November Book Challenges

One of my reading resolutions last year and this year was to read at least one nonfiction book every month, and I’m always looking for more nonfiction to read, so a book challenge that only deals with nonfiction gets my attention. I follow Olive from abookolive on YouTube, and that’s where I first heard about Nonfiction November, a reading challenge she hosts with Gemma from Non Fic Books. This is the second year for the challenge, and while they’re emphasizing that it’s really about encouraging people to read more nonfiction than they normally would in a month, they have shared four broad categories to guide book selections: New, Fascinating, Controversial, and Important.

New

The New category can be interpreted in many ways such as a new release, a book you’ve recently acquired, or a topic that is new to you. My selection is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It was released in June 2016, so it’s a fairly new release, and I just got my hands on it a couple of days ago from my local library, so it’s definitely new to me. Anything described as part memoir and part analysis of the Appalachian region is going to get my attention, and after just reading the introduction earlier today, I think I picked well.

Fascinating

The Fascinating category is probably the easiest one because any book, author, or topic you find fascinating is eligible. This is the pick that’s the most subject to change according to my mood as the month progresses, but right now, I think I’ll be reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. I became aware of this book when it won an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America in the best critical/biographical category earlier this year. The subject is detective fiction between World War I and World War II and the writing group known as the Detection Club that included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and many other well-known writers.

Controversial

Anything that might spark a debate or result in differing opinions can fit this category, and it can range from a biography of a person who people either love or hate to a book that has a title or cover that might raise some eyebrows. I’m choosing Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell. Thomas Sowell is an American economist and social commentator, and I think anyone outspoken on those topics is going to be a little controversial, and this book’s topic of how public opinion is shaped and the consequences of that shaping can also result in a heated debate. I’m looking forward to finally reading the hardcover edition that’s been on my shelf for years.

Important

Like the other categories, this one leaves a lot of room for making a selection. People may read something to improve their lives at work or at home, to foster a new habit they want to establish, or to become a more educated and informed person. I’ll be reading What Have We Done by David Wood about the emotional trauma military veterans bring home with them after multiple deployments in long wars. I think it’s important to have an understanding of the human cost of war and to listen to those people who have served our country to the detriment of their own lives and families. We can’t be blind to their sacrifices even if we can’t see the wounds with our eyes.


Nonfiction November 2016

While browsing the hashtag #NonfictionNovember2016 on Twitter, I came across a blog-centered event with the same name using the hashtag #NonficNov, and it looked so interesting that I thought I’d participate a bit in that as well. It’s probably a better fit for me as I have a blog but no YouTube channel. I don’t think I’ll ever be much more than an interested BookTube lurker, but I’d definitely like to revive my blog. The hosts who will be providing weekly discussion posts are:

The first week’s discussion post asks us to reflect on the following questions.

  • What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
  • What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
  • What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?
  • What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Favorite Nonfiction Read

While I normally struggle to name my favorite anything unless we’re discussing colors (purple!), I can easily state that my favorite nonfiction of 2016 has been When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning. It’s a quick read about the history of the Armed Services Edition (ASE), a line of books specifically designed for members of the American military during World War II. The mix of social history, book design, publishing, and World War II worked so well for me. I can understand the criticism I’ve heard about it being a better topic for an article rather than an entire book, but I was never bored by the extra material that some people consider extraneous like the early book drives and donations from the public.

Another reason that this has to be called my favorite is that it reignited my interest in the works that were republished as ASEs like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and drove me to other nonfiction about World War II. The bulk of my nonfiction reading has been related to World War II in some way this year, and that’s largely due to this book. Also, it was one of those books where I was constantly stopping to read some fact out loud to my husband, and we had some great conversations about the topic even though he has yet to read the book.

Most Recommended Nonfiction

Whenever I hear someone talking about the website FiveThirtyEight and election predictions, I find myself suggesting Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise because his book has some great discussion of the statistical principles behind the analysis.

Nonfiction to Explore

I have physical and virtual shelves filled with books that cover a variety of topics that could be lumped under the general label of natural history, and I would love to make those a priority in the coming months.

Hopes for Nonfiction November

I don’t think my hopes for Nonfiction November are different from the majority of responses I’ve read so far. I hope to find several more books to add to my TBR stacks, discover new blogs to follow, and make connections with other readers through their blogs and social media. I’ve already made progress on those first two items.


Beyond Nonfiction

My next post will probably contain a list of the books I plan to read for the Semi-Charmed Winter 2016 Book Challenge. I missed the summer challenge, but I’m definitely returning for my second winter challenge.

SCWBC15: Final Update

As I’ve posted before, I’ve been trying out a reading challenge for the first time these last few months. It ended January 31, so it’s time to update my Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge progress. I didn’t enjoy the books I read in this last month as much as I did my earlier picks, but I’m glad to be going through my shelves and reading things I might not have picked without the challenge.

10 points: Read a book that someone else has already used for the challenge. — Submitted by SCSBC15 finisher Kristen @ See You in a Porridge.
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell (445 pages, 3 stars)
I know so many people who love Rainbow Rowell’s books, so I keep reading them, and I keep not loving them. I have Carry On already, and if I still feel the same after reading that one, then I think I’ll go on a Rainbow Rowell break for a while. I find it funny that I loved her first book Attachments when I read it before she became so well-known, but nothing by her since then has come even close to the same level of enjoyment for me.

15 points: Read a book with a one-word title.
Rook – Sharon Cameron (456 pages, 3 stars)
I won this in a Goodreads giveaway months ago. I’d felt slightly guilty about not reading it, so I’m glad I can move on from that. I was initially drawn to this because of the references to The Scarlet Pimpernel, and I did enjoy that and the setting, a post-apocalyptic France. The negative for me was the pacing. The book is less than 500 pages, but at times, it felt like twice that long because there were long stretches of nothing much happening.

30 points: Read two books with the same title (by different authors). — Submitted by SCSBC15 finisher bevchen @ Confuzzledom.
Claimed – Evangeline Anderson (321 pages, 3 stars)
The Kindred are huge alien warriors who have saved Earth from an invasion. Their reward? A bride lottery is created for them so that they can find human mates. This is the first book in a series, and while I didn’t love it, I did enjoy it enough to read more books in the series whenever I’m in the mood for some science fiction mixed in with my romance.

Claimed – Elle Kennedy (368 pages, 3 stars)
This one is also the first in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of it. There’s a dystopian setting after a war has devastated most of the world, and earthquakes have dropped part of North America into the ocean. The generically named Global Council runs the world, and Enforcers keep survivors in line. This a darker, more erotic romance, and maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time because everything about it just felt a little flat to me. Perhaps the setting is more detailed in future books, but I just don’t care enough to continue the series.

30 points: Read a nonfiction book and a fiction book about the same subject.
nonfiction: The Invention of Murder – Judith Flanders (576 pages, 3 stars)
The subtitle of this is “How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime”, and that sounded fantastic to me. I love fictional murder mysteries set in the Victorian era, and I enjoy reading nonfiction about the time period too, so I thought this would be a great read. It ended up being too repetitive for me, and it also felt like one of the academic papers I edit instead of a book for a general audience. After reading about so many murders and how each became part of popular culture, she still never lived up to the title’s promise of how Victorians invented murder and/or modern crime.

fiction: A Curious Beginning – Deanna Raybourn (337 pages, 4 stars)
Victoria, our heroine, is a little odd and a lot sassy, and I love her. Although the mystery that drives the plot is enjoyable, I was most interested in the dynamic between Victoria and the mysterious Stoker. This is another first in a series, and I will definitely read them all to get more of Victoria and Stoker. Allow me to share one of Victoria’s many moments that made me laugh as I read:

“I am quite determined to be mistress of my own fate, Mrs. Clutterthorpe, but I do sympathize with how strange it must sound to you. It is not your fault that you are entirely devoid of imagination. I blame your education.” ― Deanna Raybourn, A Curious Beginning

previous points: 115
total points: 200

My 5 Auto-Buy Book Phrases

In my continuing effort to be more mindful of my reading choices, I’ve been thinking about the character types, settings, and themes that are common in the books I’ve loved over the years. I want to maximize my exposure to those things because I want to find more books to love rather than spending my reading time on books that end up feeling very average and/or forgettable to me. I’m good about knowing the very few things that I definitely avoid in my reading, so it only makes sense to be aware of the things that draw me into a book.

Last week’s Top 5 Wednesday topic was favorite buzz words, the words that make a book an immediate buy for you, and as I was watching videos on the topic, I thought it would be a great format for a blog post too. Top 5 Wednesday is a weekly discussion topic created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey on YouTube, and there is a Goodreads group with all the information about how to participate and the weekly topics. I don’t participate in that group, but I do watch several YouTubers who sometimes participate. Two of the videos I really enjoyed on the buzz words topic were this one from Samantha at Thoughts on Tomes and this one from Denise Marie.

The following words and phrases make me sit up and take notice when I read them in a synopsis, blurb, or review.
5 Phrases to Auto Buy

Beauty and the Beast

Fairy tale retellings in general call out to me, but I have a soft spot for Beauty and the Beast. It’s my favorite fairy tale, and I think it’s the source of my love for scarred heroes in romance. Some of my first books were fairy tale collections, so I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Beauty and the Beast, but it became my favorite fairy tale after seeing a 1946 French film adaptation. My local library did a summer event with a theme of fairy tales around the world, and for some reason, they showed this movie in French with English subtitles. It didn’t go over well with many of the other young viewers, but I was mesmerized. Not too long after that, I fell in love with Vincent and Catherine from the 1980s TV show Beauty and the Beast even though that ultimately didn’t end as happily as my romantic shipper heart would have preferred.

Immediately after seeing the French film, I began looking for books that either retold the fairy tale or gave me the same feeling. The first one I recall reading was Beauty by Robin McKinley, and that one remains a favorite. These days, I need only the barest hint of a Beauty and the Beast connection to grab a book, which is how I came to read and enjoy When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James and The Vixen and the Vet by Katy Regnery.

My love for Beauty and the Beast also extends to anything related to the story of Cupid and Psyche. Cupid and Psyche retellings seem to be less common, but one of my favorite books ever, Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, is written from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister.

Time Travel

Once again we’re taken back to the 1980s for the beginning of my interest in time travel. I grew up loving the 1950s and 1960s and was especially obsessed with Elvis Presley for most of my childhood and teen years, so All Shook Up by Eileen Goudge about a girl going back in time to Memphis in 1956 in order to get a picture of Elvis with a particular guitar in order to authenticate it 30 years later fascinated me. The story itself was more than a little silly, but 11-year-old me was hooked on the idea of time travel. The TV show Quantum Leap came along a couple of years later, and I became an even bigger fan of time travel.

I’m not opposed to time travel that takes place in the future, but I’m most interested in time travel to the fairly recent past because I’m interested in those time periods. I think part of what I like about time travel in fiction is learning real history and experiencing the past from a modern perspective. There’s a fish out of water aspect that can make for fun stories as long as I don’t feel like I’m dealing with a stupid protagonist. Some of my favorite time travel books are Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. Recent and upcoming books added to my TBR because of time travel references are Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor.

Virtual Reality

The idea of living at least part-time in a virtual world captivates me. If there’s some clear connection between massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming and the virtual world, then I’m even more interested. This is probably why people who know me don’t understand why I haven’t read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline yet. I’m not even sure why I haven’t gotten to it yet because it’s been on my TBR list since its release date.

Like a lot of people, my first memory of being really interested in virtual reality comes from watching the movie Tron in the early 80s, and then my imagination was really sparked by the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m sure no one familiar with science fiction will be surprised to see me mention Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson in this section because it gave us a language to discuss the idea of an Internet based on virtual reality. The Metaverse is populated by user-created avatars and corporate daemons, and your status comes from your ability to access restricted areas of the Metaverse and the sophistication of your avatar’s appearance. It’s a book I really should read again because it’s been years since I read it.

Although the Dream Park series by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes don’t take place in a virtual reality, I include them in this category because they combined cutting-edge technology with live action role-playing games (LARP) and reality television back in the 1980s. The books are set in the near future with the first book set in 2051, and the games take place in an amusement park. One thing I enjoy about these books is that they have multiple levels from the game story and mechanics to out-of-character relationships and often high-stakes conspiracies trying to hide behind the public games. Write about big-scale games mixed with technology, and your book will definitely end up in my hands at some point.

Sherlock Holmes

While I definitely had some of the typical bedtime story experiences as a kid, my favorite bedtimes were when my dad played his audio cassettes of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Something about Sherlock Holmes intrigued me, and though I’m probably not as big a fan now as I was as a kid, I still enjoy revisiting him through new stories. I think The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King was the first book I picked up solely because of the mention of Sherlock, but I’m many books behind in the series now.

I tend to have better luck with books that extend Sherlock’s story somehow by either giving him a wife as with Laurie R. King’s series or focusing on a sibling like Nancy Springer does with her stories about fourteen-year-old Enola Holmes. These days, I usually skip books that are just new cases that mimic the style of the original stories because they fall flat for me. Maybe one will surprise me someday though, so I don’t rule them out completely. I also get sucked in by books that have tenuous ties to Sherlock like the upcoming A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro where the great-great-grandson of John Watson and the great-great-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes work together to clear their names in a student’s death.

Epistolary

There’s something about reading letters (or texts or emails or diary entries) that satisfies my curious nature. It’s the illusion of being let into someone’s private thoughts with no reason to feel guilty about it. Although newspaper clippings, blog posts, and other public writings don’t have that exact feeling attached to them, I include them in this category too because they add a different perspective and voice to the story you’re reading. Some of the epistolary novels I’ve read and loved are Dracula by Bram Stoker, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Love, Rosie by Ceclia Ahern. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell is an interesting take on the epistolary novel because the emails between two best friends are being monitored by an IT guy as part of his job, and he falls in love with one of the women through her words. It could so easily feel creepy, but it never does to me, and because my husband and I met in the 90s through emails (to each other!), it gives me lovely feelings of nostalgia.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff is on my radar because it tells the story with so many bits and pieces of information from different sources. It just looks like such a fun and interesting book.

2016 Reading Goals

I shared how my 2015 bookish goals turned out in my last post, so I thought I’d share my 2016 reading goals. I’m keeping it simple again because that seems to work best for me.

2016 Reading Goals - Brandy @ Reading Beyond

  1. Read 120 books.
  2. I regularly read a lot more than 120 books a year, but I’ve never been that concerned about the number of books I read, so I thought I’d deliberately set it a bit lower and focus more on what I’m reading. I’d like to focus again on reading the unread books on my shelves and perhaps rereading old favorites that I haven’t read in years. It’s been more than 20 years since I read Anne of Green Gables, and this might be the year to change that.

    I also want to read more of the books I really want to read but keep holding back out of some sense of wanting to wait for the perfect time to read and enjoy them. One benefit of participating in The Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge has been the prompt to finally read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. I enjoyed them just as much as I thought I would, and both ended up on my list of top reads of 2015.

  3. Read at least 1 nonfiction per month.
  4. This was one of the goals I accomplished in 2015, and it went so well that I’d like to keep it going in 2016. Once again, I’m not focusing on any particular subject matter though I might try to explore some harder topics this year.

  5. Write more reviews.
  6. This is a variation on last year’s goal to write more blog posts because more reviews will lead to richer content on the blog. I want to start by reviewing every book I rate either 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads.

  7. Be more active on social media.
  8. This goal is the most tentative one on my short list. I’m thinking mostly of Twitter and Instagram, and I’d like to connect more with other readers on those two platforms. I’ve already started following more book-related people and sending out more bookish tweets, but my Instagram is very bare.

2015 Reading in Review

In addition to my Goodreads account, I track my reading on a basic spreadsheet. I really love spreadsheets, and looking at my spreadsheet just seems more fulfilling than seeing the same statistics on a website. Starting with The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and ending with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I read 257 books in 2015. My most active month was October with 39 books, and my least active month was June with 6 books. It’s interesting that neither October nor June stands out in my mind as being different from any other month.

I read quite a few books, but it was surprisingly easy to pick out 10 favorites because I realized most of the books I read in 2015 were fine but not necessarily ones I loved reading. I hope to change that in 2016, but I’ll save that discussion for my next post about 2016 reading goals. I decided to skip ranking my top picks, so here are my favorite reads from 2015 ordered by author’s last name:

  • When a Scot Ties the Knot – Tessa Dare
  • Fractured and Formidable – AJ Downey
  • Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith
  • Mackenzie’s Mountain – Linda Howard
  • These Broken Stars – Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
  • The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  • Craving Flight – Tamsen Parker
  • The Hurricane – RJ Prescott
  • Archangel’s Blade – Nalini Singh
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – Leslye Walton

Most Read Authors in 2015:

AUTHOR # OF BOOKS READ
Nalini Singh 9
AJ Downey 6
Annabeth Albert 6
TS Joyce 5
Tempeste O’Riley 5
Skylar M. Cates 4
Dannika Dark 4
Tessa Dare 3
Linda Howard 3
Celia Kyle 3

I started out the year with a few reading resolutions.

  1. Read 150 books.
  2. I read 257 books, so this goal was accomplished.

  3. Make more mindful reading choices and stop delaying reading books I think I’d enjoy.
  4. I’m calling this one partially achieved because I’ve been less distracted by all the free books available for my Kindle, but I’ve also still managed to avoid some of the books I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s silly to read as much as I do and not get to the books that most interest me. I need to stop saving them for a rainy day.

  5. Read at least 1 nonfiction book per month.
  6. I finished 2015 with 14 nonfiction books, so this was another win.

  7. Focus on one of my cookbooks each month.
  8. I did use my cookbooks more in 2015, but I didn’t always focus on a particular one for an entire month.

  9. Post weekly on this blog.
  10. This was my big fail for the year. Instead of 52 posts, I ended 2015 with 22 posts. I’ll continue to work on this one, but that’s another topic for a post about my 2016 goals.

Did you have reading-related goals in 2015? How did you do? Did you read any books that you’ll be recommending to everyone you meet?

SCWBC15 – Second Update

Remember that time I mentioned trying out a reading challenge and then read a lot less books? I did manage to read 7 books in December though, so I thought it was time to update my Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge progress. Most of these books had also been on my shelf for quite some time and were so much fun to read that I wonder what other gems might be hiding in my stuffed bookcases.

10

10 points: Read a debut book by any author.: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (387 pages, 4 stars)
This book was on my shelf for almost 4 years before I read it for the challenge, and it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. People had been telling me I’d love it, and it was beautiful. Reading the book felt like being reminded of a long-ago dream, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who thinks mixing Victorian England, a circus open from sunset to sunrise, and real magicians sounds intriguing.

15 points: Read a book published under a pseudonym. — Submitted by SCSBC15 finisher Megan M.: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (455 pages, 4 stars)
Here we have a book that was a gift and sat on my shelf for 2 years before I finally read it. I’m someone who enjoyed Harry Potter but didn’t throw myself headlong into the fandom or anything, and I’d tried Rowling’s Casual Vacancy with no luck, so I didn’t feel strongly about reading another book by her. The story reminded me that I should read more mysteries, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the detective Cormoran Strike and his employee Robin Ellacott.

15 points: Read a book with “boy,” “girl,” “man” or “woman” in the title (or the plural of these words).: The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen (269 pages, 4 stars)
One down, and six to go. Yes, I owned 7 books by an author I’d never read. I kept hearing good things about her, and the books sounded like my kind of thing with the mix of small towns and family magic, but I just never got around to reading any of them. Reading the others will be a higher priority now that I’ve read this one because it was adorable. Read this if you like a little romance mixed with small town secrets and touches of magic.

20 points: Read a book with a person’s first and last name in the title.: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (301 pages, 4 stars)
I picked this up on a whim because of the gorgeous cover, and now I can say that the story is also gorgeous. The imagery and language have really stayed with me since reading it, and it’s another of these picks that ended up being among my favorite books of the year. Although Ava Lavender stars in the title, the story begins in the early 1900s with her great-grandparents. We then see how the loves and sorrows of each generation play out over time.

20 points: Read a food-themed book. — Submitted by SCSBC15 finisher Jamie @ Whatever I Think Of!: Come Here, Cupcake – Crissi Langwell (352 pages, 3 stars)
I had intended to read another book for this category, but I had read so many good books with elements of magical realism that I wanted to try to stick with some kind of magic. This book popped up in my Kindle Unlimited recommendations and seemed like a good fit for the category and that desire for some magic. It was my least favorite book of the month but still an enjoyable read. The heroine Morgan has discovered that she can infuse her baking with her emotions, and she is trying to deal with family secrets and her powers while falling in love. I enjoyed the magical elements, but the romance felt a bit flat to me. It’s interesting how many books have explored this idea of food-related magic in such different ways.

previous points: 35
total points: 115

Currently reading:
15 points: Read a book with a one-word title.: Rook, Sharon Cameron (456 pages)

SCWBC15: Check-In #1

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m participating in the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge, and it’s time for my first progress report. I’ve changed books in a few categories, and I’m feeling pretty good about things a week into the challenge even though I was really disappointed in my “book that takes place outside of your country of residence” pick. That’s one time that impulsively choosing a book from Overdrive did not work out in my favor. My big surprise so far was the short read I picked because Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant was a Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in Best Horror, and horror is not my usual genre, but I really enjoyed the story.

#SCWBC15 Check-In #1

5 points: Read a book that has between 100 and 200 pages: Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant (128 pages, 4 stars)

As I mentioned earlier, this was a pleasant surprise for me. Within a small amount of pages, Mira Grant made me care about a cast of characters, and I think she did a fantastic job of quickly sketching out the relationships between everyone. The story centers on a documentary-type TV production, and it often made me think of a screenplay as I read because I could easily visualize everything. If you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, then you might want to give this story a try.

10 points: Read a book that does not take place in your current country of residence: Belle Epoque, Elizabeth Ross (336 pages, 2 stars)

The summary grabbed me with an agency in 19th-century France that rents out “plain” girls to socialites who think they will look even lovelier when compared to a plain companion. I think I expected more secrets and intrigue because this was supposed to be a secret agency, and all the companions had cover stories to make them seem suitable to be part of society. I didn’t get any of that because the protagonist is a young girl who reacts to everything around her, rather than acting on her own initiative. If she were a fleshed-out character, maybe I could have overlooked some of her annoying traits, but instead she just felt flat. In short, the ideas behind this book were interesting, but the execution didn’t work for me. After finishing the book, I saw the author had taken the inspiration for the agency from a short story by Emile Zola, so I might need to read that at some point.

20 points: Read a book with a verb in the title: When a Scot Ties the Knot, Tessa Dare (384 pages, 4 stars)

Something about Tessa Dare’s books works for me. She makes me laugh and swoon, and I fall in love with her characters. Miss Madeline Gracechurch is a shy young woman, so she invents a soldier sweetheart to take herself off the marriage mart. She even goes so far as to write letters to this imaginary man, and unknown to her, her letters reach a young man with the same name as her imaginary man. When the war ends, he comes for her.

previous points: 0
total points: 35 points

Currently reading:
15 points: Read a book published under a pseudonym: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (455 pages)

A Winter Book Challenge to End 2015

A few minutes ago, I finished my 250th book of 2015. After meeting and increasing my Goodreads book goal twice, I’m going to hold at 250 and declare myself a winner with a month left in 2015. That means I’ve averaged about 22 books a month, and it’s a little above my typical total for years past except for 2012 when I somehow read 488 books. I still can’t explain that one.

Anyway, by all quantifiable measures, 2015 has been a good reading year, but yet, I’m left with mixed feelings about it. Nothing really stood out, and part of that is because I’m still hoarding books I’ve been meaning to read for months. One of my book-related goals at the beginning of this year was to stop with the hoarding, but that’s the goal I’ve completely failed at accomplishing. It’s weird to say I’m in a slump because I’m reading a ton, but I can relate to this Book Riot article about having an “off” year of reading. I want to have a little more enthusiasm about what I’m reading, and I think I need a little challenge to kick me out of this rut.

This is where the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge comes into play. There are 12 categories with assigned point values, and because a couple of categories include 2 books, there’s a total of 14 books. I’m a month late to the challenge, but it still has two months left, which is plenty of time to read 14 books. It will be fun to see how many points I can collect in this final month of 2015.

Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge
photo via @mcstroup

5 points: Book that’s 100-200 pages long
My selection: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman


10 points: Debut book from an author
My selection: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


10 points: Book that doesn’t take place in my current country of residence
My selection: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross


10 points: Book that someone else is using for the challenge
(Submitted by Kristen at See You in a Porridge)
My selection: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (used by Kimberly at Love YA Books)


15 points: Book published under a pseudonym
(Submitted by Megan M.)
My selection: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)


15 points: Book with “Boy,” “Girl,” “Man,” Or “Woman” in the title
My selection: The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen


15 points: Book with a one-word title
My selection: Rook by Sharon Cameron


20 points: Book with a person’s first and last name in title
My selection: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton


20 points: Food-themed book
(Submitted by Jamie at Whatever I Think Of!)
My selection: Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food by Susan Marks


20 points: Book with a verb in the title
My selection: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund


30 points: Two books with the same title by different authors
(Submitted by bevchen at Confuzzledom)
My selections: This is the hardest category for me, but for now, I’m choosing Claimed by Evangeline Anderson and Claimed by Elle Kennedy.


30 points: Two books (1 nonfiction and 1 fiction) about the same subject
My selections: My subject is murder in Victorian England, and I’ll be reading the nonfiction book The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders and the novel A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn.


Wish me luck! I received The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith and Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross today from my library through Overdrive, so one of those will be my first read for the challenge. I’ll post updates here on the blog as I complete the categories.

Nonfiction Catch-Up

One of my 2015 reading goals was to read at least one nonfiction book each month, and it’s been a few months since I gave an update about that goal. I’ve read 1-2 nonfiction books each month so far this year, and these are a few picks from the last 5 months.


Spinster - Kate Bolick
Spinster by Kate Bolick

This is a combination of Bolick’s own “spinster wish” with stories from five women who inspired her along the way. I first became aware of the book because of the inclusion of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the historical elements were definitely the most compelling bits for me. Spinster in Bolick’s usage is “shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled”, and that’s definitely a concept worth exploring.


That's Not English - Erin Moore
That’s Not English by Erin Moore

I’ve been a bit obsessed with British pop culture for most of my life. I think watching old episodes of Doctor Who with my dad started it for me. I was drawn to this book by the subtitle, “Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us”. The book’s structure is a lot of fun because each chapter focuses on one word and describes the usage of that word in each country and what that might say about the cultures. Cheers, knackered, and gobsmacked are some of my favorite inclusions. I highly recommend this book if you’re an Anglophile or interested in the English language or simply enjoy having fun facts to share with your friends.


Between You & Me - Mary Norris
Between You & Me by Mary Norris

Mary Norris is a “Comma Queen” for The New Yorker, and this book is both a memoir and a writing guidebook. Norris speaks about her years at The New Yorker and also highlights grammar lessons she’s learned during that time. I enjoyed both aspects of the book, but my favorite section was probably the discussion of protecting an author’s voice at the “cost” of proper grammar.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve seen a few presentations from Jon Ronson and enjoyed them enough that I decided to pick up his book. My opinion is that the presentations were more interesting because they were tighter. The book takes more of a ramble to get to the point, and it’s not even that long a book. Individual chapters are stronger than the overall book, and I think a series of essays might have been a better format for the material, but it’s still worth a read for the case studies at the front of the book.


Laura Ingalls Wilder Pioneer Girl
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder & Pamela Smith Hill (Editor)

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were a huge part of my childhood. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography contains Wilder’s complete first draft of her story along with notes from Pamela Smith Hill, author of a previous biography of Wilder. This is a beautiful enrichment of the stories I first read as a child, and I had so many nostalgic, happy feelings as I was reading. I may find myself rereading the Little House books soon.


Cookbook Catch-Up

One of my 2015 reading goals was to make more use of my cookbooks. Each month I’ve been picking one cookbook from my collection and trying at least 2 new recipes from it. It’s been a few months since I shared my progress, but I’ve enjoyed going through my collection and haven’t missed a month yet. So far, none of the recipes have made into our regular rotation of meals, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m trying new things every month.


The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

The stories included with the recipes are very chatty and engaging, so it’s easy to see what Deb Perelman is such a successful blogger. I found the format a little harder to navigate because of how ingredients and steps were split across multiple pages, but that was a fairly small issue that didn’t keep me from enjoying the book. My husband wouldn’t be upset at all if her lemon bars and raspberry ricotta scones became frequent treats. My personal favorite was the Fingerlings Vinaigrette, a potato salad that includes mustard vinaigrette and pickled celery. I’m really intrigued by the buttered popcorn cookies, but I haven’t tried those yet.


Gourmet Today
Gourmet Today by Ruth Reichl (Editor)

The size of this cookbook makes it a little unwieldy, but the range of recipes is worth the hefty size. Ruth Reichl states that the purpose of the cookbook is to reflect the changing tastes of America at a time when salsa began outselling ketchup, so there’s a mix of new and old. The Korean marinated beef was a big hit and also a super quick meal with scallion soba noodles from the same cookbook. The beef and broccoli was not a hit and was just okay, but I think a little less sauce and a little more spice would have made that a better pick for our tastes. My favorite was the blackberry upside-down cake because it was fairly simple but looked and tasted amazing, which made it a nice treat to share with guests.


The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook
The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook by the editors at America’s Test Kitchen

If I see America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated, or Cook’s Country on a cookbook, then I need it. I love the layouts and the recipe development sections. This particular cookbook has product recommendations, kitchen tips, and other helpful information without the longer trial-and-error reports. We tried and enjoyed the Chinese chicken salad and Mediterranean tuna salad, and my husband was crazy about the lemon mousse even though he’s usually not a fan of Greek yogurt. The New York cheesecake sounded interesting, but I’ll have to get over my aversion to cottage cheese before I attempt that one.


The New Best Recipe
The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

This is another massive cookbook, and it’s from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, so there’s a lot of wonderful discussion about the different things that were tried on the way to perfecting each recipe. It’s too much preamble for some people, but I love reading through it. Maybe I’m showing my inner nerd? I made the gingerbread cookies twice for celebrations at my husband’s office. The second time was at the request of people who loved them the first time he took them, and I’m sure I’ll make those again as the holiday season starts. The coconut chocolate chip cookies are also good though not quite on the “These are amazing!” level of the gingerbread cookies. The Spaghetti Puttanesca is probably the meal most likely to become a staple for us because it’s got the perfect amount of olives and capers in the sauce, and it’s quick and easy. The sandwich bread recipe didn’t turn out great, but I don’t have the best luck baking my own bread.


One Big Table
One Big Table by Molly O’Neill

This cookbook is a joy to read with all the little tidbits of food history in it. It’s a true celebration of home cooks in all different kinds of homes across America, and even if I never used a recipe from it, it would be worth having for the stories. I love how the recipe title often include the cook’s name, and it reminds me of the church cookbooks that I loved as a kid. As a bonus, the recipes we tried were also tasty. Norma Naranjo’s tamales are not a quick meal, but the thick chile sauce paired with zucchini is even better than I imagined. That was my first time having any kind of squash in a tamale, but it will not be the last time. I still have a few of these in my freezer. The macaroni and cheese recipe from Helen Griffin Williams is a fairly basic baked macaroni and cheese, but the construction of it involves cubed cheese and a custard-like sauce. If you’re someone like me who considers cheese a major food group, then you have to give this one a try.


Some themes become very clear as I go through my cookbook collection. I tend to purchase big cookbooks, and while I enjoy pretty food photography, I’m more interested in things like personal food-related stories and/or informational sections about food science and general kitchen tips.