My Year in Reading: First Quarter

The Biggest Difference in 2016 So Far:

Podcasts have replaced a lot of my audiobook time, which is likely to substantially decrease the total number of books I “read.” So far in 2016, I’ve finished one audiobook (Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary). While I’ve also listened to about 30 hours of Robert Caro’s massive Lyndon Johnson bio, that’s still way down from last year. I’m likely to read a lot less non-fiction, in particular, at this rate, so I’m kind of hoping my podcast obsession will taper off soon.

Results of My TBR-Only Experiment:

At the start of the year, I decided to read only from my TBR and library books I already had on hold for January, and then when I realized how early Lent started this year, I extended it until Easter. The upshot?

  • At first I had too many library books. I paused/cancelled some holds, but probably only about half my reading was from the TBR for this first quarter of the year. I cheated a little: I let my husband buy me Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. Next year, stay out of bookstores during the “fast.”
  • I bought three e-books on Easter. On the other hand, they were all books I’d had on my radar for a while. I saw a tweet that Cathy Pegau’s Murder on the Last Frontier was on sale, snapped it up and read it immediately. The main goal of my book-buying “fasts” is not to stop buying books altogether, but to make my buying habits more intentional once the fast is over–to stop buying things I’m only vaguely interested in just because they’re cheap; and to stop stockpiling, especially of e-books, buying most books only when I’m ready to read them. In the last couple of years, my buying habits have moved in those directions, so I’m counting this a win.
  • My library wishlist has ballooned. Maybe next year for Lent I should give up browsing my library’s recommendation lists and new purchases! But while this felt like a problem at first, it’s a change from putting everything that looks interesting on hold. A wishlist can be pruned if I lose interest, and I can put things on hold when I’m ready to read them. (One thing I’ve learned is that a good book is just as good six months–or six years–after everyone else has read it, but some books no longer look appealing to me once the buzz has died down).
  • I found a lot of things in my TBR that I probably will never read. This is especially true of my e-TBR, which is mostly romance. I bought a lot when I was new to the genre, was reading a ton of it, and didn’t really understand my romance-reading tastes. I wish I hadn’t gone crazy with book-buying in that stage, but oh well. On the plus side, there are also great things in my TBR that I’d forgotten all about and am excited to read.
  • I may have five library books checked out right now, but I’m still going to try to read more from my TBR. I’m considering a monthly quota.

Reading More Poetry:

Yes! I’m loving it! Despite my embrace of “not getting it,” I feel like an awfully hapless reader of poetry for someone with a PhD in English. I brought home a textbook from work that I plan to dip into over the summer.

Reading Inclusively:

(I’m not sure who I saw talking about preferring “inclusive” to “diverse” because it doesn’t emphasize a white default, but it was a good point). This has led to some of my best, most exciting and original reading this year, including Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Fran Ross’ Oreo, and Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. And some of the most fun, in Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, which I will probably finish today. There’s no compromise in quality in these reading choices.

Speaking of Cho, she has a really interesting blog post on “Writing My Culture for Fun and Profit.” In it, she writes that

For me, to write using local myths and beliefs is a form of accessing a deep truth. Something like the Regency voice is pure performance — I am doing something sort of serious with it, but it’s mostly play.

While I am enjoying Sorcerer to the Crown, it does feel like a performance somehow. It’s a pastiche, and some of the elements are really familiar if you love Heyer or something like Wrede and Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecilia (which I do). Cho’s book has been most exciting for me when it departs from those sources, much as I love them, and brings in elements of her culture like the Malaysian sorceress Mak Genggang. So I’m really looking forward to reading some of her stories that draw more on that culture. One of my Easter purchases was her story “The Terracotta Bride.”

Lists, Awards, Tournaments:

Last fall, I enjoyed following a group of bloggers doing a Shadow (Wo)Man Booker read of the shortlist. Then there were people discussing the just-completed Tournament of Books (for which I’d actually read the winner, though almost nothing else), and now I’m following Savidge Reads’ discussion of the Baileys longlist. I’ve found books I want to check out on all of these lists, and I’ve been wondering why literary fiction award shortlists tend to work better as recommendations for me than, say, romance’s RITA awards or even something like the Hugos. For the RITAs, it’s pretty simple: there are so many categories, and the judging process is so random (i.e. so many judges that the list is not reflective of a particular guiding philosophy, while a small panel tends to produce a more coherent shortlist). Since the Hugos are voted in by fans, I guess the same is true there (and then there are the political shenanigans). And then, I just haven’t read enough SFF to get a good sense of when prize-givers’ taste aligns with mine. I use the literary awards lists for discovery; I don’t just assume that if it’s an award shortlist I’ll like it. I haven’t found that genre awards work the same way for me.


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13 Responses to My Year in Reading: First Quarter

  1. Janine Ballard says:

    Interesting thoughts on Sorcerer to the Crown. I really liked it, but I agree that it does feel performed, and for me that’s maybe not it’s best aspect.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that Heyer often feels kind of performed–or at least, there is a stagy quality to her dialogue. I enjoyed the book a lot (and did finish it last night), but I was thinking about how Prunella reminded me a bit of Sophy in The Grand Sophy. I like Prunella, and I like Sophy, but weren’t you the one who points out Sophy doesn’t grow or change? I mostly thought that was true of Prunella as well. Power comes quite easily to her, and although in plot terms it comes with a cost, that moment wasn’t really *felt*–I thought like Sophy she kind of rode high over everything (sometimes literally!) and just kept triumphing and getting the right outcome through her manipulations. And sometimes it’s great fun to read a female character like that, but it isn’t as real or emotionally satisfying in the end. I guess this book felt emotionally flat to me, a bit, fun but I didn’t *care* that much, though that may have been just the moment when I read it. But it did make me look forward to what Cho will do next!

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        I enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown enormously. One of the funnest books I’ve read recently, and (not that anyone is saying otherwise) that is not an easy thing to do. While Prunella’s actions didn’t always make sense to me, apart from giving the book (fun) forward motion, I found quite an emotional depth to Zacharias that balanced that out (for me). There’s a scene/revelation near the end with his father that gutted me. I too look forward to what Cho does next.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I agree that the book was just sheer fun, and that isn’t easy to pull off. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and some of the things (like the singing orb) felt very fresh to me. I loved Mak Genggang and would have loved to see more of the relationship between her and Prunella, because it seemed that in many ways *she* was Prunella’s teacher more than Zacharias was.

          I think you’re right that Zacharias was more the emotional centre. That still felt sort of underdeveloped to me–his relationship with the Whythes–though very interesting. I guess I felt that the book pulled some of its best punches because it was staying “fun.” But I also read most of it in a very distracted week where perhaps subtleties went over my head. I can absolutely see putting this on my comfort re-reads shelf and visiting it again, and there’s so much in this world that I’d like to see explored more that I’m looking forward to the next book.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I agree that Heyer’s dialogue feels performed as well. I noted the similarity between Prunella and Sophy in one of my discussions with Sunita, I think. They’re characters that don’t grow or change and IRL I’d find both of them incredibly frustrating if I had to deal with them. But since they are also comical characters and a lot of the humor derives from their behavior, it’s hard to know how seriously to take their flaws.

        You’re right that the book had some flatness. I don’t know whether to lay that on Prunella’s lack of growth, though. Maybe it’s more that Cho was channeling Heyer and Clarke a little too hard? Sunita’s observation that the pastiche aspects were overwhelming is spot on.

        While I wish there had been more about Zacharias’ relationship to his parents, even without more, I thought Zacharias’ backstory and his interactions with Sir Stephen and Lady Whythe were very moving, and thoughtfully written. I think it’s hard to explore such a relationship fully in a novel that’s set in the Regency era *and* has a humorous tone. Considering all that, Cho did very well with it.

  2. Sunita says:

    I have been readings lots more library books and TBR books. I’m doing the Mount TBR challenge this year and so that keeps me going back. When I read something new it’s because I’ve heard good things about it (the Beatty and Flournoy novels) or because a generous friend has bought it for me. I’m really enjoying reading from the TBR, not least because I get to read both print and ebook formats.

    I *loved* the Tournament of Books this year. I read the Flournoy right after its initial ToB judgment and I’m so glad I did, it’s a wonderful novel. Seeing it and the Beatty duke it out in the finals was immensely satisfying, and the judgments all through the tournament were such high quality. In terms of genre romance, I’ve been dipping back into my TBR and reading categories, most of which have been quite satisfying.

    Right now I’m reading Lord Jim, which I escaped reading in high school. Sirius got me to do a buddy read and I’m really enjoying it. It’s much more accessible than I expected, and even though it’s wordy and full of digressions (and Conrad never met a similar or metaphor he couldn’t use), the story has me engrossed and turning the page.

    I just read The Terracotta Bride and absolutely loved it. It’s short but complete and it has all the things I read Cho’s non-Western-set books for. I read Jonathan Strange earlier this year and realized how much of Clarke was in Sorcerer. It’s not that there wasn’t anything original in it, because Cho’s voice and sparkle were evident, but the pastiche aspects were overwhelming for me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, with the Cho I wanted the pastiche bits (which were fun and well done) to recede into the background more and the original spark to come to the front, and I felt like it was the other way around.

      I loved the ToB book discussions. Once again, I felt that though I have no desire to read Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life ever ever ever, it was the 2015 book that produced the most interesting conversations and responses. There’s a point in its favour! I loved that there was a real mix of more conventional novels and more experimental ones–it really felt like a “something for everyone” list with a lot to explore. I’ve been vaguely aware of it before but never followed it closely, and next year I think I’ll pay more attention and try to read more of the books ahead of time. Maybe.

      I do feel I’ve really enjoyed my reading this year, that the mix of genres and formats and library and TBR and newish and old has felt right, and I’m very much enjoying following my impulses in choosing my next book. I never mind spoilers, so I’m happy to read reviews of and conversations about books that I may not get to for a while, or may never read. Almost always, they enrich my reading.

      I added a bunch of new blogs to my feed reader because many of my old favourites had disappeared, and that refreshed my reading too.

      • Sunita says:

        I enjoyed the commentary below the line as well, it’s a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of regulars. I thought the ALL discussions were great, but I got tired of them because they would sometimes take over days where the book wasn’t under consideration. But it does show how a novel can generate enormous passion and attachment, and for the most part people were considerate of each other’s views.

  3. Kaetrin says:

    I had 5 books out from the library in March. I read (a short story from) 1 (It was, at least, the reason I borrowed the book in the first place). *sigh* I have put myself back on the list for one of the books I didn’t get to (Illuminae – at the very least I think my son will like it) but gave up on the others. There’s something about having a deadline to finish reading that makes me balk. Which is non-sensical because it’s not dissimilar from reading review books and I do that far better than I do library books. (Though I’m limiting the number of review books I accept for similar reasons I suppose.)

    I’m somewhat envious of your ability to stick to the TBR Liz. I am too distracted by the shiny. (I’m only somewhat envious because I like the shiny!)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Library books can feel like homework to me, too. But I have mostly learned to return them guilt free when that happens.

      I am not doing all that well with the TBR, really. I buy a lot less but the library shiny calls my name. It’s a work in progress!

  4. joopdeloop says:

    Excited to see you reviewing Zen Cho – I just recently finished Terracotta Bride and her collection of short stories Spirits Abroad. I remember being entertained by Sorceror, but feeling a bit of a strangled or muted quality to it that I didn’t find with Jade Yeo. (still mulling over your analysis of “performing” quality). I think my biggest love for her writing came from reading House of Aunts (which hooray is also in the ebook version of Spirits Abroad.) My family is from Taiwan, so the Hokkien, and the aunties attitudes, the mingling of superstition and mundane bits of My Little Pony or linedancing or comparing sparkly vampires to the local, less glamorous undead —these all feel so apt and acute, that lovely capture of the things that can be tragicomic and homely and appealing about living at the intersection of Asian and Western cultures. I especially love the voices she conjures, a sense of dialect that sounds familiar to me, even if its not exactly my family’s pidgen. Bonus: ebook also includes author commentary on stories, great fun and often very insightful. Big joy, highly recommend! (I kept having to read the good bits out loud to my husband or daughter or whoever would put up with me cracking up. If its not in your TBR, slip it in, it will be a lovely set of easter eggs for the future!)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      “Muted” is a good way to put it, and I think is why her comment about “performing” this voice made sense to me. The only other think of hers I have read is Jade Yeo, and there the voice just felt different to me, more natural or confident somehow. She was blunter there about colonialism too. In this book, the voice felt like one she enjoyed, but as if she were playing dress up somehow, or holding back on some things because the voice demanded lightness. It was good! But I missed what it might have been if she had let herself go. I guess it did feel like holding back and writing in a more “commercial” or safe vein.

      I have Spirits Abroad and I am looking forward to it!

    • Sunita says:

      “Even if it’s not my family’s pidgen.” Yes! That is my reaction too. I love Cho’s Malaysian-influenced and -set stories because their voice reminds me of my home (complete with lots of aunties). The blend of languages, the affectionate scolding and endless advice-giving, and the navigating between competing cultures and interests and everything else.

      If you haven’t listened to it already, you should check out the audio version of The House of Aunts. The narrator is perfect for the story:

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