2016 Reading Challenges: Electric Boogaloo

It’s become a bit of a tradition around here at kelsea oconnor dot com to set reading goals for myself at the start of the year. I’ve learned that while my intentions are good, for the most part I lose interest in all but one or two reading goals over the course of the year. So this year I’ve tried to commit myself a little smarter and stick with ones that have worked for me in the past, with only one new addition. Here are the goals I’ve set for 2016:

50 Book Pledge

I enjoy keeping track of what I’ve read, and the 50 Book Pledge makes it easy. My goal again this year is 50 books, and perhaps I’ll meet it this year. One of the benefits of this challenge is that it helps me keep on track with my other reading goals – I can easily see whether I’m reading enough books by women, or if I made a Reading Bingo square without realizing it. I’m currently halfway through book #5 (How  to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran) and keeping pace.

2016 reading bingo cardReading Bingo

My old favourite Reading Bingo is back this year and I’m pretty excited that it’s a bit more general than last year’s CanLit edition (there was just no way I was ever going to read a book by Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and L.M. Montgomery all in one year. Sorry, Canadian canon!). I actually contributed four squares on this year’s card, so hopefully I won’t embarrass myself by failing to fill them in. I’ve already marked in one square. Onward!

Books by Women

Being mindful about the books I was choosing to read helped me stray farther from my usual reading habits, and tbh I really didn’t miss reading more books by men (actually, I started to find the books I did read by men less interesting!). I’m setting the goal again at 75% books by women, and welcome any suggestions you might have.

The Great Tolkien Reread of 2016

This is the year! I’m thinking this will be my February-March reading project. The goal (woefully unstarted from last year): reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for the first time since 2003. It’s only been 13 years! To be reasonable, I’m going to skip the attempt to reread The Silmarillion – gotta save some Tolkien for 2017, right?

New: Nonfiction Challenge!The Game by Ken Dryden

This one ties into some of my other New Year’s Resolutions, which is to learn more about topics that interest me (art, hockey, photography, etc.). For each subject, I’m planning to read a nonfiction book and then do some practical aspect of that topic. For example, I have already met my goal in the most basic sense for hockey: I’ve read a book about it (The Game by Ken Dryden) and attended an AHL game (Utica Comets vs Toronto Marlies). Ideally, I will continue learning about each subject beyond meeting the two goals, but let’s achieve those two goals first. I think this will broaden my interests and knowledge, and also lets me look forward to a fun outing or project.

My goal with setting reading challenges is always to make sure I’m reading new and interesting books that I might not have otherwise read (with one side effect of making sure I don’t fall victim to yet another Harry Potter reread) and I think I’ve put myself in a good position this year. What are your reading goals for the year?


2015 Reading Year in Review

The year has come to a close, my top books of 2015 are in, and it’s time to see how I did on the year’s reading challenges. It was another underperforming year in terms of my reading goals, but I read some interesting and exciting books this year so I’m not particularly disappointed. Let’s review:

The 50 Book Pledge

I pledged to read 50 books, but I only read 43. I had a few reading slumps this year, especially during the summer, and I sometimes found it difficult to pick my next read, which contributed to longer periods between books (there are too! many! books! to choose from). I’ve noted before that the Pledge is limited to books, and if all the magazines, comics, and fanfics I read counted towards my goal, I’d have far surpassed it.

Random House Reading BingoReading Bingo 2015 filled card

I was a little more proactive with this challenge this year – I kept the bingo card on my desk at the office and filled it in throughout the year. I definitely sought out more CanLit than I would have otherwise, with a view to marking off more squares. I actually ended up not being able to match quite a few books to squares, but alas, I didn’t even finish a line. It’s surprisingly hard to find a Canadian book with snow on the cover! You can see my completed card and the books I read here.

The Great Tolkien Reread of 2015 2016

I didn’t get there, guys. Going to budget some deep-winter reading time for this, as there are fewer books I’m excited about at this time of year; frigid temperatures mean I’m home more, so I will have more time to read my massive illustrated omnibus without trying to lug it around. This is the year.

The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

Another challenge I didn’t follow along with during the year. But I actually only missed 8 of the 24 challenges! You can see what I read here.

Picture of Books I Read in 2015
A selection of the books I read in 2015

Reading More Books by Women

This was a goal that I was very conscious of throughout the year, and I stayed mindful of it when I was choosing my next book to read. I only read 10.5 books written by men this year (the half comes from A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson, cowritten by Jeff Rovin. Sidenote: I’m sorry, Gillian, this book was awful. Let’s place the blame on your coauthor), which works out to just slightly more than 75% female authors. That’s up from 53% last year and exactly meets my goal. I’m very happy with that number.

Did you meet your reading goals for 2015? What was your favourite book?


So You Want to Work in Digital Publishing: Getting an Internship in eBook Production

It’s that time of year, when a couple dozen eager publishing students are released from Humber’s Creative Book Publishing program and begin hunting for an internship in the wilds of Toronto’s publishing industry. Digital publishing has become a more and more popular option as the traditional avenues of editorial and marketing positions become scarcer. Digital publishing, although it has stabilized in the past few years, is still a growing aspect of the publishing industry, and some of the more exciting changes in publishing are happening here. It seems pretty natural that keen young publishing students, with strong grasps on social media and technology, turn their prospecting eyes to the semi-uncharted waters of e-publishing. Maybe that’s just how I felt when I was a new graduate, as I felt that my publishing school education had sort of skimmed over some of the important aspects of digital publishing when I began looking for internships. What are the components of an epub? How do you QA an epub? What is metadata, really? Whatever brief lessons we had on making epubs (with Sigil lol) didn’t seem like it actually translated into helpful experience when I was job-hunting. I did, however, have experience with coding and eReading, and all sorts of other computer skills.

Via Kobo on Instagram
Via Kobo on Instagram

I landed an eBook Production internship at Random House, a Publisher Operations internship at Kobo, and later a full-time job wrangling ebooks and metadata. My knowledge skews heavily towards the retailer end of ebooks, but I also have some experience with the publisher side; I’ve worked with ebooks at every stage of their lifecycle, from conversion to epub to deactivating out-of-print titles. Now that I’ve been working with eBooks for over two years and have been on both sides of the interviewing table, I have some advice for breaking into eBooks. I’m going to avoid basic job application and interview advice, such as doing your research on the company and asking knowledgable questions, and stick to what you should know for ebooks in particular.


My number one piece of advice: Get some excel skills. Like, don’t just say you know how to use excel if you’ve opened up a spreadsheet once or twice. You don’t need to be an expert (I use it every day and I’m not!) but hands-on experience goes a long way. Learn how to use fomulas. Learn how to do a vlookup. Learn the glory of a pivot table. Filters are your friends. Chances are you’ll be working with spreadsheets with lots of data on a daily basis, so get comfortable with the features of Excel. If you had called me up when I was in university and told me I would have favourite Excel tools (Text to Columns and Compare, fyi) and never use Word documents in a professional setting, I probably would have thought you were crazy. As an employer looking for an intern, show me that you’ve got some solid excel experience and I will swoon.

eReading Experience

Needless to say, probably one of the most basic things you can do if you’re hoping to work with ebooks in publishing is to actually read ebooks. Ideally, if you have a specific retailer or publisher in mind, you should read their ebooks, and be familiar with their devices and apps. What kind of ebooks and devices/apps are they selling, and what sort of features do they have? What kind of features do you wish they had? If you come to an interview without having ever read an ebook, or mention that what you’re actually more interested in print books, or not know the difference between a Kindle and a Kobo, you are not proving yourself as a strong candidate.


Metadata is great. It’s the core of ebooks and you can do a lot of cool stuff with it; more complete metadata pretty much means your book has a better chance in hard-to-browse ebookstores. I’ll let you in on a secret: no one likes working with it. ONIX is the industry standard and it’s the worst to look at, unless looking at rows of impenetrable, always-different, non-standard lines of code is really exciting to you. Pro tip: you’ll never have to build an ONIX feed from scratch, no matter what your publishing teacher tells you. You will have to crack open publishers’ ONIX feeds and poke around, though. Know what a composite is, what the difference between ONIX 2.1 and 3.0, and what sort of information is transmitted through metadata. Take a look on booksellers’ websites and see what kind of information they display for a book – there is a 99% chance that information came from the publisher’s metadata. Each ebook retailer also has a proprietary, non-standard Excel-based metadata sheet (see, I told you that excel knowledge would come in handy) that some publishers use in place of ONIX.  Editeur, BISG and Booknet all have good ONIX resources. In lieu of actual experience with metadata feeds, experience with coding (XML, CSS, and HTML are all good; mine was in HTML and TEI (lol)) can make up for it.


This is the standard (non-Amazon) file type for ebooks. It’s supremely helpful to know what’s inside one (it’s basically just a bunch of HTML files, images and CSS zipped up), so I’d suggest buying one and cracking it open to take a look. There are different kinds of epubs: reflowable and fixed-layout, epub3, ebooks with “enhanced content” like audio and video; be aware of these different formats and if your prospective employer makes or sells them. I know a lot of publishing schools have their students build epubs from scratch but it’s highly unlikely you’ll have to do that in your internship, as most ebook production is outsourced to conversion houses. The most I ever had to do as an intern was unzip, make a minor change, and rezip, so make sure you know how to do that. Find yourself an epub validator that you like (my favourite is Pagina). It’s best to know what a standard reflowable ebook looks like on the inside, and how to make changes, but if you can figure out what’s wrong with a broken ebook, I will be impressed.

All this might sound like a tall order, especially if your digital publishing courses were less than spectacular. However, employers know that it’s hard to gain practical experience with such specialized files, so if you can show them that you’re ahead of everyone else by demonstrating interest and experience, and the ability to learn quickly, it can give you a real leg up. It’s also important to know that your employer will train – it’s an internship after all! Do you have any questions about getting an internship in ebooks and digital production?


Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Victory is mine!
Victory is mine!

A couple months ago, an advance copy of Welcome To Night Vale came across my desk. Or, more accurately, it came across a coworker’s desk and I literally snatched it out of his hands and claimed it for my own. I love the podcast – it got me through many tedious hours of coding – and saw the live show when it rolled through Toronto last year, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing how my favourite surrealist town translates to my favourite medium.

Set in the desert town made famous in the podcast of the same name, Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a hilariously dark novel about family, strangers, lethal flamingo lawn ornaments, and the fallacy of memory.

While working at Night Vale’s pawn shop, nineteen-year-old Jackie Fierro receives a mysterious piece of paper that reads “WELCOME TO KING CITY” from a forgettable man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase. When the paper refuses to leave her hand, Jackie decides to investigate. On the other side of town, Night Vale PTA member Diane Crayton begins seeing her son’s estranged father wherever she goes, even as she works to keep them apart. Jackie and Diane must work together to figure out why these men keep crossing their paths, and find a way to get to King City, a town that seems to exist in a different dimension.

Fans of the podcast will enjoy learning more about their favourite townspeople and how they live in the bizarre cityscape that is Night Vale. I especially enjoyed visiting Carlos’ science lab (spoiler: everyone in Night Vale ships it), and the heist scenario of breaking into the librarian-infested library.

The cast of Welcome to Night Vale at Elgin Theatre, Toronto
The cast of Welcome to Night Vale at Elgin Theatre, Toronto

I had hoped that the novel would focus a bit more on Cecil than it did (he shows up in radio interludes scattered throughout the novel), but thought the novel worked well by following previously-unknown characters. The many new details about the town kept it just as strange and delightful as ever – the kitchen-standard hot milk drawer made me shudder, and the KING CITY paper joke was funny throughout the book. Although I enjoyed the novel, it started slowly, almost grindingly: in parts it felt like it was trying too hard to upkeep the surreal tone set by the podcast; the point that Jackie was nineteen and had been nineteen for decades felt unremarkable by Night Vale standards. However, by the time Diane and Jackie team up, the novel hits its stride and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

While Welcome to Night Vale is just as witty and even frustrating as the source material, I think that the world of Night Vale is better suited to an episodic format, rather than an extended novel. That won’t stop me from consuming another novel (if there is one), or any other media from this franchise – I’ve already got my tickets for the next Night Vale show this fall!


Kobo Emerging Writer Prize – Winners!

One of the exciting things about working in publishing is the chance to not only discover great reads, but to help build the careers of new authors. Book awards are one way of singling out talent, often helping boost the sales of the winning author’s books and launching a long and hopefully profitable career. With that in mind, Kobo created a literary award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, which celebrates new Canadian authors’ debut books. With three categories – Literary Fiction, Non-Fiction, and a revolving genre (this year Mystery), contestants have a chance to win $10 000, marketing campaigns, and fame and glory. emerging-writer-prize-logo

I was on the committee for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, coordinating the shortlist judging. I read many worthy entries, full of diverse stories, beautiful prose, and suspenseful plots. Some of my favourites made the shortlist; some didn’t. One the finalists had been selected, they were turned over to judging panel of authors: Miriam Toews, Ian Hamilton, and Charlotte Gray, each of whom chose the winner from their respective categories. The winners were announced at a ceremony in Toronto earlier this month, and lo, the writing careers of three authors were changed. Here are the winners of the inaugural Kobo Emerging Writer Prize:

circus-claire-battershillFiction: Circus by Claire Battershill 

Circus is a collection of short stories focusing on the performance of everyday life, whether it be love, family, or working in a miniatures museum. My favourite was probably “Two Man Luge: A Love Story,”  which detailed the rise to Olympic glory for one athlete and his Olympic-sized crush on his sometimes-rival Paresh. Battershill captures small moments and quiet feelings well. At the awards ceremony, Claire shrieked in surprise at her win and was charmingly smily for the rest of the night. She also met a U2 band member in the elevator earlier in the evening, so she has more than one story to tell about that night.

Non-Fiction: Crazy Town by Robyn DoolittleCrazy Town cover

Crazy Town made a big splash when it came out at the height of the Rob Ford scandal, and has been lauded for its clarity and detail amongst the disaster of the Toronto mayor’s downward spiral. Of the winning books, this is the only one I haven’t read, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Robyn Doolittle in the future.

last-of-independentsMystery: The Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe

Of the mysteries on the shortlist, this one was my favourite. I was hooked from the first page, where a new client tells detective Michael Drayton that someone’s been sleeping with the corpses at his funeral home. Drayton is just hard-boiled enough to keep you guessing, and I loved the noir interpretation of familiar streets in Vancouver. I talked with Sam Wiebe at the awards ceremony; he was softspoken and seemed overwhelmed at all the attention his book was getting. He told me he’s got a couple forthcoming mysteries coming from Random House, and I’m excited to see what’s in store for him next.

Have you read any of the winners, or do you have a favourite shortlisted book? Let me know in the comments or on social media using #KoboEmergingWriter.


Review: Kitten Clone by Douglas Coupland

kitten-cloneKitten Clone by Douglas Coupland (Visual Editions) is a look at the company that has developed the internet we know and love today, in a beautifully-designed book that questions what an internet-saturated future looks like.

Alcatel-Lucent is a powerful corporation that builds and maintains the internet via fibre-optic cable networks, research facilities, and patent-generating computer scientists. Coupland details the history of the company, and in more peripheral terms, the internet, through a series of snapshots of what everyday life is in the company, and how the people who work there strive to connect us all. It’s a humanizing portrait of a corporation, and a layperson-friendly crash course on the mechanics of the internet.

The book is structured through visits Coupland made to Alcatel-Lucent branches in New Jersey, Paris, and Shanghai, framing the company’s development through the past, present and future. Images of dim cubicles, skeins of wires, and vacant office space expose the idea of a smooth, silver internet future as instead an unglamorous mess of cables and cutbacks. Coupland focuses on the question of how the internet has begun to shape us, rather than the other way around.

No book about the internet would be complete without cat photos, and Kitten Clone delivers, with a series of anecdotes about the human desire to share images of their cats throughout time, which has culminated in the ultimate cat-sharing network. Coupland fears that “the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist”, but only the internet can tell what the future has in store.


This review first appeared as “All Zeit, No Geist?” in Geist 97.


Review: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

We+Are+PiratesWe Are Pirates (HarperCollins) is a witty adventure through modern-day piracy. The story alternates perspectives between Phil Needle, an increasingly unsuccessful radio executive, and his daughter Gwen, an increasingly bored teenager, as they both try to find happiness, or at least excitement, along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. While Phil waffles about pitching the next big radio show and sleeping with his secretary, Gwen and a band of misfits elect to become literal pirates, and damn the consequences.

Like Handler’s other novels, We Are Pirates excellently portrays what it’s like to be a teenager in the face of indifferent and incompetent adults. I would have liked less of Phil, whose storyline feels interchangeable for any other unhappy middle-aged white man in literature, and more of Gwen, who was daring and unpredictable and a hundred times more interesting. Despite the imbalance between his characters, Handler deftly knits irony, humour and danger into a surprisingly adventurous read.


This review first appeared as “Frisco Freebooters” in Geist 96. 


2015 Reading Challenges

Last year’s reading challenges went so well that I thought I’d pick up a few new ones for 2015. I’ve kept my favourites from last year and have added a couple personal challenges. The goal: read more diversely, have fun, and maybe finally get through that backlog (1Q84, anyone?).

badge2015The 50 Book Pledge

This is a keeper from last year – I really enjoyed keeping track of what I read, and having a reading goal motivated me to pick up another book when maybe I would have preferred to power through Parks and Rec instead. My 2015 goal is a more manageable 50 books (down from 75) – I’m already on book #7, so so far so good.

Random House’s Reading BingoReadingBingo2015

Although I had fun with last year’s Bingo, I wasn’t really planning to fill out the card again this year (to be honest, I kind of forgot and just ended up retrofitting books to squares at the end of the year). Then this year’s theme was announced: Can Lit, and my office decided to participate and hold a little competition. So we mayyyy have brainstormed books that check off multiple squares (I think Unsinkable by Silken Laumann ticked seven boxes, the most), but I’m looking forward to delving into more Can Lit than I probably would have this year – I still have most of the Maddaddam trilogy to go, and can’t wait for those Giller Prize nominees.

1000px-JRRT_logo.svgThe Great Tolkien Reread of 2015

Despite my enduring love for Middle Earth, I’m a little ashamed that my last reading of the Lord of the Rings was when Return of the King was released in theatres (over ten years ago! Egads). 2015 is the year I reread the series, and if I’m feeling ambitious, The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, too. I’ve ordered a new edition of the trilogy (a third version, surely, is not too many), and will reward myself with a rewatch of all three LOTR movies – extended editions, of course – when I finish. Teenaged Kelsea is very excited to rediscover one of her favourite series.

BookRiotCircle-300x243The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

Book Riot‘s is a new one I’m trying this year. With a number of exciting-sounding reading ideas – I’m looking forward to the microhistory and retelling of a classic story challenges – it looks like a fun way to get me reading outside of my comfort zone.

yes-pleaseReading More Books by Women

Something I’m hoping to be a bit more mindful about in 2015 is reading more books by women. Last year, 28 of the 52 books I read were written by women, which is a decent enough number, but this year I’m aiming for a figure somewhere in the 75% region. I’m on the seventh book of the year so far, and it’s the first one written by a man, so this might be easier than I thought. My Tolkien Reread is going to be a lot of man-authored, man-centric story, anyway, so let’s balance that out with great books by women. Please pitch me your suggestions in the comments.

It might already be February, but I feel as though I’m in pretty good shape so far. Did you reach your reading goals last year, and are you on board for any reading challenges this year?


Review: 101 Two-Letter Words by Stephin Merritt

101-2-letterStephin Merritt’s 101 Two-Letter Words (W.W. Norton) is a collection of illustrated poems based on all the legal two-letter words playable in Scrabble. Merritt originally began writing the poems as mnemonic devices during downtime while on tour with his band, The Magnetic Fields. Each four-line rhyming poem is accompanied by a humorous illustration from New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; running themes include sloths, songwriting, Scotland, and vampire dogs. Perhaps my favourite was OH, which proposes new curses (“oh, cheesemongers! oh folk art!”) or RE, which is a take on different pronunciations of the word (“Re: about, in memos / Rays: how microwaves make pork”). Merritt’s poetry is like The Gashleycrumb Tinies for Scrabble lovers: a witty, charming, and slightly macabre ode to language.


This review first appeared as “All My Little Words” in Geist 95.


Redux: 2014 Reading Challenges