The Delight in Reading Lists and Challenges: 20 Suggestions

Reading challenges get us out of our comfort zones. Whether we’re trying to expand what genres we read, catch up on classics, or just plain read more, these lists and challenges are a great way to reconsider our reading habits.

In the past, I’ve participated in Cannonball Read — where a person attempts to read and review 52 books in a year — but I’ve also set more vague goals like, “Read more poetry” or “Read more biographies and note what makes a biography good.”

Other reading challenges take on a list form, with a wide variety of categories intended to inspire a person to check out some book to which they might not otherwise pay attention.

In the interest of making some book recommendations — since aren’t we always trying to decide what to read next? — I’ve devised a list that is a cross between one from Andrew Scott, Editor at Lacewing Books, and one that Book Riot posted at the beginning of this year, as well as some of my own personal tweaks. The following books are a selection of those that I have read since the start of 2014.

1. A book that became a movie

The Complete Ripley Novels by Patricia HighsmithThe Complete Ripley Novels, or The Ripliad (as they are often called as a set) by Patricia Highsmith.

Books 1 and 3 became movies: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley’s Game. (I compared the film adaptation to the book in a previous P-Mag post here.) This year I finally read Books 4 and 5: The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water.

2. A book with a one-word title

Being - Zach Ellis (cover)Being by Zach Ellis

Being is a novella-length memoir about being transgender, a parent, and how Ellis navigates his personal relationships. Published by the new Future Tense e-book imprint, Instant Future, it made me want to read more of this man’s work.

3. A book of short stories

We Live in The Water by Jess Walter (cover)We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Jess Walter continues to be one of my All-Time Favorite Writers, and I loved the entirety of this short story collection. Walter writes a lot about Spokane, where I lived for seven years, but even without the thrill of recognition, this is an outstanding book. People talk a lot about the closing piece, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” as though it is somewhat fictionalized, and maybe some of the personal details are. However, that sense of place you get? The people he describes and the locales? They are all very real.

4. A book from a small press

The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins (cover)The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins

Myfanwy Collins writes about longing, heartbreak, and survival better than so many other writers out there, and The Book of Laney continues to demonstrate her skills. Her first foray into YA territory, she imbues her teenage protagonist with such honesty, and one never feels like she is talking down to a non-adult reader. This is exactly the sort of book I would point to when others wonder if YA books can ever match the emotional heft of literary fiction.

5. A book based on a true story

West of Sunset - Stewart O'Nan (cover)West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, which I’ve previously reviewed for this site.

Much has been written about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s good times — the Gatsby years, the parties — but the aftermath is less examined. Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset imagines Fitzgerald’s last stages in life. Centered around his late-’30s Hollywood years, the writer see-saws between struggle and vindication while trying maintain some semblance of family.

6. An audiobook

Doctor Who - Home Truths by Simon GuerrierDoctor Who: Home Truths by Simon Guerrier

Two things in which I’m always interested: Doctor Who and Jean Marsh. This audio adventure by Simon Guerrier involves a spooky house and the ghostly voice of Sara Kingdom, the space security agent played by Jean Marsh during several episodes in the First Doctor’s run. Home Truths is the first part in a series of three, and it’s wonderfully done.

7. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)

If a Lion Could Talk by Mildred Walker (cover)If a Lion Could Talk by Mildred Walker

I’d never heard of this book until a friend recommended it as our next book club pick. The story concerns a failed missionary couple in U.S. fur-trapping country. It talks about their relationship to the Blackfoot Indians they met, communication problems with them and within their marriage, and it was a lovely surprise.

8. A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ

I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer (cover)I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer

Though it’s only May, this book is already a front-runner for my favorite of the year, and I’ll dedicate a full review to it soon. For now, let me say that sometimes a book comes along and fucks you up in the best way, right when you need it. I want to hug this book’s face off, as soon as I recover from the all too true feelings of heartbreak and illness and friendship. Read this.

9. A book you can finish in a day

Women - Chloe Caldwell - coverWomen by Chloe Caldwell, which I previously reviewed here at P-Mag.

Chloe Caldwell writes in a very personal way, whether its in her own memoir, or in the case of this novella, Women. She specializes in the fucked up things we do in relationships and the ways we try to make ourselves feel better. I’m always interested in what she has to say.

10. A book in translation

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo NerudaTwenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin (Translator)

Neruda’s love poems are some of my favorites, and after reading his Cien Sonetos, I was glad to read this other collection. The poems are presented with both their English and Spanish versions, which dusts off some of my rusty español. Recommended.

11. A graphic novel

Doctor Who- The Tenth Doctor Vol. 1 Revolutions Of TerrorDoctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Vol. 1 Revolutions Of Terror​ by Nick Abadzis & Elena Casagrande

Admittedly, I’ve only read the first few issues in this collected volume of new Tenth Doctor stories, but what I’ve seen has been a promising start. The Doctor meets up with Gabriela, a smart New York Latina who doesn’t want to only work in her family’s laundromat. The art is beautiful and the tone of this particular Doctor is just right.

12. A book you own but have never read

Spitalfields Life by the Gentle Author (cover)Spitalfields Life: In the Midst of Life I Woke to Find Myself Living in an Old House Beside Brick Lane in the East End of London by the Gentle Author

This massive volume chronicles life in the East End of London, and what convinced me to buy it was a Year in Reading post over at The Millions. London plus ordinary details plus an obsessive need to chronicle them? Count me in. Soon, I’ll finally crack it open.

13. An alternate history

Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History by Phong NguyenPages from the Textbook of Alternate History by Phong Nguyen

I think I would have gotten more out of this book had I been familiar with all of the historical figures discussed. However, if one is a history nerd who enjoys thinking about What might have been, then I’d recommend this odd, short-ish book. True to its name, there are even textbook-like questions at the end of each chapter. Despite this not being entirely for me, I’m still glad I gave it a look.

14. A book that is a retelling of a classic story

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis (cover)Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

This was another book club suggestion, a pick of a different friend, and again, I think I would have gotten more out of it had I been more familiar with the source material. Lewis reworks the myth of Cupid and Psyche as a tale of two princesses, and though I wasn’t in love, I am still glad to have expanded my literary horizons a bit.

15. A book you started but never finished

And The Ass Saw The Angel by Nick Cave

Because I hated it. Your mileage may vary, but this isn’t a recommendation.

16. A sci-fi book

A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin (cover)A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin

After so many years of her life dedicated to The X-Files, Gillian Anderson felt as though she could tell a science fiction story, albeit with a little bit of help from the very prolific Jeff Rovin. It’s a decent book with an interesting concept, though the ending felt rushed. Still, if you love Gillian like I do, you’ll likely feel indulgent and curious about the next book in the series.

17. A book of poetry

Frost in the Low Areas by Karen Skolfield (cover)Frost in the Low Areas by Karen Skolfield

I let this collection of poetry languish unread in my collection for far too long. It wasn’t for any particular reason; I just kept forgetting to pick it up. Finally, I’ve read it, and it’s magnificent and feels personal and is exactly what I’m looking for when I want a book of poetry, somewhat in the same way I love Tracy K. Smith’s work.

18. A book by an author you’ve never heard of

Marine Park by Mark ChiusanoMarine Park by Mark Chiusano

This collection of short stories about a less popular section of Brooklyn came my way through a Penguin marketing email looking for book reviewers who might be interested. I neglected to do a proper review (my “being behind on reviews” tales of woe are best saved for another time), but I still enjoyed this book. Let it be known to the marketing people within publishing houses that those emails do their job because I’d never heard of Chiusano before that day, and I’m not sure if I would have noticed the book otherwise.

19. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (cover)The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Shout-out once more to book club friends who finally get me to read a certain work. I’d heard of The Round House, but had yet to get around to this 2012 National Book Award Winner. I’m so glad that did because I really loved this difficult tale of a boy trying to understand what happened to his mother the night she was attacked near their North Dakota reservation home. Really, you must give this one a go, if you haven’t already.

20. A young adult book

The Name of The Star by Maureen Johnson (cover)The Name of The Star by Maureen Johnson

For at least a year, I’d been following Maureen Johnson on Twitter, after seeing so many of her funny thoughts RT’d by other people. It started to feel somewhat embarrassing to think of myself as a “fan,” having never actually read any of her books. Ah, the internet.

The Name of The Star happened to be the one novel of hers that my local library had, and with a story about ghosts and London, I already knew I’d love it based on the book jacket copy. It’s smart, funny, and the beginning of a series. Though it’s still the only Maureen Johnson book I’ve read, now I’m motivated to gobble up the rest.

Now, what about the rest of you? What are some good books you’ve read in any (or all!) of these categories? Give a shout in the comments.


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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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