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5 Surefire Ways to Crush Your 2020 Reading Challenge Goals

by  | January 28

New year’s resolutions can be tough to stick to, even one as fun as trying to meet an ambitious reading goal. Sure, you have all these amazing books you want to get to, but life just seems to keep getting in the way. Before you know it, January is nearly over and you feel like you’ve barely made a dent! No worries, we’ve all been there. Whether you’re right on track for completing your goal or you’re trying to play catch-up already, here are five tips for making it to the end of your challenge.

#1: Get organized, but be flexible.

I love spreadsheets. I use them for everything, but especially for doing book challenges. I have the prompts laid out, slots for what titles I want to read and the order in which I’ll read them. If you’ve read my previous essay on why you should do book challenges, then you know the minute the 2020 list was out, I was making a spreadsheet. That being said, I only ever fill out 70 percent of the sheet at the beginning of the year.

Why? A year is a long time, and trying to slot books into every category right at the beginning is not only tough but also not a successful strategy. There are going to be lots of new, cool books released during the year that you will want to read, and books you haven’t discovered yet! Give yourself some room to grow in your challenge and fill in slots with reads you come across later, lest you accumulate so many books that you want to read that you have to save them for next year and start a vicious cycle by accident (which I totally did, and yes, it did backfire spectacularly).

Here are some fantastic books releasing this year that might make great additions to your list:

  • Empire City by Matt Gallagher
  • Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith
  • The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

#2: Vary the book lengths.

There is maybe one person in the world who has the dedication necessary to read War and Peace, 1Q84, Dhalgren, House of Leaves, In Search of Lost Time, and Middlemarch all in one year, and it’s probably not you—or me. There’s no shame in devising lofty reading goals, but don’t force yourself to speed through massive tomes. If you do want to tackle an especially long or challenging book, vary it up with some shorter reads as well. There are lots of great short books that pack just as much narrative punch. You could also consider graphic novels that you can read in one sitting (those count too). And there’s no shame in enjoying a good novella or play!

Here are some of my recommended short reads to help you blast through your reading schedule:

  • Elevation by Stephen King
  • The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

#3: Read what you actually want to read (but be curious!).

Whether you’re trying to reach a certain number of books read or you’re filling in specific prompts, be sure you’re picking books that you actually want to read. If you only want to read a book for the prestige of saying you read it (looking at you, Infinite Jest), then you’re likely to stall and waste perfectly good reading time. Sticking to authors—or genres—you like is a good way to make sure that you’re moving efficiently through your challenge.

That doesn’t mean you should only stick to books you know you’ll like. Work to integrate some reads you wouldn’t normally pick out but have grabbed your interest. If you’re not someone who reads a lot of nonfiction, don’t be afraid to seek out books that tie to what you’re already interested in. Maybe you can find a read connected to a show or documentary that really impressed you, or take a recommendation from friends, family, and favorite authors. That way, your reading goal can also help you grow and expand your tastes. Now, this could mean that you might end up reading books you don’t like, but that just comes with the territory. Just keep an open mind, and an open book, and you might be surprised by what you find.

Here are a few books that have sparked my curiosity to read this year:

  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  • Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
  • The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao

#4: Switch up your format to read multiple books at once.

If you are the kind of person who only likes to read physical books or e-reads, this is not the advice for you. If you’re more adaptable, though, consider reading multiple books at a time in multi-formats. I often carry a book in my purse (because yes, I am that person), but I almost always have an audiobook on my phone at the ready, too, in case my commute gets boring. Sometimes, additionally, especially with library books, I’ll switch formats depending on if I have to return one version before I’m done.

Some books I prefer to listen to in audiobook version, such as memoirs where the author reads her or his own work. Longer readers are less daunting in a digital format, where I can see only the percentage of how much I’ve read (as opposed to the heft of the pages). Try books formatted a few ways to see what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to use resources, like your local library!

Here are some fantastic books that are read by their authors:

  • Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
  • The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

#5: Read a little every day.

Okay, so this one seems totally obvious, but in practice, it can actually be pretty difficult. Whether you’re in school, working one (or several) jobs, or just have a very busy calendar, making time to read can be tough. Engaging with books in multiple formats and varying the length of the books helps, but there are also some other strategies. Short story collections make it easy to quickly pick up and put down books, with manageable reads that are of chapter lengths. Choosing a set amount of time to sit down and make some reading happen can be helpful, too, especially if you have a long commute or like to unwind before bed.

Most important, though, don’t beat yourself up if you end up in a stretch where you aren’t reading much. Reading every day is the ideal, but there’s nothing wrong with carving out a nice, long reading session on a weekend, or slipping in book time whenever you hit the gym or travel. Your goal is just that—yours. So make sure it’s working for you, not against you.

Here are some great short story collections that will help you read a little every day or in bursts:

  • The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
  • You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
  • Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Keep reading to learn more about each of Sara’s recommended books:

Elevation

Elevation

by Stephen King

Set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences. Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis. In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others. From Stephen King, our “most precious renewable resource, like Shakespeare in the malleability of his work” (The Guardian), Elevation is an antidote to our divisive culture, as gloriously joyful (with a twinge of deep sadness) as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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The Heart and Other Viscera

The Heart and Other Viscera

by Félix J. Palma

The New York Times bestselling author of the “supernatural tour de force” (M.J. Rose, bestselling author) The Map of Time crafts an enchanting collection of twelve evocative and macabre stories delving into the magical, ordinary, and darker aspects of love in all its powerful forms.

A young girl receives letters from her lost doll; a cat madly in love with her human neighbor; a bored office worker escapes his monotonous life by traveling on his grandfather’s model train; a man gives all of himself to the woman he loves, piece by piece.

These are just a few of the unforgettable characters that inhabit Félix J. Palma’s gorgeously wrought short story collection, by turns mesmerizing, morbid, and melancholy. This collection contains selections from three previously published anthologies, bringing together in one volume some of Palma’s most celebrated stories. Available for the first time in English and with his signature “lyrical storytelling and a rich attention to detail” (Library Journal), The Heart and Other Viscera explores the wonder, madness, and heartbreak of love, and the lengths to which some are willing to go to protect, honor, and cherish the ones they love.

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The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

by Grady Hendrix

Patricia Campbell’s life has never felt smaller. Her ambitious husband is too busy to kiss her good-bye in the morning, her kids are wrapped up in their own lives, and she’s always a step behind on thank-you notes and endless chores. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a close-knit group of Charleston women united by their love of true crime and suspenseful fiction.

This predictable pattern is upended when Patricia is viciously attacked by an elderly neighbor, bringing the neighbor’s handsome relative, James Harris, into her life. Sensitive and well-read, James makes Patricia feel things she hasn’t felt in twenty years. But there’s something…off…and then Patricia’s senile mother-in-law insists she knew him back when she was a girl.

When local children go missing, Patricia has reason to believe that James may be more Bundy than Beatnik. But once she and the book club members investigate further, the true monster emerges—and he’s far more terrifying than any serial killer they’ve ever read about.

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The Library Book

The Library Book

by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s bestseller and New York Times Notable Book is “a sheer delight…as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library” (USA TODAY)—a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries. “Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book” (The Washington Post).

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. The fire was disastrous: it reached two thousand degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a “delightful…reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America” (New York magazine) that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In the “exquisitely written, consistently entertaining” (The New York Times) The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries; brings each department of the library to vivid life; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

“A book lover’s dream…an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture, and stories” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis), Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country.

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Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl

by Adam Higginbotham

Longlisted for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster—and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.

Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.

Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.

Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will—lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.

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Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman

by Sayaka Murata

The English-language debut of an exciting young voice in international fiction, selling 660,000 copies in Japan alone, Convenience Store Woman is a bewitching portrayal of contemporary Japan through the eyes of a single woman who fits into the rigidity of its work culture only too well.

The English-language debut of one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers, selling over 650,000 copies there, Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction—many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual—and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Managers come and go, but Keiko stays at the store for eighteen years. It’s almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action…

A brilliant depiction of an unusual psyche and a world hidden from view, Convenience Store Woman is an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.

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Rutting Season

Rutting Season

by Mandeliene Smith

An intimate, sparkling collection of stories by a debut writer about girls behaving badly and families on the brink of collapse.

In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of men and women in moments of crisis: a woman whose husband has just died, a social worker struggling to escape his own past, a girl caught in a standoff between her mother’s boyfriend and the police. A lively and insightful collection, Rutting Season is dark, humorous, and moving, filled with complex characters who immediately demand our interest and attention.

In “What it Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.

In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is an unforgettable, unmissable collection from an exciting new voice in fiction.

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Wishful Drinking

Wishful Drinking

by Carrie Fisher

Finally, after four hit novels, Carrie Fisher comes clean (well, sort of ) with the crazy truth that is her life in her first-ever memoir.

In Wishful Drinking, adapted from her one-woman stage show, Fisher reveals what it was really like to grow up a product of "Hollywood in-breeding," come of age on the set of a little movie called Star Wars, and become a cultural icon and bestselling action figure at the age of nineteen.

Intimate, hilarious, and sobering, Wishful Drinking is Fisher, looking at her life as she best remembers it (what do you expect after electroshock therapy?). It's an incredible tale: the child of Hollywood royalty -- Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher -- homewrecked by Elizabeth Taylor, marrying (then divorcing, then dating) Paul Simon, having her likeness merchandized on everything from Princess Leia shampoo to PEZ dispensers, learning the father of her daughter forgot to tell her he was gay, and ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed.

Wishful Drinking, the show, has been a runaway success. Entertainment Weekly declared it "drolly hysterical" and the Los Angeles Times called it a "Beverly Hills yard sale of juicy anecdotes." This is Carrie Fisher at her best -- revealing her worst. She tells her true and outrageous story of her bizarre reality with her inimitable wit, unabashed self-deprecation, and buoyant, infectious humor.

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Holidays on Ice

Holidays on Ice

by David Sedaris

Holidays on Ice collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as a last-minute coaster or ice scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the backseat of a van or police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And, oh, what a book it is!

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The Last Black Unicorn

The Last Black Unicorn

by Tiffany Haddish

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“An inspiring story that manages to be painful, honest, shocking, bawdy and hilarious.” —The New York Times Book Review

From stand-up comedian, actress, and breakout star of Girls Trip, Tiffany Haddish, comes The Last Black Unicorn, a sidesplitting, hysterical, edgy, and unflinching collection of (extremely) personal essays, as fearless as the author herself.

Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, Tiffany learned to survive by making people laugh. If she could do that, then her classmates would let her copy their homework, the other foster kids she lived with wouldn’t beat her up, and she might even get a boyfriend. Or at least she could make enough money—as the paid school mascot and in-demand Bar Mitzvah hype woman—to get her hair and nails done, so then she might get a boyfriend.

None of that worked (and she’s still single), but it allowed Tiffany to imagine a place for herself where she could do something she loved for a living: comedy.

Tiffany can’t avoid being funny—it’s just who she is, whether she’s plotting shocking, jaw-dropping revenge on an ex-boyfriend or learning how to handle her newfound fame despite still having a broke person’s mind-set. Finally poised to become a household name, she recounts with heart and humor how she came from nothing and nowhere to achieve her dreams by owning, sharing, and using her pain to heal others.

By turns hilarious, filthy, and brutally honest, The Last Black Unicorn shows the world who Tiffany Haddish really is—humble, grateful, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. And now, she’s ready to inspire others through the power of laughter.

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Empire City

Empire City

by Matt Gallagher

The author of the “urgent and deeply moving” (The New York Times) Youngblood returns with this bold and provocative novel following a group of super-powered soldiers and civilians as they navigate an imperial America on the precipice of a major upheaval—for fans of The Fortress of Solitude and The Plot Against America.

Thirty years after its great triumph in Vietnam, the United States has again become mired in an endless foreign war overseas. Stories of super soldiers known as the Volunteers tuck in little American boys and girls every night. Yet domestic politics are aflame. Violent protests erupt throughout the nation; an ex-military watchdog group clashes with police while radical terrorists threaten to expose government experiments within the veteran rehabilitation colonies.

Halfway between war and peace, the Volunteers find themselves waiting for orders in the vast American city-state, Empire City. There they encounter a small group of civilians who know the truth about their powers, including Sebastian Rios, a young bureaucrat wrestling with survivor guilt, and Mia Tucker, a wounded army pilot-turned-Wall Street banker. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Saint-Preux, a Haitian-American Volunteer from the International Legion, decides he’ll do whatever it takes to return to the front lines.

Through it all, a controversial retired general emerges as a frontrunner in the presidential campaign, promising to save the country from itself. Her election would mean unprecedented military control over the country, with promises of security and stability—but at what cost?

Featuring Gallagher’s “vital” (The Washington Post), “evocative” (The Wall Street Journal) prose, Empire City is a rousing vision of an alternate—yet all too familiar—America on the brink.

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The Majesties

The Majesties

by Tiffany Tsao

In this riveting tale about the secrets and betrayals that can accompany exorbitant wealth, two sisters from a Chinese-Indonesian family grapple with the past after one of them poisons their entire family.

Gwendolyn and Estella have always been as close as sisters can be. Growing up in a wealthy, eminent, and sometimes deceitful family, they’ve relied on each other for support and confidence. But now Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the sole survivor of Estella’s poisoning of their whole clan.

As Gwendolyn struggles to regain consciousness, she desperately retraces her memories, trying to uncover the moment that led to this shocking and brutal act. Was it their aunt’s mysterious death at sea? Estella’s unhappy marriage to a dangerously brutish man? Or were the shifting loyalties and unspoken resentments at the heart of their opulent world too much to bear? Can Gwendolyn, at last, confront the carefully buried mysteries in their family’s past and the truth about who she and her sister really are?

Traveling from the luxurious world of the rich and powerful in Indonesia to the most spectacular shows at Paris Fashion Week, from the sunny coasts of California to the melting pot of Melbourne’s university scene, The Majesties is a haunting and deeply evocative novel about the dark secrets that can build a family empire—and also bring it crashing down.

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The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

by Ken Liu

From award-winning author Ken Liu comes his much anticipated second volume of short stories.

Ken Liu is one of the most lauded short story writers of our time. This collection includes a selection of his science fiction and fantasy stories from the last five years—sixteen of his best—plus a new novelette.

In addition to these seventeen selections, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories also features an excerpt from book three in the Dandelion Dynasty series, The Veiled Throne.

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You Know You Want This

You Know You Want This

by Kristen Roupenian

From the author of “Cat Person”—“the short story that launched a thousand theories” (The Guardian)—comes Kristen Roupenian's highly anticipated debut, a compulsively readable collection of short stories that explore the complex—and often darkly funny—connections between gender, sex, and power across genres.You Know You Want This brilliantly explores the ways in which women are horrifying as much as it captures the horrors that are done to them. Among its pages are a couple who becomes obsessed with their friend hearing them have sex, then seeing them have sex…until they can’t have sex without him; a ten-year-old whose birthday party takes a sinister turn when she wishes for “something mean”; a woman who finds a book of spells half hidden at the library and summons her heart’s desire: a nameless, naked man; and a self-proclaimed “biter” who dreams of sneaking up behind and sinking her teeth into a green-eyed, long-haired, pink-cheeked coworker. Spanning a range of genres and topics—from the mundane to the murderous and supernatural—these are stories about sex and punishment, guilt and anger, the pleasure and terror of inflicting and experiencing pain. These stories fascinate and repel, revolt and arouse, scare and delight in equal measure. And, as a collection, they point a finger at you, daring you to feel uncomfortable—or worse, understood—as if to say, “You want this, right? You know you want this.”

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Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory

Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory

by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

From the creator of the beloved and universally acclaimed television series BoJack Horseman, a fabulously off-beat collection of short stories about love—the best and worst thing in the universe.

“Complex, daring, emotional, and unique, with notes of melancholic brilliance and an aftertaste of subtle elation: it is hard to describe the writing of Raphael Bob-Waksberg without sounding like Frasier discussing wine.”
—B. J. Novak, author of One More Thing

Written with all the scathing dark humor that is a hallmark of BoJack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s stories will make you laugh, weep, and shiver in uncomfortably delicious recognition. In “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” a young couple engaged to be married is forced to deal with interfering relatives dictating the appropriate number of ritual goat sacrifices for their wedding. “Missed Connection—m4w” is the tragicomic tale of a pair of lonely commuters eternally failing to make that longed-for contact. And in “More of the You That You Already Are,” a struggling employee at a theme park of dead presidents finds that love can’t be genetically modified.

Equally at home with the surreal and the painfully relatable (and both at once), Bob-Waksberg delivers a killer combination of humor, romance, whimsy, cultural commentary, and crushing emotional vulnerability.

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Photo Credit // Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

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A reporter by trade, Sara Roncero-Menendez is a lover of horror, sci-fi, and all things pop culture. From indies to classics to even the strangest genre pieces, all movies, TV shows, and books are fair game for a binge-fest. Follow her on Twitter @sararomenen or at her website, www.sara-roncero-menendez.com