the hoping it will be something you really like, and the looking for hints about what it's going to be like. That thrill becomes almost unbearable the closer the release day (or Christmas) comes, but the day finally arrives, and there you sit with the present or the new album in your hands, ready to tear into it and savor the fruition of all your waiting.

Except....that's not how the Brothers are doing it this time. About a month after the original news about the album release, there was a Facebook post offering pre-orders of the album along with an instant download of one of the songs on the album, "Ain't No Man." Now, I know there's no need to pre-order digital music (I mean, it's not like they are going to run out of copies), but hey, I was going to buy it anyway - might as well get an early little taste of the album at the same time, right? So I hit the "pre-order" button, downloaded the single, and listened to it right away. It was sort of like getting permission to peel up a corner of the wrapping paper and take a little peek at the box holding the present. It makes the waiting a little easier, I guess.

But then two weeks later, I got an email that my order of another single from the album had been processed. And two weeks later, there was another email with yet another single. Apparently the Brothers (or someone on their management team) decided to lead up to the release date by releasing the album a little at a time. There are 12 tracks on the album, and four of them have already been officially released. Also, there have been videos on YouTube of at least two more of the songs, not including the footage from concert performances. About a week or so ago, the Brothers released a YouTube video by their official videographer of yet another song on the album, meaning more than half the songs on the album are already out there for listening.

I'm a little torn about this. On the one hand, I'm glad to have the music to listen to (and I really like a couple of the songs). On the other hand, I feel a little cheated out of that thrill of anticipation and the moment when I could finally sit down with the album and listen to it, start to finish, for the first time. I guess I'll still get that moment to hear the whole album together (and I do think the album as a whole is not just an assembly of singles - I believe the Brothers not only tell stories with the individual songs, but that they are mindful about how those songs come together on the album to create or enhance a larger story). But it's not going to be the same, because I am already very familiar with at least four of the songs. Through force of will, ha ha, I have resisted listening to the YouTube videos of the other songs (more than once, anyway) because I thought that was a way to reserve some of the thrill.

This morning, though, there was another post on Facebook, announcing the new album is featured on NPR's First Listen. In other words, I could hear the entire album now, instead of waiting four more days. And here's what makes me laugh at myself. For all my blathering about the "thrill of anticipation" and the purity of that first listening experience, I still went to the NPR site to "preview" each song - only to preview, mind you, not to listen to the whole thing.

But the joke is on me - our internet service is SOOOOO bad out here in the country that I could only hear a couple of seconds of the song at a time before the computer had to stop and buffer. After a couple of efforts, I gave it up. Not because of the frustration of waiting for buffering, oh, no; I've decided (once again!) to wait, so I can have that moment when I can download the remaining songs, find a quiet spot, and listen mindfully to see how all these pieces fit together into the theme or story I am certain is there on the album as a whole.

Just in case I made you curious, here's a little peek inside the wrapping paper....(I couldn't resist....)

Friday, April 15, 2016

So Long, Hag

Merle Haggard, 1937-2016
Usually I'm pretty good with being able to come up with the words I need to explain what I mean. Merle Haggard's voice, however, has always been one thing for which I can't find the words to explain why I find it so appealing. Oh, I've tried. I even tried to get my musician husband to help me. "Is it the timbre of his voice?" I asked, hoping the DH would explain to me exactly what "timbre" is in music, and that somewhere in his explanation would be the idea that would make me say, "YES! That's what it is!" (Didn't work...DH just said, "Probably," or something like that.)

After hearing yesterday (April 6, actually) that Merle Haggard had died, and having the opportunity this evening (April 7, actually) to drive somewhere by myself, I decided to do some intense listening to try once again to explain to myself what it is about this particular voice that I like so much.

What I found is that it's hard to separate the voice from the words. Actually, that may be one of the things that appeals to me - that there was such a good match between Merle Haggard's voice and the lyrics. It was not a one-dimensional match-up, either. He could be raucous and edgy on a song like I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink,  but tender and smooth on one like I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall. His voice was just so..."evocative" is the word that keeps coming to mind. I'm quite a sucker for sad songs sang well, and something like Hungry Eyes always moves me (at least when Merle Haggard sings it....).

Oh, man...the way he holds out "wanted" and "needed"....and the poignancy of "It wasn't 'cause my daddy didn't try."

(a week later....)

I lost my train of thought - my family got home while I was writing that post, and all the liveliness they brought with them made it even harder to think of what I was trying to say. But I do want to pay a tribute to a voice that always seemed so honest and genuine in the world of commercial music that too often is contrived and manipulated.

So long, Hag.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

I Shouldn't Have Worried....

This book has been on my bookshelf for a long, long time. I picked it up at some second-hand store, I think. Since I absolutely loved Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles, I figured I would also love Johnny Osage. The book also had going for it that it is set in an area very close to my home and deals with history that happened just before the history in the novels I've written. That's the reason I had never read the book, though; because the time period and setting were so close to my own work, I was afraid I might subconsciously plagiarize something. Now that my books are all finished, I thought it was probably safe to finally read Johnny Osage.

Well, I shouldn't have worried about plagiarism, because - not to be hurtful or anything - but I didn't like this book well enough to copy anything from it.

I wasn't a big fan of the plot of the book, because it follows the same "revenge" plot that bothered me in this review of another novel. Johnny Fowler is a trader who has a special relationship with the Osage Indians living in what is now northeast Oklahoma but at the time was the brand-new Arkansas Territory. In fact, Johnny had married into the family of one of the top chiefs, the Wolf. But the Osage have an enemy in the Cherokees who have moved into the territory, specifically a man nicknamed the Blade for his murderous ways. We eventually find out the Blade had killed and mutilated Johnny's pregnant young wife. When the Blade strikes again near the end of the novel, Johnny takes it on himself to deal out long-overdue vengeance. As with A Reasonable Doubt, there is no soul-searching about Johnny's decision to search out and kill the Blade; in fact, he's disgusted with himself that he had waited so long that another young girl died at the Blade's hand. Granted, the Blade is a horrible person, but I would have felt better about Johnny as a character if he had seemed to have even a single moment of remorse over what he did.

But he didn't. And actually, Giles made things even worse, in my view, by how she handled the end of the book. Johnny has fallen in love with and plans to marry Judith, a missionary at the Presbyterian mission to the Osage. When Judith figures out that Johnny is going to go after the Blade, she tells him she can't marry a murderer, and their romance appears to be over, since Johnny walks out on Judith to go find the Blade for a fight to the death. However, once Johnny has dealt out his revenge and is recuperating from his wounds in the Osage village, Judith comes back to him and puts aside her own opinions so she can have Johnny.
"She would have had him innocent and molded in her own instincts, but that not being possible she would have him on his own terms...In the event, she examined her love and found it whole enough to withstand the partition of herself."
I don't know why that bothered me so much. I mean, I've read other stories in which a character has to give up something of him/herself for love. I understand that love usually means a person is going to have to change in some ways, perhaps important ways. I guess the issue here was that what Judith gave up was a really fundamental part of herself. And it also bothered me that the "giving up" was all one-way - coming from Judith. Not only does Judith have to compromise her ethics to accept that her future husband committed a murder of vengeance, she also had to leave the mission to go live in the relatively immoral trading village because that's where Johnny lived, and Johnny wasn't going to move. Johnny doesn't seem to have to give up anything, and that annoyed me. In fact, I can't really identify any significant way in which Johnny changed and grew as a character except that he is finally free of his angsty "guilt" once he's killed the Blade.

I might have been able to accept the plot as the author's choice (as I did with A Reasonable Doubt) if the writing had been better. But there were some serious info-dumps in the book, especially early on. It just wasn't much fun to read. Johnny Osage was as successful in killing my interest in this book as he was in exacting his revenge on the Blade.

Friday, February 12, 2016

On Second Thought.....

When I first finished reading The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, my reaction was disappointment. I thought the book just didn't meet the high standard Schlitz had set in her other book I'd read a couple of years ago, A Drowned Maiden's Hair. My biggest disappointment was that there didn't seem to be much of a plot - the story sort of plodded along through Joan's (she's the hired girl of the title) diary entries. Every so often there would be some dramatic event for an entry, but much of the book was domestic detail that didn't seem to be going anywhere.

Well, I kept thinking about the book, and now I think I've hit on the plot I missed as I was reading - (SPOILER ALERT!) - This book is about Joan's search for love, particularly a father's love.

The first couple of chapters in the book were gripping to me, when Joan was trapped on the family farm and engaged in a battle of will with her father, who was harsh and unloving and who blames Joan for the death of his wife (Joan's mother). He can't understand Joan's love of learning, and he doesn't value all the work she does around the house. Piece by piece, he strips away everything that gives Joan an escape from the drudgery of her life, until finally, in retaliation for her defiance, he burns her precious books. He's a despicable character, and like Joan, we hate him. We celebrate when she carries out her clever plan to run away.

(MORE SPOILERS!) The story then has Joan going through a series of crushes on the men in the family that hires her on. First, there was Mr. Solomon, the family's oldest son, who finds Joan on the street when she first gets to Baltimore, takes her home, and convinces his mother to hire her. Solomon is a gentle, kind, scholarly man, and we can understand why Joan would have a crush on him. There's also the father of the family, who is kind to Joan and lets her use his library after her day's work is finished, as long as she doesn't stay up so late that she oversleeps the next morning when she's supposed to help with breakfast. Joan herself doesn't write about Mr. Rosenbach in a romantic way, but she overhears Mrs. Rosenbach telling the bridge ladies about Joan's "crush" on her husband. Finally, there is the younger son, David, who takes Joan to an opera and buys her some art supplies and kisses her one night in the dark kitchen. Joan is completely enamored with David, and builds all kinds of dream futures with him in her mind. When she finds out he's leaving for Europe to study art, she recklessly begs him to take her with him, only to find that what she interpreted as love was just David's normal flirtatious manner.

Honestly, at the time I was reading it, I thought the story was trying to make a point about social class and romance, and maybe it was. But I like this newer explanation better. Joan never had love from her father or her brothers (no one had truly loved her since her mother died), so she is desperately trying to find a substitute for that lack. One article discussing research about parental influence concluded "children who feel unloved tend to become anxious and insecure, and this can make them needy." That description would certainly fit Joan through the whole novel.

The saddest part is, she still hasn't found it at the end of the novel. This is where the social class issue intersects with the psychological need issue. The Rosenbachs are kind to Joan, even to the point of providing her a scholarship to attend the new school Mr. Rosenbach has built, but there is a clear distinction between her and them. They are kind, but they don't love her.  Pity or charity is not the same as love.

Or maybe Joan did find love, in the form of the grumpy old housekeeper, Malka.
She got up and came around the table and locked her arms around me. "You take that education," she said against the top of my head. "When life offers you something good, you take it, you hear me? You go to a good school, learn everything you can, and grow up to be a woman. That's what you'll do," she finished, and she held me so close I felt her old heart beating.
So I gave in. I even took a crumb of comfort, because she loves me. It wasn't what I would have chosen. I wanted David to love me, not Malka. But I guess I'm a beggar and can't be a chooser. Being proud belongs in novels.

Friday, January 22, 2016

For Money or Love?

I sit here tonight, putting off washing the dishes as I think about the book I just finished, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. In some ways, I have an awful lot in common with Joan, the protagonist of the book - I'd rather be reading or writing, but I'll get up here in a minute to clean the kitchen.

Joan is a 14-year-old girl who loves school and reading novels, but after her mother died, she's forced into the role of housekeeper for her father and three older brothers on a small farm. The work is unending, and it's hard, and Schlitz does a great job of showing us just what would have been involved for a woman keeping up a farm household in 1911. I felt overwhelming empathy for Joan when she narrowly escapes losing an eye after a cow kicked her, and yet the men of the household expect her to get supper together, even while her stitches are still fresh. At least they concede to eat a cold supper.

But it's not the work that's the worst part of her situation - what's worse is that she is struggling along in an environment in which no one ever expresses any love or concern for her or satisfaction with her work. In fact, Joan's father holds her responsible for her mother's death, and he's just completely intolerable. When he burns Joan's beloved novels to punish her for impertinence, Joan runs away from home to look for a position as a hired girl in the city (Baltimore, in this case).

Joan is lucky enough to get a position quickly with a well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. In their household, she does the cleaning and helps the old woman who has been with the family forever with cooking. Joan thinks she's especially lucky because the Rosenbachs send out their laundry - no more washing clothes. And she's going to earn $6 per week!

It's not long before Joan realizes that, even without the laundry, there's still a huge amount of work, and a lot of it is heavy work, like rolling up the rugs and carrying them downstairs to hang over the line and beat them clean. That's the first truth I gleaned from the book; sure, the Rosenbachs had electricity and running water, but to paraphrase with a bad pun, housework, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Maybe she's no longer scrubbing the privy clean, but some other task is going to replace the one that was removed. As the Shabbos goy (Gentile worker who does tasks during the Sabbath), Joan seems to have as much work, if not more, with the Rosenbachs than she did at home.

One might argue that even if the workload is the same, Joan has a much better situation with the Rosenbachs than she had at home, for at least she's away from her hateful father. Throughout the story, though, there are numerous entries (the story is written as Joan's diary) that describe when Joan has been reminded of the social differences between herself and the Rosenbachs -- she is, after all, only the hired girl. Joan is not to associate with the Rosenbach's children (she does, of course). She is not to talk back or listen in on conversations or "meddle." Mrs. Rosenbach, especially, treats Joan with a certain degree of contempt; she is not unkind, unlike Joan's father, but she is superior, taking it as her right at one point to tell Joan she needs to work on her "deportment" so that she seems more like a hired girl.

That raises an interesting set of questions in my mind. Is it worthwhile to allow yourself to be demeaned, as long as you are getting money? I guess Joan is better off as a hired girl, because although Mrs. Rosenbach is as overbearing in some ways as Joan's father is, at least there is Mr. Rosenbach, who allows Joan free access to his library -- as long as she doesn't stay up past midnight so that she oversleeps in the mornings and is late to her work. 

The work/social differences are not the only theme, or even the most important theme, in the novel, but each of us reads a story within our own context, right? I don't know -- maybe I'm in a weird mood because this was the first week back at school, and it's kind of hard to go from days when I was my own boss back into having to keep someone else's schedule. Seems like the older I get, the harder it becomes to do that.....

Friday, January 15, 2016

Am I Too Picky?

Wednesday night, I finished my first book for this year - Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson. This was a book my daughter recommended to me. She really liked it. Me....not so much. It was all right, and at the end, the story picked up and was satisfying, but it certainly didn't catch me up and make me live in that fictional world. As I was doing my Goodreads rating and my Amazon review, it occurred to me that I may have become too picky in my evaluation of reading materials.

A quick synopsis of the plot - this is alternative history, and the premise is that the first American revolution failed, leaving the colonies under British rule. One twist is that there is a ruling class that has magical abilities. A group of non-magical "rebel mechanics" is using their brains to invent machines that can do the things the "magisters" use magic to do. The hope is the machines will make a second, successful revolution possible. Verity Newton finds herself straddling the two worlds; she works as a governess in a magical household, but she is recruited by the rebels as a spy.

The premise for the story is pretty decent (although I could do without the "magic" bit - why does everyone these days use magic as a plot element. Just makes things SOOOOO convenient - need something to happen? Oh, they have MAGIC!). I liked the characters all right, though I wasn't really enamored of anyone in the story; Verity's boss, Lord Henry, is the closest I came to being truly interested in a character. He's living a double life, and although we could figure that out really early in the story, it's satisfying enough when the big reveal comes as to why he's doing it.

So it's not necessarily the story being poorly-conceived that bugs me about this book. The thing that bothered me most about was that it seemed to me the author was punching all the buttons to make the book "popular" with its young adult audience. Let's see...we need a girl who's sort of an about a smart, bookish girl whose father doesn't really want her around? Gotta have some kind of paranormal element - ooooh, there's the magic! Check. Steampunk is really popular right now, and the rebels build machines, soooooooo--let's make sure everyone realizes this is a steampunk story by stopping the story momentarily to describe the rebels' clothing as eclectic (one of the key elements of steampunk culture). Let's see....we need a love triangle.....Hey, we'll make Verity be torn between the two social classes. We'll have Alec, the hot young rebel who is a brilliant mechanic and who is instantly attracted to Verity, and we'll have Lord Henry (of course), since he's this complex, mysterious character with an important secret. But of course, he's a "forbidden" love because he's her employer and her social superior.....Ooooooh, even better!! Betrayal by friends? Check. Girl needs a mysterious secret of her own that threatens her position in society....hmmmm......let's make Verity a half-breed--half magic, half non-magic. Girl saves the day? Check. Mean girl who puts down the main character every chance she gets? Check.

Even as I'm writing this, I feel that I'm being a little harsh. The book wasn't that bad, just sort of formulaic, and what's wrong with giving your audience what they want? I guess the thing that bothers me is the literary equivalent of worrying that my daughter is drinking too much sugary root beer and eating too much fast-food pizza. She's a voracious reader, but I have a hunch most of what she is reading is similar to Rebel Mechanics (especially since she thought this was so good she should recommend it to me). I can't at all get her to read young adult novels (like the ones by Ann Turnbull) that are substantive and involving and make you care about the characters and that don't rely on things like magic to build the plot.

Bleah! What a nagging old woman I sound like! "You young people are going to rot your (brain/teeth) if you don't stop (reading/drinking) all that (formula fiction/root beer)!"

But then.....I pick up something like the book I'm reading now (The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz), and within 16 pages, I am completely invested in this character and the problems of her life. Honestly, I nearly teared up this morning (see, that says something - I HAD to read some this morning to know what happened after I left off reading last night) when I read the part about Joan picking up and cuddling the doll her mother (who is now dead) made for her. My heart just aches for this poor young girl who is working like a slave in a household full of brothers who are not cruel (I guess), but are just uncaring.

Maybe I can convince my daughter to read it....she owes me one, right?

Friday, January 1, 2016

It Was an Interesting Year in Books (Reading Challenge 2105)

What was I doing at midnight, you ask? Popping a bottle of bubbly? Celebrating the end of the old year and welcoming the new with friends? Why, no...I was snuggled in bed, finishing the last few pages of The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt to cap off my 2015 reading challenge!

I read a whopping 16 books this year, which I suppose I should be ashamed to admit, since it's such a low number. But it was a really interesting set of books, thanks to a couple of reading challenges I decided to take on this year. The first was a Monthly Motif challenge, which I sort of ending up dropping after a couple of months because I had become more interested in Book Riot's "Read Harder" challenge. The idea of the challenge was to
inspire you to pick up books that represent experiences and places and cultures that might be different from your own. We encourage you to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try.
I don't know if I was as aggressive in pushing myself as I ought to have been, but I did read some books I definitely would not have read if not for the reading challenge. It was an experience I enjoyed, so much so that I plan to search out the 2016 "Read Harder" challenge and see about incorporating it into my reading plans for this coming year.

In the spirit of that challenge, I'm going to add a new category to my normal list: The Book That Pushed Me. For this category, the book needs to be one that is either not of a genre I normally read, one that is about a culture significantly different from my own, or one that challenges my perspective on things in a significant way. There could be several that meet this criterion for this year, including Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I took as a rather eye-opening look into popular teen culture (if not a realistic portrait of teen culture, at least a portrait of teen culture that is really  popular with teens). Beloved by Toni Morrison challenged me to acknowledge the complete disruption of "normal" life that slavery forced on African-Americans, and Anpao by Jamake Highwater was an interesting compilation of Native American worldview myths. But the winner in this category for 2014 was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, not just because it was an introduction to African culture, language, and mindset, but also because it made me consider the interaction between "foreign" cultures and colonial/"missionary" cultures. (That's a blog post that never got written... :/ It wasn't a very good year for blogging.)

Best Discovery - Strangely enough, the book I most enjoyed this year was Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. That may be in part because it had information about keelboats and steamboats that related directly to the time period in my own novels (another blog post that didn't get written), but I also had forgotten how funny Mark Twain can be. (He also made some racial remarks that would have been fodder for internet censure in today's environment...) I enjoyed the mix between his journalistic descriptions, his social commentary, and his personal stories. The story about the death of his brother in a steamboat explosion was understated but still packed some hefty emotional punch.

Saddest Disappointment - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. One of my friends absolutely loves this book and has read it multiple times. This is a good example of how individual taste in books is. I couldn't see the appeal. I personally didn't like any of the four sisters enough to get emotionally invested in their story, and I thought Kingsolver dragged the story on way past where it needed to go. (I'm sorry I didn't like your favorite, Pat!)

Biggest Accomplishment - Although I didn't care for it (or maybe because of that...), I thought reading The Poisonwood Bible was my biggest reading accomplishment for the year. It was the longest book I read all year. I did have another big accomplishment during the year--I finished the first draft of my third novel - the whole manuscript was written in one year! If you knew the crazy number of things crammed in to my life, you would understand why I consider that my biggest accomplishment for 2015, ha ha ha!

Books I Thought Wouldn’t Be Much But Were Actually Good -  Honestly,I expected Life on the Mississippi to be dry, nineteenth-century writing that I needed to plow through to get background information for my novels. But I was wrong, really wrong. I actually laughed out loud several times. 

Favorite Historical Fiction - Because I was challenging myself to read outside my normal genre, I didn't read as much historical fiction as I normally do. This year, the only books I read that were strictly historical fiction were Nancy Dane's A Reasonable Doubt (about the Reconstruction period in the South) and The Poisonwood Bible, which comes out on top of another category, mainly because I didn't know anything at all about the history of Congo.

Biggest Reading Failure - One of the categories on the Read Harder challenge was to read a romance novel, so I thought I would make it interesting and read an Amish romance, since they are very popular and would be about another culture I'm not all that familiar with. I chose The Covenant by Beverly Lewis. Normally, I have a three-chapter rule; I make myself read three chapters before I decide not to read a book. Sad to say, I didn't make it that far in this book. During the prologue--the prologue--I decided I can't stand this book. Too much "telling," too many stereotypes. I put it away and moved on to something else, but then I decided maybe I wasn't being fair, so I tried again. This time I got through the first chapter and a half, but my reaction was the same. I can't stand this book. I may force myself to try one more time in the coming year, but ugh.

Favorite Classic - One thing I'm kind of proud of this year is that I read several books that could be considered "classics," such as Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's hard to say, but I guess The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein was my favorite read this year from the books that could be considered "classic." (And now my husband can be happy because I've finally read one of his favorite books!)

Favorite Love Story - I did go on a self-serving detour this summer in which I read both of my own novels, and of course, they were my favorite love stories, but to avoid being self-serving now, I'll say The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt was my favorite. I'll admit there were plenty of flaws in the story and that the love story wasn't really the main focus of the novel, but it was one of those love stories in which the couple is faced with all sorts of obstacles that you just know they will eventually overcome. I actually thought there was kind of an interesting layer to this novel that I might blog about sometime--I've seen several reviews that talk about Napier as being an "abusive" husband. I wonder, though, if the abuse is in the perspective we as the reader are given on his behavior. But those are musings for another time.

I'm happy to say I don't really have any nominees for the category of Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Only So-So. Although everything on my list probably will be on the Once is Enough (Books I will probably never read again) list, I was well-satisfied with everything I read this year. I do want to acknowledge the books I read that didn't fit any of the categories above, because they are all worthy of reading:

  • Mama's Song by Gayle Jennings
  • Elements of Deception by Mary Schaffer
  • Joyland by Stephen King (I can't believe I actually read a Stephen King book, albeit a very mild one!)
  • 100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

Now I'm off to research the 2016 "Read Harder" challenge. I think I know what the first book on this year's list will be, though--I need to do my first complete read-through of that first draft of my WIP. And my daughter has suggested a book to me, so I might try to read it this weekend before she has to take it back to the school library. Oh, so many books, so little time......