Canadian, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade, Romance, Young Adult

10 Years of Required Reading

When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!

In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some popular text graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.

Fiction, Read Diverse 2017, Young Adult

Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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Challenges, Fiction, Young Adult

P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #2)

Cover image for P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1442426733

“You haven’t brought me down. Just the opposite. You’ve brought me out. You gave me my first love story, Peter. Please just don’t let it be over yet.”

Lara Jean Song Covey didn’t mean to fall for Peter Kavinsky for real when they were pretending to date, but she did. Now they are trying to go out for real, but Lara Jean is still bothered by Peter’s friendship with his ex-girlfriend, and her ex-best friend, Genevieve. Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship also becomes uncomfortably public when someone posts a video of them kissing in the hot tub on the school ski trip on an anonymous Instagram account. Then Lara Jean’s last missing love letter comes back to her, and she finds herself half-in-love with her middle school crush, John Ambrose McLaren, all over again. But is she really falling for John, or is she just afraid of what she feels for Peter?

With Lara Jean’s awkward former crush on her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh mostly out of the picture after the events of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, P.S. I Still Love You ties up the loose end of Lara Jean’s last love letter by placing her in the middle of another love triangle between Peter Kavinsky and John Ambrose McLaren. John is a late comer to the field and seems unlikely to be able to win Lara Jean given his tardy arrival to the story arc. However, he is also a great deal more likeable than either Peter or Josh, whose rival antics in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before kind of turned me off of both love interests. The publisher’s description would lead you to believe that this sequel is finally about Lara Jean and Peter having a real relationship, but John’s appearance complicates that more than just figuring out how to be with someone, and his late arrival makes the ending feel rushed and premature.

Lara Jean’s relationships with her sisters Kitty and Margot continued to be relatively important to the story, which was a standout feature of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Kitty is still her hilarious, rambunctious self, while Margot remains steady and thoughtful, but P.S. I Still Love You was more about friendships than sisterhood. Recalling the existence of a time capsule buried beneath a neighbour’s treehouse forces Lara Jean to revisit her middle school friendships, and contemplate how she and Genevieve fell out, and their current rivalry over Peter’s time and attention. She grapples with jealousy, and the fact that Peter refuses to believe Genevieve was responsible for the video. Though Peter remained personally unappealing, Han uses their relationship to tackle bullying, sexual double standards, and friendship well enough to make this sequel worthwhile.

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Q2 Challenge Report 2015

Another quarter of the year is gone and summer is upon us. June in particular was a busy month for me, so I was anxious to check in on my challenges, worried that I may have let my attention slip and headed back into my old habits.

2015 Goodreads Challenge

2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge LogoAt the beginning of the year, I set my reading meter to 116, planning to slow down and focus on my second goal. But unless I have more busy months like June, I’m currently on track to exceed last year’s total of 130 books. So far this year I have read 71 books, putting me at 61% complete only halfway through the year. However, if it means I end up reading even more diverse books, so much the better. But I was a little worried that my busy schedule might have distracted me from mindfully choosing my reads.

Diversify 2015

Inspired by the good work of the folks at We Need Diverse Books and Diversity in YA, at the end of 2014 I took a look at my stats for the year and found that only 10% of the books I read qualified. So for 2015, I specifically set my sights on reading more books by authors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, an area where I felt I was particularly lagging. Knowing I would need to be able to measure my efforts, I set a goal to make sure that 25% of the books I read in 2015 would be by authors who were members of visible minorities.

Of the 31 books I read or listened to in Q2, 12 qualified for the challenge, working out to about 39% of my books, a slight uptick from my overall total of 35% in Q1. But since I don’t review every book I read, I realized I also needed to be paying attention to where my review energies were going. Fortunately, of the 22 books I reviewed in Q2, 10 titles qualified, working out to about 45% of my reviews, down just a tick from 46% in Q1. Even though I was busy in Q2, the stockpile I built in Q1 ensured that I had a selection of diverse books on hand to choose from, preventing me from backsliding.

Cover image for To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanThe stockpile of diverse books was particularly important because during the month of May, I also undertook an unrelated month-long mini-challenge, aimed at knocking off a few of the unread books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while. I forswore buying any new books for the month, and was only allowed to check out reference material (such a travel guide books) and audiobooks from the library. I read ten books from my own library, and finally got around to titles such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.

Year-to-date, 22 of the 48 books I have reviewed have been by minority authors, for a total of about 46%. Of my total reads, 26 of 71 have qualified, for a total of about 37%. As I’ve been reading more books by a wider range of diverse authors, I’ve noticed the various  suggestion algorithms on the sites I use catching up with the shift. For Q1, I was mainly finding books by picking out names and author photos from dust jackets and book reviews, but now Goodreads, NoveList, and Amazon are all responding the the change in my reading. This is both helpful and discouraging since on the one hand, I am getting a technological  assist finding the types books I want, but it may also imply that the suggestions for minority authors are tied more strongly to other minority authors than to genre, style, or other more significant appeal factors. This makes increasing the visibility of these titles in other ways all the more important.

In that spirit, onward to Q3!

Challenges, Fiction, Young Adult

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Cover image for To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Hanby Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4424-2672-6

“It feels so strange to have spent so much time wishing for something, for someone, and then one day, suddenly, to just stop.”

Lara Jean Song Covey used to be in love with her sister’s boyfriend, Josh, back before Josh and Margot started dating. Luckily, Lara Jean has a ritual for when she doesn’t want to like a boy anymore; she pours all her feelings into a letter, and once that letter is sealed and tucked away in a box, never to be sent, she isn’t in love anymore. But now Margot is going away to college, she and Josh have broken up, and Josh has somehow received Lara Jean’s old good-bye letter in the mail. In fact, all of her old love letters have been mailed off, forcing her to confront each of her former crushes, including her first kiss, Peter Kavinsky.

As someone who gets embarrassed on behalf of fictional characters, I was worried that the premise of this book would make it too painful to read. However, Jenny Han handles it with a light touch, plenty of humour, and lots of introspection on Lara Jean’s part, so that the embarrassment wasn’t too cringe-worthy. Although five letters are sent out, only three make their way to their recipients, freeing up the plot to focus mostly on the fall out of Josh and Peter’s reactions. Unfortunately, the main problem I had with this book was that I didn’t really like either of the boys. The more badly behaved rival love interests are in their competition for the heroine’s attention, the less I like them both.

it-feels-strangeWhile I wasn’t super engaged by the love story, I was impressed by how well Han portrayed the relationships between the three sisters, as well as Lara Jean’s own personal growth. Although Margot is absent for most of the story, her presence lingers thanks to her complicated role as sister-mother to her younger siblings after their mother’s death. Lara Jean both misses her sister, and feels the pressure to step into the mother-figure role that Margot was inhabiting, for the sake of their youngest sister, Kitty. Overall, the family dynamic is much stronger than the romantic one. Lara Jean does have some important romantic development, as she learns how to express her feelings rather than just burying them, and how to be in a relationship with another person rather than just admiring boys from afar. However, the family dynamic remains the main strength of the book.


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