Reading List: Powell’s staff’s best books of 2015

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, but when I do it’s almost always because it was a Powell’s staff pick. Maybe it’s our shared Pacific Northwest sensibilities, but if Powell’s staff loves something, it’s highly likely that I will also love it. That’s why I subscribe to their Indiespensible box. It’s also why I pay close attention to their end-of-year best of lists. These lists are extra special because every staff member does a “top five” list of their favorite books read in that year. And you know how much I love top five lists.

Last year, I posted about how Buzzfeed created an uber “top thirteen” list using their “top-secret scientific algorithmic process” to determine the best of the best for the year, according to Powell’s. After I saw that list, I created a Goodreads shelf to track these books and keep them on my radar for future reading.

This year, Powell’s staff’s top five lists were posted on New Year’s Day, and I’ve been waiting for another summary post from Buzzfeed. So far, nothing. So I decided to do my own analysis and create my own uber “top thirteen” list.

I’ll be more transparent with my “super secret algorithm” and go ahead and tell you that I did some good old “copying and pasting” of all the lists into Excel. Then I assigned points to each mention of each book based on where it appeared in each list (5 points for first place, 4 points for second place, etc.). Then I made a pivot table and sorted the results by total number of points in descending order. There was an obvious cut-off after the first fourteen books, and one of those books was published in a previous year (Station Eleven). So I dropped that one off this list and capped the list at thirteen.

And the result… Here are the thirteen books that received the most points (mentions) on the Powell’s staff lists:

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (50 points)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (40 points)
  3. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (38 points)
  4. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (18 points)
  5. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (16 points)
  6. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (14 points)
  7. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (12 points)
  8. H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (12 points)
  9. A Kim Jong Il Production by Paul Fischer (12 points)
  10. M Train by Patti Smith (10 points)
  11. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (10 points)
  12. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (10 points)
  13. Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (10 points)

So far, I’ve only read one of these (Between the World and Me). But several others were already on my “to buy/borrow” list. And there were a few where I had an instant reaction of “no way, I’m never going to read that,” even though they come highly recommended by Powell’s staff.

For example, everyone seems to be in love with A Little Life. It’s the number one book on this list, by far. But every review I’ve read talks about how sad this book is. Here’s an example from one of the Powell’s staff:

Tremendous. Devastating. Torturous. Hard-to-take hurts-your-heart scenes of the deep and dark sides of humanity.

Basically every review I’ve read, or heard in a podcast, says the same thing. But devastating, sad, torturous books are not my jam. The only thing I like less than a tragic sad book is a super scary book. Blood and gore I can handle, but scary stuff creeps me out. As an example, I have never read a Stephen King book. I’m probably missing out, but I just don’t like being scared, or sad. Life is already sad and scary enough. So, even though A Little Life was the clear winner, I will likely skip that one.

Overall, I think this year’s list is a bit heavily weighted towards the non-fiction and memoir categories. Last year’s list felt like it had more novels on it. Regardless, I’m tracking both lists in Goodreads and I’ll be checking them when I’m looking for ideas about books to read. Here’s a link to my 2015 shelf if you want to follow along.

What do you think? Are there books on this list that you’ve read and highly recommend? Do you think you can convince me to change my mind about A Little Life? Which book on this list are you most excited about reading?

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2015 recap: Goals

Every year I end up making some crazy personal goals for myself. Looking back on 2015’s goals, I’m a little surprised at how well I did. Taken all together, this is some pretty challenging stuff I signed myself up for this year, and I accomplished almost all of it.

  • Swimming
    • swim 20 days per month –> partial credit… averaged 17 days per month, but swam more days (and yards) in 2015 than I have since I joined USMS in Dec 2012
    • get SCY times on the books for 400 IM and 1650 free –> done
    • qualify for SCY Nationals in the 3 breaststroke events plus 2 more (200 fly and 400 IM) –> partial credit… qualified in the 3 breaststroke events and dropped time in my 200 fly and 400 IM, but I am still a few seconds off qualifying times in those two events
  • Writing
    • Finish at least one novel (“Empire”) and be ready to query by end of 2015 –> partial credit… finished first draft, but not ready to query… 
    • Participate in NaNoWriMo as Marin County Municipal Liaison –> done
    • Plot NaNoWriMo novel in October and write complete first draft by end of 2015, at least 50k in November with goal to finish complete plot arc, but must continue and finish in December if not done yet. –> still working on this one… 
    • Pick the next incomplete novel to finish first draft of (“Falling” or “Augmented”) and prep outline / notes in December so I’m ready to write in January –> done
  • Reading
    • 50 books total (~1 per week) –> done
    • Read at least 12 “diverse” books in 2015 (~1 per month) –> almost… I finished 10
    • Write blurb book reviews for books read on Goodreads –> done
    • Continue weekly inbox/outbox post on the blog –> done
    • Participate in Book Riot’s “Read Harder” challenge –> done

In a way, I want to go a bit easier on myself next year. This year was pretty intense and I pushed myself pretty hard trying to get all this done. But, on the other hand, I’m pretty proud of my accomplishments.

Reading List: Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge

About half-way through this year, I decided I would participate in Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge. You may remember, this is a list of 24 reading tasks, meant to be completed in 2015, each intended to broaden your reading horizons.

Results: 21 down and 3 to go… (see also: my Goodreads shelf)

Completed tasks:

  1. A book published by an indie press — Sword
  2. A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ — Afterworlds
  3. A book by a person whose gender is different from your own — The Bone Clocks (plus a lot more…)
  4. A book that takes place in Asia — Fire Horse Girl (plus a few more…)
  5. A book by an author from Africa — Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah
  6. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.) — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian
  7. A YA novel — The Raven Boys (plus a lot more…)
  8. A sci-fi novel — Fortune’s Pawn (plus a lot more…)
  9. A romance novel — The Duchess War
  10. A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.) — A Court of Thorns and Roses
  11. A book that someone else has recommended to you — Handmaid’s Tale
  12. A book published this year — Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids (plus a few more…)
  13. An audiobook — The Rosie Effect
  14. A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind — Ms. Marvel vol 1 (plus a lot more…)
  15. A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over) — re-read Suddenly Royal
  16. A microhistory — Astoria
  17. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade <– All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  18. A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65 <– Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith
  19. A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”) <– You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
  20. A book that was originally published in another language <– My Brilliant Friend by by Elena Ferrante
  21. A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 <– Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch

Unfinished tasks:

  1. A collection of poetry <–I’d planned to read The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems. I bought it. I read the first few poems. Then never finished reading it.
  2. A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) <– I was thinking I’d either read Magic for Beginners (which I got in an Indiespensible shipment this year) or I would finish Hieroglyph (which I started reading with my hubby, but stalled out somewhere in the middle and never finished.) I ended up reading neither.
  3. A book published before 1850 <– I’d planned to read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas as a “buddy read.” We started it. Neither of us got very far. Then we decided to bail on it. I think I’ll try again at some point, but I don’t know when.

I may still finish these last three tasks in 2016. But I’m not committing to anything because I already decided that I wasn’t going to do any reading projects or challenges in 2016. So, we’ll see what happens.

Reading: Best of 2015

So, 2015 isn’t completely over yet. I still have about two more books I want to finish before the end of the year. But, I think it’s probably safe to do some “top five” book lists for 2015. I’ve divided my favorites up into three lists, below.

My “top five” favorite books that I read in 2015 (not including ones that are part of a series) are:

  1. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
  2. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  3. The Martian by Andy Weir
  4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  5. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

My “top five” favorite books that I read in 2015 that ARE part of a series are:

  1. Vicious (Vicious, #1)
  2. Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, #4)
  3. Lock In (Lock In, #1)
  4. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  5. On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)

And, last but not least, these are my “top five” favorite comics that I read in 2015:

  1. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
  2. Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
  3. X-Men, Vol. 3: Bloodline by Brian Wood
  4. Promethea, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore
  5. Lumberjanes Vol 1 by by Noelle Stevenson

NaNoWriMo 2015

Well, folks, it’s almost that time of year again. Less than thirty days until one of my favorite months of the year: November!

Yep. That’s right. November is National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as “NaNoWriMo”). And this year it is even more special for me because this year I’ve been selected to be a co-Municipal Liaison for my home region! This means that, in addition to writing my own novel, I have volunteered to help organize events and provide encouragement to others participating in these thirty days and thirty nights of writing with literary abandon.

If you happen to be haunted by your own plot bunny and dream of someday turning that cute little bunny into a full grown novel, I *highly* encourage you to consider participating this November.

Why? I’ll tell you why I do it:

  • I’m busy. I have a relatively demanding full time job doing basically the opposite of writing. November is the one time each year where I allow my creative brain to take over. The rest of the year I tinker with stories I’ve already started. But November is for new things. November is for creating something out of nothing. For making magic happen.
  • Writing is a pretty solitary endeavor. But, the writing community is kind of amazing. I don’t know many writers “in real life.” I belong to a writing group. I chat with other writers on Twitter and read the blogs of fellow writers (and readers). But only other writers can relate to that weird process of creation that happens when you sit down to write a novel. And in November the writing community comes together and rallies around that creation process. Need inspiration? You got it. Need a buddy for word sprints? @NaNoWordSprints has you covered. Can’t think of just the right name for your character? There’s a forum for that!
  • World-building is tricky business. I write mostly fantasy and sci-fi novels and I’ve found that world building is so much easier when you can immerse yourself in the world you are building for a short period of time. When I drag out the first draft process over months and months I forget details. I forget the rules I made up for how the world works. I forget what the place looks like. And every time I go back to write I have to remember all over again. Notes are fine. I love notes and lists. But it’s so much easier if you never really leave…
  • I believe in the cause. Each year the organizers bring together almost 400k participants of all ages, from diverse backgrounds, located in about 600 regions, across six continents. They give these participants the resources, inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to achieve their creative potential. They send creative writing kits to classrooms. They build local creative writing communities. They help people realize their dreams. It’s so easy to get so wrapped up in “being an adult” or “getting good grades” that you lose track of your writing dreams. Or maybe you just don’t think it’s possible because you don’t think anyone “like you” could ever publish a book. NaNoWriMo gives people an excuse. A chance. An opportunity. And they show kids that there are people “like them” out there making a career out of writing books, getting paid for doing what they love to do. Is NaNoWriMo going to end world hunger or war or poverty? No. But books are a way of getting inside someone else’s world for a little while and seeing what that’s like. Reading teaches empathy. And we could all use more of that. So, more books please!

And it’s that last reason that made me want to sign up to be a Municipal Liaison this year. The same reason I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on this blog, or anywhere, really. I’m going to ask you to donate.

Please go check out my donation page and consider donating even a tiny amount of money to this worthy cause. I know there are no end of worthy causes out there to support. I get it. But if this crazy idea of supporting people of all ages achieve their dream of “someday” writing a novel speaks to you in any way, I hope you might spare a few dollars (or more) for yet another good cause.

And, if you have a novel in you, I encourage you to get it out this November.

Are you ready?

Sign up.

Then, dust off your word processor, or find your favorite notebook and pen.

And throw out the rules! Bring on the plot bunnies! Lock up your inner editor! Let’s get the words out on the page!

I’ll be posting some more blog posts and maybe even some videos in October and November offering advice and encouragement. So stay tuned for that.

Let’s do this!

In which I attempt to “Read Harder” and need recommendations…

The folks over at Book Riot issued a 2015 “Read Harder” challenge. They created a list of 24 reading tasks. Since I got the mug as a birthday present, I figured I had better participate…

It’s possible to check off more than one task on the list with only one book, but I’m trying to do each with a different book. Several tasks are easy for me and I have a ton of books I’ve read this year that would qualify. In those cases I tried to just chose the first book I read this year to list as my example.

These are the tasks I’ve completed so far:

  1. A book published by an indie press — Sword
  2. A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ — Afterworlds
  3. A book by a person whose gender is different from your own — The Bone Clocks (plus a lot more…)
  4. A book that takes place in Asia — Fire Horse Girl (plus a few more…)
  5. A book by an author from Africa — Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah
  6. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.) — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian
  7. A YA novel — The Raven Boys (plus a lot more…)
  8. A sci-fi novel — Fortune’s Pawn (plus a lot more…)
  9. A romance novel — The Duchess War
  10. A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.) — A Court of Thorns and Roses
  11. A book that someone else has recommended to you — Handmaid’s Tale
  12. A book published this year — Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids (plus a few more…)
  13. An audiobook — Astoria and The Rosie Effect
  14. A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind (Hi, have you met Panels?) — Ms. Marvel vol 1 (plus a lot more…)
  15. A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over) — re-read Suddenly Royal

And I have books in my TBR for these three tasks:

  1. A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 — I discovered that Snow Like Ashes qualifies here, and I already own it!
  2. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade — All the Light We Cannot See is on my hold list at the library…
  3. A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) <– I have several of these in-progress… but I think I’ll try to read/finish Magic for Beginners because it came in one of my Indiespensible boxes this year…

That leaves six tasks where I haven’t figure out what to read yet. So, I’m looking for some ideas and/or recommendations for books that might check off any of these…

  1. A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65 <– no idea…
  2. A microhistory <– the suggestions offered in that linked article are okay, but maybe you have a better idea for me…
  3. A collection of poetry <– ugh. Poetry. I need a good suggestion here… something that I might actually like considering the only poetry I like is song lyrics…
  4. A book published before 1850 <– what do you think about Count of Monte Cristo? It’s already on my TBR… unless you have a better suggestion…
  5. A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”) <– Yuck. I hate self-help books. Does Lean In count? because I already own that one… not excited about reading it, but I probably should…
  6. A book that was originally published in another language <– I’ve heard really good things about My Brilliant Friend, but I can’t figure out if it is truly “in translation” or if it’s just written in English by an Italian author… anyone know or have other ideas?

If you have ideas, please let me know in the comments (or recommend me a book on Goodreads)!

Anyone else doing this “read harder” challenge this year?

Some mid-year reading stats

And, just like that, half of 2015 is over. Time for some mid-year reading stats.

First let’s talk about June…

June reading stats

And, now let’s have a look back at the first six months of 2015 in total…

Total books finished so far this year: 44

For reference, I usually average about 36 books a year. Last year I finished 39 books. This year my goal was “a book a week” or 52 books total. Granted, I’ve included my comics trades in that total. Those are each about 150 pages, so I think they should count. But, even if you take them out of the count, I’ve still finished 35 books so far this year. That’s a lot of reading.

Top Five favorite books for the first half of 2015

  1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (post-apocalyptic)
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir (sci-fi)
  3. Lock In by John Scalzi (sci-fi)
  4. Sword by Amy Bai (fantasy)
  5. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (fantasy)

Update on 2015 reading projects

This year I gave myself two main reading projects. The first was my “diverse reading” project where I planned to read at least one book each month by an author who was not white and/or not American. The second was to read through those books I’d purchased for more than $3.50, but hadn’t read yet — some of which have been sitting there, unread, for several years.

So far I’ve been successful reading a book a month by a diverse author (not American and/or not white), and it hasn’t even been that hard to do. All the books I’ve read so far are books I wanted to read anyway, for one reason or another. I’m pleased that this hasn’t felt like a “chore.” I’m even more pleased at the new worlds I’m being exposed to. I think the biggest impact has been on my empathy, which I thought was already pretty decent, but seems to be getting even more keen as I dive into characters even more unlike myself or any of the people I am surrounded by on a daily basis.

As for my second project, I have made some substantial progress toward un-read books previously purchased for > $3.50…

When I ran my end of year stats for 2014, I came up with 15 books that I’d purchased for more than $3.50 in either 2013 or 2014, but hadn’t read yet. I don’t mind snapping up books on sale and saving them for later, but I don’t like the idea of holding onto books I’ve purchased at (or close to) full price and then not reading them.

So far this year, I’ve read 9 of the 15 books on that list, and I am reading another one from that list right now. I’ll probably be able to squeeze in two more before the end of the year. I’ll take 10 or 12 out of 15 and call that a success.

Of course, since I made that list, I’ve realized that there are at least two additional books that I purchased at full price prior to 2013 and still haven’t read yet. So, starting with 15, removing 10, and adding 2… Here is the remaining TBR:

  1. Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel ($11.82)
  2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie ($9.99)
  3. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition) by Betty Friedan, Gail Collins, Anna Quindlen ($9.34)
  4. Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith ($6.49)
  5. Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (Wolf Hall Book 2) by Hilary Mantel ($3.99)
  6. Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos by Sarah Lacy ($9.34)
  7. The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2) by Patrick Rothfuss ($14.99)

I’m not sure how many of these I’ll get to before the end of the year. Probably at least Hild, and maybe The Wise Man’s Fear since those are the two I’m most excited about reading. Everything else will probably roll on into next year…

Speaking of next year… I already have an idea for a new reading project for next year. I’m thinking about trying to read any of the current century’s Hugo and/or Nebula award winning novels that I haven’t read yet. There is a lot of overlap between Hugo and Nebula best novel awards, and I’ve read some of these award winners already. But, I’m thinking I’d like to read the rest. So, I’m making a list just in case I decide I want to tackle that as a project next year.

Overall, I’m shocked at how much reading I’ve been doing this year. Even if I slow down my reading pace and only average a book a week for the rest of the year, that’s still another 26 books in 2015! I am going to blow away my normal reading average this year. I’m calling it now: 2015 is the “year of the books” for me.