Aleen Mean

Best Books in 2018

For me, the bright spot of 2018 was how highly I prioritized reading.

I was one of those kids growing up: the ones who go to the library and walk out with a stack of books, sometimes heavier and taller than I could cope with. I read instead of talking to my classmates, whom I had little in common with. I read ahead in our textbooks. I read in the car. I read while watching TV. I read instead of doing my chores.1

I’ve had a harder time reading in adulthood. There were several years in my mid-to-late 20s when I didn’t read a single book because I had such difficulty concentrating.

This year, though. This was my year to be blanketed in new worlds and characters. This year, I marked 83 books as read in Goodreads (there are a few I read but didn’t track because they were re-reads and I didn’t think about it). I was secretly hoping to break 100, but I’m pretty happy with my accomplishment regardless.

I’ve had a few people ask me how I managed to read so much. I’ll share my secrets, then I’ll tell you about my favorite books of the year.

How I Read So Much

Here’s my #1 tip for reading more: make time to read more.

In April, Justin and I packed up our cats and belongings, sold our house, and moved to Seattle. We sold our car. One side effect was that we stopped listening to podcasts together, because running errands in Phoenix meant being in the car together, and being in the car together meant podcasts.2 Now, we walk or take public transportation almost everywhere we go. I use that time to read.

Additionally, we run fewer errands now. Trips to Costco are a thing of the past because we don’t have anywhere to store 300 rolls of toilet paper and two dozen boxes of Kleenex. We order bulky dry goods using services like Target Restock, Amazon, and Thrive Market (that’s a referral link for 25% off your first order with them). Less time spent on errands means more time I can have my nose in a novel.

One of the best things about our move is that Seattle’s public library system is well-funded. In Phoenix, it was pretty hard for me to get to a library branch to check out physical books and the digital system was pretty sparse. When I heard about a book I was interested in reading, I’d have to buy it and, unfortunately, my budget for buying books is not infinite. Now, I can get most of the books I want to read from the library without ever stepping foot in a branch, and I often check out audiobooks from the library by browsing the “available now” section in Libby. This has the bonus of exposing me to authors and topics I might not seek out on my own.

“But Aleen,” you’re thinking, “I can’t just up and move to Seattle. What else have you got for me?”

I haven’t watched as much TV or as many movies this year as I typically do. The last movie I saw in a cinema was Avengers: Infinity War this spring. I’m behind on a lot of the televison series I love (but you better believe I’m caught up on The Good Place and Steven Universe). More time for reading!

Audiobooks have been hugely important to my reading practice this year. Seriously, you will pry my Audible subscription from my cold, dead hands.3 I listen to audiobooks while I do chores, when I walk around the city, and while I play certain video games (mostly Splatoon 2). When I’m trying to get through something quickly for a book club episode of The Incomparable, I’ll get both the Kindle and Audible version of the book so I can easily switch between reading and listening.

I’m pretty lucky because I have the ability to stop reading or listening to a book wherever I am and then pick it up again where I left off. Since I don’t need to read until I hit a new chapter or section break, I can read for a couple of minutes here and there. I can also be in the middle of several books at once. Usually, this means that I’m reading both a digital and audio novel.

And finally, the tip I hope you never, ever fall back on: I use reading as an avoidance mechanism. I’ve been in severe physical pain since we started prepping for our move. I’ve been extremely depressed for most of 2018. I experienced my first true panic attack this summer and have had several more since. I have been mired in self-doubt and fallen deep into the hole of self-criticism. Getting lost in other people’s worlds was my solace.

So, uh, there you have it! Easy.

Okay, I can’t end it there. Here’s a tip literally anyone can use: if you hate the book you’re reading, stop. Move on. My book count for 2018 doesn’t include those I stopped reading when I was half through. If you look at my page on Goodreads, you’ll notice that I haven’t rated many books below three stars. That’s because I have no qualms about abandoning a book. This hasn’t always been the case, but a few years I go I really internalized that life is too full of tedium for me to force myself to read something I dread.

Seriously, give yourself permission to walk away from things you dislike in 2019.

My Favorite Books of 2018

So let’s talk about what I loved to read in 2018. This list isn’t in any particular order except for my first picks:4

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. I read The Calculating Stars the week it was released and immediately wanted more more more; fortunately, its sequel was on shelves several weeks later. A blend of science fiction and alternate history, Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Novels are beautifully written and chock full of relatable (if not always likable) characters. I read both of these books in their physical, dead tree form and also listend to the audiobook version. Both are excellent, but a bonus to the audiobooks is that Kowal narrates them and she’s just wonderful. She breathes even more life into characters I both loved and abhorred.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. This is a book I know I will revisit in 2019. Oluo’s writing is straightforward and accessable. Part memoir, part essay, part how-to manual, How You Want to Talk About Race helps address and give strategies for dismantling structural racism in the US.

The White Trash Zombie series by Diana Rowland. Zombies are just like us, except they need to eat human brains in order to stay whole and sane. There are seven books in this series to date, and I read them all as quickly as I could get them from the library. It’s not highbrow literature, but this series was a great escape for me this year. I also thought it did a decent job of addressing some aspects of abusive familial relationships and poverty, especially in the earlier books.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I’m struggling to encapsulate what was so compelling about Shrill, but reading this book was as easy as breathing. West’s writing is conversational and she covers a borad swath of topics important to modern feminism, ranging from fatness to racism to online harassment to being a women in comedy.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me is an intimate letter from father to son that hammers home what it’s like to be a Black man in America. I listened to this book and wished that I was instead holding it in my hands. There were sentences that took my breath away and I wanted to go back and savor them, which isn’t easy with audiobooks.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 16-year old Starr Carter loves sneakers and basketball. She lives in a poor neighborhood rife with gang violence, goes to a preparatory academy, and has to navigate between the two. When she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer, she has to contend with her trauma and the desperate responses of her different communities.

The Fuse by Antony Johnston5 (author) and Justin Greenwod (illustrator). I like murder mysteries. I like graphic novels. I like things set in space. Here, I got all three! I read all four volumes of this series and enjoyed them all. (Thanks to James Thomson, who recommended them to me!)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss. We know about Drs. Moreau, Frankenstine, Rappaccini, and Jekyll. What about their monsters, though? In this Victorian-era detective series, we learn more about these inventors and the child-creations they leave behind.

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. When I was young, I loved horror stories. One of my favorites was the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker. In Sparrow Hill Road, McGuire shares the hitchhiker’s story: both her death and her afterlife. I haven’t read further in the series, but I’m planning on it.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. Radium was supposed to be a substance of health and wonder. It was put into health tonics and body lotions. Soon after its discovery, it was even used to paint dials on watches and airplane instrumentation so they could be used in the dark. Who did that painting? Women in factories, who often licked their radium-covered paintbrushes to ensure accuracy. The Radium Girls is a dive into the both hope and turmoil these women experienced. Let’s not forget them.

  1. Some things never change. 

  2. If Apple ever lets us pair two sets of AirPods to one device, this will probably change. 

  3. Many people have told me that listening to the audio version of a book doesn’t count as reading. You’re free to have that gatekeeping opinion and keep it to yourself. 

  4. These are Amazon affiliate links 🙃 

  5. Antony’s a friend, but if I didn’t like what he wrote, I just wouldn’t talk about it. 

The Origin of Ideas

My podcast, Originality, belongs to the Relay FM podcasting network. Every August, for the network’s anniversary, many of the shows produce members-only bonus episodes for supporters of the network.

Because Originality is a show about creating and creativity, my cohost Tempest and I decided to definitively answer the question that gave us the inspiration for the show in the first place: Where do ideas come from?

We asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances to contribute. Participants included award-winning authors, playwrights, journalists, and others. Of course, Tempest and I also contributed.

What follows is the story I wrote. If you’d like to hear me read it or are interested to hear where other creative people get their ideas, you can still get the episode by becoming a Relay FM member and listening to episode 27 in the Members Only feed.


Earth’s Daughter

Long ago, before time even existed, Earth realized she was lonely. To ease this burden, she started creating. The air from her lungs formed the atmosphere and the sweat from her brown formed the sea, which grew deeper as she toiled to shape all sorts of creatures.

She made everything, from the smallest amoeba to all manner of leviathan. Over the eons, she made dinosaurs and mammoths and elephants, monkeys and great apes. She loved watching them grow and evolve, nurtured by other, more literal fruits of her labor. And while their antics brought her great joy and amusement, something was still missing.

While she could, and did, talk to her creations, they couldn’t respond in kind. They could roar and chatter and trumpet, but Earth couldn’t carry on a conversation with any of them. Eventually, she realized that what she really needed was companionship.

And so Earth created the first girl. Earth would cradle the child in her arms at night and whisper stories about the beginning of life and what mischief the tigers or spiders had been up to that day.

And how the child flourished! Under Earth’s watchful eye she would race cheetahs and play with newborn elephants and giggle with chimpanzees. She would catch bugs and frogs and watch them closely. Earth would laugh as she plucked twigs and leaves out of her child’s tight black curls, wash the dusty sand from her dark skin, and recount the day’s antics.

One night, Earth realized that her child never made things. No new animals sprang to life from the child’s hands, nor did she tell stories or construct toys. Earth thought about how much richer her life was for her creations, and she was saddened at the thought that her child may never have such an experience.

Earth cried great tears, creating lakes and rivers in the process. The night was so cold and damp that her child awakened, shivering and crying tears of her own from her discomfort.

Earth scooped up her child and, seeing what she’d done, reached to her heart and removed a single spark.

“Take this,” she told her child, “and place it in your own heart.”

The child did and was instantly comforted and warmed. Soon, she was fast asleep once again.

The next morning, the child played just like she had every day before. But, Earth noticed, the ground was littered with figures made from thick mud. The next day, Earth spied a lizard she’d never seen before. On the third day, the child told Earth stories about her day for the first time. Soon, she was making up tales so fantastic Earth could hardly believe they came from her child. And so the spark grew into a full flame.

Eventually, when Earth’s child created a child of her own, she made sure to include a spark from her heart’s own flame.

This is why, to this day, ideas are ignited from even the smallest spark.

All I Want is Corgi Cuteness

We’ve all done it. You’re winding down for the day, getting ready for bed, idly reading social media or casual Slack team channels. You go to your home screen or check your dock and see that you have a new email.

“Oh hey,” you think, “more pictures of Aunt Molly’s corgi puppy!1 I’m totally here for this!”

BAM! Turns out, it’s not corgi cuteness waiting for you. Instead you see an email from Bob. You like Bob and all, but you sometimes wonder when he sleeps. Right now, you want to know why he’s asking for an update on the assets you owe him at 10:00 p.m. You have another week to get them done, for Pete’s sake, and now all you can do is think about work instead of your awesome, comfortable bed.

Anyway.

You know it’s unlikely that you’ll stop checking all of your email at night, but it would be nice if you didn’t have to see messages in some inboxes until you’re ready to work again tomorrow. Sure, you can use services to give you a hand with this, but often that means you’re giving them access to all of the mail that goes in and out of your account. Wouldn’t it be nice if Mail for Mac and iOS had the functionality built in?

I think so. That’s why I hastily filed a Radar today! You can dupe it if you’d like. If you want to take the idea and run with it as a thought/prototyping exercise, have at it. Please let me know what you come up with :)

Radar 37252339: Add snooze functionality to specific mailboxes in Mail apps

For many people, the line between personal and professional use of a device is blurred. This is especially true for people with iPhones. Many people have both personal and professional mail accounts set up on their devices, which means that drawing the line between work and home can be difficult.

It’s hard, when you notice that you have a new email waiting, to ignore it until working hours.

This is why I’m proposing that a preference be added, on a per-account basis, to snooze receiving messages (or at least the appearance of receiving messages) until working hours, when we’re probably both mentally and emotionally equipped to dealing with that insistent coworker.

There are apps and services on the market that behave similarly–Slack, for example, has per-team preferences you can set for things like notifications, sounds, and icon badging–so this isn’t a new paradigm for users.

  1. I have neither an Aunt Molly nor a corgi puppy in my life. I’m more upset about the latter than the former. 

Hello, 2018

I don’t want to dwell, but 2017 was a real kick in the teeth. I’m not sure exactly when it happened but, at some point, I switched from approaching life with ferocity to just hoping I’d make it through the year unbroken.1 And I did! I feel a little bent and dented and bruised and sad, but I’m still here. I’m nothing if not resilient.

Like a lot of people, I typically use the calendar year rollover as a marker that it’s time to do some self-reflection and evaluation. Most years, I pick a word to cling to—something to help me remember what I want to accomplish.

I haven’t done that this year.

This year, prompted by my friend Cate, I made a list of liberations for 2018.2 In 2018, I will liberating myself from:

  1. Phoenix. Justin and I have talked about moving for the last few years and I think we’re both finally on the same page and ready to make the push. I’ve tried everything to get some relief from my allergies with little success and we’re both tired of the heat, the poor public transportation, and our inability to walk around outside. I’m sure I’ll write more about this when the time comes.

  2. Organizing App Camp. I toyed with the idea of organizing camp from afar, then traveling to Phoenix the actual week of camp. At the end of the day, I decided it would be too much strain on my co-organizers, to say nothing of the stress I’d feel trying to pull it off. I’m looking for someone to take my place in this role so that Phoenix camp can continue. It’s been such a smashing success the last couple of years; I’d hate to lose that momentum.

  3. Self-doubt. I don’t think this needs an explanation. Suffice it to say: I’m going to end 2018 with more confidence than ever before.

  4. Looking at numbers. Twitter followers, podcast download stats, blog post views, the scale, whatever. Life isn’t a video game. Happiness doesn’t have a numerical value attached to it.

  5. Wanting to fit in. I’ve never been one of the cool kids and I think it’s unlikely some switch is going to flip and I’m going to start being cool now. If you need me, I’ll be over here doing what I’ve always done: my own thing.

  6. Saying yes when I have doubts. I learned a lot of things from my mom. Among them are these lessons:
    • Take a shower when you feel bad.
    • Learn how to do things for yourself.
    • The best brownies are edge piece brownies.
    • When in doubt, say no.

    For some reason, I have trouble sticking to that last one and I always regret it.

  7. Gluten. I was very strictly gluten-free from 2012 until earlier this year. After doing a really strict, months-long elimination diet to see if it would help me feel better,3 I decided to see if I could reintroduce gluten. I definitely feel worse when I eat it, but I also really enjoy the freedom of being able to eat anything at any restaurant. Health before ease of eating out, though. It’s time to let go again.

How about you, dear reader? What are your liberations for 2018?

  1. So many of the things that impacted this shift are not my stories to tell. It’s been a rough year for a lot of us. 

  2. You can read Cate’s liberations, if you’d like. 

  3. See “I’ve tried everything…” in Liberation #1. 

App Camp 2020

“What has surprised you about your time at App Camp?” I asked on Thursday during lunch.

There was no hesitation.

“Sometimes, we go to coding classes at the library. They just give us a sheet of paper and we type what’s on the paper into the computer and then we have a program. But it’s not like that here! I didn’t know our teams would come up with our own apps and figure out the code for them!”

Other kids at the table agreed.

“I didn’t know that we’d get to draw!” another said.

“I really like writing the questions that are going in my team’s choose-your-own-story app,” said a third.

“Did you know that you could do so many things and still work in the tech industry if you want to?” I asked.

“Nope,” they replied, “I might want to work in tech now!”


In 2015, I wrote about why I support and volunteer with App Camp for Girls. If I were to write that post today, it would basically be the same. The only difference now is that I have practical experience with the program. Since I wrote that post I’ve volunteered at two camp sessions and organized another two.

I’ve had a front-row seat to see how App Camp impacts lives.

On the first day of camp (always a Monday) we have the kids take a survey as soon as they walk in the door. One of the questions on the survey asks them why they’re attending App Camp. Overwhelmingly, the response is that their guardian made the choice for them.

By Wednesday, most of them are all-in. By Friday, the last day of camp, over 90% of our attendees say they’d recommend camp to a friend. Over 75% of them want to come back the next year as interns to help new teams discover the joys of app development.

In Portland, where App Camp has existed the longest, some kids have come back year after year. Some have started tech-oriented clubs in their schools, some have lead their own teams at App Camp, and some are training to be the Lead Developer–the person who teaches programming principles, walks attendees through programming, and is the go-to person for Swift questions.

The impact on kids is important and is, for me, what makes the challenge of organizing worthwhile. Beyond that, though, there’s a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers at camp. Several have been inspired to learn Objective-C and Swift and begin careers as app developers. We’ve helped one another find jobs, celebrated life events, and mourned losses together. I’ve made some of the most amazing friends because of App Camp.


App Camp is currently in the middle of its third Indiegogo campaign. Our goal is to raise the funds we need to expand to three more cities over the next three years, for a total of eight cities. When we get those three camps established, it’ll mean sixty more kids will get to go through camp every year.

I’d love it if you’d consider donating. Indiegogo accepts Apple Pay, which makes contributing really easy. Whether you can contribute a few dollars or a few hundred dollars, your support is invaluable to us. Plus, App Camp is a registered nonprofit in the US, so US-based donations are tax-deductible (minus the cost of your perk)!

More than that, though, would you tell people about the campaign? Post to social media, email friends and relatives who may be interested, tell your coworkers, shout it from a rooftop….

Your money and your help spreading the word will make a world of difference for even more kids!