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

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.

Warcross, by Marie Lu: A Review

I had been looking forward to reading Warcross, by Marie Lu for some time. So when I came across the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #39, a book revolving around a puzzle or game, I was excited to finally make reading it a priority. From the Goodreads blurb:

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. … Hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. … Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action.

Warcross tells the story of Emika Chen, a down-on-her-luck hacker and bounty hunter living in Manhattan. Her rent is due and her last bounty got scooped by another hunter, so Emika finds herself taking desperate and risky action to avoid being thrown out on the streets. Expecting to get arrested for her trespass, Emika is stunned to receive a call from the game’s creator instead – with a job offer.

Emika ends up transported to Tokyo where she is inserted into the Championships as a player. She’s there to uncover a security problem, but finds something much more sinister instead.

The game descriptions are phenomenal and the action is fast-paced and fun. While I enjoyed this book, and will read the sequel eventually, it was a bit predictable. It wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped.

A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson: A Review

It was not hard to find a book to fit Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #20, a book set in space. I love science fiction, and my shelves are full of books that qualify. I ended up choosing A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson, book one in the series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Someone in my book club stumbled on this series and presented it to the rest of us as a really fun read. We even made arrangements for the author herself to come to one of our meetings, and so this book jumped to the top of my space book options.

In this series opener, we meet Ia, a precog who is plagued by visions of the future where her home world is devastated. In order to prevent this from coming to pass, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military. This first installment encompasses Ia’s enlistment, initial training and her first tour of duty.

There is a lot of world building involved in this first book, and I had some difficulty getting into the story. Still, it is well written, with a great deal of realistic detail, especially in regards Ia’s basic training experiences. I think the bigger payoff will be in the remainder of the series where the story can develop further on this foundational world building.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet Jean Johnson in person and talk with her about her books and her experiences as an author. I look forward to reading the rest of this series and more by Jean Johnson. Besides this military sci-fi novel, I also had the opportunity to check out another of Johnson’s series – a paranormal romance series, the Sons of Destiny. This series is also a lot of fun.

The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket: A Review

For the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #3, a book written by a musician, I chose to read The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket. I chose this book because it was the only one I found on my shelves that fit the category. I started the Series of Unfortunate Events last year, reading the books aloud with my eldest son, and he has been happy to continue it with me.

Book two finds the unhappy Baudelaire orphans in a new home with a new guardian, their Uncle Monty (who isn’t truly their uncle). Uncle Monty is a collector of reptiles, and is delighted to introduce his new charges to his passion. For a while, things seem to be going well for the Baudelaires, especially after the disastrous events of book one. They even begin to think they could be happy here.

However, it isn’t long before their nemesis, Count Olaf arrives on the scene. But he has disguised himself as Uncle Monty’s newly hired assistant, and no one but the children recognize his true identity. And so it falls once more to the children to save themselves.

I enjoy Lemony Snicket as the narrator of these books. He uses sarcasm, dark humor and a sense of the ridiculous to tell his stories. He often breaks into the story with a side note about his own woes, or to define a word or phrase. While this particular episode has not been my favorite so far, I have continued with the series, and I’m still having fun. If you enjoy a bit of dark humor, this series could be for you.