Family Reads: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Ahh, she’s not Mom! I’m pleased to introduce my sister, who chose this month’s read, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I’d read about Annihilation online, but it didn’t spike my interest too much (though I liked the cover). After my sister suggested it for Family Reads, however, I realized at under 200 pages it would be a great book for April’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, so I was happy to give it a go. 

Sister: While I was at work a few months ago (I work in a bookstore), Annihilation‘s spine first caught my eye. The back description also intrigued me. When Reno asked if I wanted to collaborate on her blog, I thought this would be a good book for discussion.

We both gave this book 3.5 stars – however, this changed by the end of the discussion! We tackled many of the questions a reader might ask about the story. Annihilation leaves plenty to speculation. I’ve written the first bit of the post in the usual conversational style, but the rest takes the form of a Q and A. Some of the questions we explored in depth, others we just tossed out. Props to Sister for generating most of this discussion. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). I’ve read Authority but Sister hadn’t – we reference that book but without spoilers. Here’s our discussion on the writing style, the biologist, and the many mysteries of Area X.

Before she died, the psychologist said I had changed, and I think she meant I had changed sides. It isn’t true – I don’t even know if there are sides, or what that might mean – but it could be true. I see now that I could be persuaded. (93%)

On answers: 

Reno: Does it bother you that there aren’t many answers in this book? Does it usually bother you when there aren’t answers in a story?
Sister: No, but it usually does. I think it’s because of the writing style. Normally, I’d be getting ticked off, keeping track of what’s this and what’s that and you didn’t explain that bit and that doesn’t make sense, but with this book, I just went along with it. My reaction was, “Huh. Okay then.”
Reno: Yeah, you just roll with it. One of my early impressions of the book was that it felt like a video game. Like I was the biologist exploring the world and trying to figure it out, and you have to explore a lot before you can find answers.
Sister: And you may or may not find answers, but you’re not too heartbroken because it was more about the exploration. I’m not even expecting many answers in the second and third books, but I’d like to know A) how Area X came to be and B) why they tell so many lies about it.
Reno:  I’d like to know about how the border works. I think that would explain a lot about Area X.

On the tension created by the biologist:

Sister: I felt really anxious and tense while reading, but when I look back I don’t feel like the writing itself was anything intense. It’s just “This happened, then this happened”. I think part of the reason I was so anxious was because of the biologist was so tempered.
Reno: She wasn’t freaking out, but I was on her behalf.
Sister: Right, VanderMeer didn’t write specifically to create a suspenseful thriller but the way the biologist reacted, all rational and calm, made it that way.
Reno: The biologist herself is the creepy one half the time.
Sister: Yeah, for example, why is she glowing? [We discuss the scene after the biologist leaves the psychologist and enters the forest, and agree that it was especially freaky because of the biologist’s nonchalant manner.]
Sister: The annihilation scene with the psychologist is also like this.
Reno: Ah, I searched for discussion questions and there was one about that scene. Someone suggested the psychologist was trying to annihilate herself, because she was so freaked out by the biologist.
Sister: Oooh.
Reno: The most logical reason is that the psychologist was trying to get the biologist to ‘annihilate’, but still…
Sister: Well, the psychologist is losing it a bit, but I think the biologist was glowing before she noticed and that’s why the psychologist thought she was a flame. The tension created through the biologist really pulled me through the story. I whipped through sections because I was having such an intense reaction to them, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the writing. I think it was because of how the narrator reacted, or didn’t react.

On discussion improving the story:

Sister: It’s not a hard read. You could get through without any critical thinking, or you could choose to put a lot into it and get something totally different, which I think is kind of cool. You could go with the flow or question everything. Which I guess you could say about any book…but for example, you don’t need to question The Hunger Games. Everything’s pretty well laid out. With this book there are no answers.
Reno: You can dig into it however you like.
Sister: Right, there aren’t any answers and you don’t know if anyone is sane or accurately perceiving the reality they’re in.
Reno: I’m enjoying the book a lot more now in retrospect with our discussion. I don’t think I’ve ever theorized so much over a story. This discussion can go any way you like – choose yes or no, choose yes or no. It’s like a growing tree. Before I was in the camp of “You can just breeze through it” but now I see there are so many intriguing things to consider.

Questions for consideration:

  • Why was this expedition so small? Why wouldn’t you take a medic?
  • Who killed the anthropologist? 
    • Reno: I think…the psychologist did.
    • Sister: Right? But at the very end of the book, when the biologist looks in the surveyor’s journal, she sees the surveyor wrote ‘I took care of the anthropologist.’
    • Reno: And the biologist killed the surveyor…That’s when I really started to think the biologist wasn’t stable. I do not want to be around her. I had mixed thoughts about the surveyor.
    • Sister: She seemed pretty rude sometimes.
    • Reno: And sometimes I thought she was the most normal one. If she killed the anthropologist, she did so for a valid, good reason.
    • Sister: But then why did the psychologist say she killed the anthropologist?
  • Why are the expedition members all women?
  • Where is Area X in the world?
    • Reno: Southern United States. Somewhere kind of swampy, like Florida (is Florida swampy?) Where there are lots of crocodiles. What do you think?
    • Sister: South America, because of parallels with the Amazon and so many unknowns. The lighthouse photo shows it was civilized before… Whatever happened – they got absorbed or reincarnated or turned into weird things or something.
  • How did Area X originate?
    • Sister: I think the air is super contaminated and everyone’s hallucinating but that’s not as fun a story.
    • Reno: One explanation is mentioned in Authority that I hadn’t thought of, and I was disappointed because I didn’t want it to be that (though other readers might like that theory). I want it to be like where you find out it’s all been caused by humans messing up an experiment or something like that.
    • Sister: But I don’t want it to be bland and boring like the Mazerunner, where it’s very obvious and purposeful.
    • Reno: Yeah, I just want them to have been doing experiments or something like that. My initial thought was that it was some sort of controlled experiment – let’s give them all drugs and see what happens, but it quickly becomes clear it’s not a controlled environment.
  • How does the border work?
    • Sister: Super curious about the border.
    • Reno: Me too, one of my biggest questions.
    • Sister: Why do you need to be hypnotized? 
    • Reno: Do you even need to be, or are they just saying that?
    • Sister: Right! Is it like North and South Korea where you just go through a door and you’re in a different place, or is it actually some crazy experience that you need to be sedated for.
  • Is it a tunnel or a tower? Is it alive?
    • Sister: Tunnels to me don’t go straight down…they go through.
    • Reno: I see what you mean, yes.
    • Sister: To me calling it a tunnel was weird.
    • Reno: Ah, you biologist over there.
    • Sister: Eh, calling it a tower was also a little strange. I’d call it a hole.
    • Reno: Hahaha, let’s go explore this big hole over there!
    • Sister: That’s what it is! How about if it’s alive?
    • Reno: That was creepy. And the biologist was like “I’ll just keep going, then.” 
    • Sister: Part of me wonders if the tunnel was actually alive, or if she was just spooked and that was her own heart and she tried to rationalize it away – “No, I’m fine, that’s the tower’s heartbeat, not mine.”
    • Reno: Ooh. I always just thought it was alive. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I believe everything they say, even when I know I shouldn’t.
  • What’s up with the Crawler?
    • Reno: We’ve gotten this far and we haven’t mentioned the Crawler. It was a big part of the book for awhile then it…wasn’t?
    • Sister: Right, then it wasn’t. I’m somehow not even that curious about it. The way it’s written, I just accept it as part of Area X.
  • Why choose the biologist?
    • Reno: Something else we haven’t talked about is the biologist’s back story.
    • Sister: She was kind of unstable before…
    • Reno: You wonder why they picked her.
    • Sister: She touches on that at one point – that maybe it has to do with her husband (sure, or it’s because you’re a little crazy.)
    • Reno: They only choose four people; why choose one that’s a little off?
    • Sister: And that leads to more questions. Assuming this is set on earth, where are they picking people from? Nearby Area X or all over the world? How are they picked? Is Southern Reach a global government? Anyway. The biologist might be a little insane, but she’s very smart, rational and observant. She’s very sciency, observation and explanation based. 
    • Reno: She says she feels some things, but she rarely reacts (for example, with the Crawler or in the forest.) I wouldn’t do anything she does. Is she brave?
    • Sister: I wouldn’t say brave…maybe unafraid? Kind of stupid, or ignorant. 
    • Reno: And she’s never really been in trouble. Except with the Crawler, maybe, when she comes out glowing.
    • Sister: Another question – is the glowing from the spores or just from Area X in general? She says it’s the spores but…
    • Reno: I think she might know that’s not the best explanation but she doesn’t want to admit to herself what it might really be. I think it’s some way she’s reacting to Area X.
    • Sister: Did the biologist break her hypnotization or was she never hypnotized to begin with? 
    • Reno: Well, how did she go through the border?
    • Sister: I brushed it off to be drugs, haha.
    • Reno: She says it has to do with th spores buuuuut….
    • Sister: The psychologist alludes to the biologist being an issue, never giving her straight answers, etc. Maybe Southern Reach wasn’t banking on her being ‘unhypnotizable’ – or maybe they were…
  • Why was the biologist glowing?
  • Is everyone actually dead?
    • Reno: I thought of that movie Source Code, with Jake Gyllenhaal, in the beginning of the story. That maybe it was something like that.
    • Sister: I wonder if the biologist actually died after the surveyor shot her. The biologist just brushes off what happened, she doesn’t react much…
  • What really happened to her husband?
  • Why don’t they use names?
    • Reno: I think it’s a control thing by Southern Reach.
    • Sister: To remove personal attachment? That was a big deal for surveyor at the end. Her screaming at the biologist to tell her her name.
    • Reno:  And the biologist shot her. I was a little scared of the biologist then.
    • Sister: But the surveyor did shoot her first. In theory, the biologist shot back in self-defense but she was glowing. That would freak me out if I was the surveyor, too.
    • Reno: I feel bad for the surveyor. I got kind of a ‘true name’ vibe, like knowing it would unlock some power.
    • Sister: Or did the biologist not look like herself and the surveyor just wanted to confirm she was indeed the biologist?
  • How would you make this book into a movie?
    • Sister: Apparently it’s been optioned. I feel like a movie wouldn’t work because the story can be so different for each person.
    • Reno: Everyone has their own version of Area X.
    • Sister: The story is so heavily based on the internal narration of one person. How would you show everything so you know it’s just her perspective and not necessarily reality?
    • Reno: Yeah! A movie would, by nature, shut down so many of the questions we’ve been able to discuss here.
  • Does Southern Reach really know what happens in Area X
    • Sister: I thought Southern Reach could see what they were doing. They alluded to being removed from Area X if they wanted. Is it like a Hunger Games arena where everything is observed? Or is someone communicating with Southern Reach? (How?)
    •  Reno: I imagined Area X as a contaminated area of Earth. So, hypothetically you could fly over and peek in, but I then thought the border was too weird. Even if you looked you couldn’t see in….So the point is, yeah, how does Southern Reach know? Do they even know or are they just saying that to be comforting? Like that device that signals danger but never turns on.
  • Can you leave Area X?
    • Sister: Can you leave without Southern Reach’s help?
    • Reno: I don’t think Southern Reach matters. Maybe you could leave if Area X deemed it okay (Southern Reach can’t help.)
    • Sister: You think Area X is sentient?
    • Reno: Hah, yeah, I guess I do!
    • Sister: Ah, cool! I don’t think it’s sentient but I think you could enter and not be contaminated by whatever’s in the air, like you’re immune. But so far there hasn’t been anyone like that.
  • Why did the psychologist jump?
    • We discussed this question quite a bit, but mostly it was just us going back into the book to review what happened.
  • What’s up with the journals in the lighthouse?
    • How did they get there? Who’s collecting them? Not supposed to read each others…when did the biologist write this journal, anyhow? A few days after it all happened? She carefully constructs her narrative, deliberately withholding information until she decides it’s okay to share. She’s an aware unreliable narrator, which makes it even harder to believe what she says. She’s not reliably unreliable.

Lots to discuss! Sister and I both found talking about this book made it ‘better’. I even changed my GoodReads rating to 4 stars. Have you read Annihilation? What do you think of our theories? What are your theories? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.

Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Author: Maggie Mitchell
Title: Pretty Is
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 7 July 2015
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction + dash of thriller
Why I Read: Pretty cover, gripping premise
Read If You’re: Intrigued by the copy description
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is beautifully defies ripped-from-the-headlines crime story expectations and announces the debut of a masterful new storytelling talent.

I can’t remember how this book came on my radar, but it was some months ago. Every now and then I check NetGalley to see if books on my ‘upcoming publication’ shelf are available. I was very excited when this one finally showed up!

I like many aspects of this novel. I like the prose and the style of narrative. Mitchell writes with a strong voice and her prose injects the story with tension. The first page hooked me. The alternating perspectives of Lois and Carly May balance each other well. I like how it’s a story about stories within stories and about blurring the line between fiction, non-fiction and our own personal lives. I also enjoyed the plot. After Lois is reunited with her parents:

 They could not sit on the couch because Carly was sprawled out beside me; instead, awkwardly, they reached their thin, tanned arms out to me, inviting me to stand and be embraced. Which I did, automatically; but I found no comfort. Their arms felt insubstantial, their eyes held too many questions I knew they’d never be able to ask, their fear was wordless and stiff. (18%)

The plot developed in a direction I wasn’t at all anticipating. When I read the blurb – “a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more” – I assumed that the story of their kidnapping was widely known, that someone decided to profit off their story without their involvement, and they reconnect through some sort of entanglement with that. I found the actual plot more intriguing and creative than that. I liked that the book description didn’t give it away. I don’t like descriptions that describe a major plot point that doesn’t happen until 100+ pages in the novel. Pretty Is‘s major premise is established 6% in, but I still appreciated that it came as a surprise. The plot is built on some pretty outrageous coincidences that you know would never happen in real life, but well-written fiction like this allows makes it believable. I’d say this novel is plot driven, but the characters are central to the plot’s success – does the plot make the characters or do the characters make the plot?

Please note: This paragraph contains minor spoilers! Read at your own risk.  I noticed two points made by other reviewers that I disagree with. One is that Lois’ behavior seems unnatural or out of character. Lois’ sanity is called into question by at least herself, Carly May and Sean. (Quote from Carly May: “Only one of us can be batshit crazy, I tell myself. I have a sneaking sort of feeling that Lois – rational, orderly Lois – might have claimed that role” [83%]). I didn’t question it while reading – in fact, I wondered why everyone was thinking she was crazy. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I take everything they say at face value. When Lois was speaking, I though, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but in retrospect, how she deals with her creepy stalker is definitely not right. I don’t think this is poor writing – having Lois, an otherwise solid woman, acting ‘out of character’ with her stalker. I think it shows that she is a little bit off and shows how the kidnapping affected her. The second point is that the conclusion is abrupt and/or unsatisfying. I dislike such conclusions, but I found Pretty Is‘s conclusion to be neither of those things. I had all the answers I wanted, and I was satisfied with where the characters ended up.There is a spike in the ‘thrills’, but I was totally absorbed and carried along all the ups and downs it brought.

In genre above, I labeled this book ‘literary fiction + dash of thriller’. Another person might label it ‘chick lit thriller’ or ‘contemporary’. What genre is this book?! Who decides genres, anyhow? Are they useful to anyone beyond the person doing the labelling? I’ve learned over the past years the stories I love the most can be found in the general fiction of a bookstore or library, even though they often have strong touches of fantasy or terror. For me, Pretty Is feels ‘literary’ with a hint of thriller – just a hint; I wouldn’t call it ‘a thriller’, it’s just the nature of part of the plot. Then again, maybe it’s because I was so focused on the ‘literary fiction’ parts of the book that I can’t accept it’s more of a thriller, like how I can’t imagine Paper Towns as a ‘mystery’. I’m sure there are people who would laugh at me calling this book ‘literary’. Maybe it’s just contemporary fiction? What’s the difference between the two, anyhow? (Says the English major…) I do use the two labels separately here on my blog, but they really just follow my own impression of the book… I don’t know what the actual definitions or differences between the two terms are. Conclusion: Labels can be as tricky as ratings when describing books!

The Bottom Line: If the plot intrigues you at all, give it a go. Much better than the few other after kidnapping stories I’ve read, this would be a great read to curl up with during an evening at the cottage.

Further Reading: 

Re-read Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Author: Haruki Murakami
Title: Kafka on the Shore
Format/Source: Paperback/my copy
Published: 2005
Publisher: Vintage International
Length: 467 pages
Genre: Magical realism
Why I Read: Love this book, wanted to reread it while I’m living in Shikoku (where most of the story takes place)
Read If You: Love a strange tale
Rating ★★★★★
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
Fifth book for the Reread Challenge. Read my original review.

WHEN I First Read – January 2011

WHAT I Remember –Being absolutely captivated and awed by this story that seemed written just for me. Really identifying with a character for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever. Boy finds comfort in a quiet library and a distant cottage? Take me with you. Strange happenings alongside deep introspection? You’re in my imagination. My first Murakami novel and still my favourite one.

WHY I Wanted to Re-Read I wanted to reread my favourite Murakami novel while living in Japan. When I first read this book, the place names meant nothing to me. When I started rereading, however, I realized that most of the novel actually takes place near where I live! I visited a cafe in Tokyo dedicated to Murakami’s works. I had a lovely time there and chatted with the owner, Kunio Nakamura, who gave me his guidebook to real-world places from Murakami’s novels. Next week, I will visit Takamatsu. Even though the guidebook is only in Japanese, I’m going to do my best to visit the locations that Nakamura matched the story.

This place is too calm, too natural – too complete. I don’t deserve it. At least not yet. (151)

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – I felt very content, like I was comfortably full after a delicious meal. I was surprised by how much of the storyline (especially the conclusion) I didn’t remember. Some parts shocked me (note on page 407 – “WELL I FORGOT THAT HAPPENS!”). I forgot how much of a role Hoshino played (when he first appeared, I thought “I think he does something important?” but I didn’t remember him being around so much). I forgot how much I liked Oshima’s advice (he says many of the parts I highlighted). I seem to have only remembered the feeling I got from the story, rather than the actual story. This was a pleasant surprise, though, because it was almost like reading the story for the first time again! Only this time I knew I was in for a treat.

“…But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of – that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging. Do you know what I’m getting at?” (112)

WOULD I Re-Read Again – Yes! Perhaps in a couple years when I’ve hopefully forgotten most of the story again and I can have another fresh read.

“The people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best. You deny that reality only at the risk of being driven into the wilderness yourself.” (316)

Once again, I’m extremely pleased that I was still able to find comfort and meaning in the pages of Kafka on the Shore. I noted a number of lines and passages that stood out to me. I don’t think I did that on my first read because I was so absorbed in the encompassing narrative. Are there any books you discovered as a new adult that you still love today?

Review: Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

Author: David Almond
Title: Half a Creature from the Sea
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2015 (USA)
Publisher: Candlewick
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade historical/fantasy short stories
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, caught my attention
Read If You: Don’t usually read short stories; like the atmosphere of small town England ~1960s
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

This is a collection of dark, powerful and moving short stories from master storyteller David Almond, inspired by his childhood in the north-east of England. It features coming of age stories on the theme of closeness to home, deftly interwoven with illuminating autobiographical pieces on the inspirations behind the fiction. It is [features] black and white vignette illustrations. It comes from the author of the internationally award-winning Skellig.

I last read a short story collection years ago, I suppose. I only read such collections when an author I adore publishes one. Why did I pick up Half a Creature from the Sea? This sentence from the NetGalley description sold it for me: “Set in the northern English Tyneside country of the author’s childhood, these eight short stories by the incomparable David Almond evoke gritty realities and ineffable longings, experiences both ordinary and magical.” Seaside English setting + childhood memories + touches of magic = I want to try it! This book publishes in US in the fall, but since it’s already available in the UK, I’m publishing my review now.

The collection contains only eight stories. This also appealed to me – hopefully there would be few mediocre stories to wade through in hopes of running into the goods ones, as I hear tends to be the case with story collections. GoodReads says it’s 240 pages, but in Kindle-speak it’s only ‘Loc 1522’.  Eight stories was a perfect number for me. I breezed through the collection and didn’t find any story lesser than its companion. Each story has it own charm.

Almond’s own childhood heavily influenced these stories. A few pages of explanation prefaces each story, describing the story’s basis in Almond’s reality and sometimes how it became fictionalized. This telling doesn’t spoil the stories. Almond’s prose still flows clearly in these passages. Understanding the truths in the stories made them all the more vivid for me. I appreciated a bit where he mentions having rewritten one story many times, and will probably continuing doing so in the future. That’s not something you can do easily with novels.

“That’s the strange thing about writing stories – you put in something imaginary to make the whole thing seem more real.” (21%)

Another aspect of the stories I really enjoyed was the role of the Catholic church in the lives of the young boys. I haven’t read a lot of children’s literature where the children are so engaged in a real world religion. In that area, at that time, Catholicism was just a natural, integral part of their lives. I grew up in a church, but my experience differed greatly from the ones in the stories. I liked reading about how the church influenced the boy’s lives, and how their opinions changed and developed.

“Our duties to retain the faith and to please and obey God were much more important than our duty to love and to care for our fellow creatures.” (32%)

Although part of the reason I picked up this book was the mention of magical experiences, these play less of a role in the stories than I expected. Often the ‘magic’ is a minor part, a background note to the characters themselves. I didn’t even mind, though, because the stories are sweet enough without fantasy. The prose, too, is lovely. Almond writes the perspective of a young child well.

Perhaps by now you’re wondering the target age of this book. It appears to be marketed as middle-grade. Candlewick’s website says 7 to 9 years old (which I actually think could be too young) and the protagonists are all 10- or 11-years-old, but to me the atmosphere moves the stories beyond that level. Penguin RandomHouse’s website says young adult and Kirkus Review suggests 13-18, but certainly 14 is ‘too old’. Maybe this is one of those books you can enjoy as child, forgot about as a teen, and return to to find something new when you’re older. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gave me a similar vibe, albeit with a a lot more darkness. I don’t think 10-year-old me would have liked Half a Creature from the Sea so much, because A) I never read short stories (are they common in middle grade nowadays?) and B) there wasn’t a lot of fantasy, just touches here and there. I didn’t come to appreciate slice-of-life until my late teens. Regardless, I think this is a great book. Read it yourself, then pass it on to a young thoughtful reader or one who likes all things British.

The Bottom Line: Perhaps you’re not one much for short stories, but the description appeals to you. Give it a go, and maybe you’ll be wondering, like I am, why you don’t read more short stories!

Blogging Discussion: Mid-Year Check In

How is it mid-June already?! I always find the first half of the year goes more quickly than the latter half, but this year has been on another level, filled with traveling and visitors and  a new school year that started in April. 32 days until the last day of classes, and only 64 days until I go home. It concerns me a little that I’ve been in Japan for over 10 months, and it still hasn’t sunk in. I hope when I get home it doesn’t feel too much like a dream! While my year in Japan is almost up, my blogging year is only at halfway point. Time to check in, see how I’m doing, and what I should focus on in the remainder of the year.

  • 8 posts/month (twice a week, ideally one review and one other)
    • I’ve been keeping up with this one fairly well! If not quite twice a week, I have managed at least 8 post each month (February’s shorter… it can borrow a post from January and call it even ;P). May was a shaky month, and June isn’t off to a good start, though I have scheduled two posts per week all through June and July! I just need to write them… (I’ll be on hiatus again in August, as I’ll be traveling and moving back to Canada.) I’m struggling to focus on writing posts because I’m trying to be very active and to embrace opportunities I could only have in Japan – primarily I’m busy planning trips and going on them 🙂 Blogging will always be available to me, but I doubt I’ll ever live in Japan again!
    • While I’ve reviewed nearly every book I’ve read this year, I haven’t done as many ‘other’ posts as I’d like to. It’s easier for me to fall back on reviews than to think of something different to write…ah, aren’t I lazy?! I like writing reviews – that’s my main purpose here – but I’ll have to try to give more attention to posts like article reviews and responses. Once I get started on those posts, I do enjoy writing them and the thinking they require.
    • I kicked off a monthly feature in April called Family Reads, where a family member choose a book for us to read and discuss. I’m really pleased with how it’s going, though since I’ve only written two so far, I’m still settling into the format. April and May were done with Mom, but we’ll see my sister in June and my father in July.
  • Improve writing style
    • Hm, well… I think overall I’m improving, but there are still more times than I’d like there to be when I slack off and don’t articulate as clearly or precisely as I could (wow, this sentence exemplifies that.) I should be more ruthless when editing from my writing. Shape up, Reno!
  • Events
    •  24-Hour Read-a-thon: My participation in the April Read-a-thon this year was hindered by attendance at an out-of-town concert. I didn’t prepare as I usually do, but I managed to read for 6.5 hours. I also hosted a mini-challenge for the first time. I loved reading everyone’s responses. 
    • Armchair BEA: Last year I fully participated in this event and had a blast. This year I could only partially participate, again hindered by a weekend trip. However, the prompts gave me the opportunity to address some thoughts I hadn’t written about before (defining diversity + social media + character chatter), and I was able to participate in one of the Twitter parties.
  • Challenges
    • Re-read: 5/12. On track. There are some books I really want to read but I have them at home. I think I’ll be able to manage more than 12.
    • TBR Pile: 5/12. On track. I’ve tried two books that really weren’t for me, so I better enjoy the remaining!
    • Foodies: 3/4 to 8. Ah, this fraction is different…pretty much on track? 😛 I’ve really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m looking forward to reading more!
    • CBC Books: 3/12. This one’s been a bit tricky because I haven’t been able to get all the books through the library and I wasn’t interested enough to buy them ^^; When I’m back in Canada it’ll be much easier to access physical copies, so hopefully I’ll join in a few more reads towards the end of the year.
    • Indigenous authors: 2/5. Eh, I’m a bit embarrassed at having set that number so low… Shouldn’t be a problem to surpass it! I have a few titles on hold now.
    • Tolkien: 2/6. On track. I’m going to read On Fairy Stories this month and I really should start The Silmarillion but I want to give it my full attention so maybe I won’t start until September but I also want to start The Lord of the Rings but I want to read my lovely hard copy which I don’t have in Japan but I do have a hard copy of The Silmarillion so the conclusion is – I really should start The Silmarillion! But I also want to read a couple books about the pilgrimage I’m doing in Japan and those need my full attention AUGHHHHH I need an extra hour in the day to devote to THE SILMARILLION! /rant
    • Japan: 0/12 – Hahahaha I put it at 12, that’s a bit silly. I thought I would read 12 books about Japan since I arrived last August but nope…right now I’m just hoping to finish a big book on Mt. Koya before I leave. If I make it through three books for this personal challenge, I’ll be satisfied (the Koyasan book, finish Shackles of the Past, and another book on Japanese religion).

This year I’ve noticed a number of bloggers pondering the question of quality vs. quantity when it comes to the books we read. (I think Shannon’s post really got me thinking about this.) I’m reading many books (37, ‘one book ahead’ of my GoodReads goal), but are they any good? How do I find those exceptional gems? I think the only way is to read a lot of books! It’s hard for me to tell in advance what’s going to be an exceptional story or just an okay one. Let’s take a look at my 2015 challenge details:

  • I’ve read 8 ★★★★★ books. However, 5 of them were rereads! I’m very selective about giving out this rating, so if I read five 5-star (new to me) books in a year, I think that’s great. I do wonder if there’s any way I can increase that number, though, short of being less selective.
  • I’ve read 14 ★★★★ books. These are all books I thought were generally great and I enjoyed reading them. I’d happily recommend them and some of them I will probably reread in the future.
  • I’ve read 11 ★★★ books. This is the rating level I struggle with. 3 stars means it was good and fine, but there are many books I liked better. What I would love is to read less 3 stars and more 4 stars…but again, is it possible to tell which is which without reading the whole book? Hrm. 
  • I’ve read 4 ★★ books. Generally, if a book is 1 or 2 stars, I won’t finish it. The four books I’ve read this year were A) on my TBR list for ages and I finally got around to it (If I Stay), B) read as a last-minute pick for Family reads (The Sisters Brothers), C) second in a trilogy I’m committed to (Authority) and D) I wanted to know it ended (Emancipation Day)
  • No ★ books! I plan to never read a one star book again 😛 Mostly they came from mandatory school reading.

How is your reading going this year? Are you keeping up with any challenges, goals or resolutions?