Author Archives: Silvernfire

Challenge unmet, challenge accepted


I gave myself two reading challenges in 2019. The Goodreads challenge was the same as any year: read X books in 2019. Happily, I did accomplish this one. Although at the moment, that’s not at all obvious on my Goodreads account, because somehow I forgot to mark four books as “read,” and so it looks like I didn’t quite make the challenge. I haven’t made myself sit down yet and compare two almost-identical lists of books read until I find the “missing” ones and update Goodreads.

A photo that has nothing to do with this post except that it’s of lots of books. And the books are pretty. Google Translate says “Geisteswissenschaften” means “Humanities.”

I truly didn’t meet my other book challenge, the one I’d dubbed “But I thought you wanted to (re)read this book.” I’d said I was going to read 40 books from my TBR pile and reread 10 books that I owned. I ended up reading 20 books from the TBR pile and rereading 9 of my owned books.

What happened? 2019.

No, I don’t mean that the year 2019 was so hectic, stressful, and/or hopeless that I didn’t read much. After all, I read 78 books for my 75 book Goodreads challenge. What I hadn’t been counting on were the books published in 2019 that I wanted to read. As I hadn’t heard of most of them at the start of the year, I hadn’t added them to the reading list. I knew about some of them ahead of time and listed them, but basically, I read 24 books published in 2019, and I only knew of about five of them in 2018.


So with that behind me, I’m changing things a bit for 2020. Again, I’m doing the Goodreads challenge, currently set for 75 books. But for the more customized challenge, I’m building on last year’s experience. Apparently I like freshly-acquired books over what’s been sitting around my apartment for a while, so this year, I plan to read as many of the books I acquire in 2020 by the end of the year as I can. It doesn’t matter if I buy the book, get it as a present, get it from the library, borrow it from a friend, or find it in a Little Free Library—I want to read it in the same year that I get it.* At first, I called this the “You Get It, You Read It Challenge.” But here we are on January 31 and I’ve already gotten 20 books. So this is also the “Read Faster, Damn It! Challenge”—I’ve only read 20% of my new acquisitions so far! 📚

*Common sense suggests that books acquired in December 2020 should be allowed to roll over to 2021. They’ll probably be balanced out by the books I got in 2019 that I haven’t read yet.

photo credit: Rosmarie Voegtli The Reader via photopin (license)

My 2019 reading challenges

New year: new reading challenges. The Goodreads Challenge is about as straightforward as it gets: read X books in a year. I’m going to be reading anyway, so I may as well get reading challenge credit for any book that passes before my eyes (or though my ears, if I ever tackle another audiobook). But then there’s the fine art of choosing a personalized challenge. A challenge that interests me, that is more complicated than the Goodreads Challenge, and yet doesn’t repel me, make me feel guilty when I read a book that won’t fit, or has me reading so many books that are challenging that I read fewer books that I wholeheartedly enjoy. I have pored over The Master List of 2019 Reading Challenges, and am going with the 2019 Good Rule Reading Challenge. Or as I think of it, the 2019 But I Thought You Wanted to Read/Reread That Book Challenge.

Last year, while doing my A-to-Z challenge, I needed to reread books to get all my letters. I’d also reread some books in 2017 as I weeded my collection. It’s sinking in that I’ve kept a lot of books because I’m sure I’ll read them again someday, but then I don’t. Time spent rereading a book is time not spent reading a new one, and I feel like I’m shirking a duty. Meanwhile, a large portion of my home is filled with these books I think I’m going to reread. Well, this year, I’m committing to doing some of that. The bulk of this challenge is on reading new books—I still want to shrink that TBR pile! However, I’m adding a number of must-rereads, for a total of 40 new books and 10 old ones. I said I’d read 60 books for the Goodreads Challenge, so that still leaves 10 books to learn of in 2019 or get from the library or whatever.

A few of the proposed books, new and old.

Of course, some books won’t work out, from either category. That’s fine. But I plan to keep my initial balance of new to old books. So if I give up on a reread partway through, I will replace it with another old book. And just selecting books for the challenge is proving to be informative. I look at the books and ask myself, Do I want to read this one? With some of them, I’m instantly saying No. Really? Like I said, didn’t I want to read these books? If that’s no longer the case, I can let them go now and free up the shelf space.

A-to-Z: 2018—finished!

About a year ago, I committed to doing an A-Z reading challenge: 26 books, one for each letter of the alphabet. And lo, I have finished it.

  • A: The Astrological Moon by Darby Costello
  • B: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  • C: Circe by Madeline Miller
  • D: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
  • E: Elemental Divination: A Dice Oracle by Stephen Ball
  • F: First and Last: A Devotional for Hestia by the editors of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
  • G: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
  • H: Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years by James Kacian, Phillip Rowland, Allan Burns (eds.)
  • I: Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day by Carl F. Neal
  • J: The Just City by Jo Walton
  • K: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • L: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • M: Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • N: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • O: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • P: Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis
  • Q: Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music, & Cosmology by John Martineau (ed.)
  • R: The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone
  • S: The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan
  • T: Tarot Compendium by Sasha Graham (ed.)
  • U: Untold Tarot: The Lost Art of Reading Ancient Tarots  by Caitlín Matthews
  • V: Villanelles by Annie Finch (ed.)
  • W: The Wisdom of the Middle Ages by Michael K. Kellogg
  • X: The Phobia of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell
  • Y: Your Tarot Your Way: Learn to Read with Any Deck by Barbara Moore
  • Z: Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God by Tom Stone

It was the normal run of books for a year: loved some, liked more, made it through a few of them on willpower alone. While I didn’t find a book with a title that started with X, I didn’t have to resort to “Ex-“. Most of those books were first reads. I reread three books (J, V, and Z) because I didn’t want to buy books just to get my missing letters when part of the point of this challenge was to work on my TBR pile! And the rereading had value too, because why else hold onto these books after their first reading unless I was going to reread them at some point?

After deciding to read 26 books for the alphabet, I realized that some books on my TBR list have titles that start with numerals. So I extended the challenge by one book to cover that possibility. I then managed to misplace the book I was reading for #. I’m sure it will turn up again eventually, but I’d rather read it calmly and finish it next year rather than try to cram it in this late.

It’s tempting to do this challenge again in 2019, and I haven’t yet ruled out the possibility. I picked up the latest edition of Vogue Knitting a few weeks ago, so I already have one of my hard-to-find letters in hand. But there’s some appeal in finding a new challenge. Whatever challenge I choose, I want to read books that I’ll enjoy. I get that a challenge is supposed to be challenging (!), but there’s a fine line between moving out of your comfort zone for new experiences and forcing yourself to read something you genuinely dislike. But there are all sorts of reading challenges out there, so it might be nice to go in a completely different direction in 2019. We’ll see.

A lifetime of reading hasn’t prepared me for this

I am not someone who boldly steps forward and engages with life. Humans generally have messy lives, and I try to reduce the mess in mine by watching what other people do and working out potential solutions ahead of time. So a lot of what I know about life has been gained through reading instead of actual experience. I know, I know…real experience gets you real answers, life is meant to be lived, and so on. Yes, I’m exaggerating my lack of engagement a bit. Plus, I figure learning through reading exposes you to more than you might run into naturally. Thanks to all the advice columns I’ve read, I’ve learned many useful responses to relationship issues I will never encounter in my own life!

Besides advice columns, I’ve picked up on many new things through reading blogs. That’s where I first heard about various topics that are, ah, passionately discussed nowadays: trigger warnings, pronouns, cultural appropriation, and privilege. It’s been a lot easier to explore them through reading, where I have the space to realize and reflect and analyze and wince and absorb and regret and question in private.

And before blogs and advice columns, there were books, and there have always been more of them than the other two combined. In fiction, my favorite genre is fantasy. There’s lots to be learned about life in novels generally, but fantasy novels are often large scale, with the fates of nations and cultures at stake. So if I’ve been learning about how to relate to people one-to-one through reading, that’s probably also how I’ve been learning about politics. Not party politics—that’s more the stuff of blogs and social media—but the bigger issues of how governments work, how people behave in large groups, and how to be a good citizen. While these are always important issues, let’s admit it: they’re front and center now.

But here’s my problem: fantasy authors don’t set their stories in democracies. I’m absorbing lessons on how to restore a rightful king or queen to their throne.

The fantasy authors I’m familiar with live in countries where everyday people have the right to vote and their votes matter. But these authors mainly write about absolute monarchies and the struggles in their books aren’t contained within democratic norms. No one needs to worry about maintaining democratic institutions because there aren’t any.

Picture of woman on a horse and a kneeling male warrior on a fantasy chessboard.

Warning: fantasy characters in action. Do not try this with your real-life political situation.

Consider The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is a king because he’s the heir of Isildur. It’s great that he’s honorable, intelligent, has a sense of justice, and so on, but he’d still get to be king without any of that. Certainly the people of Gondor aren’t going to be consulted in the matter. And putting Aragorn on his throne doesn’t require getting out the vote, winning midterm elections, countering foreign hacking, or fighting voter suppression. Mainly it involves winning a war against an opposing army of orcs, trolls, Nazgûl, and humans that apparently aren’t like the Men of Rohan and Gondor. There’s no need to work out how you’re going to integrate the opposition into your society afterwards because you’re going to kill a lot of them, and anyway, most of them are literally not human and the different peoples of Middle Earth tend to stick to their own. Of course, this part of the war would achieve nothing if Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hadn’t gotten the Ring to Mordor and destroyed it. That’s a great story, but there isn’t much there to support the modern upholder of democracy except a general reassurance that even the most overlooked people can make a difference.

I don’t read as much science fiction as I do fantasy, but the TV shows and movies I’ve watched have been science fiction far more than fantasy. Democracy is much more likely to exist in an SF universe, but in many stories, we don’t see much of it. My dim memory of government in the original Battlestar Galactica was that the democratically-elected Council of Twelve was mainly an obstacle for the military (our heroes) to work around or ignore—not a good model when real people and everyday life are involved. The Republic in Star Wars is a odd mixture of democracy and monarchy that mainly suggests different people over several decades doing just enough world building to support the plot of each movie. I think Star Trek‘s Federation is a federal republic, but I couldn’t tell you how it’s perceived by average people living on Federation planets; we mainly see the effects of its foreign policy. Democracy is so far gone in Blake’s 7 and Firefly that the heroes aren’t worrying about preserving democratic norms day-to-day. Mere survival is higher on their agendas—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as applied to small rebel groups.

Comic books and graphic novels were a staple of my youth and, okay, off and on in adulthood. Here we have heroes, villains, and Good vs. Evil depicted about as clearly as it ever gets. Mind you, there’s not much beyond a supporting role for people without superpowers, and again, the methodology is “bash the enemy into defeat with nifty powers,” which is a lot more entertaining to read/look at than registering voters. Also, the villains often want to destroy Earth, not overthrow a government. Manga and anime? I’m having flashbacks to Sailor Moon. In that universe, the eventual future was going to be a monarchy, and the series never got into whether or not it’d be a constitutional one. Plus our heroines were using magic to fight for love and justice, not door-to-door campaigning.

But why does this even matter? Because unlike some of the things I mentioned at the start of this post, there aren’t many good resources. If I didn’t learn about relationship problems from advice columns, I’d have learned about them from personal experience and the experiences of people I know. Those topics I’ve found in blogs are being discussed everywhere now; even if I had to learn about them with others, I’d know about them. But our culture has offered me very little in what to do when your democracy (or federal republic) doesn’t seem as secure as you thought it was. I don’t need to have read stories about tornado drills because I’ve gone through them for most of my life. I apparently do need to read about preserving democracy, because I’ve never practiced that beyond voting and a lot of signatures on petitions.

So am I doing the normal, mundane things you do in the United States to be a good citizen? Yep. I’m registered to vote and I’ve read about the candidates in the upcoming election. But a lifetime of reading fantasy novels suggests that I should also be creating a voting amulet or a democracy talisman or something. Isn’t there a spell I should be casting?

photo credit: siliaFX CHECKMATE via photopin (license)

Filling the pen cup

Well, yes, my exploration of fountain pens has continued. Belatedly, I realized I should do at least a smidgen of research before I spent any more money. Did so, and was promptly torn between delight at how easy it was to find useful information and regret that I hadn’t thought of this before I bought Pen #2. The fountain pen world wants to encourage newcomers, it seems: there are several “Fountain Pen 101” articles out there.

Not only did I find recommendations for good pens for beginners, I found some of those pens close to home. The art supplies store near me carries the Platinum Preppy in all its colors (seven) and nib widths (three), so I went to see what they were like in real life. Instant gratification ensued. I came, I saw, I scribbled, and I left with blue and green.

Also, these pens come with a stern warning: “Do not use this pen other than for writing.” (Guaranteed to immediately get you to think of all sorts of illicit things to do with said pen.) Now I have more dangerous tools to entertain myself with, along with my knitting needles. Who knew my hobbies were so hazardous?

Anyway, 24 hours later, I was back to get the remaining colors: pink, yellow, violet, and red. I’m not sure what I’m going to write with yellow ink, which isn’t the easiest thing to read, but how could I skip my favorite color? The store was out of the black one, which gave me an excuse to try two other beginner’s pens. The Pilot Kaküno is also a nice pen for the price, and surely everyone needs at least one pen with a winky face on the nib. (Maybe it’s intended for children. Or perhaps Pilot figures anyone’s first fountain pen should be friendly and unintimidating.) The Metropolitan, also by Pilot, has the pleasant weight of a metal body, and I can pretend to be a sophisticated adult while using it.

8 fountain pens

So I have gone from two fountain pens to ten in the course of a week, and all for a minimal outflow of money. I’ve found a nearby supplier and I’m keeping caught up on small writing projects like blog posts and book reviews because they give me an excuse to use the new pens. Ah, the joy of plunging into a new passion!

The beginning of the fountain pen adventure

I now have fountain pens. Two of them. I wasn’t expecting this. I do like pens, and I’ll buy fancy ones—well, the inexpensive end of fancy, anyway—but my main interest is ballpoint pens. Fine point, no blopping, and if it’s comfortable in the hand, we’re good. And I’ll get the occasional rollerball, because, let’s be honest, black ballpoint ink is more like gray compared to a black rollerball, and rollerballs can have finer points. But that’s about as wildly exciting as I get.

I have owned a fountain pen before. It was back when I was in high school, and I bought it because the barrel was bright yellow, my favorite color. I remember it had cartridges, and that sometimes it leaked, and the leaking was enough for me to eventually get rid of it. And then years of increasingly better ballpoints followed, and I forgot about it. It certainly hadn’t been enough of a wonderful writing experience for me to want to pursue it.

Fountain pen lying on a page of writing

Someone else’s pen.

I did not set out to get the first of my two “modern” fountain pens. Last year, I ordered a ballpoint pen from a vendor, and when I opened the package, there were two pens inside. The fountain pen was a freebie, complete with a sampler-sized vial of green ink and a little device that I now know is called a converter, but with no instructions. I left it warily alone for months before curiosity got the better of me and I tried filling it.

(I should perhaps reassure everyone at this point that no permanent damage was done. The ink wore off my fingers in a few days and I didn’t get any on my clothes. No lasting damage. Also, after my first attempt to fill the pen failed, I came to my senses, went online, and found instructions.)

The writing experience was interesting. Look, I know ballpoint pens aren’t universally loved. They’re readily available and long-lasting, but a lot of people don’t like the amount of effort it takes to push them across the paper. But since they’re what I’ve written with for most of my adult life, they’re my standard for “normal.” And to me, rollerballs aren’t that different from ballpoints, although many of mine have points so fine that they feel scratchy when I write in cursive, and I save them for printing. This first fountain pen came with a fine nib, and was a bit on the scratchy side itself, but not unbearably. But the pen itself isn’t all that comfortable to hold. It has a triangular grip and it’s plastic, without a lot of weight to it. So I decided to buy another one. All in the spirit of experimentation, you understand.

I really like holding Pen #2. It’s metal, it weighs more, the grip is round. But the nib is wider than that of the freebie, and it’s annoying. Despite that reputation ballpoint pens have for requiring a lot of pressure to write with, I must be a light writer. I’m apparently not pressing the pen firmly enough to the paper, and Pen #2 is unforgiving of light writing—it just skips. My writing with this pen looks hideous. When it’s not skipping, the pen is putting out so much ink that only my heaviest paper stands a chance of keeping it from bleeding through, and even then it’s ghosting. Yes, I’ve started the search for a finer nib that will fit this pen, which means I’m going to be learning about fountain pens, and that wasn’t on the agenda for this year. Buuuut…I have purple ink. When I bought the second fountain pen, I bought purple ink cartridges to go with it. I love the colors that are available. I’m thinking to buy more green ink and refill the freebie pen. This is going to be what keeps me playing with fountain pens: all the pretty ink.

photo credit: insEyedout Studio via photopin (license)

Reading 2017

2017 was my Year of Lowered Expectations. I’m hoping it retains that title so that I don’t have to pass it on to 2018 or some other future year. I read about 25% fewer books last year than usual. And I know it isn’t a competition, and I know you don’t get demerits for dying with a huge stack of unread books, but it was frustrating. Especially since I can’t figure out what I was doing that ate into my reading time (and my knitting time: not many finished projects last year either) so noticeably.

I did more rereading this year than usual—”usual” for me being “not at all.” I hold onto a lot of books, utterly convinced that I will reread them, and then get distracted by all the other interesting books I haven’t yet read. This year, though, I was trying to streamline my personal library, and I reread a number of books to see if I really wanted to keep them. (Often the answer was “no.” Not all once-beloved books age well.) In a couple of cases, I reread books because they worked for the 2017 Read Harder Challenge. At least that was economical. No reread books are in the following list, although I was sorely tempted to put Three Parts Dead in again, just for the amusement of including it for two years in a row.

This was a year of memorable series as well as memorable books, namely the Small Change trilogy and the Craft Sequence. I’d been intending to read the Small Change trilogy for the better part of a decade. When I finally got around to it, I devoured it as fast as the library could provide copies. It’s probably a good sign about the quality of a title (or three) if you have to get on a wait list for them even when they’ve been around for years. As for the Craft Sequence, all I can say is that I’d gotten distracted in 2016 with other books. I fixed that in 2017.

Covers of Farthing, Ha'penny, Half a Crown

  • The Small Change trilogy by Jo Walton: Farthing (9/10; finished 4/5/2017), Ha’penny (9/10; finished 4/24/2017), Half a Crown (6/10; finished 5/18/2017): Three linked novels set between 1949 and 1960 in an alternate England that made peace with Hitler and turned fascist. Unfortunately more timely than the author ever intended. I say more about it here.

Covers of Eleanor & Park, Plato at the Googleplex

  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (9/10; finished 8/15/2017): So, how many books by Rainbow Rowell have I read without getting around to her possibly best-known one? Yes, it’s quite good. It also gave me flashbacks galore to being in high school (I’m a few years older than the characters). I was reading it on the Megabus, and the woman sitting next to me—who was definitely not old enough to remember 1986 personally—recognized it and assured me that it was great.
  • Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (10/10; finished 9/15/2017): It’s always good to hear about a book, track down a copy, read it, and like it. There’s a special thrill, though, to going into a book with no real idea of what it’s about, and discover that it wasn’t what you thought it might be and still like it. I have no memory of putting this on my library wish list, and I decided to read it because everything else on the list was checked out. I thought it would be some earnest essay about philosophy in today’s world. Instead, Goldstein has written a series of short pieces, starting with the premise that Plato is alive and well and on a book tour in the modern United States. Each chapter consists of an essay on a theme in Plato’s work, followed by a fictional dialogue (lunch at the Googleplex, a debate at a Y in New York, and so on) that expands on that theme. Partway through, I returned the ebook to the library—the footnotes were badly linked, and they’re vital—and bought a print copy, already knowing I wanted to keep it.

Covers of Four Roads Cross and Last First Snow

  • Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone (10/10; finished 9/23/2017): This is the more-or-less direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, although if you read the series in order, there are three books between them. (Including Last First Snow, but I got mixed up and read it afterwards.) As sequels often do, it deals with the fallout from its predecessor; even triumphant endings have repercussions. And I went through the entire book happy to see Tara Abernathy and other characters again, plus getting all in suspense about the legal battle that builds during the story.
  • Last First Snow by Max Gladstone (10/10; finished 11/1/2017): This is fully part of the Craft Sequence (#4), but as the first novel chronologically, it has the feeling of a prequel, and I’m not always that fond of prequels. Sometimes they leave me feeling like I’ve just read the same story twice. Not so in this case: I came to the end of this book feeling like I had a much better grasp of the history of Dresediel Lex and several of the characters I’d already met. Featuring one of my favorite characters from Three Parts Dead: Elayne Kevarian (can I just say how wonderful it is to read a book where the “older woman protagonist” is over thirty?).