Maybe Matilda: My 2016 Reading Challenges, In Review

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My 2016 Reading Challenges, In Review

I lived for library summer reading challenges when I was a kid, so I have loved re-discovering reading challenges as an adult via some favorite book blogs.

This year, I joined in on two reading challenges: a shorter 12-book challenge with Modern Mrs. Darcy, and a more ambitious 26-category challenge with my real-life book club friend, Cami at Worthington Ave. I have loved participating in these challenges for the extra motivation they provide in spending my free time reading instead of Netflix-ing, and for helping me think outside the box when it comes to choosing my books.

First up, the MMD challenge. Here are the categories, and below are my selections for each, along with a short review.

For a book published this year, I read The Forbidden Wish (Jessica Khoury), which came out in February 2016.

A unique YA retelling of the Aladdin story, I thought it was fresh and creative, but borderline cheesy when it came to the romance. The writing was sometimes lyrical and lovely, but sometimes felt over-the-top, like the author was purposely trying to impress us with her fancy words. I gave it 3/5 stars, but I bet if I'd read it as a teenager (which is the target audience), I probably would have loved it. I'm a very picky YA reader, unfortunately.

For a book I could finish in a day, I read The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes).

The main character in this short, quick read has led a quiet and uneventful life, until he receives a letter one day that forces him to revisit and reexamine some of the friendships and events of his youth, which may have had consequences he never expected. This book felt like a pointless study in navel-gazing to me, and I didn't care for it at all. I don't consider myself a 'shallow' reader (although maybe no one does . . . ?), but I found this frustrating. I gave it 2/5 stars.

For a book I've been meaning to read, I read All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr).

I've been hearing great things about this book since it came out in 2014 (I bet you have, too!), but I've been putting it off for no real reason. Sometimes, the more hype I hear about a book, the more anxious I feel about reading it, simply because I'm worried I'll be let down (and that I'll let down my reader friends when they hear I didn't like it!). I didn't need to worry -- this story of a young blind woman living in Nazi-occupied France and a talented young man who has little choice but to become a German soldier is lovely and touching, and not as crush-your-soul heart-wrenching as many WWII novels are. I gave it 4.5/5 stars.

For a book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller, I read Martin Marten (Brian Doyle).

This novel came highly recommended at a local bookstore, and to be honest, I thought it sounded bizarre. But I couldn't think of anything else to read for this category, so I gave it a shot . . . and am so glad I did.

Martin Marten follows two youngsters as they come of age . . . 14-year old Dave (living in rural Oregon, entering high school, changing in a multitude of ways), and Martin, a young pine marten (yes, the forest critter, looks like an otter) as he grows up, leaves his family, and sets off on his own. I know it sounds weird. I know. But it was easily one of my favorite reads of the year -- I loved this understated yet powerful story, and seeing how each character grew and changed, and how their lives converged. 5/5 stars.

For a book you should have read in school, I read Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte).

Between high school assignments and a degree in English, this seems like a classic I should have read long before, but I somehow avoided it until it was chosen for my book club this year. This wild, passionate, crazy story about the (weird and certainly dysfunctional) love between a young woman on the English moors and her adopted foundling 'sibling' taken in by her family is polarizing for sure -- no one at our book club seemed to feel neutral about it. It was either loved or despised. I can honestly say I hated every single character, but found the story mesmerizing and hard to put down, and I can respect how unusual it was for its time, and its 'staying power' in English literature. I rated it 4/5 stars.

For a book chosen for you by your spouse/BFF/sibling/child, I'll admit, I cheated a little and read The Kingdom of Wrenly series (Jordan Quinn) with my 6-year old, Forrest.

I could have (and planned to!) used this category as a chance to talk books with a friend and get a recommendation from someone who knows me well, but I decided to keep things simple and use a book I was already reading. Forrest absolutely adores these simple, sweet chapter books about a young prince in a magical kingdom, his best friend, and his pet dragon. They go on adventures and solve mysteries and always learn some sweet little lesson. We've read all 10 books in the series together, and Forrest is eagerly awaiting the release of book 11. Forrest rates these 5/5 stars.

For a book published before you were born, I read Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen).

I've read this before and will read it again, and it's always, always been one of my very favorite books. It's no coincidence that I have a child named Darcy. 5/5 stars.

For a book that was banned at some point, I read Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling). All of them.

My book club threw a huge HP bash this year (see some of it here), so I enjoyed listening to all 7 audiobooks throughout the year, for the who-knows-how-many-th time. 5/5 stars, always.

(Just for fun, here I am dressed as Professor Trelawney for our Harry Potter bash.)

For a book you previously abandoned, I read Life After Life (Kate Atkinson).

This unusual/creative WWII-era story features a main character who repeatedly dies (in a variety of ways, and at a variety of ages), and is always reborn in the same circumstances to live her life again, with only the faintest inkling of deja vu about her previous lives.

This was a tricky one for me to rate -- I respected the writing, creativity, and characters, and there were portions of the book that sucked me in. But other portions dragged, I felt misled based on the book's prologue (which hinted at some major action that barely, barely occurred), and I was left with so many irritating unanswered questions. I gave it 3.5/5 stars, although it probably deserves more.

For a book you own but have never read, I read The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah).

Absolutely one of my favorite reads of 2016. Or ever. This beautiful, heartbreaking, humbling novel tells the story of two very different sisters who walk vastly different paths to survive WWII and the Nazi occupation. The characters are both powerful and strong and inspiring, yet in completely different ways. I'm always a bit of a sucker for WWII novels, and this is one of my favorites ever (and also one of my favorite book club discussions ever! See our meeting here.), due to its impactful story, inspiring portrayals of women in wartime, and hopeful outcome. A big 5/5 stars.

For a book that intimidates you, I didn't choose any one particular book, because quite a few of my 2016 reads felt intimidating. For this category, I'm doubling up and counting Life After Life, Wuthering Heights, All the Light We Cannot See, and The Nightingale . . . all books that I felt a bit nervous to read, either because of their length, rave reviews (and my anxiety at being disappointed or the oddball who doesn't like a cult favorite), or heavy subject matter.

For a book you've already read at least once, I read The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield).

I first read (and loved!) this gothic-style novel a few years ago, but decided to listen to the audiobook after my sister recommended it earlier this year. The audio was awesome, and I loved the mystery just as much the second time around (and luckily, I'd forgotten most of the details, so it felt totally fresh).

An elderly, reclusive author offers to share her life story for the first time . . . and it includes creepy-as-hell family secrets, a destroyed estate, and troubling mysteries. Creepy and fun. 4/5 stars.

On to 2016 Challenge #2, this one from Worthington Ave

I'm sorry to say that my completion of this list requires a bit of creative interpretation of a few categories, and double-dipping between categories. But even so, I still feel pretty good about my results here, and a lot of the categories were just plain fun.

For a book from Rory Gilmore's reading list, I dipped into my other reading challenge and counted Pride and Prejudice. Always worth a re-read!

For a book that takes place where you were born, I read Because of Mr. Terupt (Rob Buyea), which takes place in my birth state of Connecticut.

This middle grade novel features 7 different narrators: very different classmates in Mr. Terupt's 6th grade classroom. Their teacher is young, fun, and energetic, and brings the kids together and teaches them lessons in a totally unique way, until a terrible accident changes the kids forever.

It was cute and fun, and I think would be a great read for the target age group. As an adult, it was a 3/5 star read for me.

For a Harry Potter book, I read all of them! But let's go with the newest release, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany).

After reading this, I've come to the conclusion that I'm ready to just let go. I'm not one of those diehard fans who just lives and breathes EVERYTHING Harry Potter (for instance: the movies? yuck, no thanks). I'd rather be done with the series and leave it exactly as it stands forever than see additions and spinoffs that add literally nothing of value to the empire. This felt to me like nothing more than an attempt to keep capitalizing on the HP fortune, without adding anything meaningful. (Why do I feel like I need to apologize? Sorry.) 2/5 stars.

For a YA bestseller, I read Shadow and Bone (Leigh Bardugo).

Jeff read this a few years ago and enjoyed it, and Leigh Bardugo is greatly beloved by many of my book club buddies. As I've said, I'm a crappy YA reader and way too picky when it comes to YA reads, so don't get too excited here.

This 1st of a trilogy features a boring, talentless heroine (TOTALLY NEW CHARACTER TYPE FOR A YA READ!!!) who reveals an unrealized power that could save her kingdom . . . or destroy it. I thought the writing was well done (she's obviously a talented writer!) and the pacing was perfect. I was never bored, but I still didn't love it. 3/5 stars.

For a book based on a fairy tale, I read Enchantment (Orson Scott Card).

This retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story also includes plenty of Russian folktales and myths. As a child, Ivan saw a sleeping woman in the woods. Years later, he has convinced himself he was imagining things . . . until he stumbles into her again and rescues her from the spell, sending him back in time and into the clutches of an evil witch.

I respect the creativity and the blending of various fairy tale and folk tale elements, but UGH. So slow and dull. Totally not for me, and now that I think about it, I have never liked an Orson Scott Card book, despite his huge popularity. I think I'm officially done with him after this snoozer. 2/5 stars.

For a book under 150 pages, I'm double dipping and counting The Sense of an Ending, which I read for the finish in a day category in the other reading challenge.

For a New York Times bestseller, I'm double dipping again and counting The Nightingale (but I think quite a few on this list would have fit this category!).

For a book that's becoming a movie this year, I read The Great Gilly Hopkins (Katherine Paterson).

Gilly is a foster kid who is determined to outsmart, trick, and befuddle everyone who crosses her path. She's rude to teachers, a pest to other children, and downright mean to foster parents. But she'll discover in her latest home that she's been missing love in her life.

This book was quick and cute, but I never heard a single word about the movie that came out this year. I listened to the audiobook and rated it 3/5 stars.

For a self-improvement book, my only read that remotely fits this category is not a perfect fit, but let's just run with it, okay? Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (Maya Van Wagenan).

Maya, a real life nerdy 8th grader, decides to spend the school year meticulously following the advice of a 1950s popularity guide (which include such gems as "always wear your pearls!" but also more timeless advice about being a good listener and reaching out to make new friends), in the hopes of improving her social standing.

This book was quick, cute, and funny (and super impressive considering the age of the author). I gave it 3/5 stars, but would absolutely recommend it for middle school girls.

For a book written by a celebrity, I read Dad is Fat (Jim Gaffigan).

I listened to the audiobook (read by the author) and thought it was fun and relatable. Gaffigan lives in a two-bedroom NYC apartment with his wife and 5 young children, and writes about parenting and life with kids.

I haven't heard/seen any of his standup, so the material was all new to me (lots of reviews complain about repeats from his standup, which I'm not familiar with). It was enjoyable to listen to, especially while trying to block out the noise from my own kids. I found I could only listen for like 30 minutes at a time before feeling like it was just too much. 3/5 stars.

For a book published in 2016, I read The Wonder (Emma Donoghue, who you may know as the author of Room). 

In 1850, a trained English nurse is summoned to a reclusive Irish village to observe a young girl who the town claims is experiencing a miracle: she has supposedly survived without eating a crumb of food for months. Miracle or

This book started slow and was hard to get into, but what won me over was the eery gothic-type setting and the mesmerizing/infuriating belief system of the age. I ended up really liking it despite a lack of connection with the characters. I gave it 3.75/stars (getting nitpicky with that rating, I know).

For a classic from the 20th century, I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis).

I don't know how I made it to adulthood without reading this before, but it filled this category in a pinch as I was running out of time and couldn't commit to anything longer (and I could double-count it for two categories!).

I know this is a much-beloved childhood classic but . . . I don't know. I was super 'meh' about it. Sorry. 3/5 stars, and only because I feel guilty giving it any less.

For a book you thought you'd never read, I read Unwind (Neal Shusterman).

This YA dystopian has popped up in my Goodreads recommendations countless times over the years, and I've always kind of snorted and thought, "Well if that doesn't earn the award for Dumbest YA Premise of All Time . . . ". But a few of my friends started a neighborhood book club this year, and guess what book was chosen early on?

We've established that I'm a grumpy YA reader. I was positive I'd hate everything about this. To its credit, it did improve and gain some subtlety as it went along, and I ended up only mostly hating it. 2/5 stars.

For a book about Christian living, I'll be honest, I cheated a little. (Ironic, given the category.) I started, but did not yet finish, The Crucible of Doubt (Terryl L. Givens, Fiona Givens).

This book addresses common concerns and questions about the Mormon faith and offers potential solutions/new perspectives (although it always stays shy of giving any concrete answers, which is appropriate considering that the doubts covered are generally unanswerable questions, hence the need for this book!).

I was raised Mormon and still am, but I'm not going to lie, I've got questions and concerns (some small, some larger). This book was amazing in offering different ways to think about some of these questions and new perspectives to view the church and these spicy issues with. Some were 'solutions' I've come up with myself and clung to (although the book backed them up with scripture), and some were new ideas to me. It was due back at the library before I finished reading it, though. It's on my Christmas list, and I look forward to finishing the book. So far, I'd give it 4/5 stars.

For a book by C.S. Lewis, I'm double dipping into a previous category and counting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For a book with a protagonist who shares your occupation, I had to get a little creative. I don't exactly have an occupation, but if you can still consider me a blogger, and if you consider blogging a job as a writer, then let's go with The Precious One (Marisa de los Santos).

Taisy (a writer! :-P) was more or less abandoned by her d*ck of a father, who couldn't care less about her or her family, although he adores and cherishes his 'new' family, including a lovely, snooty teenage daughter. When he contacts Taisy out of the blue to write his life story before he dies, she worries about resenting his 'replacement' daughter . . . but discovers a girl who is insecure and hiding serious secrets. Funny, clever, and disturbing all at once, I loved it. 4/5 stars.

For a book with a great cover, I read Illuminae (Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff). Is that a great cover, or what?

I wasn't looking forward to reading this novel for book club this year -- YA futuristic angsty teen romance, a space pursuit, a deadly mutating virus, a creepy artificial intelligence system seemingly bent on total human destruction. It didn't sound like my type of book. At all.

But I loved it and am eagerly awaiting next year's book club meeting to discuss the 2nd in the series (which I am adamantly refusing to read until book club, and the wait is killing me). 4/5 stars.

For a book about church history, I am double dipping and using The Crucible of Doubt again. Although it isn't strictly about church history, it contains a lot of historical quotes, stories, and influence.

For a book based on a true story, I read The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls).

I've been meaning to read this book ever since reading and loving Half Broke Horses, which I didn't realize at the time was a prequel of sorts to this book.

Jeannette's childhood family was eccentric . . . to put it mildly. Bizarre injuries and accidents, bleak living situations, unemployment, neglect, and near-starvation, but with an oddly endearing and often hilarious family spirit and connection. I loved this story which alternated between being charming and lovable, and worrisome/depressing. 5/5 stars.

For a novel longer than 400 pages, I read The Lake House (Kate Morton).

I always love Kate Morton, and have been excitedly waiting for the release of her latest novel!

When the Edevane family's baby mysteriously vanished one night, the family was ripped apart by tragedy. Various family members blamed themselves and kept secrets for decades, without ever discovering where the baby had disappeared to or what had become of him.

With Morton's trademark dual narrative, mysterious characters, and semi-creepy backstory, this one was another winner. I wasn't 100% thrilled with the ending, but even so, 5/5 stars.

For a book with an ugly cover, I read Belong to Me (Marisa de los Santos).

I don't know if it's an ugly cover, exactly, but let's be real: it isn't great.

This sequel to Love Walked In follows newlyweds Cordelia and Teo to their new suburban neighborhood where Cordelia struggles to connect with prickly new neighbors, bonds instantly with a woman she barely knows and her gifted son, and has her marriage tested by the revelation of a secret she never expected.

De los Santos is always fun to read. There were some elements that got on my nerves a tad, but it was a pleasure to read this. 4/5 stars.

For a book that's been in your to-be-read pile forever, I read Orphan Train (Christina Baker Kline).

People have been recommending this book to me for years, and I've been putting it off. But I finally read it for book club this year and . . . was not impressed (although our book club meeting, which focused largely on today's foster system, was fantastic).

Here was my problem: I never felt even the remotest connection to a single character in the book. Nothing. They all felt like stereotypes that I've read 1000 times before, without offering any new perspective or point of view. And a lot of the book's drama depended upon being shocked by the very fact of the orphan train: the shipment of orphans and their subsequent treatment being news to a lot of people. But I've learned about this topic before, so the shock value wasn't there for me. Twists felt added purely to shock readers, and not to aid the flow of the story. I didn't care for it, and can't give it more than 2.5/5 stars. But if you haven't read these stereotypical characters before, or haven't read about the orphan trains before, you'll very likely enjoy it more than I did (as most of my book club friends did!). I'll admit, I felt like a bit of a jerk at our book club meeting -- pretty sure I was the only person (or close to it!) who didn't have a strong emotional reaction to this book.

For a popular book that you've never read, I read These Broken Stars (Amie Kaufman).

The farther I get in this post, the more I think the take-home message is "Rachel, stop trying to make YA happen. It's not going to happen." I apologize for being such a terrible grouch.

This very popular YA sci-fi follows two dissimilar teens who are sole survivors in an interstellar spaceship crash and must survive on a deserted planet and hope for rescue. WILL THEY FALL IN LOVE?? WILL THEY?????? 2/5 stars.

For a book by a 'local' author, I cheated a tad. I grew up near Sleepy Hollow, NY so I'm pretending I'm still local to NY (I live in Utah now), and counting The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving).

I can't believe I made it through an upbringing in the New York public school system without ever reading this classic, set so close by my home town. It was our Halloween selection for book club this year, and I'm glad to finally cross it off my list. I was surprised to learn that it actually isn't spooky or scary in the slightest, and is more funny than creepy. The nostalgia factor was nice (I loved hearing town names I was familiar with from my home state), but other than that, I can't say this book had much going for it. 2/5 stars.

For a book about America, I'm sorry to say that I failed this category unless we stretch it quite a bit. I put this category off all year long because I couldn't think of anything that sounded appealing. The closest I can get is a fictional novel based on a true American historical event -- can that count? I feel like I'm fudging it, but it's all I've got, so let's call this one Girl Waits With Gun (Amy Stewart).

This is a fictionalized version of true historical events -- a set of 3 adult sisters in 1914 is harassed by a local jerk after he causes a traffic accident and refuses to accept the blame, but the ladies fight back in impressive fashion, leading to the eldest sister being offered the position of deputy sheriff in their town (and she was truly one of the first female deputy sheriffs in American history).

I found the history and setting interesting to read about, but the story was a bit slow and the sisters were a tad dull. It was pleasant enough, just not riveting or life-changing. 3/5 stars.

For a biography, I read Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Bill Bryson).

I bought this ebook on a whim when it was on sale for $1.99, purely because I've always enjoyed Bill Bryson. To be honest, reading a Shakespeare biography didn't sound hugely interesting to me, but I trusted Bryson to make it humorous and interesting, and he sure accomplished that!

This is a very quick, fun, and even funny read covering what little is known about Shakespeare's life (shockingly little, actually; especially when you consider what a huge historical figure he has become!), life and theater during his time, and some of the theories that have emerged over the centuries about him and his work. I found it fascinating, and it only heightened my desire to visit England and the rebuilt Shakespearean theaters there. 4/5 stars. 

Whew! That was intense. I will be shocked to my core if anyone actually read this entire post, but it was fun to revisit many of the books I read this year. And hopefully, if you did read this, you'll end up with a few ideas of books you can add to your 2017 reading list. I'd love to hear some of your favorite reads from 2016!

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