Reading Challenge Complete: Beat the Backlist 2017!

In this personalized reading challenge, participants were instructed to choose any number of books from their TBR that had been sitting unread for too long, and commit to reading them in 2017.

I quite arbitrarily picked 40 books, and I read 39 of them.

(But wait, the year’s not over, and you’re a book short. What gives?)

The major theme I used to choose the specific books for this challenge was finishing unfinished series, and I DNF’d the penultimate book in one of those series, so obviously I’m not going to bother with the last one, right?

Still, I tried, and I can’t really go back and say “I never had that on the list at all, I’ll read this instead!”

So here it is, my completed Beat the Backlist Challenge.

  1. Bridge of Dreams
  2. The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
  3. The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You
  4. The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections
  5. The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives
  6. The Sandman, Vol. 8: World’s End
  7. The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones
  8. The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake
  9. The Sandman: Endless Nights
  10. The Drawing of the Three
  11. The Waste Lands
  12. Wizard and Glass
  13. Wolves of the Calla
  14. Song of Susannah
  15. The Dark Tower
  16. Between Shades of Grey
  17. A Thousand Splendid Suns
  18. The Redwood Rebel
  19. The Princess Saves Herself in this One
  20. Blood of Elves
  21. The Summer Tree
  22. The Wandering Fire
  23. The Darkest Road
  24. Poison Study
  25. Magic Study
  26. Fire Study
  27. The Secret History
  28. The Girl Who Played with Fire
  29. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
  30. Seduce Me at Sunrise
  31. The Mabinogion Tetralogy
  32. Ruined
  33. Drums of Autumn
  34. The Fiery Cross
  35. A Breath of Snow and Ashes
  36. An Echo in the Bone
  37. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
  38. Seduced
  39. Rocked
  40. Twisted

This Week, I Read… (2017 #40)

135 - Just Good Friends

#135 – Just Good Friends, by Rosalind James

This was a mash of tropes I love and tropes I don’t care for.

I’ve never been a fan of romances that rely on bets–even if this one was a “bet you can’t be my friend without making a move on me” bet. Because we know it has to fail for a romance to take place.

It’s an excellent example, however, of You Infuriate Me, But I’m Falling For You. Kate and Koti can hardly have a conversation at first without aggravating each other, and it’s amazingly fun to watch the angry sparks slowly turning into romantic ones.

Kate’s tragic backstory may be laid on a little thick, but this time (as opposed to last week’s Just This Once) our hero isn’t perfect–he’s got major issues with his career and life goals and his motivation to work toward them. Flawed heroes are much more interesting to me than those who never put a foot wrong.

136 - Everything's Eventual

#136 – Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales, by Stephen King

It’s always hard for me to properly rate and review short story collections, because the stories can vary so wildly. I liked more of the stories than I didn’t (only two really bored me) and several of the stories I actually loved.

The “dark” in the title is appropriate, because rather than all of these being classic horror, many of them had more of a psychological or sometimes moral creepiness. I remember reading a different collection of King’s stories as a tween (bad idea) and having trouble sleeping for the next week–but this one wasn’t frightening, just unsettling. Which isn’t worse or better than straight horror, just different.

137 - Carrie

#137 – Carrie, by Stephen King

Considering I’ve had the plot spoiled for me numerous times over the years–I think the first time I heard about Carrie’s “Prom Night” I wasn’t even ten yet–I’m surprised how much I enjoyed this. Yes, it’s clearly early work, without the level of narrative and metaphoric sophistication King has developed since–but I enjoyed it.

Mostly, I think, that’s due to the documentary-style, after-the-fact structure, where much of the information about the climax is given through excerpts from interviews with the survivors, transcripts of wire reports, newspaper articles, books, and so on. Even given that I knew what was coming, I appreciated the level of foreshadowing, and the effectiveness of the structure as a hook to keep me reading.

And it takes a heck of a hook, because not only are none of the characters likable as people, most of them aren’t particularly interesting as characters, even Carrie herself. Maybe Sue, she’s the most developed of any of Carrie’s initial antagonists, and because she gets the pseudo-redemption arc of guilt over her behavior towards Carrie and her attempt to make it up to the girl. But everyone else is flat at best and stereotypical at worst.

Still, I’m glad I read it.

138 - Crazy Sexy Ghoulish

#138 – Crazy, Sexy, Ghoulish: A Halloween Romance, by G.G. Andrew

A cute novella that might have been a better read if it were longer and more developed.

I liked Nora and Brendan’s chemistry–their text flirting was absolutely top-notch–but the development of their fledgling romance felt rushed because of the short space it had to play out in, and because so much weight was given to Nora’s ex-mean-girl angst and guilt. Not that that doesn’t send a good message, that bullying is wrong; and a side character she picked on as a kid doesn’t forgive her, which is a nice contrast to Brendan deciding to move on.

But I would have liked to see this as a full novel. Maybe a short one, the story wouldn’t need 500 pages, but I feel like it needs more than it got.

The Wake

#139 – The Wake, by Neil Gaiman

If this had ended after the first half, the three issues directly depicting the wake the Endless held for Dream, then I could have given this five stars. But there were three more issues, each a self-contained story: the first followed Gadling, and was marginally amusing; the next followed an old Chinese man in exile from court, and while I was bored by the slow pace of his story, at least it had a great art style; and the final issue concerned Shakespeare and his final play, The Tempest.

Which I have not read. Not the biggest fan of Shakespeare.

So that last issue probably would have felt like a better ending to me if I had at least read The Tempest, and better still if I actually liked it, but I find myself disappointed that a solid, satisfying ending got muddled by three extra stories tacked on to it.

Endless Nights

#140 – The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman

Seven vignettes, one for each of the Endless, cap off the series with a flourish of varied art styles. The stories were short and touching (or disturbing, when that was more appropriate) and I LOVED THE ART of all of the chapters that departed from the standard comic style. “15 Portraits of Despair” was my favorite, easily, with its blend of inked drawings, photo collage and pasted-on words.

I am now fully recovered from the disappointment of the second half of The Wake.

141 - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.JPG

#141 – The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

I’m not even remotely a baseball fan, so this wasn’t for me. I know that’s an odd thing to say about a horror novel, but so much of Trisha’s story involved her hero worship and eventual hallucinations about the (fictionalized) baseball star Tom Gordon–and I simply can’t relate to that. I barely watch any sports, ever, and when I do, I much prefer individual sports (tennis, figure skating, gymnastics, etc.) to team sports.

With that out of the way, it wasn’t by any means a bad book. The more survival-oriented parts I found interesting, though my disconnect from Trisha as a character meant that I didn’t really find the horror bits frightening at all.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #38)

124 - A Thousand Splendid Suns

#124 – A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

A book about a difficult topic? How about several difficult topics, like bastardy, forced marriage, domestic abuse, war, military occupation, murder, and execution?

I put off reading this for a long time because of the dreaded second-novel syndrome–I adored The Kite Runner and I was afraid Suns would be a disappointment. My fears were groundless. If anything, I loved it more–the story is profoundly feminist in its brutally uncompromising portrayal of what an Afghan woman’s life can look like, both at its best and worst.

Despite all the difficult topics, the book isn’t depressing, but beautifully hopeful, even when what’s happening on the page is graphic and horrifying.

I’m so glad now that I have a copy of Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, waiting for me on my TBR shelf.

125 - Paula

#125 – Paula, by Isabel Allende

If this is what her memoir reads like, I can’t wait to get into Allende’s fiction. (I have a copy of Daughter of Fortune, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.)

Despite the inherent tragedy of reading a work dedicated to and written for a dying daughter, Allende’s incredible gift for absurd metaphor and exaggerated melodrama injects a great deal of humor into the narrative. She’s quite up front that she’s going from memory, not history, almost daring readers to take the time to fact-check her–but I would rather enjoy the roller coaster of family anecdotes and political upheaval that describes and defines who Allende had come to be as she sat at her daughter’s bedside and penned this long, deeply moving letter. Love and devotion come across in every word.

126 - Misfits

#126 – Misfits, by Garrett Leigh

It isn’t that I wasn’t aware menage romance was a thing–I’ve read and reviewed two already–but they were both MMF, whereas this one was MMM. Not a genre that had hit my radar until a friend on Goodreads rated this book and it came up on my feed. I was intrigued.

The premise laid out is that a long-term, committed couple has an open relationship, where from time to time both partners take other lovers. What’s suddenly different is that one of the hookups becomes more.

I loved how Jake, the hookup character, got excellent development not only as the third-wheel-turned-partner, but also as a person looking for a career. I love how un-rushed the timeline of the story was–too many romances take a week or two from start to Happily Ever After, whereas this one took months. I love how Tom and Jake’s attraction was instant and gratifying, where Jake and Cass took a long time to heat up, becoming friends long before they crossed over into lover territory.

What I didn’t love was the last arc of the story. An out-of-left-field external conflict throws a wrench into things and makes the worst of Cass come out, causing what is supposed to be breakup-level tension…but it felt all wrong to me. There were barely any hints of it coming, just a few passing mentions of Cass’ dark past which meant little without more context or development, then WOMP! his past is front and center…in the last 20% of the story. It was an abrupt tonal shift, and I didn’t like it.

CYS 8-7-17 Ebook

#127 – The Basket Maker’s Wife, by Cait London

DNF @ 10% from extreme mental fatigue due to the word “basket(s)” appearing 53 times in the first chapter alone. Yes, I was so frustrated I went back and counted.

Even setting that aside, the writing style was excessively repetitive. The tragic backstory was laid on thicker than a clay face mask, and how often in one day does a person really think about their employer dying? I mean, I know she’s ninety, but is she so incredibly frail you can’t go five minutes without praying she doesn’t drop dead?

128 - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

#128 – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

I was completely enchanted by the exploits of the two teenage boys sent into rural China for their “re-education” under Mao’s regime; the narrator’s tone was filled with exuberance and sly humor.

But that was part of this book’s problem for me, as well–for all that dire consequences were mentioned often for every transgression the teens made . . . nothing happened. They stole the forbidden books from Four Eyes, Luo had an illicit affair with the Little Seamstress, and the narrator aided her in obtaining an abortion–and they got away with it.

The specter of prison and torture loses its very real sting if nothing comes of it.

I was also completely bewildered by the sudden jump near the end to three separate POVs–the miller, Luo, then the Seamstress. While each provided a new level of detail about the affair, not one of them told me anything new about the larger plot–it all seemed unnecessary. The transition to the ending, too, is incredibly abrupt, jumping three months forward and telling the highlights in past tense, explaining how both boys were too stupid to realize the Seamstress was going to leave.

So…I really liked the first half, and the second half fell apart for me.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #35)

116 - A Breath of Snow and Ashes

#116 – A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

An unexpected improvement in quality over the last two books, though it was minor. The sections of this I liked, I enjoyed a great deal–but as always with this series, there were long, boring sections where not much happened.

On the up side, we’re finally at the Revolutionary War, which book #5 felt like it was killing time waiting for. On the down side, I got a serious case of emotional whiplash in the middle of the story–first a young woman from the extended friends-and-neighbors clan surrounding the Frasers managed to get pregnant then cheerfully commit bigamy by having Jamie handfast her to one of a pair of twins, then running right over to Roger before word could reach him and having him (newly a minister) marry her to the other twin. Though the moral atmosphere of the time certainly frowns on having two husbands, I was cheering for her–look at that girl go after what she wants!

The very next subplot, though, dealt with another young woman, Claire’s apprentice/assistant in medicine, also turn up pregnant–but then she’s murdered.

Umm, what? Did I just crack a vertebra trying to follow that plot?

The whole book is like that, though. It goes from one plot point to the next with very little continuity of tone, and little foreshadowing to get a reader ready for the abrupt shifts.

Six books down, two to go. I’m going to make it. I’ve still got three months.

117 - The Martian Chronicles

#117 – The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this in about twenty years–I first read it in high school and loved it–and I wondered if I would feel differently now, if it would have lost some of its shine.

It hasn’t. I think I love it more.

Knowing more now about story structure, I can appreciate the difficulty of linking such disparate stories into a cohesive narrative, one that tells the story of humankind going to Mars, ruining it as they did Earth, then abandoning it to its desolation when the final war comes to Earth. But that last story, that glimmer of hope…still so moving.

The language is beautiful, even poetic in places, though it has a touch of the absurd that I enjoy so much–asking the reader to simply accept such oddities as the “crystal buns” in a Martian homemaker’s oven, and other descriptive phrases that don’t have a logical, human sense. Plus the silliness and brilliance of the Martians’ absolute lack of reaction to the visitation of the first human expeditions. Even though I knew why, it still cracked me up.

This really is some of the best that classic sci-fi has to offer.

118 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

#118 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

A disappointing end to the trilogy. I nearly gave up around 150 pages in–I was wading through a seemingly never-ending swamp of political exposition about the bad guys, and it was so tedious. But I did want to find out how it ended.

(I mentioned to a friend I was reading it this week, and she said she loved the first two and lost interest partway through the third. I can see why.)

On top of the sheer boredom of that section, the middle third of the book involves so many different characters investigating/spying on/sabotaging other characters that all reveals lose their punch. What do I care if the bad guys figure out Blomkvist + Co. have been duping them and running counter-surveillance, when I’ve known that for almost a hundred pages? It’s all retreading the same information with different characters again and again.

But still, I stuck with it. Things definitely pick up at the end, when Lisbeth gets to be a hacker again (and a real character too, instead of a vegetable!) Erika’s new job drama also kept me entertained, because though it wasn’t a life-or-death subplot, at least it was different.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #34)

115 - The Girl Who Played With Fire

#115 – The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Considering how much I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this more. I can’t pin down the exact reason why–it might be a lot of small issues instead of a few big ones.

The narrative style is still simple and direct, which made this 700+ page tome a quicker read than its page count would suggest–but since I was familiar with the style this time, the flaws stuck out more. Do I care about all the food Lisbeth buys? Or how many sandwiches Mikael eats? There are so many mundane details clogging the text.

And at times, I felt really uncomfortable with the way both mental illness and non-straight sexualities were discussed by the characters. Yes, some of them were unredeemable assholes for many reasons, so if they’re throwing slurs around I don’t mind so much. But even the “good” characters slipped a fair bit. (Though credit were credit is due, the actual word “bisexual” does appear in the text, in reference to Lisbeth, who clearly is bi based on her in-story relationships, even if she doesn’t call herself that. Her female lover does–close enough for me, because Lisbeth doesn’t seem like the type of person to bother labeling herself, and that’s not the author copping out.)

I guess the ultimate problem for me is pacing. The search for Lisbeth by the police/media/Mikael takes most of the middle of the book, and since we the readers know she didn’t commit the murders she’s accused of, it felt really tedious. Then the actual murderer isn’t revealed by deduction, but by a POV section from his perspective where he thinks about having done it. (We did already meet him before that, so his existence wasn’t a surprise, but I felt the same way reading that passage as I did when a video game character dies off screen, in so-called “box text.” A botched climactic reveal.)

I didn’t hate it, though, and I already¬† have the third book in the original trilogy, so I’ll keep going. (I already don’t plan to read the extra books in the series written by another author–I just don’t do that, whether it’s the recent-ish continuation of the Dune series, or the Wheel of Time, which I gave up on long before Robert Jordan’s passing and didn’t care when Brandon Sanderson finished it.)


And that’s it for this week, because this took most of the week, and then I picked up the next Outlander book, which clocks in just shy of 1000 pages, so yeah–not finished with it yet.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: August 2017!

This month, the big news is that I finished the What We Need trilogy by releasing What We Need to Rebuild! I’ve also set up a book-for-review exchange–something I’d call an ARC Team, if only I’d known to do it before the books were released–and I’m still accepting review requests if you’re interested! (If you know someone who might be, feel free to refer them here.)

In reading news, I’m finally on track with my Mount TBR 2017 Reading Challenge, in which I set myself the (somewhat ridiculous) goal of reading 150 of my already-owned books this year. I’m at 103/150, with a third of the year left to go, so I’m just slightly ahead.

I am still acquiring new books, of course, but at a slower rate. My TBR, thanks to used books sales, has gotten wildly out of hand.

My quick catch-up is entirely thanks to August being #ReadRomance Month, so I pulled out my romance books on hand and dashed through a few on my Kindle as well, reading a total of 17 books. (It would have been more, if not for The Dark Tower taking me a whole week to finish! Blast!)

That being said, I do still have two other reading challenges to check in with: Beat the Backlist 2017 (27/40 down) and the PopSugar 2017 Reading Challenge (40/52 down). My immediate goal is to restructure my upcoming TBR to finish both of these as quickly as possible. I already have most of the books I need for PopSugar, and all the ones I need for BtB, since that’s another work-down-the-TBR challenge.

Here’s what’s coming up:

Beat the Backlist

  1. The Sandman, Vols. 7-10, Neil Gaiman
  2. The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  4. Blood of Elves, Andrzej Sapkowski
  5. Ruined, M.C. Frank
  6. The Outlander series, books 6-8, Diana Gabaldon

PopSugar:

  1. A book by a person of color
  2. An espionage thriller
  3. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
  4. A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile
  5. A book I loved as a child
  6. A book with an unreliable narrator
  7. A book about an interesting woman
  8. A book I got on a trip
  9. A book with a family-member term in the title
  10. A book about an immigrant or refugee
  11. A book from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of before
  12. A book about a difficult topic

How is everyone else doing on their personal reading challenges? Is the end in sight already, or are you in the weeds?

This Week, I Read… (2017 #30)

98 - The Dark Tower

#98 – The Dark Tower, by Stephen King

Really, it’s more like 2.5 stars. It’s better than Song of Susannah, though not by much–it shares many of the same flaws.

The pacing sucks. TDT plods along, spending way too much time introducing new minor characters and minor antagonists and fleshing them out, only to have them exit the story soon after. I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO DRIVES ROLAND AROUND IN THE “REAL” WORLD BECAUSE HE CAN’T DRIVE HIMSELF. I JUST DON’T.

And, without getting too much into spoiler territory…Mordred. What was the point of him existing at all? He never did much of anything. Sure, he offed two characters, but a) one didn’t necessarily have to die and b) the one that did met a spectacularly disappointing end at Mordred’s hands. I was truly let down by that.

In fact, I was let down by pretty much all the character deaths and departures. Only one actually made me tear up a little, and the others simply fell flat.

What was good, though, was really good. Even if it took me eight days to get there, I actually really enjoyed the ending! It felt satisfying in a bittersweet way that appealed to my sense of balance. And really, that was the only end that made any sense for Roland. As for everyone else, it was just sweet, without the bitter.

So, at the end of this seven-book journey, am I happy with the series as a whole? No, not really. Book 1 was weird, 2 and 3 pretty good, 4 ABSOLUTELY AMAZING, 5 okay, 6 terrible, 7 only slightly less terrible. While I was still reading, I told people I was happy I didn’t have to wait years in between installments, and I was–but now, I’m even happier, because it makes my disappointment more bearable, that I wasn’t waiting years for this.

99 - Again the Magic

#99 – Again the Magic, by Lisa Kleypas

This felt bland compared to the other Kleypas books I’ve read. Granted, that’s only the first two in the Hathaways series–but this lacked the emotional depth and characterization I was expecting. It’s an earlier work, so I guess she’s improved over the course of her career, which is understandable.

Also, oddly, I liked the secondary romance plot (Livia and Shaw) much better than the primary couple, Aline and McKenna. Too angsty for me, I guess.