Defining a reader

The books we keep

I live in a pretty small house, and I have a LOT of stuff, including books. I have always hung onto most of my books, but as I am looking to clear out some space, I’m drastically revising what I keep and what I release.

I have:
One bookcase in my studio, which has writing and art books, both how-to and inspirational, plus the books I use to research and teach my UCLA courses. I also have an entire packed shelf of Dover clip-art books from back in the day when you needed to paste down some vector art (or a photostat of same) in order to insert art into your newsletter, flyer, or whatever. Those could go, although I’d probably sit down and scan art from a large number of them, to save on my computer for future projects. Four shelves.

One bookcase in my living room, containing all my gardening and home arts books—architecture, building techniques (such as straw bale construction), interior design, quilting, and some art books that are also garden-related. Four shelves.

One china cabinet/hutch in my bedroom, that contains all my Young Adult Fiction books in the top half. Three shelves.

Three floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelves, also in the bedroom, that contain all my other books, separated out into science fiction/fantasy, regular fiction, and nonfiction. Six shelves per bookcase = 18 shelves.

And then there are the piles of books—on the kitchen table, the dining room table, two side tables in the living room, the floor of the studio…

I keep accumulating them, but haven’t significantly cleared them out for several decades. Every once in a while I will put together about a box worth of those I didn’t enjoy or simply decided not to read, and give them to the library or to Vietnam Veterans to sell. But since I accumulate at almost the same speed, it hasn’t helped much.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been either checking out or buying many e-books to read on my Kindle, so that has saved some shelf space. But it’s finally time to confront the overflow, eliminate the extraneous, and reorganize the rest tidily on (hopefully fewer) shelves.

My new deciding factor for whether to keep a book is going to be whether I realistically and sincerely believe that I will ever read it again. I have books that I have read multiple times and anticipate going back to a few more; I have books that I have read once and might enjoy reading again; and then there are the books I know I will never revisit.

It’s difficult, sometimes, because of things like sets. I have a complete set of similarly bound books by Elizabeth Goudge that I remember being so thrilled to discover at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles about three decades ago; but although they look pretty on the shelf, I expect I may reread one at most—I have outgrown my regard for them. So should I let the entire set go? I’m thinking yes, but it gives me a pang. I also have a few gifts from people looking to appeal to my hobby, but…my mom, for instance, never understood the difference between a reader and a collector, so she would go find me some beautiful old first edition of, say, the poems of Longfellow that I admire esthetically for its beautiful cover and ancient pages but will never read. And then there are a few beloved children’s books from my youth that I remember fondly but will probably never read again, and since I don’t have children with whom to share them…what to do?

When I embraced science fiction in my 20s, I collected every single title of such authors as Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov, and it’s difficult (and nostalgic) to pick and choose the ones I really like vs. the ones I have just kept because it’s nice to feel like you have the entire oeuvre. But again, if I examine them in terms of what may be a re-read, then I can let go of most.

My hope is that when I box up everything I no longer need and the dust clears, I can actually get rid of one of the three big bookcases in the bedroom, to give me a little more room for other pursuits, like setting up my free-standing painter’s easel in the empty space.

One problem I foresee: When I really examine what’s on the shelves, there are also a number of missing volumes I’d selfishly love to fill in, especially in my young adult fiction collection. Since I worked in a library in the YA section for 11 years, I would mostly check out the books I wanted to read, with the result that I have numerous series for which I only own, say, #1 and #3 out of four books, or the first book but not its sequel. So—do I get rid of all, and simply pick them up from the library should I get the yen to read them? or do I fill in the set? Filling in could have a large impact!

This does seem like a proper task to ponder, initiate, and accomplish at the beginning of a new year. I’ll let you know how it goes…and if you have advice or a fresh perspective for me, feel free to comment!

My year in books

I finished my Goodreads Challenge a week early this year—115 books—and they sent me my stats, so I thought I’d share them, and look back on the things I read this year to see what stood out, what disappointed, and what was engaging but not overly compelling.

First of all, out of those 115 books, the shortest was 78 pages (an “in-between” novella inserted into a series by the author), and the longest was 848 pages. My total number of pages for the year was 37,627—but since I read another book after the challenge was over, I can up that to 38,001 just in time for the new year.

My “most shelved” book (meaning the one more people on Goodreads read than any other on my list) was It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover, which was emphatically not a favorite, but got the need to read at least one of her books (to see what the fuss is about) right out of my system. I have actually read two of them (Verity was the other), and that was enough. I am not her people, nor is she mine.

The “least shelved” (meaning, I guess, that no one on Goodreads knows who this author is, at least in this context) was The Affairs of Ashmore Castle, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, an author I know primarily for her mystery series featuring British detective Bill Slider (which I love). She is quite well known in her own country for writing a long saga, The Morland Dynasty, which family is established in book #1 during the Wars of the Roses and continues, as far as I can tell—barring any new books—to #35, which takes place between the World Wars in 1931. The Ashmore books are a new series for her.

My average rating over 115 books was 3.8, which seems generous in retrospect, considering that not many of those books were huge stand-outs for me; but I do tend to be kind with ratings except in the few instances when I am not! On Goodreads, the highest rated book that I read was Godsgrave, by Jay Kristoff, which somewhat surprises me; it’s a walloping good tale to which I personally gave five stars, but it’s both an oddball variant of fantasy and also incredibly violent and bloody, so it doesn’t seem like it would escape those to become highest rated. Kristoff’s fans are legion, however, so perhaps that’s the answer.

I only re-read 11 books this year, which is low for me, but belonging to the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group has influenced me in the direction of reading more new books and revisiting fewer nostalgia reads. As usual, about a third of my re-reads were by the inimitable Georgette Heyer.

So, let’s get into some specifics. FIVE-STAR STAND-ALONE BOOKS, in no particular order, were:

AKATA WITCH and its sequel, AKATA WARRIOR, by Nnedi Okorafor
MARY JANE, by Jessica Anya Blau (a coming-of-age charmer set in the years of my youth)
WE BEGIN AT THE END, by Chris Whitaker (tragically compelling)
BOOK LOVERS, by Emily Henry (turning a trope on its head)
LITTLE SECRETS, by Jennifer Hillier (best suspense/thriller I’ve read in a while!)
JAR OF HEARTS, also by Jennifer Hillier
HOLDING SMOKE, by Elle Cosimano (a re-read of a YA fave)
BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN, by Diane Chamberlain

FIVE-STARS that were PART OF A SERIES included:
NEVERNIGHT, by Jay Kristoff (first in an intense science fiction trilogy)
DRAGON AND THIEF, by Timothy Zahn (first in a delightful space opera YA series)

FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT, by Elle Cosimano (#1 of a trilogy about an author who is mistaken for a contract killer, 3rd book to come out January 31st)
The INTERDEPENDENCY trilogy, by John Scalzi (science fiction that is both thoughtful and humorous)

OTHER BOOKS I particularly enjoyed, even though they had lower ratings, for various reasons:

The ASHMORE CASTLE series (I read the first two books, which is all there are for now), by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
The CHESAPEAKE BAY SAGA (four books), by Nora Roberts
STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St. John Mandel (love a good dystopian)
MOXIE, by Jennifer Mathieu (YA girl empowerment)
Dervla McTiernan’s stand-alone, THE MURDER RULE
THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK, by Jennifer Hillier
and my last book of the year, RAVEN BLACK, by Ann Cleves, first in her Shetland Island series.

And those are the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of all of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorites.

Secrets and twists

It’s been a really long time since I was so riveted by a story that I made a conscious decision to stay up at night until I had finished it. I started Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets two days ago, and at bedtime tonight I was at 71 percent (Kindle). At 79 percent and 1:30 a.m., when I probably would have turned out the light on a normal reading night, I got back out of bed, made myself a snack (dinner was a long time back at 6:30 p.m.!), sat down in my chair and kept going. Luckily for me, as happens with Kindle books, the publisher had included a bunch of stuff at the end, including book club questions, author notes, and a preview for her next book, so I only had to read to 90 percent instead of 100. But I would cheerfully have gone that extra 10 percent, after the turns this book took in Part Three.

The book opens with that nightmare of all parents holding their child’s hand in a crowded place—for just one second, struggling to juggle packages and her cell phone, Marin let go of four-year-old Sebastian’s hand in Pike’s Peak Market in Seattle at the height of the Christmas rush. For a few seconds more, she felt him pressed up against her side and then, as she pulled her attention away from her phone and looked around, he was just gone. As is the initial expectation with any mom with a lost kid, she thinks the crowd will open and he’ll be standing there, turning in place, looking for her and panicking a little, and she can sweep him up and reassure him. But he’s not.

Six weeks later, the FBI tells Marin and her husband, Derek, that they have followed every lead and have turned up absolutely nothing new since day one, and that although the case will, of course, remain open, they will now turn their focus to the cases of other missing children. Marin’s response is to attempt suicide. Once she recovers some balance, she decides she will hire a private investigator to keep going with the case; Derek feels it’s a vain effort, so she allows him to believe she has let the P.I. go after a month, but instead she keeps Victoria on the job and, while seeking out some tenuous leads, one of Victoria’s employees spots Derek with a young art student with whom he is apparently having an affair.

Roused from her stupor of despair by a surprisingly strong flash of rage, Marin realizes that she has lost her son, but she’s not going to lose her husband, too; this girl is an enemy with a face, and Marin decides she’s going to fix this problem and keep intact what’s left of her family.

Jennifer Hillier’s author blurb on Goodreads says, “Jennifer Hillier imagines the worst about people and then writes about it.” Boy, does she ever! I kept thinking I was one step ahead and had figured something out, only to be shocked into a delighted exclamation as each secret revealed itself and led to five more. Nine times out of ten, I am disappointed by the latest book lauded for psychological suspense, but this one was definitely an exception. I’m hoping now that her other five books are also exceptional, because I’m headed right for the digital library for Kindle reservations (at 2:30 a.m.)!

Hiding out

Nat’l Read A Book Day

What are YOU reading???

Read Across America!

Have you ever heard the terms “Sustained Silent Reading” or “Free Voluntary Reading”? They are both contributions of Dr. Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading, whose extensive studies into language learning for English as a Second Language (ESL) students caused him to draw the conclusion that “Free voluntary reading is the source of most of our vocabulary, our ability to handle complex grammatical construction, our ability to spell well, to write with a good style—much of our knowledge of the world comes from READING.” He discovered that “Students who did sustained silent reading on a daily basis did better on grammar tests than students who took grammar classes.”

The other quote about reading that I love comes from Margaret A. Edwards, regarded by most librarians as the first teen librarian. She said,

“Certainly we get essential information from factual books, but it is experience we need most. If we would live richly, we can expand our lives more by sailing down the Nile with Cleopatra, looking at the cherry trees with Housman, or sweating it out to triumph at long last with Moss Hart than we can by gathering all available information on Egypt, raising cherries, or
writing for the theater.”

—Margaret Edwards,
The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts

So today, set aside some time. Make a cup of tea (and maybe furnish yourself with a cookie or two), sit in a nice comfy chair, and enjoy reading for however long you can spare from your busy day! What’s better than sinking yourself into STORY for an hour?

Feel free to post what you’re reading! I am currently making my way through Timothy Zahn’s science fiction “Dragonback” series, a great one for reluctant readers (especially boys) in middle and high school.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.


“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!”

—Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, born on this day in 1775.