5 Things I've Learned From Reviewing Everything I've Read For Almost Three Years

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Toward the end of 2018, I started putting together my lists of favorite books for the year and realized I had a problem. Writing reviews had largely fallen off my radar that year for multiple reasons and I'd reviewed less than half of what I'd read as a result. I didn't like that.

There I was, scrambling to write reviews so I could publish my favorite book posts. I wanted to figure how I could do better. 

I decided I would try to review everything I read for a year. "Short, timely reviews” became my motto. That took any self-imposed pressure off the table. By reviewing every book, novella, and short story, I would have a better record at the very least.

I never could have guessed I’d still be at it almost three years later. It quickly became habit and no one is more surprised than me. I've written a little over 1000 reviews in that time and I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way that have hopefully made me a better reader, writer, and bookish citizen. (You can find my book reviews on Goodreads. Anyone is welcome to follow my reviews; friend requests are limited to real life friends.)

 

1. The more you review, the better you get at reviewing and critiquing. 

Before this, I was mainly reviewing for myself. If people found benefit from my reviews, then great. Now I want people to walk away having an idea of whether a book will be right for them. 

Writing review after review gave me a lot of practice for figuring out what readers want to know, like specific content warnings (more below) or how a plot choice was handled. I consider representation and seek out reviews from people with lived experience. When applicable, I mention the lens of my own perspective and any relevant experience (e.g. former medical social worker, history of depression). I'm sure I still miss problematic things—I'll be working on that for the rest of my life—but I pick up more every year. That’s the on-going work.

Critiquing isn’t limited to problematic aspects. It also means recognizing books that are exemplars of the genre and noticing interesting structure, dialogue, and characterization. Critiquing is a closer examination of both what worked and what didn’t. It’s made me more appreciative of my favorite books, as much as it’s helped me point out flaws in others.

Even though I gave myself the out of shorter reviews, they haven't tended to be all that short. With the pressure off, I find I usually do have a fair amount to say but I'm also fine with only a sentence or two. 

 

2. Systems help.

As an admin, it isn’t altogether surprising that I thrive on systems. But I hadn’t really considered what systems would help my reading/reviewing life.

I’ve tried a few different things over the years but I fine-tuned it in the past three. I have a small journal for taking notes about the characters, reactions to the plot, and content warnings. I have an ongoing untitled document where I write my reviews—this has turned out to be crucial because I don’t write reviews in any order. Right now I still need to write a review for a book I finished 4 days ago but I already wrote the one I finished last night. That document reminds me what reviews are still in progress. Sometimes I’ll draft a few thoughts while I’m still reading the book so I won’t forget later. Drafting in a doc also means I won’t lose a review due to an internet or Goodreads glitch. 

 

3. Content warnings are a much-needed service.

I’ve learned so much about content warnings since I started tracking them. Prior to this, I added them sporadically and with a pretty limited understanding of what that entailed. I’m so grateful to Corey Alexander who led by example, as well as Mel To The Any. Their content warnings provided so much guidance for me.

Early on into this project, I decided I'd start tracking CWs for everything since I was already going to be reviewing everything anyway. This has probably been the most instructive piece of this whole experience. I think about language choices differently, as well as what purpose the content serves, especially when it comes to, say, a traumatic backstory. It also helped me think about the best ways to convey said information and the most succinct terms. I cannot confirm or deny I started a spreadsheet to keep track of my preferred terminology.

Content warnings help prevent readers from reading a book that would ultimately be triggering or they prepare them so they can go in forearmed with that knowledge. That’s why I do it. While there’s certain content I prefer to avoid myself, whether due to professional background or preference, I don't have triggers so I'm well positioned to include this information. Providing content warnings doesn’t cost an author, publisher, or reviewer anything. It's the smallest way we can look after our fellow readers. People who don’t need them can easily skip that part of the book or review, whereas those who need them will be protected. I hope they’ll become more standard.

There's so much more to say about this topic that I'll probably write a post about it eventually.

 

4. Reviewing takes up a whole lot of time.

It takes time to take notes while reading (lots of frequent pauses), time to gather thoughts, time to write and format the review. There’s often not much external payoff. Unless someone Likes or comments on my Goodreads review, I have no idea who has seen it or whether it helped them. Liking a Goodreads review is such an easy thing to do for your favorite reviewers or any review that helps you decide whether to read a book or that affirms your opinion after you read it. The feedback isn't why reviewers do it but it is nice to know people see what you do.

Reviewing everything probably means I read less. It forces me to take a breath and consider the book I just experienced. Sometimes I think I should use that time to write essays or fiction instead and that day will come. But for now, it feels like time well spent. Mostly because of this last point.

 

5. Having this extensive record is amazing.

This was my greatest hope in starting this endeavor. Because of the amount I read, it’s hard to remember the particulars of every book or even how I felt about it. Being able to pull up a review from the past three years immediately brings back those memories. I’m glad to have my thoughts and opinions preserved. 

This habit might drop off eventually. (I’ve wondered if writing this post will jinx me!) I can’t say whether I’ll want to review everything I’ve read for the rest of my life. Regardless, I’m grateful for the lessons of the past few years. I’m a more thoughtful, intentional reader and that’s the best result of all.


2018 Reading Year In Review

Am I posting about 2018 at the end of February? Why yes, I am.

This year is zooming by and I'm still catching up. I left the Twin Cities mid-December, made previously planned pit-stops in Louisville and then Nashville, and then moved to Knoxville, TN at the end of the month. Shall I mention I didn't know I was going to move until December 1? Yep. It was a little crazy and it's no wonder I feel exhausted.

Still.  I cannot convey the amount of relief I feel over no longer being in Minnesota. It was such a long season of unknowns and temporary housing. I'm pondering an essay about it all but this update will hopefully suffice in the meantime.

In any case, I wanted to recap my reading year because it looked different from years past, mostly because of the Unread Shelf Project started by Whitney Conard

 

Unread Shelf Project Recap

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At the start of 2018, I counted all the books on my unread shelf. I wanted to try to read five or six of those books every month to see if I could make a dent in the stacks. Originally, I was going to set TBRs each month and that only lasted about four or five months. It was good while it lasted but I do best when I'm free to read what I want, when I want it, library book due dates aside.


In all, I read 70 books from my unread shelf in 2018! I started the year off with 90-ish books and I’m ending the year with...94. 😂 Here’s to breaking even! I didn’t write down how many books I decided were no longer for me and passed along to a Little Free Library or sold to a used bookstore instead of reading. 

For those interested in the breakdown:
January: 9
February: 6
March: 6 + 1 DNF
April: 3 + 1 DNF (I decided to stop including DNFs after this)
May: 6
June: 7
July: 4
August: 1
September: 5
October: 8
November: 8
December: 7

 

I’m definitely going to keep this habit up in 2019! The Unread Shelf Project has helped me be more mindful about what I buy and even which review copies I accept from publishers. I haven't figured out the balance in visiting bookstores but I tend to be more self-controlled in independent bookstores than when I visit my favorite used bookstores. I dare you to live near a McKay Books and not take advantage of all the deals! 

 

Yearly Total and 2019 Goals

I read 314 books in 2018. If you do the math, that means 244 books came from the library or were ARCs. When I say I'm a library user because I could never support my book habit, I'm not lying!

And because someone will inevitably ask how I can read so much, read this. (My circumstances have changed but much of it is still true.) The game-changer for my reading life has been rarely watching TV. Not going to lie: I do miss my Real Housewives. But most evenings I'm content to curl up with a good book. I'm a prolific reader and I've felt weird about sharing my number the past few years because I don't want anyone to feel bad about whatever their number is. But this is an accomplishment and I'm celebrating my book nerdery!

I have a few bookish intentions for 2019, like using a spreadsheet or tally to track more stats and finishing a bunch of the 42 series I have in progress. I'm also trying really hard to keep up with book reviews, as those fell by the wayside last year. I don't think I reviewed half of what I read and I'm sad I don't have the record beyond a star rating on Goodreads. This year my motto is going to be “shorter reviews in a timely manner.” So far, I'm keeping up and it feels good.

For the record, I think of my blog and Instagram as a highlight reel, generally only sharing my 4 of 5 star reads and the occasional 3 star if it's by a favorite author. If you want to see it all, follow me on Goodreads!

 

Favorite Books of 2018

Just in case you missed my annual favorite book lists, here they are!

Favorite Fiction of 2018

Favorite Romance Novels of 2018

Favorite YA of 2018

Favorite Nonfiction of 2018


Romance Novels, Defined

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I share genre definitions and literary terminology on my Instagram Stories every so often. I've been planning to define romance for months now and finally got a chance to do it over the weekend and thought I'd create a version of it here as well.

February abounds with references to romance novels but people don't always get it right, likely because they've never taken the time to learn about the genre. There's a difference between love stories and romance novels. Here's the definition of the romance genre!

Alt text is listed below the graphic.

 

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[Love stories are not the same as romance novels.]

 

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[A romance novel needs a love story but a love story is not necessarily a romance.]

 

RWA definition

[According to Romance Writers of America, a romance novel has two requirements:

  1. A central love story
  2. It must have a happy (optimistic and emotionally satisfying) ending.]

Central love story

[1. A central love story 

The main plot centers around characters falling in love and figuring out how to make the relationship work.]

 

Happy ending

[2. It must have a happy (optimistic and emotionally satisfying) ending.

Also known as Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN.)]

 

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[If you tell someone a book is romance and it doesn't have a happy ending? Romance readers will revolt. Don't mess with the happy ending!]

 

Not a romance_ Nicholas Sparks Me Before You Bridget Jones's Diary

[Not a romance:

Nicholas Sparks

Me Before You

Bridget Jones's Diary]

 

Nicholas Sparks (1)

[Nicholas Sparks

Despite how often his books are erroneously shelved there, even the author will say he doesn't write romance. He writes love stories, with nary a happily ever after in sight.]

 

Me Before You does center on two characters but is the goal for them to fall in love_ No  even if the story ends up going there. (In a romance  this would be clear in the first couple of chapters.) Louisa's dating so

[Me Before You does center on two characters but is the goal for them to fall in love? No, even if the story ends up going there. (In a romance, this would be clear in the first couple of chapters.) Louisa's dating someone else and needs to get a handle on her life. Plus, spoiler alert: there's no happy ending here.]

 

Books categorized as _chick lit_ or women's fiction are trickier but there's your first clue. Chick lit and women's fiction are not romance novels  even if they have a strong love story. The love story is a secondary

[Books categorized as "chick lit" or women's fiction are trickier but there's your first clue. Chick lit and women's fiction are not romance novels, even if they have a strong love story. The love story is a secondary plot.]

 

Bridget Jones

[In the case of Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget is focused on self-improvement, which frames the novel. She even dates someone who isn't the hero for a good chunk of the novel. The plot cares more about Bridget's growth than centering the love story.]

 

So does this make romance formulaic_ NO!

[So does this make romance formulaic? No!]

 

Setting readers

[Setting readers' expectations is the gift of genre fiction.]

 

Charaters will fall in love

[Characters will fall in love and live happily ever after in romance.

A murder mystery will be solved in the end.

Fantasy will transport you to another world.]

 

Romance  and genre fiction

[Romance, and genre fiction in general, is no more predictable and formulaic than any other kind of literature. Give five authors the same premise and you'll get five different books.]

 

Interested in trying romance or exploring more of the genre?

Favorite Romance Novels Of 2018

Favorite Contemporary Romance Novels (including a Romance Starter Kit)

How I Became A Romance Reader 

 

 

Romance Novels  Defined | www.leighkramer.com


How I Became A Romance Reader

How I Became A Romance Reader

I've always been drawn to love stories but romance novels occupied a complicated corner of my reading history until about two and a half years ago.

Before we go any further, let's make sure we're on the same page. Pun intended. A romance novel is focused on individuals falling in love and it must have a happy ending. A novel can have a love story but if the plot is not primarily concerned about the love story or if it does not have a Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN), then it's not a romance. Nicholas Sparks and Me Before You? No happy endings and therefore not romance. My own novel has a love story but it's not the central relationship—that honor goes to Olivia and her grandmother. Therefore, mine isn't a romance either.

Now back to my origin story...

Freshman year of high school, my friend Jane and I were talking about books before math class started and she promised to lend me a couple of her favorite romance novels. I hid them under my dresser and only read with my door closed. One book in particular proved to be very educational. I still remember a scene that took place in a truck during a storm and another one involving the dryer. I wish I could remember the title! (I submitted it to HaBo but so far no one has solved this mystery. I would love to know what it is!)

I don't know if Jane got in trouble for lending her mom's books or if I was hampered by conservative evangelical youth group/parental guilt but the book borrowing only lasted a few months. From there, I primarily read Christian romance. I was all about Robin Jones Gunn's Glenbrooke series (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) and anything else in Multnomah's Palisades line. Beyond that, I'd read anything with a love story but I didn't read any general market romance novels, no matter how much they appealed to me. See: aforementioned youth group guilt.

Around my mid-20s I read my first Nora Roberts book Midnight Bayou (Amazon | Barnes & Noble), thanks to one of those mail-order book catalogs. By that point, I'd read plenty of novels with sex scenes but Nora was my entry point back into the land of romance novels. I didn't read a ton by her but it was nice to have the option in my back pocket. Who wouldn't inhale the Bride Quartet (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) or the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy (Amazon | Barnes & Noble)?

While Gabaldon doesn't categorize them as romance, I also read the Outlander series (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) around this time and holy hell Jamie Fraser. 

Then I came across a description of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Match Me If You Can (Amazon | Barnes & Noble) in that same book catalog that introduced me to Nora Roberts. It was perfectly up my alley (a matchmaker and a sports agent!) and I dutifully added it to my lengthy To Read list.

I hadn't realized it was a romance novel from the description but Match Me If You Can was fun, just what I didn't realize I'd been looking for. (Let the record reflect these books are super problematic and definitely don't age well but I'm grateful for the role MMIYC played in getting me to become a romance reader.) Every so often, I'd read something from SEP's backlist and this, along with the occasional Nora Roberts, took me through the next several years. 

Two and a half years ago, I started to wonder what other contemporary romance was out there. I figured I had to be missing out and I had no idea how right I was about that. I decided I was long overdue for a deep dive in the romance genre and a new readerly obsession was born. In many ways, reading romance has saved my life, as well as taught me so much. 

It took some time to figure out how to find the right recommendations. I first asked people in a Facebook group; none of those initial recommendations were what I was looking for but it was a start. I had just started listening to Smart Podcast Trashy Books thanks to a friend and the recommendations on the podcast and the Smart Bitches Trashy Books website were crucial in those early days. From there, I looked at Goodreads reviewers for contemporaries that I enjoyed, like Lana at Dirty Girl Romance, Alex at Alleskelle, Astrid at The Bookish Sweet Tooth, Gretchen at About That Story, Bex at Totally Bex, and Sarah at Musings of the Modern Belle, and looked to see what else they were reading. 

I also started following romance authors like Alisha Rai on Twitter and that opened up my world even further—and introduced me to some of my favorite books and authors. Romancelandia has become one of my favorite things on Twitter, although it's not without its faults. I owe so much to reviewers like Ana Coqui who started #RomBkLove (this will explode your TBR sorry not sorry), The Book Queen, Sil, Dahlia Adler, Kini, Corey Alexander, and many, many more.

This past year Heaving Bosoms Podcast and The Wicked Wallflowers Club Podcast came into my life and that's led to many more great books. The joy never ends!

This has by no means been a perfect process. Much of what I read those first several months was largely by and about straight white people. Once I realized this, I was intentional about finding more POC authors and reviewers, as well as LGBTQ+ authors and reviewers. (Now there are databases like WOC In Romance, LGBTQ Reads, and POC Queer Romance Authors that make it even easier.) My next focus is to find more books about characters who have disabilities, especially #ownvoices. To that end, I'm grateful for Sense & Disability, which hasn't been updated in a while but the archives are worthwhile.

Romance readers are always willing to trade recommendations and I've never met a more passionate group of readers. I owe this community so much!

These days romance is the genre I read the most and I love it. In fact, you can't shut me about it and I only wish I hadn't been shamed out of reading romance when I was a teenager. I have so much catching up to do!

Becoming a dedicated romance reader has opened up a whole new world and I have truly learned so much about myself, the genre, and the romance community. It's given me hope during a difficult season and I'll be forever grateful for its impact on my life.

 

Disclosure: affiliate links are included in this post.


How To Host A Books & Bottles Party

How To Host A Books And Bottles Party

This past weekend I attended my friend Thomas Wegner's 7th Annual Books & Bottles Party. Here’s how it works: everyone brings a copy of a book they love and a bottle of alcohol. From the paper chain decor (made from a VC Andrews novel!) to the room filled with book lovers, I was amazed by every aspect of this bookish party. 

It's an idea that needs to spread far and wide.

The world needs more literary-inspired parties!

Stay tuned for my interview with Thomas about the party's origin at the end of this post.

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How To Host A Books & Bottles Party

The beauty of this party is how easily you can customize it.

Don't drink alcohol? Call your party Books And Beverages and have people bring their favorite tea, hot chocolate, or coffee to share. Interested in a particular genre? Instruct people to bring their favorite romance, mystery, etc.

The possibilities are endless.

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The guests 

Figure out how many people your place can hold. We had just under 30 people at Thomas's house and thanks to double tier seating behind the couch, we made it work. Much more than that would have been complicated. 

As far as who to invite, there are a couple of ways to go about this. Most people have a favorite book so start with your circle of friends. Or invite your book-loving friends. You can ask someone to be your co-host and you can both extend invitations.

I only knew Thomas and Sarah at this party and as an introvert, I was a little nervous. But I trusted I would enjoy getting to know their friends, especially since this was a book-loving crowd and I was right. There were  a number of first timers there and the eclectic collection of people made for fascinating conversation. 

 

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The decor

Thomas and Sarah made paper chains out of a VC Andrews book and strung them up around the house. (Check out Thomas's and Sarah's Instagram accounts if you want to see how they did it.)

Of course, you don't have to put up decorations if you don't want to or don't have time. But should you feel inspired, there are plenty of book crafts out there.

 

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The food and drinks

In addition to asking guests to bring a bottle of alcohol, Thomas whipped up a signature whiskey cocktail for the evening. There were mixers, pop, and water as well.

Food-wise, there was a great assortment of snacks, ranging from cheese and crackers to fruit to chips and dip. Plus dessert! Sarah added small signs with the name of the dish and whether they were allergy-friendly. There's no reason you couldn't make this a potluck. 

 

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The prizes 

Totally optional but what a crowd pleaser! While people were mixing and mingling, Thomas would occasionally call for a prize round. For example, he said he was looking for three writers and gave the prize to the first three hands that shot up. One of those hands was mine and in this case, we each got a journal. 

The prizes were random, as were the categories, and they were a nice way to break up the first part of the evening. Plus, it gave Thomas a chance to brush off his showman skills.

 

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The swap

At the start of the party, everyone wrote their name on a piece of paper and then put it in a bowl. 

One person volunteered to go first and introduced their book. We were instructed to speak for only 42 seconds and most people kept their comments relatively brief. Then they picked a name from a bowl and that’s who got the book. We then continued around the circle.

There was so much love in that room. Everyone was genuinely interested in hearing about the books people had brought and what they meant to them. Some books were crowd pleasers, like when Shelby talked about Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Others no one had heard about before. There were art books, memoirs, fiction, and self-help. It was a great mix!

A volunteer wrote down the titles and authors of what people had brought.

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I received a copy of River Town, a memoir by a Peace Corps volunteer set in China. I'm not familiar with it but based on what was shared and reading reviews online, I'm excited to read it.

I brought my all-time favorite novel A Prayer For Owen Meany. I talked about John Irving's gift of creating characters. I might have said Owen Meany is not only Irving's best character but also one of the best characters in all of literature. Yep. I stand by that claim. 

After the last book was given, Thomas said people had the option to trade books if someone had wound up with one they really, really wanted. I'm not sure if anyone took him up on that. Most people seemed pretty happy with what they got. 

It was such a fun night!

 

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Interview With Thomas Wegner

I asked Thomas a few questions about the origin and evolution of Books & Bottles. Be sure to check out MakeRoom and follow him on Instagram.

 

How did you first come up with the idea for Books & Bottles?

I was introduced to the idea by a friend of mine on the West Coast. He originally hosted the party each year as a ‘13th night’ (the day after the traditional celebration where in the 12 days of Christmas are celebrated with the first day starting on December 25th). He felt gathering friends, after the rush of the holidays were over, for a casual, easy-to-host party that brought people together to share some of their favorite literature was a great idea. I remember thinking at that first party how engaging the event was; how much fun it was for people to take a moment and talk about a book that had really touched them.

It was many years after I attended his party that I started hosting my own - maybe as much as a decade had passed - but it always remained in my mind. I never forgot it and in fact remembered fondly how much fun it was. I knew when the time was right, I would try hosting it.

The first year I hosted it the event was rather small but also very popular. I throw parties often but that first party was different. Even though I invited only a few people, all of them enthusiastically accepted the invitation and they all showed up. The turn out rate was very high and I knew then I had something people loved.

 

How has the party changed or grown over the years?

At that first party I had just moved to the community and I didn’t know a lot of people. I recall inviting everyone I had recently met. The party was a smaller but what we lacked for in size we made up for in enthusiasm. People were eager to get the discussion and exchange part of the evening started and it quickly became a lively discussion of all of these favorite books.

Since that first year, I have met many more people and while the crowd ebbs and flows a bit from year to year, old friends returning and new faces attending, I have gotten particular about who I invite. Because there is a focused program, I have to keep in mind the number of people. If you have too many people the discussion and book exchange can take a very long time!  We have to manage simple things like having enough seating for everyone to sit together in a circle and being able to hear each other.

 

What's the key(s) to having a great Books & Bottles party?

Inviting friends who are what I think of as ‘real readers’. What I mean is most everyone reads something or another but not everyone reads and really cherishes books. If people show up with books they casually read or don’t have much attachment to then you get an exchange that lacks a bit of passion. However, if everyone brings a book they have read and really love then you get a more lively and meaningful exchange. Some people bring books that have changed their lives or opinions for the better.  Others bring books that moved them in a special way or that they recall fondly from their youth.  Perhaps they bring a novel they really love because they can relate to the character. In all of these examples you end up with someone else’s amazing book. In a way, you end up with a part of them or at the least you have gotten to know that person better.

The other key to having a great B&B is some bottles of drinks. This may sound funny but I truly believe it. I personally try to offer a couple of drinks to my guests as quickly as possible. This helps everyone to loosen up, mingle, laugh and chat with each other. It may also help relieve any nerves someone might have about giving a small speech later about their book. And let’s face it, some people are sharing books that come from a very personal and sometimes vulnerable place for them.

 

Any advice for someone who would like to host their own Books & Bottles party?

Hosting a B&B party is a wonderful thing to do and its actually a pretty simple party to throw. I’d say to not be afraid to take the extra time and explain to guests ahead of time that they have to do a bit of homework for the party. This is not just a show up sort of affair. People have to put some time into thinking about what book they will bring, getting a copy of that book and be ready to share why it is they love it so much. In reality this may mean some people may be turned off from attending, but in the end, that may be okay as those who do attend will be a self-selected group and they are sure to love it.

 

 

Disclosure: Affiliate links included in this post.