WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 – Books 6 – 10

It has been an exhausting year, but no worries, I’ve been keeping up with my reading for my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge.  If you want to follow along, there’s even a handy dandy downloadable list for the book categories.  Head over here to check out my first five book reviews.

If you have some great book suggestions or want to see what’s coming up, head over to my Goodreads page and my 2017 List.

And if you’re working through the challenge and want to fill categories like a “A book that is a story within a story” or “A book that’s published in 2017”, consider picking up my book, “The Ice Maiden’s Tale”.
It’s available on Kindle Unlimited and digital copies are also on sale on right now for $3.03. (Not sure why, but hey palindromes are cool, right?).
Print copies are also available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Book #6
Popsugar Slot: “A book recommended by a Librarian”
The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror
by Joyce Carol Oates
When I went into the library, I noticed a display with suggestions from the Librarians.  Included with the books was “The Doll-Mater and Other Tales of Terror” by Joyce Carol Oates.  As is often the case with short stories, I found the different stories to be uneven.  The Doll-Master was by far the best story in the book and was particularly compelling.  The narrator draws you in and makes you empathize with him, then slowly unravels.  The progression leaves you unsettled and the story stays with you long after you’ve finished it.  I only wish all the other “tales of terror” were at the same level. The Gun Accident felt particularly uninspired. Overall, Oates is a skillful writer and this collection is definitely worth a read, even if not every story is up to par.
“All your life, you yearn to return to what has been.  You yearn to return to those you have lost.  You will do terrible things to return, which no one else can understand.”
A very simple story can be given so much depth by giving the narrator a unique perspective.
You’ll have to ask a Librarian!

Book #7
Popsugar Slot: “A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you”
The Steep and Thorny Way
by Cat Winters
I was so intrigued by this book that was a retelling of Hamlet, but set in 1920s Oregon.  Our protagonist, Hanalee Denney is the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man.  You follow her story as she deals with the KKK, the mysterious death of her father, and her friendship with the boy convicted of killing her father.  I found “The Steep and Thorny Way” to be well-written and particularly relevant as the US currently deals with the rise of the white supremacist movement.  Hanalee’s struggles were touching and the setting was rich and mysterious.  The novel did a beautiful job of addressing the difficulties in being a homosexual during that time period.  Definitely give this book a chance.
“I believe that ‘love’ and ‘wrong’ are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like ‘dessert’ and ‘broccoli.’”
A character’s ethnicity is always part of the story – in one way or another.
For a good book, by a character that is not my ethnicity, try Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros.

Book #8
Popsugar Slot: “A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
This is one of those books I know I should have read a long time ago and never got around to.  It took me a while to get through, but it’s another one that seems a perfect fit for our current climate in the US.  This story takes us to the turn of the century, where we follow Francie as she grows up with her poor family in Brooklyn.  It was amazing to me that a whole century later, so many working people are still struggling just as much as the characters in this book. With all of our money and technological advancement, there are still people working multiple jobs and struggling to put food on the table.  This book should be required reading for all of our government representatives.
“A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward.  A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn’t tell it like it was, you told it like you thought it should have been.”
Some stories are less about what happens and more about taking us to a different time and place and learning what it means to live there.
You’ll have to figure this one out for yourself.

Book #9
Popsugar Slot: “A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited”
This Is Where It Ends
by Marieke Nijkamp
The author of “This is Where it Ends” is from The Netherlands, where I have sadly never visited.  This story takes us straight into YA territory, where we experience a school shooting along with teenagers at Opportunity High School in Alabama.  Moving from to student to student, the book gives life to different voices as the events unfold. Not only is there the anxiousness of what will happen to these teens, but the underlying mystery of why this shooter is driven to murder.  The topic of a school shooting could have easily become cliché and maudlin, but it’s handled deftly and with respect.  This was a page turner, and a must read if you enjoy the YA genre.
“Dad always told me there are more stories in the universe than stars in the sky. And in every story, there’s the light of hope.”
When you are utilizing multiple perspectives of the same events, you really need each voice to be unique and each one to give a different insight into what’s happening.
I’ve also never been to the UK, so I’ll recommend “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman.

Book #10
Popsugar Slot: “A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017”
Before I Fall
by Lauren Oliver
Okay so “Before I Fall” is like Groundhog’s Day, but without humor, fun and cleverness.  The main character, Samantha, is supposed to start off unlikable and then grow and change from her mean girl persona, as she learns a lesson by living the worst day of her life over and over again. Unfortunately, she never becomes a character I really like, identify with or even care all that much what happens to. There are some lovely sections of prose, but they often feel overdramatic. It all culminated in an ending that to me, didn’t quite fit the story.  It felt like the author wanted to go for something unexpected and forced a conclusion that wasn’t earned.   For me, it just didn’t work.  This story was a good concept that was poorly executed.
“That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever. Even after they’re over they still go on, even after you’re dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.”
You can’t force an ending just because you want to be clever or edgy.  It has to fit the story.
It looks like an amazing movie and the source material is wonderful, so go with the classic “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie.

Thanks to the library and my long commute, I’m making excellent progress on my list and I’m determined to hit every category this year—including the “Advanced” ones.

What’s currently on your bookshelf?

WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 – Books 1 – 5

Even though I haven’t had much time to post about it, I’ve been steadily working through my 2017 Popsugar Reading challenge.
If you don’t know, Popsugar has an annual reading challenge that works like a scavenger hunt.  There’s even a handy dandy downloadable list for the book categories.

You can learn so much about writing from reading other people’s work.  It doesn’t matter the genre, or even the quality of writing.  Every book can teach you how to be a better writer – even if it’s just what not to do.
That’s the perspective I take with me into all of my reviews.

If you want to follow me along in real time, or suggest some books for the challenge, head over to my Goodreads page and my 2017 List.

I figured I’d post my reviews in small batches, so here’s the first five.

Book #1
Popsugar Slot: “The first book in a series you haven’t read before”

Anyone but Ivy Pocket
by Caleb Krisp
I’d never heard of this series before I came across  it while browsing through the New York Public Library app.  This book takes whimsy to the next level.  (It’s like if Pinterest and tiny Hamster birthday parties had a baby.)  The narrator, Ivy Pocket, a 12 year old orphan, speaks like an adult yet is so painfully dim.  Her lack of perception stretches credibility and it frequently pulls you from the story as you wonder how anyone could possibly be that unaware.  It’s a shame since Ivy’s mis-adventures are quite entertaining, and the overall story is compelling.  It’s very similar to “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket, but far more heavy handed. It could have been a wonderful book if only Ivy would get out of her own way.
“While people loved me as a general rule, I haven’t much experience of them worrying about me. That’s the sort of thing a parent might do. Or so I am told.”
It’s great to have a unique first person voice, but it can’t be bigger than the story you are trying to tell.
For a series you might not know, try Elemental Mysteries  by Elizabeth Hunter.  It’s a grown-up, well-written, and unique take on vampires.

Book #2
Popsugar Slot: “A book by a person of color”

Yellow Brick War
by Danielle Paige
This is book three in the “Dorothy Must Die” series.  I love the series and the voice Danielle gives our teen protagonist, Amy.  This is a different spin on the Oz canon that’s full of adventure and a touch of dark humor.  Unfortunately for me, this book was not up to the standards of the two previous two.  The bulk of story took place in Kansas, which already makes it less fun, but the narrative doesn’t seem to progress our overall story arc much.  This felt like it should have been a chunk of the third and final book rather than a stand-alone novel.   My take is that the publisher wanted to capitalize on the success of the series and stretch it out for another book and rushed this one out.  It doesn’t work and detracts from what was a really amazing YA series.  I’m hoping the next book in the series wins me over again.
“And remember as in all of us, it is only your capacity for wickedness that makes selflessness possible.”
When you write a series, don’t try to change up your game plan in the middle.  Some stories are meant to be trilogies and some are meant to be a longer series.
For an amazing book by a person of color check out “Tyrell” by Coe Booth.

Book #3
Popsugar Slot: “A book with an unreliable narrator”

We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
This is the type of book where going in, you know there’s a twist.  The author does a good job of keeping you guessing, although I had pieced much of it together before the big reveal.  The book’s lovely prose follows teen Cadence Sinclair, as she stays at her family’s home on a private island in Cape Cod.  The story unravels the mystery of her missing memories and debilitating headaches.  Despite my burnout for “sad rich kid” YA books, I still enjoyed the skill and dexterity of the writing.
“If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice, you must give up living in palaces.”
Big twists need careful execution.   You need to plant just enough clues that the reader could have seen it coming, but not so many that they actually figure it out ahead of time.
For another book featuring an unreliable narrator, check out The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (The Mara Dyer Trilogy) by Michelle Hodkin.

Book #4

Popsugar Slot: “A book with a title that’s a character’s name”

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
by Phaedra Patrick
I read the description on this novel and was drawn in.  A widower, Arthur Pepper, finds a whimsical charm bracelet that belonged to his practical wife.  In all their years of marriage, he’d never seen her wear it and didn’t know its origin.  He decided to trace each charm and in doing so had some wonderful adventures, learning more about his wife and himself in the process.  This book was sweet without being cloying and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
“But there are always some people that you keep in your heart, yes? That you never forget.”
It’s okay to indulge a bit in a sweet story with a satisfying ending.  Just don’t go overboard.
“Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White is a perfect book.

Book #5
Popsugar Slot: “A steampunk novel”

Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate)
by Gail Carriger
This book suffered a bit from the same syndrome as Ivy Pocket, where the narration gets in the way of the story.  The book presents us with the intriguing premise that Alexia Tarabotti has no soul.  Because of this she has special abilities in relation to the vampires and werewolves that inhabit London. The narrator can get a bit irksome with her constantly reminding us how different she is than everyone else – she’s Italian! Has a darker complexion! Likes to read! Is interested in Science! We got it the first dozen times.  On the positive side, I found the overall premise compelling and the book was easy to read.  Unfortunately, the villain was too predictable and the romance could have used a bit more spice.
“My father,” she admitted, “was of Italian extraction. Unfortunately, not an affliction that can be cured.” She paused. “Though he did die.”
Having a storyline with a focus on romance doesn’t mean you can ignore the other plot points.
I haven’t read many steampunk books, but I really enjoyed “Gears of Wonderland” by Jason G Anderson.

Thanks to the library and my long commute, I’m making excellent progress on my list and I’m determined to hit every category this year.

How are you doing with your reading goals?

WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 & 2016 Wrap Up

We all know the memes going around – Like this one:
Or this one:
And especially this one:
I was so sure 2016 was the year I was just going to rock the Popsugar Reading Challenge, but there were so many other challenges that just overwhelmed me.  But 2017 offers me hope that all the hard work I poured in 2016 might finally pay off.  So today, I’m going to finish up my 2016 reviews, take stock of my epic failure and start fresh with the 2017 Challenge.

So if you don’t know, Popsugar has an annual reading challenge that works like a scavenger hunt.  There’s even a handy dandy downloadable list.

This year’s picks:

A book recommended by a Librarian
A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long
A book of letters
An audiobook
A book by a person of color
A book with one of the four season in the title
A book that is a story within a story
A book with multiple authors
An espionage thriller
A book with a cat on the cover
A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read
A book by or about a person who has a disability
A book involving travel
A book with a subtitle
A book that’s published in 2017
A book involving a mythical creature
A book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile
A book about food
A book with career advice
A book from a nonhuman perspective
A steampunk novel
A book with a red spine
A book set in the wilderness
A book you loved as a child
A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
A book with a title that’s a character’s name
A novel set during war time
A book with an unreliable narrator
A book with pictures
A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
A book about an interesting woman
A book set in two different time periods
A book with a month or day of the week in the title
A book set in a hotel
A book written by someone you admire
A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017
A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
The first book in a series you haven’t read before

And because that’s not quite challenging enough, Popsugar came up with additional titles under an “Advanced Section”:

A book you bought on a trip
A book recommended by an author you love
A bestseller from 2016
A book with a family-member term in the title
A book that takes place over a character’s life span
A book about an immigrant or refugee
A book from a genre/subgenre that you’ve never heard of
A book with an eccentric character
A book that’s more than 800 pages
A book you got from a used book store
A book that’s mentioned in another book
A book about a difficult topic
A book based on mythology

I’m ready this time, people.  I’m going all in.  Bring on the advanced books, bring on the random categories!  I will make this list my bitch.  If you want to follow along, I’ll be keeping my progress going on Goodreads & Pinterest along with my blog posts.  I’d love to hear your suggestions, reviews and ideas!

So today I’ve got the last of my pitiful 2016 list.

Book #17

Popsugar Slot: “A self-improvement book”
Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo
Self-Improvement books aren’t my jam, but I got this in a Popsugar box so I figured I’d use it in this slot.  I’m actually a bit ridiculous when it comes to organizing so I was interested to see what Marie Kondo could teach me.  Here’s the thing, she has some good ideas mixed in with the crazy.  Most of your stuff should be things you love and you shouldn’t hold onto stuff you don’t like out of obligation or laziness. However, Marie doesn’t just go overboard–she dives in headfirst dragging a mariachi band with her.  For example, she had a hammer she didn’t like, so she got rid of it and I guess couldn’t find a hammer that would “spark joy”.  But inevitably she needed to hammer a nail, so she used a ruler that she loved. And predictably, the ruler broke. Another time, she gave away her stereo because she didn’t like the way it looked and instead takes her headphones, puts them down on a table, turns the volume up and listens to her music that way.  Seriously, people.  The whatfuckery was overwhelming – even for someone like me, who organizes her socks by rolling them together, securing them with rubber bands and lining them neatly inside a box, inside my dresser drawer. (As god is my witness, I will never lose a sock again!)  But in all fairness, if you can get past the extreme stuff, there are some good ideas.  I appreciated her suggestion to not leave too much on your counters or by your cooktop in order to make cleaning easier.  That can save a lot of time and effort.  On the other hand,  I did not appreciate her suggestion to put your kitchen sponge in the cabinet beneath your sink.  You’d have to stalk your sponge and wait until it’s dry to finally put it away and by then you’d just need to use it again.  Ain’t no one got time for that.  In any case, this is one of those books where you just take the little bits that make sense to you and leave the rest (except your hammer, you’ll probably need that eventually).
 “I want to live my life in such a way that it colors my things with memories.”
Crazy can help make even boring subjects entertaining.
Nada.  Self Help is really not my thing.

Book #18

Popsugar Slot: “A book that takes place on an island”
The Light Between Oceans: A Novel
by M.L. Stedman
This book had so many great reviews from tons of people I knew so I had to add it to my list.  Beautifully written and epically heartbreaking, it’s a near perfect illustration of how people can so easily (and almost justifiably) make the wrong choices.  Chockful of imagery and symbolism, this book stays with you long after you’ve read the last page.
“Perhaps when it comes to it, no one is just the worst thing they ever did.”
It’s a real art form to make you both love and hate a character.
For an unexpected story that takes place on an island and takes you on a different journey, I’m recommending “The 10th Kingdom” by Kathryn Wesley which is based on a mini-series that starts in Central Park and takes you on a grown-up fairy tale adventure.

Book #19

Popsugar Slot: “A book you haven’t read since high school”
Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
Because I studied Creative Writing both in undergrad and grad school, there aren’t too many books I studied in high school, that I haven’t read since (at least not ones that I am willing to pick up again).  Flowers for Algernon stuck out in my mind because I remembered it being really sad and very unique.  Told from the perspective of a young man with Down’s Syndrome, it chronicles his life before and after he agrees to take part in an experiment that will make him brilliant.  It wrestles with the questions of what intelligence is and how it impacts the way we love.
“I’m like a man who’s been half-asleep all his life, trying to find out what he was like before he woke up.”
A first person narrator should feel like we are looking through someone else’s eyes and living an entirely new experience.
I don’t know what you read in high school, so I’ve got nothing for you on this one, except that you can appreciate Dickens far more when you’re older, so when in doubt go with him.

Book #20

Popsugar Slot: “A book from the library”
Twelve Days of Christmas: A Christmas Novel
by Debbie Macomber
I’d been reading so many heavy books (including 1000 damn pages of Pablo Neruda poetry) that I wanted something lighthearted.  It turned out that this was the most important book of the year, because it forced me to do something I should have done years ago – get a library card.  Now, I have a library card for my hometown, but I don’t get home from work until 7 PM and I’m busy on the weekends so it’s just not practical to use.  I did however learn that the New York Public Library allows people who work here to get a card (you use your work address).  There is a branch literally next door to my office building.  Not only can I take out regular books, but they have an awesome app for ebooks.  It was like Christmas!  All these books I could read on my Ipad, for free!  It’s going to save me so much money and stress during the 2017 challenge.  So this book was as I expected – fluffy Christmas stuff and not nearly enough smut.  But still it was sweet and a nice break from all the soul-breaking stories that came before it.
“When they broke apart, they both swayed as if their entire world had made a shift.”
Romance novels should have a bit of sexy in them – it doesn’t have to be graphic, but there needs to be some smolder.
This is like a wildcard slot, so I’ll go with Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” because what’s better than magic?

Book #21

Popsugar Slot: “A classic from the 20th century”
The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
This is one of those stories that I knew about and always intended to read, but never got around to it.  A horrifying dystopia where women are treated as property and their entire worth revolves around whether they can have children or be useful to men.  The story is chilling and even moreso during these turbulent days where the rights of women come under fire daily.  If you haven’t read this, you absolutely must.
“Better never means better for everyone, he says.  It always means worse, for some.”
True horror isn’t the monster under the bed, it’s how the unspeakable can become the ordinary.
Another classic with lessons that we need to hold close to us during these dark times is “Diary of Anne Frank” – because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Book #22

Popsugar Slot: “A murder mystery”
Once Upon a Grind (A Coffeehouse Mystery)
by Cleo Coyle
I saw this book as I was perusing the library shelves during my lunch hour.  It was a mystery that involved fairy tale characters and New York City so I figured “how bad could it be?”  I know, I know them’s famous last words.  I know this was one of those cozy mysteries where you need to suspend disbelief, but dear Lord, there’s only so much I can take.  There were CIA agents just telling tons of information to civilians, hallucinogenic coffee beans and a main character so dull I couldn’t find a single quote worth mentioning.  This is the eleventy billionth book in the series, so I’m guessing they just expect you to know everyone, but there were tons of characters that just weren’t given enough background or explanation.  They popped in and out and I really couldn’t keep track of who was who for a bit.  You don’t need a ton of info, but a telling detail for each character would be helpful.  Not everyone is going to read the previous 13 books and retain every bit of information.  This book was painful to get through.
You should be able to read a book from the middle or end of series and still know what’s going on.  You might not get everything and all the connections, but you still should know who’s who and what’s happening.
“And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie is the ultimate mystery and I would argue, the predecessor to a lot of our modern horror stories.  It gave us that beloved trope of a group of strangers getting trapped somewhere and being killed off one by one, as you try to figure out who the murderer is.  This is a must-read for everyone.

So here’s what I managed for 2016:

1 A New York Times Bestseller Life after Life Atkinson, Kate
2 A book from Oprah’s Book Club Here on Earth Hoffman, Alice
3 A book set in your home state In the Unlikely Event Blume, Judy
4 A book with a blue cover A Night In With Audrey Hepburn Holliday, Lucy
5 A graphic Novel Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile Willingham, Bill  (Author),  & Medina, Lan (Illustrator)
6 A book set in Europe The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel Gaiman, Neil
7 A YA Bestseller Dorothy Must Die Paige, Danielle
8 A book that’s under 150 pages The Sleeper and the Spindle Gaiman, Neil
9 A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy The Wicked Will Rise (Dorothy Must Die) Paige, Danielle
10 A book at least 100 years older than you Pride and Prejudice Austen, Jane
11 A book about a road trip
Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour
Matson, Morgan
12 A book that takes place during Summer Moonlight on Butternut Lake: A Novel (The Butternut Lake Trilogy Book 3) McNear, Mary
13 A book recommended by someone you just met Glow (Sky Chasers) Ryan, Amy Kathleen
14 A book that is published in 2016 Even if the Sky Falls Garcia, Mia
15 A book of poetry The Poetry of Pablo Neruda Neruda, Pablo
16 A National Book Award Winner Goblin Secrets Alexander, William
17 A self-improvement book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up Kondo, Marie
18 A book that takes place on an island The Light Between Oceans: A Novel Stedman, M.L.
19 A book you haven’t read since high school Flowers for Algernon Keyes, Daniel
20 A book from the library Twelve Days of Christmas Macomber, Debbie
21 A classic from the 20th century The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood, Margaret
22 A murder mystery Once Upon a Grind Coyle, Cleo

22 Books, 7732 pages – putting me just a little over halfway through the challenge.
I promise to do better in 2017, and now that I’ve got my handy Library card, I should be all set.

How was your 2016?
Did it turn out the way you expected?

Are you going to give the Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge a shot?

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