LITSY A-TO-Z READING CHALLENGE – May Update

My life has been so crazy full this year. I am unbelievably behind on my Goodreads reading challenge. I think I’ll make it up. Maybe? I’m also participating in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, which I’ll write an update post on soon.

Another challenge I’m participating in this year is the Litsy A-to-Z challenge. There are a few options for that one, but the one I’m choosing is this: read 26 books, each with an author whose last name starts with a different letter. If you’re on Litsy, follow me: @becky_renner, and click this link to join in the fun.

Here are the books I have read so far:

A-

B- Borsuk, Amaranth – Between Page and Screen

C- Cluess, Jessica – A Shadow Bright and Burning

D-

E- Engel, Patricia – Veins of the Ocean

F- Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby

G- Garber, Stephanie – Caraval; Gordon, Jaimy – Lord of Misrule

H- Hartnett, Annie – Rabbit Cake

I-

J- Johansen, Erika – The Queen of the Tearling; James, Vic – Gilded Cage

K- Kendi, Ibram X. – Stamped from the Beginning

L- Le Guin, Ursula – Steering the Craft

M- Meyer, Marissa – Cinder

N- Novik, Naomi – Uprooted

O-

P- Poreba, Christine – Rough Knowledge; Patchett, Ann – Bel Canto

Q- Queneau, Raymond – Exercises in Style

R-

S- Saunders, George – Lincoln in the Bardo; Solnit, Rebecca – Men Explain Things to Me; Smiley, Jane – Horse Heaven (currently reading)

T-

U-

V-

W-

X-

Y- Yanagihara, Hanya – A Little Life

Z-

 

Somehow I’ve done 15/26. I have a list of other potential books I may read here. But who knows what I’ll end up reading.

Want to try the challenge yourself? Join the fun here.

Book List: Five Horse Books to Get You Hyped for the Kentucky Derby

When I was a baby, my dad ran a horse farm in Ocala, FL, and my mom trained racehorses. They first put me on a horse before I could walk. My earliest memories include the slough of horse hair on my mother’s jeans from riding bareback and the sway of the horse’s shoulders as we rode under mossy live oaks. Even after we left the farm and headed for the coast, horses remained a staple of my imagination. They were wild, majestic, magical, and free. Horse books like Misty of Chincoteague and The Black Stallion fluttered through my hands again and again. I blame these books for igniting my love of reading.

I plowed through all the horse books for kids (Saddle Club, anyone? I was totally obsessed.), and started to crave longer reads with more tangled stories. In other words, I was growing up. But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave horse books behind. To my surprise, there aren’t nearly as many horse books for adults. So now I’m writing one.

Here are five books that inspired me:

The most recent entry on the list, The Sport of Kings (2016) by C. E. Morgan follows an old Kentucky horse-racing family from the birth of their horse farm to racing for the roses. A doorstopper of a book that leaves no detail untold, The Sport of Kings is nonetheless a must-read for any horse lover.

And now for something completely different: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon will completely dismantle your conceptions of what it is to be a novel. Capturing the seedy side of horse racing, Gordon’s 2010 National Book Award Winner is 100% voice-driven. I can hear every character when I read. It’s extraordinary! A word of caution: this book is very literary and not for the casual reader. The perspective is sometimes so close to the viewpoint character that the narrative will be difficult to understand if you don’t know anything about horse racing.

Lyrical and dark, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses tells the story of a young Texas rancher who sets off on a journey to Mexico across the kind of wide-open spaces that make McCarthy famous. All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award in 1993.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand is one of my all-time favorite books. The movie staring Tobey Maguire brought my grandmother, a long-time equestrian and the owner of my parents’ horse farm, to tears. At seventeen years old, she had cheered from the stands as Seabiscuit faced War Admiral in their iconic 1938 clash at Pimlico. Basically: I love this book, and I want to read it again and again.

(Side note: one of her daughters, my aunt, was bitten by Secretariat, but that’s a story for another time.)

Finally, the book I’m currently reading is Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres in 1992. My first impression with this book was: dear God, what have I gotten myself into?! It’s quite a brick. But I love horse racing, and I can’t get enough horse racing books. There’s just this strange beauty and mystery about horse racing, and so far, Horse Heaven does not disappoint.

I can’t wait until my book makes it onto this list. I should be finishing the rough draft in the next few days (or weeks), and then I’ll get down to the arduous task of editing.

Book Review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Vic James’s debut dystopic fantasy, Gilded Cage, blends the magic of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and the well-known squalor of The Hunger Games with a relatable cast of characters and vast plot that reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire.

In the world of Gilded Cage, not everyone is created Equal. Most aristocrats wield astonishing magical powers in addition to their powers of wealth, governance, and prestige. The common folk are kept down by a law that requires them to complete their “slave days,” ten years of brutal servitude beneath the rule of the Equals. But the commoners can’t cower forever. In Gilded Cage, they begin to realize the strength in their numbers and how oppression steels people who were once soft.

Gilded Cage is characterized by layers. In the way of the best works of fantasy literature, the reader comes away with the impression that they have only read the very surface. The characters seem real. They all have hopes, passions, and dreams. Even those who might be villains have a positive side.

In all, Gilded Cage left me with the impression that there is so much more that this world has to offer. I applaud James for hooking me, and I can’t wait for the next installment of the Dark Gifts series.

*Disclaimer: An ARC of this book was furnished through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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More than Weirdness Machines: The Inequality of Hurricanes in Fiction

I wrote this post right after Hurricane Matthew, but my life was so scrambled that it never got posted. The following are my belated thoughts on hurricanes in fiction.


Like many of my fellow Floridians, I evacuated for Hurricane Matthew. As I’m writing this, it’s been nearly a week since it hit. I’m still without power. I’m sitting in Denny’s, basking in the Wi-Fi, and thinking about how in my 26 years (in other words, my life) in Florida, hurricanes have always acted as weirdness machines.

Aftermath carries a bizarre glow, a strange cast to the sky. Oddities have been shaken out of hiding. Strangers carry on conversations, empathize and sympathize, never to see each other again. Matthew sent me to hunker with my cousin and his wife in Ocala, where I saw a letter-board outside a hunting outpost that read “Remember Lot’s Wife.” Driving home, a man dressed half in Army fatigues and half in Confederate gray uniform crossed the road in front of my car. I have found stray shot glasses in my yard after a storm not once but twice. Continue reading

My Top Five Favorite Novels of 2016

I have read a lot of books this year (124 as of today), some of them amazing, some of them egregiously bad. These are my top five favorite novels I read this year.

vegetarian-coverOn its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society. I highly recommend The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s astonishing (but tight!) prose and highly significant subject matter would make it the perfect book for readers of literary fiction and maybe even for book clubs that want to push the envelope and spark discussion. Read the rest of my review. Continue reading

Review of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Full of turmoil, love, loss, and pain, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a complex meditation on privilege and the crucible that is adolescence. Set in Mill Valley, California, at the real life Tamalpais High School, the story centers on a fledgling teacher, Molly Nicoll, as she discovers and comes to terms with the complex lives of her students and her role (or absence) in their evolution as people. With perspectives that alternate between Molly and the main group of her students, Johnson weaves a series of interconnected life stories that create a portrait not only of the idyllic Mill Valley, with its towering redwoods and foggy views of San Francisco Bay, she creates a portrait from the inside, from the multifaceted and often breaking hearts of the teenagers who are beginning their lives there. Continue reading

Review of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt has been difficult for me to review. I finished it a few days ago, and since then, I’ve been ruminating on it.

In its essence, Cruel Beautiful World is a novel about family and love. But the horrible underside of humanity is afoot as well. Yes, it takes place during the same time as the Manson murders, but that isn’t the true specter that hangs over the characters’ psyches. The true roots of the novel’s conflict lie in the question: How well can we really know the ones we love?

The climax and denouement of Cruel Beautiful World answer this question two ways. Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll say that one represents the beautiful and one represents the cruel. Continue reading

Implications: On Writing Mental Illness and Why Representation Matters

Mental health advocacy is really important to me. In this blog post for Obra/Artifact, I talk about the importance of getting things right and loving your characters into existence, especially when they are not like you.

Obra/Artifact

A few years ago, my friend “Michelle” was kicked out of the house where she’d been living with her uncle and his girlfriend. Michelle didn’t understand what she’d done; she’s not exactly a trouble maker. She’s more likely to be caught at home with a novel on a Saturday night than out in a club. But a few months later, Michelle’s cousin related back to her all of the lies their uncle had spread: his girlfriend was afraid of Michelle. He thought Michelle might be dangerous. It was because she was “crazy,” and like everyone knows, “crazy people” are violent. At least that’s what popular media had led Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend to believe.

When Michelle heard this, she knew what she’d done wrong. She’d confided to her uncle’s girlfriend about her struggle with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that, while creating some difficulties for Michelle, had not stopped…

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Review of The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“It’s your body, you can treat it as you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted,” (Kang 182).

On its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society.

While The Vegetarian is divided into three sections, each section centers on the main character, Yeong-hye. It is absolutely vital to the novel’s message that the story be told from outside points of view. The first two of these perspectives are male: Yeong-hye’s husband and Yeong-hye’s brother in law.

From her husband’s perspective, Yeong-hye’s first symptom of insanity is that she stops eating or cooking meat, in direct disobedience to her husband and father. This section comes to a head when her father tries to physically force Yeong-hye to eat meat. Yeong-hye resists, and in an act of defiance, she cuts herself with a knife.

Continue reading