RHC 2018: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book of true crime. 

My second job post-college was a part time circulation clerk position in the library where I’m now a fancypants real live librarian. That was where I first encountered Ann Rule’s books–lurid titles and book jackets that caused a hopeless mess over in 364.1 as patrons constantly picked through them trying to figure out which ones they’d already read.

I didn’t think much of them. They looked tacky.

But after my fourth challenge read this year, I realized I had accidentally read four male authors in a row. I wanted to restore some balance. Ann Rule isn’t the only female true crime writer out there, but she was the first name that came to mind, followed by a deep sigh of resignation. Fine. I’d read her. It would indeed be pushing my own boundaries and “reading harder.”

But I’d never heard of The Stranger Beside Me. I did not know that Ann Rule had worked a suicide hotline next to Ted Bundy. I didn’t know that they’d maintained a friendship even as Rule landed a book contract for several of his unsolved murders before Bundy had surfaced on anyone’s radar as a suspect. I didn’t know that she had sent him money for his commissary almost up to the day of his execution. This book was fascinating.

RHC 2018: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published posthumously.

Alternate: Read a book set in one of the BRICS countries (Russia).

There is so much to love in this book–anthropomorphic gun-wielding cats, gloriously unrepentant witches, mass public nudity, vampires, pirates, hellish torment in the form of involuntary chorales, literal blood baths, etc. Woland and Co. are some of the finest emissaries of the Pit since Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and I spent most of the novel thusly:

That said, in spite of how damn funny the book is, I was painfully aware of how little of its satire I was able to unlock. I got some of the low-hanging fruit, like the poor bastard who asks Satan for an attendance certificate proving he was at a Walpurgis ball with all the company of Hell (even Satan himself bows to bureaucracy). I could chuckle at the ongoing sendup of the Moscow literati. I thoroughly enjoyed the bizarre episode in which a man is packed off to Hell (presumably), leaving behind his suit, which continues handling business from his desk. But there’s clearly so much more happening that I don’t have the context for that makes it such an enduring favorite in Russia.

That didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time reading this, but I feel like I should acknowledge how much likely went flying over my head. And speaking of flying, I knew there was an anthropomorphic demon cat, which I’m always happy to show up for, but I did NOT expect so many little spikes of what certainly appeared to be feminism. I’m also pretty sure that a lot of academic ink has been spilled on this topic, and probably in a much more nuanced fashion.

But here’s my hot take anyway. When Margarita finds herself transformed into a witch with powers of flight, I assumed that we’d be headed toward a storyline in which the Master sought to rescue her from Satan’s clutches.

Nope. Margarita decides that flying around in the nude wreaking (fairly nonviolent) havoc is a blast, and she quite happily agrees to perform hostess duties at “Satan’s ball.” While there, Margarita meets a woman condemned to hell after strangling the baby that resulted from a rape. “And where is he?” she asks pointedly.

She never repents, either. For anything. And things end well for her (peace, if not light, which isn’t half bad). It’s delicious to read.

RHC 2018: Leonard by William Shatner and Vacationland by John Hodgman

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a celebrity memoir.

This is my second year doing this challenge, and I’m off to a great start. I’m only two months late getting started (compared to four last year), and I accidentally read and thoroughly enjoyed two books that fit the task I was least excited about. It’s gonna be a great year.

Leonard by William Shatner (chosen for the book club I facilitate at work) made me finally feel like I have a handle on Star Trek. I hate to admit this, but I have only the barest cultural-consciousness-level understanding of Star Trek. I mean, I like the idea of Star Trek, but Star Wars wins out for me on the technicality that I’ve actually watched the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Trek felt like a project on the level of learning Tagalog–the kind of thing that would require substantial dedication, time, and repetition to get a true handle on.

And so I just sort of know character names, that there were whales in one of the movies, and that I have to be careful to remember that Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are different people (I KNOW, stop throwing things at me!).

RHC 2018: The Devourers by Indra Das

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (India).

Oh my goodness. This magnificent beast of a book. This beautiful, stinking, terrifying love story. Just go read it right now.

Okay. A college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul performance in Kolkata. The stranger claims he is “half werewolf,” and wants to share his story. After a tantalizing tale, he gives Alok two manuscripts and asks him to transcribe them.

If you’re thinking, oh, cool, an Indian werewolf version of Interview with a Vampire, you’re not exactly right, but if that sounds fun to you, you will enjoy this. Greatly. It’s hard to avoid Anne Rice comparisons. This, like Rice’s work, is a book where you see, smell, touch, and taste something in every sentence (and often something very unpleasant, at that). It is a very different sensory palette than the one that Rice uses, though, and Das has a very distinct style. It’s also a much more measured story than Rice’s sprawling multivolume epics, clocking in at just over 300 pages with generous amounts of white space.

That sensory palette includes a lot of excrement and rotting meat, incidentally. Das’s werewolves are messy.