Category Archives: Reading Challenges

2020 Reading Challenge

Last year it took me till March to reach my yearly goal. This year I bumped the number up 101 books and didn’t reach it till July. But it is official—I hit my reading goal of 220 books for 2020!

(Actually, I’m now at 223.)

It is not much of a surprise (I think I’ll easily hit 300 this year) but always nice to hit a goal. I never seem to manage most of my New Years resolutions, but at least I consistently hit the reading challenges I set for myself. (Mostly because I optimistically assume I’ll be too busy to read so I set it low. And then, alas, I never am. Except for that one time I moved to Idaho for a summer.)


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Nearly a year ago, some random Barnes & Noble employee saw me browsing the classics section and informed me that if I hadn’t already, I simply must read Anna Karenina.

Looking back, I kind of wonder if they just got a new shipment in or something and he was trying to clear the stock? Because what a weird book to recommend a total stranger?

But since I also had been telling myself I simply must read Anna Karenina one-of-these-days for over a decade, I bought the book. (Also, I just like buying books and what a great excuse.)

I knew exactly four things about the book:

  • It is a Russian novel widely considered a classic
  • Written by Leo Tolstoy
  • About a woman named Anna Karenina who has an affair
  • And the book is almost as long as War and Peace.

Not my idea of a fun read but…do it for the bragging rights, right?

The story ended up being a lot more in-depth than I expected. Despite the title, it actually follows three couples:

  • Oblonsky who is an amiable fool and kicks off the novel by cheating on his wife, Dolly. They represent the older generation.
  • Oblonsky’s sister, Anna, who is married to Alexei Karenina and has an affair with Vronsky. They represent the changing generation.
  • Oblonsky’s sister-in-law, Kitty, who crushes on Vronsky but falls for guy named Levin. They represent the new generation who marry for love. And s-p-o-i-l-e-r, they also are the most successful of the three.

The book goes on several tangents and directly deals with questions about the purpose of life, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, and the political situation of newly freed serfs.

It often felt long, tedious, and unnecessarily wordy. I finished and did not immediately think to myself, ‘wow, what a great classic.’ It was more like: ‘Oh gosh, finally done???’

But then I got on Goodreads to read the reviews of others and try and figure out what I thought about the story overall. And I made a surprising discovery: people read this book quite differently.

For every review bemoaning Tolstoy’s one-dimensional characters, there is one praising his ability to capture personality. For every review lauding his treatment of women, there is one griping about how things ended for Anna. For every review complaining about his moral tone, there is one delighting in his depth of philosophy. And those are just the five-star reviews.

It made me think more about my own reaction to the characters. Personally, I was surprised by how sympathetic I found them. I expected Anna’s husband to be cold and distant and her lover a total cad. Instead, I sympathized with the awkward Alexei Karenina and I pitied Vronsky.

I was delighted with Levin, whom I found totally unexpected. At times he drove me crazy, especially after his marriage. But he felt real.

The emotions captured in otherwise ridiculous character like Oblonsky demonstrate Tolstoy’s skill as an author.

I don’t know how you could possibly like any of these characters. I am not sure I even ever cared what happened to any of them. But I recognized them as personalities I would meet today. And that to me is the sign of a classic.

4/5 stars. This isn’t my favorite by a long shot. But I deeply respect it, which I did not expect going in.

Still, would not recommend it to random strangers at Barnes & Noble.


Halfway Through the Reading Year

I risk being chastised at for showing off, but I am having an excellent reading year. We’re halfway through and today I hit…

Guesses?

It is a new record for me.

199 books since January.

200 sounds more rounded by I want to go to bed and don’t feel like pushing myself through a book tonight just for bragging rights. But don’t worry, I’ll hit it tomorrow.


Whatcha Reading…? 5/23/2020 Book Update

It has been a while since I last did a book update! And as I am currently in quite a few of them….I thought it might be fun. I read a lot. In fact, I have so far read 145 books this year alone. I also really like reading multiple books at once. So, when the number get particularly unwieldy, I do a post on here about what I am currently reading.

At the moment, I am reading: Symposium by Plato, A Hero of Our Times by Mikhail Lermontov, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, The Prospering by Elizabeth George Speare, Hear This Woman by Ben and Ann Pinchot, The Surrogate Proletariat by Gregory Massell, Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop, and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. Plus, kind of sort of The Great Debate by Yuval Levin but my hold is about to expire and I’m not sure I will renew it.

The TA I worked with last semester frequently recommended Plato’s Symposium. It is probably one of Plato’s more famous Socratic dialogues. So far I am finding it quite interesting, though I do not think it will be my new favorite. Too many statements like: “Then he and every one who desires, desire that which he has not already, and which is future and not present, and which he has not, and is not, and of which he is in want;–these are the sort of things which love and desire seek?” (Took me six tries to figure out what Socrates was saying. And I still probably am missing something.) Reading on Kindle.

I actually loved A Hero of Our Times by Mikhail Lermontov when I first started reading it. Then about 2/3rds of the way through, it switches from a narrative to a journal and almost completely lost my attention. I think I am going to just force myself to finish today. Reading on Gutenberg.org.

I’ve been eyeing The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim for quite some time. I even own a copy of it. But it is taking more effort to get through than I expected. There are lovely descriptions and delightful characters but I feel like I’m perpetually waiting for the plot to start. The synopsis promises a bit more comedy of manners, so maybe that will start soon. Reading a soft cover copy I own.

My brother lent me his copy of Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. I’m enjoying it so far, though not finding it particularity applicable. Or maybe applicable is the wrong word. There is lots of good content about leadership, but as I am not in a position of leadership at the moment, I am not precisely jotting down notes. Reading a hardcover copy owned by my brother.

The Prospering by Elizabeth George Speare is proving surprisingly…challenging to get through. Initially I was delighted by it. I love Elizabeth George Speare and have read every other fictional book written by her at least twice. But I think there is a reason this one did not take off. It takes a darker, more mature tone, and yet the narrator is a child which feels awkward. It will be interesting to see where it goes. Reading a hardcover copy I got through an inter-library loan.

Hear This Woman by Ben and Ann Pinchot has been on my to-read list for years and I honestly can’t remember what inspired me to read it originally. It is certainly nothing like I expected. Written in 1949, the synopsis merely reads, “Follow Faith Holmes in her journey to bring all American Women together.” The story so far is more complex, surprisingly feminist, and actually quite heavy and political. Reading a hardcover copy I got through an inter-library loan.

Speaking of weird books on my to read list…The Surrogate Proletariat by Gregory Massell spends almost 500 pages describing how the Soviet Union tried to target Muslim women and spread communism from 1919 to 1929. I haven’t gotten particularly far but I’m intrigued. (File under ‘things I did not learn about in history class.’) Reading a hardcover copy I got through an inter-library loan.

Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop is an urban fantasy novel and book 3 in The Others series. Mixed feelings all around about the series so far but I’m sufficiently intrigued to keep reading. I keep telling myself I can drop it at any time, but also…? Reading via my library’s Libby app.

I have purposefully and quite successfully avoided The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King for years now, but enough friends have recommended it that I am giving it a try. The book kicks off the popular Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which, just like it sounds, involves a retired Sherlock Holmes and his equally intelligent female apprentice. I am not precisely a Sherlock purist but still…that description…we’ll see. Reading via my library’s Libby app.

What are you currently reading? Anything good?


Quarantine Book Club

My friend Hope and I decided to try and do a quarantine book club! We compared our currently reading and to-read shelves and came up with a few ideas. 

The thing is…I read too fast to make a very good book club person. She told me today she was thinking of giving up on the book we chose. I had to go to Goodreads to remember which book that was. Ah yes, What Remains of Me by Alison GaylinTwo stars, not very good. Lots of terrible characters. 

Thing is, that was six books ago for me. And possibly one of twelve books read since we decided to do a quarantine book club. (More or less. I don’t remember what day we officially started.) 

I’m not a slow enough reader to make a comfortable buddy reader. Or book club member. 

So we’ve come up with a new solution! I sent her a book I already read and loved. That way we can compare notes without the pressure of reading at the same time! If anyone wants to join us, we are starting with A Brazen Curiosity by Lynn Messina. 

I’m also in the middle of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Feed by M.T. Anderson, The Two Mrs. Abbots by D.E. Stevenson, and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles if any of those capture your fancy instead. Who knows for how long, though! 


2019 Reading Challenge: Jane Austen Related

You’ve all been lovely about my inundation of book-related posts but I am going to put you through one more: the best and worst Jane Austen related books of 2019. Because here is a fact: if there is one saturated genre, it is the spin-offs, reimaginings, and retellings of Jane Austen’s works. And I read a lot of them this past year. So here are a few of my favorite and least favorites from the past year that maybe did not make 5 stars, but proved memorable. 

Listed from best to worst: 

  1. Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon by Maria Grace (a surprisingly delightful P&P retelling starring dragons!)
  2. Longbourn: Dragon Entail by Maria Grace (sequel to Pemberley) 
  3. Netherfield: Rogue Dragon by Maria Grace (final book in the trilogy) 
  4. Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (P&P with a Muslim twist. Keep your eye out for a longer blog post contrasting this one with Unmarriageable and Pride and Prejudice and Other Flavors)
  5. Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (P&P in Pakistan)
  6. Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale (sequel to Austenland and better than the original but not as good as the movie)
  7. The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C. Sullivan (good beginner read but gives advice like the author is Caroline Bingley which is weird.)
  8. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith (an interesting premise–American professor leading Austen book-clubs in South America–but execution fell flat) 
  9. Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken (basically Mansfield Park 2.0 but with a gutsier heroine)
  10. An Assembly Such As This by Pamela Aidan (P&P from Darcy’s POV)
  11. First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride & Prejudice by Alexa Adams (imagine Darcy and Elizabeth did not take an instant dislike to one another. What would happen?! With this plot, nothing interesting.) 
  12. Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd (took forever to get murdering!) 
  13. A Weekend With Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly (hated it)
  14. Bespelling Jane Austen by Mary Balogh and others (4 short stories–1 decent, the others trash)
  15. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn (see my 1 star posts)
  16. Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos (so bad I did not finish)

Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 3)

In which I pay penitence by confessing to all the books I finished and hated in 2019. Part 3.

How To Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn

I won’t repeat my Goodreads rant about novels that create heroes only barely better than villains but I will say that this otherwise mediocre Regency romance irritated the snot out of me with an entitled jerk for a hero who rages until the heroine agrees to wed him. 

Starting Now by Debbie Macomber

I really need to take a vow not to read any more books that have a female attorney as the main character. They are universally terrible. This was a mediocre read that jumped right onto my “hate” list by having a stereotypical female attorney as the main character and tackling questions about career and motherhood with a heavy-handed horribleness that left me wanting to go work more billable hours. Awkward and overdone and all the romances sucked.

Naughty Neighbor by Janet Evanovich

I give the relationship a year. I thought maybe I could shuffle this one under 2 or 1.5 stars but the ending just left me gagging. The “political thriller” bit totally fell apart. The relationship itself is all lust and hormones. It won’t last. And if it does? Well, I’d be sad for the heroine. She gets the short end of the deal. She should dump the loser and go to law school. 

The Big Kahuna by Janet Evanovich

Despite the fact that Evanovich appears on this list twice, I actually was really enjoying her Fox and O’Hare series. They consistently received 4 stars from me. Then this book happened. The biggest problem? This is a heist series but this is not a heist book. The jokes fall flat and the characters pretend like the last two books never happened. Evanovich switched co-writers for this one and I’m wondering if that is where it went wrong. 

Rumble on the Bayou by Jana Deleon

In general I enjoy Jana Deleon’s cozy mysteries but this one fell quite flat. It is basically a reverse Louisiana Longshot. Instead of a female government agent in a small Louisiana town sparking up a romance with the overly qualified and good looking male deputy, it is a male government agent in a small Louisiana town sparking up a romance with an overly qualified and good looking female deputy. Even the towns come across interchangeably. Except where Louisiana Longshot keeps things lighthearted and funny with a series of quirky side characters, Rumble on the Bayou focuses on the couple and not for the better. 

Belle of the Ball by Pam McCutcheon

Her name means beauty but Belle is not beautiful. Her sister’s name means charming but Charisma is not charmig. Her other sister’s name means grace but Grace is not graceful. If that is the kind of heavy-handed characterization you like, you might like this book. It is full of on-the-nose plot points and awkward, overstated jokes. The best thing this book has going for it is its $0 price tag. 

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

All the technical plot points are there to make this an exciting, fun adventure story but it falls quite short. The problems are twofold: annoying characters and unclear plotting. The heroine demonstrates all of two reactions at any given moment: seasickness or judgment. She’s got the soul of a poet but keeps it firmly in place in case she finds herself tempted to crack a smile. She is joined on her journey by the sort of person one meets so regularly in fiction and so rarely in real life: the irresistible man. And that is about all the depth his character has. Wrapped up with some unclear plot-lines (ghosts? time travel?), this story truly misses the mark.


Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 2)

It is the time of the year where I get revenge on all my least-favorite books! Begin Part 2 of Amy’s Least Favorite Reads of 2019. 

This Pen for Hire by Laura Levine

The minute the heroine explained her name was “Jaine Austen” because her mother loved Jane Austen but couldn’t spell, I knew this wasn’t a mystery for me. But I unwisely kept reading anyway. Jaine likes eating, mocking skinny people, drinking margaritas, and whining about her lack of love life. When not doing any of the above she solves a murder. Her motivation made no sense and I found the book in general really irritating. 

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Virginal descendants of Alexander the Great who go around killing unicorns? Heck yeah. If only the plot lived up to its amazing premise. Alas, the execution of the story is rather mediocre. The characters are underdeveloped and the villain downright cartoonish. Finally, a behind-the-scenes rape added solely to push the story along left this book solidly into one star territory. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I did not connect with this book on any level. And I feel kind of bummed about that fact. I appreciate the way the author kept certain information and slowly released it. It made me wonder if I somehow missed something but actually I just hadn’t been told it. But that is about the nicest thing I can say about this book.  I did not like the writing; I did not like the commentary about sex. I did not like any of the characters. I didn’t so much hate it as feel generally disappointed and disgusted. 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

So, admittedly, the problem partially lies with me because I was under the impression this was a middle school novel. It most definitely is not. It also contains a whole list of thing I personally dislike: precocious children (à la The Little Prince and Be Frank With Me), child narrators for adult readers, attempted profoundness, confusing plots that jump everywhere, multiple unclear narrators, casual discussion of a sexual encounter, kissing…sisters?, angst, so.much.angst.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Unfortunately, this book lost me pretty quickly and never regained ground. I stayed perpetually irritated right up until the end. Not even turning the Beauty and the Beast plot into the story of Psyche and Eros (my favoritest myth ever) salvaged it. The hero is as bland as butter. The heroine is a moron who does literally the opposite of what she is told no mater the consequences. Lots of lust-fueled attraction. Not a series I will continue with. 

Bespelling Jane Austen by Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, & Janet Mullany

Jane Austen retellings with a paranormal twist. The Northanger Abbey retelling was clever. The other three made me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spoon. Very TMI.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

So, you are part of an elite team of scientists sending two people into the past to retrieve a long-lost manuscript of Jane Austen’s, do you:

A. Send two people who actually look like the siblings they are posing as
B.  Find two people mature enough not to give into their lust and endanger the entire mission by becoming lovers while posing as siblings
C.  Choose two people who won’t run afoul with the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of Regency England
D. None of the above

What? None of the above? Well, you would get along fine in this book! The rest of us will stand over here rolling our eyes. 


Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 1)

Did you know the first time I compiled a list of worst reads, I only had five 1-star books? That blows my mind. I have 27 for 2019. Many were cozy mysteries. Many are quite popular with other readers. But while I finished all of them, each definitely earned its place on the list for “Worst Reads of 2019.”

The Unscrupulous Uncle by Allison Lane

It started off promisingly enough. Cinderella-like, the orphaned heroine acts as housekeeper for her garish relations and marries a hero with barely a conversation. If you think I’m giving much away, that’s just the first few chapters. Unfortunately, those were the most interesting chapters in the book. The remainder involves predictable misunderstandings, constant rehashing, and underdeveloped scenes. Most damning of all, the plot sets up the main couple as ‘like brother and sister’ and then spends the rest of the book trying to explain why they actually were never like brother and sister. But the lady protests too much and the result is something much more awkward than it otherwise would have been

To Catch a Bad Guy by Marie Astor

A book that cannot decide which angle it wants to take. It is a legal thriller…no! It is a paper trail of corporate espionage…no! It is a spy story…no! It is a chick flick…no! It is a psychological thriller about really uninteresting characters….nah, I’ve got nothing. While any of those alone might sound interesting, together they create a mishmashed story where every character gets a backstory (no matter how irrelevant their role in the book) and a POV. The main couple’s horrendous insta-love is just icing on the cake. 

Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke

Joanne Fluke is a fairly iconic cozy mystery writer and I was looking forward to reading her Hannah Swensen series. I barely made it through this one. Disjointed and repetitive, the story hits all the cozy mystery cliches (Midwesterner, small business owner, hassled sister, hints of a love triangle, etc.) without really adding much. The murderer was obvious. I suppose the only thing that makes the book somewhat interesting is the interspersed cookie recipes, but I do not bake so didn’t help much.

The Cinderella Deal by Jennifer Crusie

Basically, your typical opposites attract storyline with main characters suffering from lust and parental issues (not necessarily in that order.) The main character randomly goes on about how much she loves the book of Job (and apparently she has a copy of it lying around? Like, just of the book of Job. Not a Bible) and for a moment I thought maybe I accidentally stumbled into a Christian romance. Then it got super sketch. I skimmed the last quarter. Not worth it. 

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Possibly the most universally popular book I hated this past year. I think I literally liked nothing about this book. The story follows a severely messed up woman who twenty-five years earlier starred at her mother’s murder trial by naming her brother the culprit. When some new evidence crops up, she joins forces with a secret society set on clearing her brother’s name. The story switches from present day to the day of the crime. Despite the interesting premise, I found the book vulgar and excruciatingly boring. The twist further irritated me with its very senseless and pointlessness. 

A Weekend with Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly

I think this book made me hate Jane Austen, just a tiny bit. The premise intrigued me because it involved a professor who loves both Jane Austen and trashy Regencies. So many Jane Austen spinoffs involve heroines who act like they wouldn’t know a Harlequin if it bit them on the bottom. So I figured, worth a shot. But it wasn’t. I hated the insufferable characters, the over-the-top quotations, the ridiculous plot. I hated the predictability of it all. Do yourself a favor and watch the movie Austenland instead. (Or read the book, but the movie is better.)

The Barefoot Princess by Christina Dodd

Been ten months but I still feel the heat of my rage towards this book. Forget setting women back a decade. The Barefoot Princess sets women back to the stone age. The hard part is the book contained enough potential to make me think an actually decent story lay under the surface. The heroine starts off strong and her name is Amy! But the asshole hero and their seriously unhealthy relationship left me disgusted. The conclusion was a travesty. Avoid! For a better book involving a princess named Amy, try The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye.


2019 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 7 (The Re-Reads)

François Mauriac apparently said, “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.”

Well, I don’t know what the list says about me, but I re-read 58 books over the last year. 30 of them were 5-star reads. I’ve decided to provide a list of them. There are too many for a write-up but I recommend them for a good read!

Mr. Malcolm’s List by Suzanne Allain
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen
In Another Girl’s Shoes by Berta Ruck
The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer
The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer
False Colours by Georgette Heyer
Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
Arabella by Georgette Heyer
These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer
The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
Sylvester by Georgette Heyer
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
Frederica by Georgette Heyer
Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer
The Falconer’s Knot by Mary Hoffmann
The Iliad by Homer
The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diane Peterfruend
Just One Wish by Janette Rallison
Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster
Dear Enemy by Jean Webster