Reading Challenges, and the end-of-year rush to complete them

I love books.

Which is just as well, since I work in a library, and am surrounded by them everyday. Paperbacks, hardbacks, audiobooks, eBooks, and magazines – a library is an endless supply of stories to read, listen to, and learn from. Unfortunately, though, you need time to read and listen to books, and one thing I haven’t yet learnt is how to increase the number of free hours in the day, meaning that the more books I see, the more books end up on my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) list.

Don’t get me wrong – that can be a good thing, as it means I can always find a book to read when I’m short of ideas. But it can also mean that books make it onto my TBR list, and then just languish there forever more.

Which is where the five book challenge comes in.

Midway through this year, I was given a book challenge – to read five books from my TBR list. To actually go back and read five of those books I’d been putting off reading, and finish them before the end of 2017.

And I did it. It may have been a close call, with the final two books being finished with only a few days’ grace before the year’s end, but I got there. And I am pleased I did. This challenge has been a good excuse to branch out and read something new, and means that I can actually discuss these stories with the people who recommended them to me.

So, what did I read, why were they on my TBR list, and what did I think of them?

CoverDear Fatty by Dawn French

I love Dawn French. Whether as a lady vicar, as one half of the inimitable French and Saunders, or in the many other comedic roles she’s played over the years, she has a way of telling stories that hooks me in, and I was very disappointed when I wasn’t able to get tickets to her ’30 Million Minutes’ show in 2016. One of my book club friends saw the show, and thought the book’s format of anecdotes and letters might be a suitable substitute for not seeing her. I enjoyed reading this book, and could definitely ‘hear’ Dawn’s voice in my head. Although she touches on some more serious topics – depression, suicide, relationship difficulties – Dawn is, at heart, a comedienne, and most of the anecdotes are amusing insights into different periods of her life.

CoverThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

“Does it spark joy?” At the start of the year, as New Year Resolutions are made … and followed up until January 5th … this question has become a cultural phenomenon.

Marie Kondo’s book was recommended to me by two different people in the space of a couple of weeks. One was a woman from my book club who found it absolutely life-changing, and gave it positive reviews at TWO book club meetings (once while she was in the middle of tidying her stuff, and the second time when she was in the post-tidy stage of the process), and one was a colleague, who had read it but found a few of the ideas a tad far-fetched. I have to say – I agree with my colleague. I just can’t bring myself to empty my bag at the end of each day, thank it for doing its job, and then put it away hanging up, not squashed, so that it feels happy until the next time I use it. Having said that, I was definitely able to take away some good ideas from this book, and have certainly become more conscious of my belongings, and which of them I actually use and appreciate.

CoverRaising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

Having done volunteer work with gender-diverse* young people, I am always on the look-out for books that I can recommend to them, or to their parents, whānau, and community. Published in 2013, this book had been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t had the time to read it. Until now.

Neil Patrick Harris wrote the foreword for this book, and congratulates Lori Duron on being so aware and accepting of her young son’s gender non-conformity. And I agree. It is great that this young child has a family that accepts him for who he is, and that doesn’t feel the need to make him only play and wear ‘boy’ things. However… there has been a huge increase in the awareness of gender-diversity since 2013, and more is being written now about supporting these young people from a very young age. I feel like this is a good book to read about some of the challenges of raising children in a society that is so very gendered, but there are more relevant, and more up-to-date books available if you are specifically wanting to support a young gender-diverse child.

* I have chosen to use ‘gender-diverse’ as an umbrella term here for people who do not identify as the gender they were born. Some people might call themselves trans* agender, non-binary, or one of many other words, and each of those terms are valid.

CoverThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick has a wonderful talent for telling stories through both pictures and words. I absolutely loved his book Wonderstruck, and added this title onto my TBR list as soon as it came out. I am so pleased that I finally got around to reading it! The first half of the story details the stories of the theatrical Marvel family from 1766 to 1900, and is told entirely through illustrations. The second half of the story is set at the end of the 20th century, and is written in text. It recounts the tale of a young boy, his uncle, and his search for more information about the Marvels, and about his own family. This book was an absolute delight to read, and had unexpected twists that kept me engrossed right until the end. Selznick’s illustrations, as always, were stunning.

CoverTracks by Robyn Davidson

A few years ago I was at the movies, and saw the preview for a movie that looked really cool – a young woman decides to travel solo across the Australian outback, with only her camels and dog for company. A wee while later, this book was part of a Christmas book swap, and as soon as I realised it was the story that the movie was based on, I wanted to read it.

The first part of the book deals with her preparation for the trip, and the latter part details her actual trip. Parts of this are not an easy read. Outback Australia in the late 20th century was quite sexist and racist, and as well as the difficulties faced by the rugged landscape, Robyn also faced lots of difficulties from local residents. She finds herself having to make difficult decisions, and the reader really does feel for her at several points along the journey.

I would not normally read this type of book – I worry that sometimes there can be long passages where not much happens, but now I’ve read this one, I think I might try a few more armchair travel books in 2018.

The Five Book Challenge

There are many great book challenges out there such as the A-Z book challenge (where you read books by authors with surnames beginning with A right through to Z) or the 52 book for 52 weeks of the year challenge but sadly, my year, and my bookshelf, were too short to attempt either of these.

Instead, I took on a somewhat easier book challenge which involved reading five books in genres you don’t usually read. The idea is to broaden your horizons  (i.e. stop the PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie binge reading that I am very prone too) and try something different. My picks were Mills and Boon, science fiction, young adult, western, and fantasy, all genres I have never had the time (or, I’m sorry too say, inclination) to read. The nice thing about taking on any sort of challenge is that once you have vaguely mentioned it to understanding family (who incidentally had hysterical laughing fits and commented on how the mighty fallen re the Mills and Boon…) that you are thinking of doing one, you are, indeed committed.

MILLS AND BOON: The Librarian’s Passionate Knight

CoverMy Mills and Boon pick was The Librarian’s Passionate Knight (of course, this had to be any respectable librarian’s Mills and Boon pick). Phoebe is a lonely, bespectacled librarian (note: contrary to popular novelist’s opinion, it is not part of our job description to wear glasses), whose only real joy in her life is her job. One night, she is accosted by her stalkerish ex-boyfriend as she walks down the street. Enter gorgeous billionaire Daniel Barone and his “rock hard abs” who happen to be strolling by at the time. Happily for Phoebe, Daniel (and his rock hard abs) come gallantly to her rescue and an amazing romance begins. There is mention of Phoebe’s tragic past- (with an alcoholic parent and an abusive boyfriend thrown into the sad mix)- and then we are of course back to Daniel’s rock hard abs (Gerard is an author who presumably believes in prioritising). Of course it is the chemistry between the two that audiences are after, and happily there is plenty. This was a light, enjoyable  (though admittedly not especially deep) read. I can see why so many people get addicted to this genre as it is certainly a lot of fun. A good introduction to Mills and Boon? I would (cautiously- and very quietly so my family won’t hear me), say yes.

SCIENCE FICTION: The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Cover

As soon as I mentioned to my all-knowing hubbie that I needed a sci fi read, I was told that The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was my perfect match. I couldn’t argue. I was hooked from page one by Adams’ wondrous mix of fantasy and Wodehouse/Milligan-ish humour (I mention this as an avid fangirl of the two). Lines like:

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools”

could have come straight from Plum himself, and inspired lunacy such as:

“Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition became terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as a sort of existential protest, demanded participation in the decision-making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking” 

is certainly on a par with the great Spike Milligan.

As to the story, it all begins one Thursday afternoon as Arthur Dent protests the upcoming destruction of his house to make way for a new bypass. Unfortunately, the earth too is scheduled for demolition that day to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Arthur and his friend, a hitchhiker from another planet, soon find themselves the sole survivors of the demolition and armed with nothing but their towels and a book which displays the words ‘DON’T PANIC’, they begin their journey of inspired lunacy through the galaxy. I inevitably made my way through the series in far shorter time than I would have liked. Happily though, each book is sheer genius, a sure winner even for those who, like me, are not really big on fantasy.

YOUNG ADULTS: Wildlife

CoverMy awesome colleague and YA expert Alina (who also blogs, plug plug) recommended me Wildlife by Fiona Wood.  As a big fan of I Capture the Castle style YA (i.e well written, with a good plot, which is just as good to read if you’re an adult), this was an ideal match for me. Told by two narrators (which I didn’t actually realise until a quarter of the way through, YA readers are obviously far more on the ball – or just far more awake- than me), ‘Wildlife’ tells the story of two girls’ experiences attending a school wilderness camp. Lou is recovering from the tragic death of her young boyfriend- while Sib is simply trying to survive a toxic friendship and her first romance. Clever, touching and memorable, ‘Wildlife’ is a joy to read and certainly got me hooked on Fiona Wood. I did, incidentally, read Cloudwish straight after this, a gorgeous read about the teenage daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant family. A fabulous introduction to YA (thanks Alina!!).

FANTASY: Good Omens

CoverGood Omens – An angel and demon working together to bring about the apocalypse- a bit of confusion about where exactly the young anti Christ got to – what could possibly go wrong? Happily for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, plenty, and it makes for fabulous reading.
Though admittedly the middle part of this did drag a bit for me (with a little too much back and forth between multiple characters, some of whom just didn’t interest me as much), this was a thoroughly enjoyable read far worth pursuing till its fabulous end. A hilarious, clever read, ”Good Omens’ is a wonderful fantasy novel to start on. Pratchett and Gaiman really are a writing team made in heaven.

WESTERN: Riders of the Purple Sage

CoverRiders of the Purple Sage tells the story of Jane Withersteen, a 28 year old Mormon woman facing pressure to marry one of the polygamous elders of her community. Brave, fair but determined to keep the peace, Jane is also faced with the problem of continuing her friendship with two friends – one of them a notorious gunman and killer of Mormons.

A constant on classic Western lists, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ has influenced many other Western novels due to its winning formula of romance, action, strong plot, and evocative descriptions of the American West (there are a lot of descriptions of sage incidentally – much, much, sage – in fact, there are no descriptions of sage that Zane Grey does not like). While some may argue this classic is now a little dated, it remains an engaging read and, I imagine, a must for fans of this genre

With the New Year coming up it is the perfect time to set yourself a book challenge- why not try one out? There is a great list of 2018 reading challenges by Popsugar and of course there is our own library book challenge this summer for kids and one for the adults too. Whatever stage you are at (whether you have just finished a book challenge or are about to make a start) we’d love to know. Feel free to leave a comment below. Good luck and of course have fun!

Confessions of a serial UFO collector

Search the catalogueThis is not a post about flying saucers. I wish it was.

Instead it is a shame-faced, but public, confession that I am a serial unfinisher. My house is full of UnFinished Objects, and my desk drawers are overflowing with photocopied instructions for papier mache owls, bracelets made from bottletops, fairy houses for the garden, artisan cheesemaking pamphlets, pallet bookcases …

I have rubbish bags full of rusty metal things, at least half a dozen broken umbrella frames, hundreds of fat quarters, and an overflowing box of mismatched and unusable jewellery bits. I have plastic Easter eggs, sheets of stickers, seven types of glue and a heat gun.

On my couch this very minute is a knitted picture frame, still to be sewn together, blocked and hung on the wall; one-and-a-third knitted socks; and four books on beaded embroidery, Scandinavian quilting, found object crafting, and paper art.

I’m telling you this because July’s theme here at the library is Creating. I was thinking about this the other day, and making big plans to create something cool and crafty (for “create”, substitute “go shopping, buy lots of stuff to take home and leave on the table for 7 weeks, then put in a bag in the cupboard”). Then I thought, NO. This madness must end. July must not be the month of adding yet more UFOs to my house, but instead must be the Month Where Bronnypop Finishes All The Things She Hasn’t Yet Finished And In The Process Makes Mr Bronnypop A Happy Man – MWBFATTSHYFAITPMMRAHM. Catchy title, right?

And I can even make this into a work-related thing:  remember we often talk about the Five Book Challenge?  How about the Five UFO Challenge?  This month, why not join me in finding FIVE UFOs in your house, and committing to actually finishing them? I’ll post my progress if you also comment below …

If you need inspiration, check out some of the library’s books on arty-crafty recycling, but remember: the aim is to FINISH what you’ve started, NOT to start something new.

Unless of course it’s utterly amazing, and clearly needs to be begun tonight, and you PROMISE you’ll finish it.

Five book challenge on steroids?

coverProfessor Jim Flynn is a world recognised expert on intelligence. He has written The Torchlight List – two hundred books which he hopes people will begin to read (or re-read) to gain an understanding of the world.  Reading these books  will, he believes, free people from being just “swept along by the river of time with no real comprehension of what is happening to them”.

Like all lists, it is intensely personal. Prof. Flynn is an American who has taught at Otago University for many years. As a New Zealander you might want to see something of our culture reflected there . So instead of a book about American socialist Eugene Debs you might want to read something by John A Lee. He  recommends books by the American Civil War historian Bruce Catton and maybe reading Judith Binney or James Belich would be better for us New Zealanders. On the other hand the American Civil War has a powerful fascination and much can be learnt that is applicable to all internal conflicts. The treasure house still has a copy of Bruce Catton’s centennial history of the civil war.

In his introduction he launches a five book challenge – to read:

His bet:  “at least two of these will move you to tears and awaken emotions beyond anything pop culture can do”. The other challenge is “Read for forty minutes before bed each night to clear your mind of the day’s concerns”.

I’d have to say reading at the end of the day often sends me to sleep but I’m tempted to read two of the five just to see what I think.

I have seen the future…

Cover image of "The Psychic Tourist"…It’s 2033: Climate change has left half of the world’s cities underwater. Every so often a Black Wind blows in, suffocating anyone who crosses its path in a dense cloud of killer toxins. Our cellphones are no longer separate from our bodies; they have been implanted in our heads. Cars, buses, trains and planes can steer themselves. We have semblants (computer generated versions of ourselves) we can send to the office in our place if we don’t feel like working. Criminals are sent to the UnMinded Cellblock, where their brains are switched off and they serve their time as obedient zombies, ignorant to the passing years.

Or at least this is the future John Shirley has envisaged for us, in his novel Black Glass: The Lost Cyberpunk Novel. John Shirley is pals with William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk . You may remember me mentioning Mr Gibson a while ago, when I first embarked on my Five Book Challenge. I have to say though (please don’t sneer at me) I think I like John Shirley better. He reminds me of American crime writer Don Winslow. His writing style may not be quite as creative and literary as his fellow cyberpunker, but it is much easier to read, get absorbed in and be entertained by.

Black Glass captures what I am beginning to learn is the essence of good cyberpunk: a hero who is a bit rough around the edges but charming nonetheless; femme fatales who are not afraid to use their sex appeal and cunning to their advantage; narcissistic villains who you love to despise; and a bleak and dangerous environment where the reader gets swept up in the thrill of the chase . Basically it’s crime noir with a technological, futuristic twist.

So if  the future John Shirley has predicted includes robots, illegal and addictive virtual reality games, and spy cameras that hover in the air like flies, what kind of future do you predict? In the year 2033, what will the world look like?

Victoria’s Challenge: Steampunk

coverI’ve decided to “throw my fishing net over the huge amount of a variety of New Titles we are receiving daily.” I’ve ventured into the unknown genre of Steampunk with Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion.

This is a bright example of Steampunk genre in modern literature. It’s inheriting steam power elements in the form of a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis and fictional technological inventions, such as the cryogenically frozen body of Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate. This is Dexter Palmer’s  debut novel, that combines the best traditions of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare.

My Swedish challenge leaves me cold

I am one of only 6 people in the world who doesn’t adore The girl with the dragon tattoo.

I wanted to find out why there is  all this fuss about  Stieg Larsson  – what makes him so compelling?  The appeal of mysteries has always been a mystery to me – the closest I’ve come is  Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody series and the wonderful Secret History. So I made  Swedish mystery my 5 book challenge with a small deviation to Swedish fiction.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is  a clunky mix of corporate politics, sexual violence, neo-Nazis,  IT and curiously old  fashioned Biblical blood and gore.  Even the relationship between the computer savy and deeply disturbed Goth, Lisbeth, and the gruff, man-alone Blomkvist doesn’t warm me.

I suppose it is all about plot and that compelling quest for whodunnit but I really don’t care because there was no character development of the culprit.  Perhaps I’m too faint hearted for all that gruesome sexual violence but it doesn’t make it any better that it is Larsson’s way of exposing misogyny. The revenge is just as repulsive and voyeuristic.   I have no desire to read the other two.

Henning Mankell is the other doyen of Swedish fiction so I dipped my icy toes into Italian shoes though I cheated a bit as it is not strictly Mystery.  Unlike, Larsson he can write – I liked this well crafted book.  It is also disturbing and mysterious but  so much more. The taciturn and flawed Welin has a dark past  which comes back to haunt him.  The women are strong, the landscape white –  you can feel that strong sense of place.  I was chilled to the bone as  Welin breaks the ice to take his daily swim of penance in the frozen sea of his archipelago but at at least there seemed to be blood flowing in his veins.

I’m reading more Mankell and  Shadow by Karin Alvtegen and look forward to the winner of the CWA’s International Dagger Award,  Swede Johan Theorin with his book Darkest Room.   I seem to be avoiding frost bite so far.

If you are already up for the Swedish challenge, explore some more authors from our  If you like Scandanavian crime booklist.

Victoria’s Challenge: Wilbur Smith

coverI’ve decided to “throw my fishing net over the huge amount of a variety of New Titles we are receiving daily.” Next cab off the rank was Wilbur Smith’s  The Seventh Scroll.

I  really fell in love with Historical Fiction/Adventure/Mystery all over again! (The last time I read this kind of literature was my intermediate school days). Now I find it’s hard to stop myself from reading it, whenever I have a spare minute or two. Very dynamic, exuberant and full of real adventure flavour, plus gives you the real taste of cultural reality of Egypt and Africa, honestly, one of the best adventure authors I’ve read.

Victoria’s Challenge: Saga

coverI’ve bravely decided to ” throw my fishing net over the huge amount of various New Titles we are receiving daily.” My next pick was a Saga –  The Affair by Santa Montefiore.

The story asks you straight if you would risk everything for love: your exciting career of children’s book writer, stable and even successful marriage and your children’s happiness. Angelica has to deal with all of these nasty questions when she meets Jack – a romantic womanizer and the owner of a vineyard in South Africa. Will Angelica follow the footsteps of her sadly known literature predecessors: Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary? Being a huge fan of Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert myself, I savoured this highly emotional and sensual modern British novel with a very curious twist at the end.

Victoria’s Challenge: Memoir

coverI’ve decided to throw my fishing net over the huge amount of a variety of New Titles we are receiving daily. My next pick was the memoir The Dancer from Khiva by Bibish.

I’m not a particular fan of Memoir genre, but a challenge is a challenge, so I followed Clare’s kind reference and read this one practically overnight.

Being familiar with Uzbekistan’s culture from my friends’ travelling experience and newspapers and magazines articles, I wasn’t really surprised to learn the real life story of the brave Uzbek woman who found enough courage to let the whole world know how cruel life was – and still is for a Muslim girl, born in a poor Uzbek family.

This book will be very helpful for someone studying a cultural differences topic.