2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge – Year of Clear Vision

In 2019 I took on two reading challenges, the Popsugar Reading Challenge and the Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge. Both challenges consisted of 50+ reading prompts to complete which meant I had 105 books I was committed to reading during the year. This was an achievable goal in theory. In practice, however, things turned out differently. Towards the end of the year it became clear to me I would not be able to complete both challenges, so I set aside the ATY books in favor of the Popsugar books. Even this, however, was too little, too late, and I failed to complete either challenge before the end of the year.

Therefore, for 2020, I’ve decided to go back to only one challenge – the Popsugar Reading Challenge. I have expanded a couple of the categories, and there were a few I couldn’t decide which book I wanted to read, so the total books on my list, then, is 68 instead of the usual 50.

Here, then, is my list of books I intend to read in 2020:

A book that’s published in 2020 – Peace Talks, Jim Butcher
A book by a trans or nonbinary author – Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee
A book with a great first line – Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt
A book about a book club – Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
A book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics – Junk, Les Boehm
A bildungsroman – Go, Kazuki Kaneshiro; The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed – Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk; Inkheart, Cornelia Funke; Gone, Michael Grant
A book with an upside-down image on the cover – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon
A book with a map – Fool’s Errand, Robin Hobb; Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Kwame Mbalia
A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club – A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
An anthology – Sword and Sorceress XI, Marion Zimmer Bradley
A book that passes the Bechdel test – The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it – Foundation, Isaac Asimov
A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name – Killer Dreams, Iris Johansen
A book about or involving social media – Lucky Suit, Lauren Blakely; Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
A book that has a book on the cover – Arcanum Unbounded, Brandon Sanderson; Anne of Windy Poplars, L. M. Montgomery
A medical thriller – The Stand, Stephen King
A book with a made-up language – Watership Down, Richard Adams
A book set in a country beginning with “C” – Anne’s House of Dreams. L. M. Montgomery
A book you picked because the title caught your attention – What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Accidental Highwayman, Ben Tripp
A book published in the month of your birthday – Q is for Quarry, Sue Grafton; Gemina, Amie Kauffman
A book about or by a woman in STEM – The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
A book that won an award in 2019 – Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Meg Medina
A book on a subject you know nothing about – The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle
A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics – U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton
A book with a pun in the title – White Night, Jim Butcher
A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins – Rage, Jonathan Kellerman
A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character – All Systems Red, Martha Wells; Stars Above, Marissa Meyer; Neuromancer, William Gibson
A book with a bird on the cover – Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien
A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader – Becoming, Michelle Obama
A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title – Golden Fool, Robin Hobb; Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik
A book by a WOC – Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon; Silver Phoenix, Cindy Pon
A book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads – On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony
A book you meant to read in 2019 – Wonder Woman: Warbringer, Leigh Bardugo
A book with a three-word title – Bringing Up Boys, Dr. James Dobson
A book with a pink cover – Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
A Western – Defiant, Bobbi Smith
A book by or about a journalist – Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill; The Wrong Enemy, Carlotta Gall
Read a banned book during Banned Books Week – The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Your favorite prompt from a past POPSUGAR Reading Challenge:
2015 – A book with a number in the title – The Power of Six, Pittacus Lore
2016 – A book of poetry – The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson
2017 – The first book in a series – Falling Kingdoms, Morgan Rhodes
2018 – The next book in a series – Bearing an Hourglass, Piers Anthony
2019 – A book with an extinct or imaginary creature – Fool’s Fate, Robin Hobb; Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
A book written by an author in their 20s – I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title – Catch-22, Joseph Heller
A book with a character with a vision impairment or enhancement (a nod to 20/20 vision) – Superman: Dawnbreaker, Matt de la Pena
A book set in the 1920s – Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, Elizabeth Forman Lewis
A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics – Wildcard, Marie Lu
A book by an author who has written more than 20 books – L is for Lawless, Sue Grafton
A book with more than 20 letters in its title – The Best of Writers of the Future, L. Ron Hubbard
A book published in the 20th century – With a Tangled Skein, Piers Anthony
A book from a series with more than 20 books – O is for Outlaw, Sue Grafton
A book with a main character in their 20s – Anne of the Island, L. M. Montgomery

Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne: A Review

I’ve had several of Jules Verne’s books on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time, and I managed to fit two of them into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge. First, Around the World in Eighty Days for #50, a book that includes a journey, and second, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for #15, a book by an author from a Mediterranean country.

Around the World in Eighty Days begins as a wager. Phileas Fogg and his companions are discussing the advancements in transportation. Fogg proposes it is possible to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. When his friends scoff, Fogg proposes a wager.

A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg solemnly. “I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes, that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less. Do you accept?”

The story that follows is a series of wild adventures as Phileas Fogg travels by ship, train, sled and even elephant across nineteenth century India, China and America. He is pursued as a suspected bank robber, kidnapped by native Americans and sidetracked by a damsel in distress.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. Though really, this is the story of Professor Arronax, a scholar of natural history. A strange creature has been spotted in the oceans around the globe and has been the cause of multiple disasters.

Professor Arronax is among one of several experts in various maritime occupations invited to help hunt down this mysterious menace. In the process of this pursuit, Arronax, along with his body servant and a Canadian whaler, is abducted by the master of the ship he had just previously been hunting – Captain Nemo, of the Nautilaus

Forbidden to ever leave and thus reveal Nemo’s secret, Arronax and his companions are nevertheless treated as honored guests. They embark on an extensive underwater tour of the world. Arronax is at first delighted as he is privileged to see things those in his profession can only dream of seeing from the surface world. Soon, however, it becomes increasingly clear Nemo never intends to release them, and Arronax and the Canadian begin plotting their escape.

Considered to be one of the “fathers of science fiction,” Jules Verne is one of those authors you often encounter on “must read” lists. Both of these novels are among his Extraordinary Voyages series which were apparently very popular at the time of their original publication in the late 1800s. I read these two along with a third – The Mysterious Island – via audiobook. While I enjoyed the first book very much, the second was not as much fun. And the third I found just plain boring. Verne was clearly writing at a different time, and for a different audience. What may have passed for normal then, is a little harder to swallow today. Especially his portrayal of women characters – those that even exist in these stories.

Overall, I still recommend Jules Verne. Though his novels are not all created equal. Of the three I read, there was a huge variation in how much I enjoyed them. Still, it is clear he meticulously researched his subjects that he wrote about.

The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene: A Review

I have been wanting to revisit some of my favorites reads from my childhood, and book one of the classic Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock, fit so nicely into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge, prompt #23, a book inspired by the wedding rhyme #1: something old. It has been a really long time since I read any of the Nancy Drew books, and I’m fairly certain I never actually read all of them. I’m not sure if this was one I ever read.

In this series opener, we meet Nancy Drew, an 18 year old girl with an insatiable curiosity. The only child of a well-to-do, widowed attorney, Nancy is clearly among the privileged class. The story opens with her driving in her brand new convertible – a gift from her father. She is also generous to a fault, with a heart full of compassion for others. She willingly jumps into any situation to help out someone in need, whether that’s saving a child from drowning or finding a missing will, bringing financial freedom to countless downtrodden neighbors.

In this story, that is precisely what Nancy does. She stumbles onto this mystery after witnessing a child falling from a bridge. Nancy meets a family down on their luck trying to do the best they can to care for this child. She learns they had been expecting to inherit from a distant relative, but the will in question has mysteriously disappeared. Nancy’s interest is piqued and she sets about to solve this mystery.

Who doesn’t love Nancy Drew? Okay, I suppose not everyone. Still, these books remain popular among young people, dated though they may be. What’s not to love about a girl who can change a flat tire, fix the outboard motor on a boat and escape a locked closet? Nancy is still a good example of an empowered female character. She is strong-willed, curious and daring, and she has the support of her father through all her wild adventures.

The Nancy Drew stories were definitely written at a different time. They are dated, but still have something to offer. I enjoyed this story despite its age. It brought me back to my childhood, reminding me of where many of my own stories originated.

Space and Beyond, by R. A. Montgomery: A Review

Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge list number 42 is to read a “choose your own adventure” book. I remember reading these as a kid and finding them great fun. I wasn’t too keen on revisiting this “adventure” as an adult, however. My son has a handful of these books on his bookshelf, and they are very short, so I decided I would just borrow one from him. I choose Space and Beyond, by R. M. Montgomery.

I probably should have chosen a more age-appropriate version of this classic children’s book style, but to be honest, I didn’t know such a thing existed until too late. Still, this book was very short, and I read it in a single sitting, even taking the time to visit all of the possible endings.

The main premise around Space and Beyond is that the reader (addressed as “you”) is supposed to choose a “home planet.” Your mother is from one, and your father from another. And so you choose. What follows after is a series of adventures and misadventures across the galaxy. Some adventures end in disaster, or even death. Others leave you stranded, or blissfully content to remain with whatever alien culture has accepted you in.

In none of the endings, however, does the reader end up on either of the planets from the original choice. I honestly don’t remember these books feeling quite so empty. Each story track is so short, there just isn’t a whole lot of substance to any of it.

The Reckoners Series, by Brandon Sanderson: A Review

I have been working my way through Brandon Sanderson’s books since I discovered him while reading The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan. A couple of years ago I learned that he writes more than just long, epic fantasy series. I found Steelheart, book one of The Reckoners series while browsing through the teen section at my library. I absolutely loved it. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally managed to finish the series.

Books two and three both fit into the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge. I read Firefight for prompt #4, a book I think should be turned into a movie, and Calamity for prompt #18, a book about someone with a superpower.

For David Charleston, the story began ten years ago when Calamity appeared in the sky. At the same time, ordinary people began manifesting extraordinary powers. David witnessed one of these gifted individuals – now called Epics – murder his father. And for ten years, David has been observing, collecting data and plotting revenge.

Then, the Reckoners arrive in his home town, and David contrives a way to contact them with the intention of joining their ranks. The Reckoners are a shadowy group of ordinary humans who study Epics and search out their weakness – every Epic has one – with the intention of assassinating them.

Book one, Steelheart, is all about David’s quest for revenge on the Epic who killed his father – Steelheart, a man who can transform anything inorganic into steel. Oh, and he’s invulnerable.

In book two, Firefight, David and the Reckoners continue their battle against the Epics, taking the fight to the city formerly known as Manhattan. But now David’s quest has shifted from vengeance to something else. As he has pursued his quest, David has learned a great deal about Epics he didn’t know before. And maybe – just maybe – there’s a cure.

The series concludes with book three, Calamity. The more David has learned about the Epics, the more convinced he has become that they can be redeemed. While everything and everyone seems to turn against him, he insists on going up against the most powerful Epic of all.

Whether he is writing epic fantasy sagas or superpowered adventures, Sanderson is a fantastic storyteller. In this series, he writes from David’s perspective, so the reader witnesses everything through his eyes. We learn what David learns, as he learns it, so the action is immediate and close.

I loved these books! There is a short novella, Mitosis, that goes between books one and two, but you can enjoy the series without reading it. I know this, because I did it. I didn’t learn of the novella’s existence until I was already well into book two. Book two does make reference to events that transpire in this in-between time, so I will definitely read it when I can.

Otherland Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

Tad Williams has long been a favorite author of mine. I first fell in love with his books with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, and then moved on to others. I read his Otherland series many years ago when I was still on a student-borrow-books-from-the-library sort of budget. I have finally managed to collect copies of all of these books and decided this was the year I would finally reread them.

It was a huge bonus then, when I was able to fit each of them into prompts for the 2019 Reading Challenge, both the Popsugar and ATY challenges. Book one, City of Golden Shadow, I read for Popsugar’s prompt #8, a book about a hobby (online gaming); book two, River of Blue Fire, for ATY’s prompt #17, a speculative fiction; book three, Mountain of Black Glass, for ATY #19, a book by an author with more than one book on my TBR (I have eleven of his books on my list for this year!); and book four, Sea of Silver Light, for ATY #22, a book from the ATY polarizing/close call list – a book where the protagonist enters another world.

There is a lot going on in this massive series (four books totaling over three thousand pages!) which is really one long story. It follows multiple main characters – a young, professional woman from Africa, an African bushman, a teenage boy with progeria, an aged former test pilot, and many more. Even the “villain” is not so straight forward as all that, but there is layer upon layer of opposition that confronts the main characters.

The story opens with Renie Sulaweyo – an African professor working with virtual reality technology – and her widowed father and younger, dependent brother. Something happens to her brother while he is playing online with friends that puts him into a coma. Trying to help her brother, Renie sets off to figure out what put him into the coma in the first place. Her search leads her to a new form of virtual reality technology that has been secretly developed over the past decade or so. She learns her brother isn’t the only child to be affected in this way. Something sinister is going on and she intends to find out what.

Her path leads her to this new network, known as The Grail Network. But this super secret network is impossible to break into. Until an encounter brings her, along with several others into contact with someone who can get them into the network. Once there, however, they are trapped online and must move forward to find answers in order to make it out again.

This network consists of a huge number of virtual worlds. Anything seems to be possible here, from recreated fictional worlds such as Carroll’s Wonderland to Coleridge’s dream world Kubla Khan. There exists a warped version of Oz, a grotesquely corrupted wild west, an ancient Egypt ruled by the god Osiris, and even a bizarre cartoon world. Williams shows himself a master world builder in this series, as each world is flawlessly detailed, each complete with their own set of rules.

The Otherland series is set in a future world where fully immersive virtual reality gaming and other internet-based activities have been fully realized. Published between 1998 and 2001, the future tech is well imagined, and even by today’s standards feels impressively futuristic, and has stood well against the advances in real world technology. Though I was momentarily dropped out of the “voluntary suspension of disbelief” by the very brief reference to hunting for replacement batteries to power a hand held mobile device.

Otherland, like most of Tad Williams’s books, is massive. It is rich in detail, that for some might slow down the action. For myself, I love it. I can’t help but be fully engaged in the world he has created. His characters are beautifully drawn, and I need to know what happens to them. I will read anything written by Tad Williams, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: A Review

Prompt #41 on the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge is to read a book from the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards. I don’t usually seem to be on the same page as most folks voting on these awards, as the ones I choose never seem to win. However, the voting process for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards involved voting on the “best of all time” books. In this category was The Martian, by Andy Wier. I’ve wanted to read this book since I saw the movie some years back.

In this book, Weir tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Only six days into the mission, severe weather forces the team to abandon the planet. In the process, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. It turns out, he did not die. And thus begins his harrowing tale of survival.

The story is told primarily through mission logs that Watney continues to keep, perhaps mostly from force of habit and training. As a character, Mark Watney is fantastic. His sense of humor carries him through his ordeal.

Weir includes a lot of plausible sounding science. I don’t know how much of it is accurate, but it feels accurate, giving weight to the story and the mortal peril Watney is in at all times. The potentially dry sciencey bits are well tempered with real suspense and of course, the humor.

This is one of those rare occurrences where the book and the movie are equally entertaining. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, you will probably enjoy the book as well. And same goes the other way around. Quite simply, this is a great book.