Summer Standbys: A Personal Reading List

It’s officially summer (something we in Arizona know only too well), and everyone is securing their final picks for vacation reads. I’m done with summer classes for my program, and I definitely need a mental break when I leave the office. My first order of business was getting a good nights’ sleep; my second order is curating a summer reading list.

I’m not sure if this appeals to any other bibliophiles out there, but summer is a time when I reread books. I have a few standbys that just “make” summer for me.  There’s something about a lazy summer day, a cool drink, and a warped, favorite paperback. So, here are my personal favorites – books that mean it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I love a good epic doorstopper, and there’s no better time than the summer to really dive into one. The Pillars of the Earth is one of my all-time favorites, following several families and their involvement in medieval English history. The main plot lines involve contested succession and the building of a cathedral, so expect lots of intrigue and shady dealings. There are some great romances and some of my favorite female characters. If you saw the Starz adaptation, reading the book will be a real treat!

THE Hot Zone BY Richard Preston

We had to read this one summer as part of our required reading and it was awesome. It was the first time a non-English course required summer reading (that I can recall, at least), and it really stayed with me as a great example of going beyond the theoretical and finding resources that engage students. It’s a totally personal pick that won’t apply to everyone. Still, if you love non-fiction and epidemiology, maybe just give this one a read.

 stephen king

Sometimes I alternate my Stephen King read in the summer and select something new or another favorite. For a long time, it was The Stand. I now recognize this as an imperfect read. It’s almost a case study of how not to write well, but still craft an engaging story that is dominated by, let’s be real, white dudes. The magical negro character is highly problematic. As cheesy as it sounds, The Shining is a great book that gets better with each read, at least for me. Either way, diving into a book by Stephen King just feels like summertime.

What books make your summer? Leave a comment!

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Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part II: Pandemic; An Ember in the Ashes; In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Company

Read Part I here!

I took a fiction break with Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola 23847947and Beyond. I listened to the audio version, which Shah narrates herself. She does a fine job, and
the book is decent. I felt like she didn’t bring anything “new” to the non-fiction epidemiology world, and that a lot of the same themes and insights could be delivered in long-form journalism pieces (this one about Ebola is a personal favorite). I kind of wish that I had chosen her other books instead, but heard the malaria one was a difficult listen and didn’t even see this one about pharmaceuticals and ethics on Audible! Personally, I’m not ready to write off Shah — I appreciate her writing style, how she incorporates herself into the story, and the engaging honesty she offers the reader. Pandemic just wasn’t for me. For a longer review and a look at the complexes you’ll develop after reading this book, please check out  Gin Jenny’s post here!

Next up is a book I heard about through the blogger grapevine and read about on Book Riot! 20560137Seriously, when I see a lot of consistently positive reviews about a genre book, I have to give it a try. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a phenomenal first entry in the series. It’s a great YA exploration of personal/social expectations and pressures, identity, and narratives. The chapters alternate narrators, focusing either on Laia or Elias. Laia comes from a family of spies, but she hasn’t been involved — until her brother is arrested, and she’s forced to take steps to get him back safely. Elias, meanwhile, is a soldier on the eve of graduation — and desertion. His plans are interrupted when he is chosen to partake in the trials to determine the new Emperor. The way the characters come from such different backgrounds and narratives was fascinating, and I was intrigued at the way Tahir presented truth and deception in the book. She also neglects to, well, neglect her secondary characters. There are no flat characters here. This is a book about relationships: to yourself, your family, your country, and your destiny. There will be a second book; I’m not linking to it because it contains major spoilers, but I will say that the synopsis implies at least one additional narrator that should lend a compelling, fascinating voice.

Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is a taut British mystery and yet another audiobook in my 23783496collection. I saw the hardback cover at my local indie, read a few pages, and knew I had to read the rest. I snapped a pic to remember (does anyone else do this?) and scooped this up with Audible credits a few months later. Ware’s take on the “unreliable female narrator” is an interesting one, as the protagonist has landed herself in the hospital after a car crash and can’t remember how (or where) the bachelorette/hen party she attended went wrong. Think a tamer version of Girl on the Train, with just as much suspense and a dash of early Tana French. This is Ware’s debut novel, but she has a second one coming out this year. I know I will get it, as Ware has already earned herself a spot on my “authors to follow” list. I recommend this one to fans of atmospheric British novels and mysteries.

The last book on my list has been on my shelf forever! My dad recommended Robert Littell’s The Company to me in high school. I read Part One, and for whatever reason, I abandoned it. I’m kind 25535845of glad I did, because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much at a young age. As an adult, I have a much better understanding of scope and how events connected. And let me tell you, there are some events in this book. At almost 900 pages, it’s a doorstopper of a book. I’m a fast reader, but this was the only book I read (outside of class reading assignments) on our vacation to Grand Cayman. The book is set in the Cold War, starting with spy recruitment post-World War II and ending after the August 1991 Soviet coup d’etat attempt. It also focuses on a lot of American failures in the Cold War – Kim Philby, Hungary, and the Bay of Pigs make for interesting, interconnected plot points. There’s a much larger spy versus spy story here, as espionage focuses not just on global events, but playing agents and agencies against each other. I grew up with a very big picture of the Cold War, but this book imagines it at a much more human, intimate level. Read this if you’re interesting in twentieth century history or love The Americans.

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part I: The Dog Stars; The Dark Net; Shadowshaper

One of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my English MA program is finding a bookish balance. I know it seems weird, but when you spend your extra time juggling memoirs and English drama, it can be hard figuring out what you want to read. I experience a lot of fear and hesitation: what if I pick something too similar to what I’m doing? What if I start this book and it isn’t good enough to keep my attention? I hate to admit that I spent a lot of time determining what I needed, and then more time trying to create strategies to meet those needs — but that’s another post for another time 🤓

For the purposes of this post, I’ve excluded those books I read for grad school. Now, did I manage to fit these “free time” books into discussion? Of course. I wrote a post about Tropic Thunder, identity, and conflict that my professor loved. Being able to work “unrelated” books into conversation is an English grad student’s bread and butter and probably why reading this blog appeals to you!

I spent more time with fiction than non-fiction, and almost all of these were recommendations or gifts. I thought it was pretty cool that I ended up investing time with pay-it-forward books.

16041830Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was one of the first books I read this year, and a pleasant surprise gifted to me by my husband. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and I’ve read a ton. What I liked about The Dog Stars was that it bridged a lot of gaps: a different type of story and plot (the
protagonist is a pilot!), while still feeling familiar; universal but intimate; lyrical and approachable. I highly recommend this one for those who love post-apocalyptic fiction, or for those who are looking for something unique from the genre. It’s a short read, but it packs an emotional punch. If you’ve listened to the audio version, I’d love to know what you thought – this one screams for an audio listen.

My next read was a recommendation I got from Gin Jenny’s 25387743blog! I read The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett and referred to it a ton in my digital literacy class. I had a slightly different experience while reading it; it ended up falling more into “academic interests” than personal ones. It’s more a series of essays than anything else, and I would have loved if the book felt more connected. It almost seemed like Bartlett didn’t realize the purpose until the conclusion, or at least didn’t reveal it to the reader. Also, it should be noted that the Dark Net in question isn’t so much a darknet as it is the darker side of global web connections. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of what the darknet is, this might not be the book for you. And major trigger warning: this book features instances of hate messaging, self-harm, and sexual violence/harm to children.

I will rave about Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older as the day is long. I listened to this as an 22295304audiobook and I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in YA/YA fantasy, diverse literature, art, and meta storytelling. This is the book I wanted to get when I read Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. THIS. Also, educators looking for an engaging, quick read that has deeper themes about heritage, identity, and cultural appropriation couldn’t find a better book. I honestly can’t rec this one enough; it’s my Pointe of 2016, and I would love to get Sierra and Theo in a room together. There is not a love triangle, but I hesitate to call what exists a romance — it’s a kissing book, but Sierra and her love interest feel more like  partners and allies than anything else. This is the first in a series, but it’s a standalone novel and it honestly didn’t feel like a first book setting up a larger storyline. Learning that there would be more adventures for Sierra and her friends was a pleasant surprise (sorry I ruined it), and I hope you’ll give Shadowshaper a try so we can enjoy the next book together! Also, look at that cover. That cover is everything.

Check back in Thursday for Part II!

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Where I’m Going

After last week’s post about where I’ve been, I thought it might be worthwhile to check in on where I’m going. Apparently, straight to the psych ward – I’m doubling up on classes again, taking an English Drama course and a Linguistics course. And classes started this week, when the husband and I are celebrating our first wedding anniversary with a tropical, much-needed vacation in the Caribbean. I posted a few shots on Instagram, but really, the grad school train chugs along and I’m here for the wild, crazy ride.

tumblr_m2up98SXJw1qhd14co4_r1_250

Summer vacation, woo!

Anyway, the blogging hiatus, the semester break, the vacation — all of these things have helped put life into perspective and I’m very grateful for that. I feel a renewed sense of purpose and focus and I’m ready to recommit to my passions and keep living my word for the year. Plus I got some great advice from a writing friend that I’ve been mulling over, about where you are in life and creating versus consuming versus connecting. I always feel like when I’m in one lane, I should be in another – a creative, lifelong learner’s “grass is green with envy” mash-up idiom, if you will. But I’m coming to terms that I can’t be all things, that I can’t be in all places, and that it is okay to consume versus create. But I feel rather sluggish and bogged-down by all this consumption of late; it’s time to start transforming again, to convert all that into creative hustle. I hope you’ll join me.

Where I’ve Been

Obligatory (?):

what_year_is_it_jumanji

Real talk, though: it’s been four months, and one of my biggest personal/professional goals was to maintain this blog and now I feel like I’ve traveled back to…well, freshman year of high school? I think that’s the last time in my life that I wasn’t maintaining a blog. I’ve had a steady LiveJournal/Tumblr/Wordpress kick most of my life.

There’s a lot I want to write about, so it’s just a matter of planning, drafting, publishing. But for now, here’s the skinny:

  • I’m on break after wrapping my first semester of my MA program. I’m loving it (minus the stress of doubling up on classes and working full-time), and I’m sitting at a 3.92 GPA. Success! My second semester starts on Monday.
  • I don’t write a ton about my non-literary life here, but obviously at least 40 hours/week are spent at my full-time job, which can be packed with tasks. I haven’t been the best at stepping away (literally/figuratively) at lunch or at the end of the day, but it’s something I’m working on (thanks to lots of support, of course).
  • This year has been fairly light on travel, what with not planning a wedding across the country or a honeymoon across the world. Oh, and the aforementioned reasons above – balancing class and work! Luckily, we were able to take a ski trip this winter and will be taking a vacation to celebrate our first anniversary.
  • Writing and reading have really taken a backseat in my life. This has been unfortunate, but kind of necessary. I have to be mindful about burning the candle at both ends, and I am prone to overextending myself.
  • …however, I have been taking care of me. I exercise. I make better choices about my nutrition. When I know I’ve hit my limit, I take some time to rest and recharge.

I mean, sure, I still get crazy anxious and worry about whether I’m living my best life, but that’s pretty normal, right?

New Year, New Adventure

I was sufficiently vague about some of my resolutions last week, but I can at least specify one of my  exciting new initiatives: I’m starting grad school today!

I was accepted into ASU’s MA in English program, a thrilling personal and professional development. My first graduate program was for Leadership, and I know I eventually want to get my doctorate — but would like to do something in an area in which I am passionate. As is evidenced by my blog, manuscripts & marginalia and not “motivation & management” or, you know, whatever.

I’m slightly nervous; it’s been almost four years since I took classes for my last graduate program. Can I remember how to student? To balance a full-time job with classes? I’m pushing myself to hit the ground running, notably with loading up on double classes for Sessions A and B in the first semester. There’s going to be a lot of reading with these classes and a fair amount of writing, too. I had my first anxiety dream in months last night, because I’m putting a lot on my shoulders this year and I’m nervous that I can’t carry this load, and that I’ll burn out. At the same time, I need to see what I’m capable of and test myself.

There are a lot of things I want from this life, in this world. It’s time I started earning them.

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Lofty Goals for 2016

In case you missed it, my first post of the year was about my 2016 word, forge. Go back and read it; this will set the stage for today’s post.

2016 goals

2015 was a good year, but with getting married and going on the best honeymoon ever (seriously, Japan is where it’s at; you’ll be going to beaches for the next ten-fifteen years if you have kids anyway), there was kind of this weird “plan everything around this three weeks of being MIA.” I had some cool ideas for things I wanted to start, but leading up to our wedding was bonkers and it felt odd to start something and then be gone for weeks, and then I just avoided the real world as much as possible after coming back; three weeks away from work is phenomenal and I wanted to put off responsibilities to keep that blissed out feeling burning as long as possible.

Of course it didn’t last, and it couldn’t, and now I’m more than ready to hit the ground running and get shit done for the year.

Writing

My broad goal: Write more, write more often. I’m still getting used to my new routine for the year and trying to make all the pieces fit together, but I’m going to try to work on my manuscript every other day. I also want to submit something for publication at least once a month — which means incorporating more flash fiction and short stories into my rotation.

(Oh, and one of the micro fiction pieces I submitted last year was published yesterday at The Drabble! Read “Something Like a Prayer” here!)

I’m also looking at expanding into more creative outlets, still focusing on writing but at a different level. Details forthcoming later in the year, I hope.

READING

Guys like everyone is doing #HamAlong so I guess I’m doing #HamAlong, too. Which makes one of my goals to be actually stick with a readalong!

I’m also going to do Book Riot’s #ReadHarder challenge, though I don’t know where to start and would loooooove suggestions!

I’m also trying to read 50 books this year, my usual Goodreads tally. I barely hit my goal last year, which makes this year — with its own to be announced, exciting challenges — even more of a push. But I can do it.

Of course, I want to read more diversely and plan to incorporate more variety into my reading. Every year I end up focusing on one thing – mystery or horror or SFF – and I want this year to be a little bit of everything.

Also, I should probably clear out some shelves.

BLOGGING

I feel like this blog is in a constant state of flux, and I’d like to have more stability and consistency this year. I’ll be resuming the Women in Fiction series next Friday, and I’m looking forward to having a full year to focus and hone that feature. I decided that I’m not going to do anything that I, effectively, can’t sustain – so weekly releases are out. I might talk about some books generally if I’m really excited about an upcoming release, but every week? Kill me. Listen to the All the Books podcast instead.

PERSONAL

I don’t talk about a ton of personal stuff on the blog, but I want to be better about managing my time and prioritizing. I have some exciting things coming up this year (more next week on that particular front!), but I want this year to be just packed with experiences.

I’m also (re)committing to being healthier. My day job is the busiest around Thanksgiving (at least for me), and I got laid out by congestion and allergy/sinus shenanigans for most of December. The last couple of months I haven’t been great about fitness because my health goals have been “be able to breathe today.”

So yeah. 2016. Bring it.

What are your goals for the year? 

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