Love to Read? Check Out These Book Review Websites

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February’s theme is “for the love of books.” 

Once you’ve finished reading one book, how do you decide what you will read next? For many readers, turning to online book review sites is the next best thing to getting a personal recommendation. These sites are especially appealing to those who prefer to read the latest releases. But it can be difficult to discern which of the newly published books are worthy of their time and money.

Book reviews – whether through an online review site or in a print publication – offers some perspective of what’s available. You’ll likely find two kinds of reviews: long-form reviews with a more thorough analysis of the book’s content written by a hired staff person or freelancer, and shorter reviews submitted by book fans, usually published on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.

There are more book review sites than ever before. The Internet and social media have made it possible to share opinions about the books we read more quickly and easily. I think this is in response to the growing number of newspapers and magazines that have downsized staffs and no longer have the resources to hire full-time book reviewers. Sites like Goodreads and BookRiot have successfully filled the void.

Book review sites have become a vital part of the publishing industry. Authors value them for providing an outlet to help them promote their books. My guess is that publishers like them too for a similar reason. These sites have created communities of readers from all parts of the world. They’re bringing the world together over a shared love of reading.

If you’re the type of reader who prefers to read the newest releases as soon as they come out, book review sites are the places to go to find out what is being published and by whom. If you’re the type of reader who likes being part of a reading community and likes learning about what other people are reading, book review sites can serve your needs well.

So what are the best places to go for book reviews? Here’s a rundown.

New York Publications — Most traditional book reviews are published by newspapers and magazines. The two that come to my mind are The New York Times and The New Yorker Page Turner section have extensive coverage of book reviews and literary criticism because, after all, New York City is where a good portion of the publishing action takes place. Most of these reviews are longer, more detailed pieces, so you can gain more thorough insight about new releases.

Goodreads — Several friends rave about Goodreads as the go-to source for everything-books. Read book reviews, keep track of books you want to read and find out what other people are reading. One of their highlights is their annual reading challenge. To participate, enter the number of books you plan to read in the coming year, then as you complete each one, update your tally to see your progress.

Kirkus Reviews – Launched in 1933, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine. Reviewing books is their forte, and they do it well. The magazine provides authoritative reviews of books weeks before they are released, and they offer a roundup of reviews for consumers in a weekly email that you can get delivered to your inbox. Kirkus also offers services to authors, such as marketing promotion and editing services.

Publishers Weekly – A publishing industry mainstay, Publishers Weekly covers industry news, author news, bestsellers, digital works and international. They also post publishing jobs and have a special section, BookLife, geared toward self-published authors.

Booklist Online – Geared toward librarians and libraries, Booklist is a publication of the American Library Association. But their Booklist Online site has reviews of adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. They offer advice to librarians about what newly published books should be added to their collections. But their reviews can be helpful to any avid reader.

IndieBound.org – Geared toward independent bookstores and publishers as well as fans of indie books, IndieBound.org does a great job of supporting this niche industry. In addition to summarizing the latest independently published works, the site has a search feature so you can find an independent bookstore near you. There is no online shop at IndieBound.org because their goal is to get more people shopping at the nearest independent bookstore.

The Book Reporter – Operated by book fans, The Book Reporter provides reviews and news of the latest releases, but also posts their own guides for reading discussion groups.

The Millions – The online literary magazine covering the arts, culture and books. The Millions showcases new releases every week on Tuesday, which it calls New Release Day.

Book Riot – In addition to sharing book reviews on the latest releases, Book Riot posts a weekly podcast, All the Books, which is a roundup of book recommendations.

Bookbub – Fans of e-books will appreciate the Bookbub site for its news and reviews of e-books.

I’m sure there are many more online book sites you can explore. Don’t forget your local bookstore staff who are usually in tuned to the latest industry news and can recommend new authors and newly published works. There’s usually a staff recommendations section to browse as well.

Despite the many sources around, I still believe the best recommendations come from the people you know, whether that’s a sibling, a friend or your hair stylist. You can never go wrong with a personal recommendation.

So what about you? Where do you go to read book reviews and learn about the newest releases?

Libraries: More Than Just a Place to Find Books

Several years ago, I wrote about how libraries have evolved since my childhood. For awhile, many people thought libraries were on the verge of extinction as Amazon dominated the book marketplace. But that may no longer be the case. Just as independent bookstores found ways to survive by offering products and services not offered by Amazon and national chains, the public library has extended its offerings beyond short-term book loans.

According to a recent article on Vox, the library’s main purpose is to help educate the community;  Amazon’s purpose is to simply sell books (and a million other things). The library still remains relevant today because it serves the public’s demand for information and resources, especially to underserved populations, at no cost.

With a focus on education and lifelong learning, the neighborhood public library has expanded its services beyond book loans. They’ve become multi-purpose destinations. And libraries are being re-designed to accommodate these expanded offerings.

If you haven’t visited a library lately, you may be surprised to find what’s available there. A Pew Internet survey from 2014 found that while many people think libraries continue to serve a useful purpose in their communities, a significant percentage did not realize the scope and depth of the services offered at libraries. For example, visitors can get income tax advice or job assistance. They can learn a new language, get literacy tutoring, participate in film discussions or research their family history.

Libraries house historic and genealogy records, map collections and other archival documents. For example, a library in Birmingham, Alabama, has preserved records and documents related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, according the Project for Public Spaces.

Public libraries also have community rooms, ideal for having discussions and debates about zoning changes and new proposed developments, all with the intent to help residents understand their community better.

Today’s libraries are trying to reach younger generations of readers by offering more programs aimed at teens and children. Some offer 3D printing, community access TV and radio stations, language labs and recording studio so they can record their own stories in their own words. Others encourage visitors to relax and linger over their reading materials by providing private reading nooks, creative spaces and even a fireplace.

These types of amenities aim to reach younger adults in their 20s and 30s, who have been largely absent in recent years but are the key to the library’s future viability.

As long as people have the desire to explore the world at large and engage in lifelong learning, and as long as there are family-friendly programs for people of all ages, the public library will continue to serve as a vital resource in our communities.

Tips for Downsizing Your Reading Library

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February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

In my last post, I described ways that you can acquire books cheaply or for free. But a problem for many readers is managing the collections they have. How can you assimilate new acquisitions into your current collection while minimizing the clutter? What to do with all those new and used books you just purchased?

Let’s face it. It’s much easier to build a reading library than it is to dismantle it. You know it’s time to declutter your bookshelves when:

a) You still have not read books you purchased more than two years ago;
b) Books are falling off the shelf because there’s no more room for them;
c) There’s a thick layer of dust sitting on them;
d) You’ve already read many of them and you don’t plan to re-read them;
e) You have no idea what to do with them or how to get rid of the overflow.

Here’s an idea to maintain your library so that it doesn’t begin to overflow and get cluttered. This is especially helpful if you mix the books you’ve already read with ones you have yet to read.

Pull out all the books from your shelves. Sort them according to books you have yet to read and those you have already read. Assign one or two shelves for the books you have yet to read and place unread books there. Another shelf will be reserved for those you have already read.

With each book you complete, add it to the shelf with the books you’ve already read. When that shelf begins to get cluttered, it’s time to decide what to do with them.

It might be helpful to set up bins or baskets for donations, selling, swapping or keeping for future re-use. Just like you would with your clothes closet, go through the books you’ve read – and even the ones you haven’t read – and decide if it’s better to sell it (think garage sale), donate it to a local nonprofit thrift shop, or pass it along to a friend. Hopefully the “Keep for future re-read” basket will remain empty.

Take time to go through the unread books as well. Ask yourself: When did I purchase this book? Do I still plan to read it? If you purchased it more than two years ago, and you haven’t read it yet, chances are you may never get around to it. In that case, it may be time to get rid of it.

With a system like this in place, it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve read and what you have yet to read. It’s also easier to decide what to do with the ones you’ve already finished reading.

It can be a painful process to go through your book collection. They are like treasured friends. You want to keep them around all the time. But like having a household of friends, at some point, they have to move on to new homes. If you have difficulty letting go of your books, if you’ve become too attached to them, consider asking a friend to help you sort through them.

Once you know which books you want to depart with, think of where you can take them. Check your local public library to see if they have a donation program. Some libraries might still accept donations; others don’t anymore, like the Chicago Public Library. It couldn’t handle the overflow.

Also check with local non-profits in your area, such as Chicago Books to Women in Prison and similar groups, which use donated books to send to incarcerated women. Be sure to visit their website first to see what kinds of materials they will accept. For example, CBWP does not accept hard covers because they are not accepted at prison facilities. Make sure books you donate are in good condition and don’t have writing and underlining in them.

Consider trading books with friends and family members or contribute a few to your nearest Little Free Library. Also check local coffee shops. Some may have a community bookshelf for discarded books.

Finally, when your bookshelves are decluttered, set a parameter for yourself. For every book you acquire, get rid of one from your shelf. It will force you to be more mindful of how often you add to your collection. Then as you finish reading one book, put it on a separate shelf with other books you’ve already read. Once that shelf is filled, it’s time to declutter again.

It’s fun developing a reading library, but it’s as fun when they begin to collect dust or the shelves become so overloaded with unread books that you have to get rid of them. By having a few systems in place, downsizing your book collection will be less painful and you can manage your library more easily.

 

Cheap, Easy Ways to Build Your Home Reading Library

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February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

There’s nothing like purchasing a brand new book hot off the press. The pages are crisp and untouched by human hands and the cover art is still bright and vivid. But books, especially hardcovers, can be expensive. If you buy them frequently, the costs can really add up. Even with the 20 percent discounts some retailers offer for new releases, it barely makes a dent in the final cost.

Building a home reading library doesn’t have to put you in the poor house. You don’t have to pay full price to build your library. For starters, stay away from hard cover books, if possible, which automatically adds to the cost. If you’re willing to be patient, wait for the soft cover to be released, which is often cheaper. This, of course, is a no-brainer.

But there are other ways to acquire books without spending a small fortune. Here are a few places to look.

Public library – Naturally, the public library is the first place to check out. The books and other materials are free to use, but they don’t belong to you. After a few weeks, you will have to return them. While that can save on space in your own home, especially if you don’t have a lot of spare space to begin with, it can be disappointing to have to return a book you fell in love with. It’s also possible that you won’t finish the book in the set amount of time they give you, usually three weeks. That means having to return it and renew it for another three weeks. And who has time to trudge back and forth to the library? Still the public library is great for browsing book titles you’d like to own and learning about new authors.

Book swap – If you know a lot of other readers or you come from a family that likes to read, you may be in luck. Ask what they’ve been reading lately. If it’s something they would recommend, ask if you could borrow it. Even better, swap books with them. Book swapping keeps the books circulating instead of collecting dust on the bookshelf, and everyone involved has a chance to add to their literary knowledge.

Book sales/book fairs – Check your town for books sales or book fairs, which is a great hunting ground for new and used books. The books for clearance may come from libraries trying to downsize their collections and make room on their shelves for new items, and from book stores trying to sell their overstock. In Chicago, for example, there’s the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest where you’ll find rows and rows for book vendors selling books at a deep discount and the Newberry Library book sale. It’s easy to stock up on reading materials for the entire year without spending a fortune. You can often find books for under three dollars.

Used book stores – There seem to be fewer and fewer used book stores in this era of e-readers and Amazon. Still, they can be fun to hang out searching for whatever strikes your fancy in your favorite genre.

Thrift shops – Thrift shops sell more than gently used clothes and furniture. Somewhere in a dusty corner are shelves of books, and they can be found fairly cheaply. If you’re not looking for anything in particular and don’t mind the run-down condition, a thrift shop might be a fun place to explore.

Little Free Library – In some neighborhoods, you may find a little wooden school house on a pedestal holding a couple of shelves of books. The Little Free Library is similar to a book sway, except on a more public scale with people you don’t see. You can donate a few books of your own in exchange for taking a few from their shelves. You can find out if there’s a little free library in your neighborhood by visiting their website.

Online discount retailers – If you prefer to shop online for your books, there are other options besides Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Check out a site like Better World Books, where you can buy clearance books for $3 or $4 each, and the proceeds go to benefit literacy programs and libraries.

Nonprofit organizations – Check out nonprofit groups in your area that specialize in literacy and writing programs benefiting under-served populations. For example, Carpe Librum and Open Books, both in Chicago, collect donated books for resale to help fund literacy programs. They’re store front shops are great places to hunt down titles on your must-read book list.

If you’re an avid reader like me, it can be helpful to keep a running list of book titles and authors that you’re eager to read. Carry the list with you in your wallet or purse as you go shopping or run errands. You never know when you will run across one of the titles in your day-to-day activities.

When you’re on a tight budget, shopping for books at full price can be impractical. But just because you don’t have a big budget for book purchases doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your reading habit. You can still build your home reading library on a strict budget. You just have to know where to look.

In Memoriam: Authors We Lost in 2018

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Many talented writers, authors and journalists left our world too soon in 2018 – individuals who shared their perspective, insights and imagination, so we could all gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

Below are some of the more prominent writers who have passed away. Whether you’ve read them or not, they all hold a place in the literary world that will not be forgotten.

In alphabetical order

Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain began his career as a chef, but broadened his work into writing and TV. His memoir “Kitchen Confidential” showed the underside of the restaurant business, while CNN’s “Parts Unknown” series engaged and challenged to not be afraid of trying new things.

Sue Grafton – The mystery writer famed for her alphabetical series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) actually died at the tail end of 2017, but I felt compelled to include her name for 2018 fearing she might have gotten lost in the last season’s holiday shuffle.

Stan Lee – the genius behind the Marvel universe and the architect of the modern comic book, his legacy will be experienced in print and on the movie screen for decades.

Ursula K LeGuin – Science fiction/fantasy author who often explored feminist themes in her novels also wrote a number of children’s books.

Philip Roth – Prize-winning novelist of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral.”

Anita Shreve – Author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and 18 other novels died in March 2018.

Neil Simon – The playwright and screenwriter behind notable works such as “The Odd Couple,” “Lost in Yonkers,” and “The Good-bye Girl.”

Thomas Wolfe – Known in some circles as the white-suited wizard of ‘new journalism’, Wolfe chronicled American culture in novels such as “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

One other noteworthy death belongs to a non-writer, Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library, which you might have seen around in your neighborhood. Bol built the first little free library in 2009 in the shape of a schoolhouse in honor of his mother, who was a teacher and loved books. Like his deceased peers, his legacy will hopefully live on in neighborhoods for many years to come.

2019 Reading Challenge: How Many Books Can You Read in One Year?

 

Great American Read

Looking for a way to challenge yourself in 2019? Do you love to read and would like to expand your knowledge of genres and writing styles, beyond John Grisham legal thrillers and self-help books that leave you feeling more confused than before? Then follow along with me on a journey through books.

Announcing the 2019 Reading Challenge. Here’s how you can participate.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to read one book from 26 of the 40 categories listed below. That equates to one book every two weeks.

For an added challenge, see if you can read one book from all 40 categories. If you complete all 40 categories and there’s still time in the year, reward yourself. Either take a break from reading or read anything you want. You’ve earned it!

I won’t be handing out prizes for this challenge. The only prize is the pride of personal achievement, unless you want to reward yourself with a well-earned gift, like a massage or a copy of the latest New York Times bestseller.

I have participated in reading challenges the past two years. The experience has been rewarding. Not only have I expanded my book knowledge, I’ve discovered new authors and genres I didn’t think I would like (paranormal romance, anyone?). And I had so much fun and a sense of pride each time I crossed a category off my list. As 2018 winds to a close, I’m on Book #42.

That’s why I’m sharing this reading challenge with you. If you love books as much as I do, you won’t turn down this challenge.

So for your reading pleasure, here are the categories. Remember, the first-level challenge is one book from 40 categories, one for every two weeks of the year for 26 total books. You can read them in any order you choose.

1. Autobiography or memoir
2. Historical fiction
3. A classic
4. Young adult novel
5. Mystery/thriller
6. Science fiction/fantasy
7. Romance/romantic suspense
8. A non-fiction book
9. True crime
10. A self-help book
11. An award-winning book (Pulitzer, Edgar Award for mystery, etc.)
12. A book you read in your childhood
13. A book you read in school
14. A book/novel published within the past year
15. A book/novel published more than 100 years ago
16. A book/novel published the year you were born (this will require some research; check Google)
17. A first-time author/debut novel
18. A book by an established author you have always wanted to read but haven’t until now (Example: I’ve never read Stephen King fiction, so he is on my list)
19. African-American fiction
20. Latin fiction
21. Native American fiction
22. A book made into a movie or TV show
23. A book recommended to you by someone
24. A book set in your hometown
25. A book set in a foreign place
26. A book written by someone younger than you
27. A book with a place/location in the title
28. A book with a number in the title
29. A book with a person’s name in the title
30. A book with a color in the title
31. A book with a one-word title
32. A collection of short stories
33. A collection of essays
34. A play
35. A book about sports or an athlete
36. A book that features an animal (Example: Seabiscuit)
37. A holiday-themed book (Christmas, Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, etc.)
38. A book that can help your health (nutrition, fitness, etc., but no recipe books)
39. A book that can help your career/business
40. A book with more than 500 pages

The challenge begins January 1. Of course, if you want to get a head start, you can start today.

Have fun! Let the reading begin!

Six Writing Causes You Should Support on Giving Tuesday

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As the Christmas holiday season approaches, take a moment to think about the organizations that do a lot a good in your community. As writers and communicators, the nonprofit groups that specialize in promoting literacy and the creative arts should be topmost in our minds. Without the written word, without music or art or dance, where would we all be?

In support of Giving Tuesday, think about how you support literacy and creative arts in your own community. Don’t just think with your purse or wallet either. Think of your time, energy and creative ideas that you can give. How can you better support these organizations? Remember, your volunteer hours mean as much as donated goods or cash.

Below are a few types of nonprofit groups worthy of support on this Giving Tuesday. Remember, giving happens not just today, but every day throughout the year.

Adult Literacy programs
Literacy is for life. If you know how to read and write, it is assumed that those skills can take you far in life. But many U.S. adults fall far behind in literacy.

An April 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 32 million adults, or 14 percent of the U.S. population, cannot read. About 21 percent of adults read below the fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read (which begs the question: How are they graduating from high school if they can’t read?)

Enter literacy organizations, which aid adults, children and entire families in building their reading and writing skills. Check out 826 National and the National Literacy Directory for a literacy organization near you.

Libraries
Specialty libraries with rare collections often have difficulty acquiring additional reading materials and frequently have difficulty publicizing the work they do. Think of places like the Newberry Library in Chicago with its emphasis on history and research.

Many libraries don’t have the resources to purchase new books either. For example, check out the American Library Association’s guide to book donation programs, which lists libraries that need books to fill their shelves.

Other nonprofit groups accept book donations for resale purposes. From the proceeds of the sale of these donated books, they can fund reading and writing education programs in underserved communities. Check out organizations such as Turning the Page/Carpe Librum Bookstore and Open Books, which serve these purposes in the Chicago area. Similar organizations may be located near you.

Nonprofit writing centers
According to a recent article at Bustle, not everyone is cut out for a university MFA program. But if you want to learn to write and write well, but not necessarily want to earn a MFA, where do you go? The answer is a non-profit writing center, such as Grub Street in Boston or Story Studio in Chicago. For poets, there’s also the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona.

But these organizations can’t operate on their own. That’s where you come in. Donations are needed to purchase classroom materials, cover operating costs and assist with program planning. Not only are these organizations great places to develop your writing skills, they are terrific places for networking and community building. They are worthy of your support in more ways than one.

Museums
Without museums, our connection to our history and culture would be lost, no matter where we come from. Whether it’s a museum of art (The Art Institute of Chicago), writing (American Writers Museum), or science (Shedd Aquarium), museums give us a place to explore, to honor our history while imagining possibilities for the future.

Reading and writing groups for Incarcerated Individuals
Men and women who are serving time often do not have access to books or writing materials, often due to limited resources and funds in the prison system. Non-profit groups like Chicago Books to Women in Prison (which I have volunteered with for the past two years) and the Women’s Book Project in Minneapolis, provide free access to everything from fiction and nonfiction books of all genres, GED study materials, blank composition books, dictionaries, Bibles and career development materials.  There are numerous other organizations dedicated to helping the incarcerated connect with books and writing materials. Pen America is another organization worth checking out for writing programs for the incarcerated.

Arts foundations
Think beyond just books and writing programs. Thinks of the arts too. Consider donations to specialty organizations, such as groups that keep alive the history and legacy of silent films such as the Silent Film Society of Chicago. There are numerous local theater groups, dance companies and music schools that can benefit from your volunteer time. Because they all support the development of artists in various fields, you’re also supporting the development of story tellers in different artistic fields.

By giving to any one of these organizations, you are helping numerous individuals achieve their dreams – to read, to write, to share stories and to communicate with others. And those are causes worthy of your contributions.