Read Harder Challenge 2019

RHC 2019: Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a historical romance by an author of color.

Man, if I keep these challenges up, I may wind up reading romances for fun. This was fun. 

According to the author bio on the back page, English is Sherry Thomas’s second language – she learned it at age of 13 when she moved to the United States from China. At that point, she taught herself English by reading romance novels, and here is the rather fabulous result. It’s her first book, too. I love reading firsts because I hope to one day have a first. 

Based on this book, I’m guessing she’s read and reread her Austen pretty thoroughly. There’s a wry humor here that feels like it has some P&P DNA. It’s about a couple who begin their marriage very much in love, before it’s derailed by a painful betrayal, and then spend a number of years essentially estranged from each other, while keeping up appearances. And then they fall in looooooooooooooooove again. 

Gigi and Camden are delightfully flawed characters, and their bitter back-and-forth ribbing has a Much Ado About Nothing vibe that’s a lot of fun. The setting is very fully realized too. I don’t like generic backdrops, and late nineteenth century English high society as written by an American is a risky proposition. But enough homework was done for this world to feel substantial, and I thoroughly enjoyed the well-mannered and well-worded sniping and snogging.

RHC 2019: Still Life by Louise Penny

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a cozy mystery.

I had lunch recently with my most faithful blog reader, who is also one of my progenitors, and the subject turned to writing – specifically an idea she’s kicking around (and Mom, tell me if you don’t want me talking about this on the internet!). I’m not going to go into details, but I can’t think of a creative property I’m more excited about than her project.

Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series was part of Mom’s inspiration. The same series had come up recently at the book club I facilitate at work, too, with the same superlatives attached. So, I figured the universe was sending me clear signals as to what my choice for this task would be.

And this was a ton of fun to read. It’s set in a small Canadian town peopled with wonderful characters, it’s funny, it’s engrossing, and I didn’t guess who the killer was until the reveal, which made me wonder why I hadn’t figured out. So all of my mystery satisfaction boxes were checked. I’m told that the first few books in the series are more about establishing characters and setting and that it really catches fire a little later on. If that’s the case, then those later books must be extremely good.

RHC 2019: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a comic by an LGBTQIA creator.

I’d stepped away from comics for a few years – no reason, it just sort of happened. Then last year I read My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, and it made me remember everything I love about comics storytelling. I’ve missed a lot of incredible work, and now I’m having an absolutely wonderful time catching up.

Which brings me to this book. This book! It’s been a while since I read a horror comic (Harrow County!), and this was a delicious reentry point.

Through the Woods consists of five stories, framed by an introduction and a conclusion (which might be my favorite part). The stories are all gothic fairy tales – every bit as bloody and unsettling as a fairy tale should be – with strong echoes of Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe, and a splash of Edward Gorey. There’s no specified time period or place in any of them, though “The Nesting Place” feels the most connected with reality, with cars, cities, and boarding schools being part of its setting. That one is also the goriest, while the horror in the others is more atmospheric than jump scare. 

And the art. THE ART. I read this in print, and the book had beautifully glossy black pages full of nightmarish visual delights. There’s lots of black, lots of red, and lots of terrifyingly long shadows.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, one of the pieces in this collection was originally published as a web comic, and you can still read it online for free. Her whole site is worth checking out, though be advised it’s slightly NSFW. 

This is short, because I’m not sure what I can really say beyond jumping up and down, clapping my hands, and cheering. Good stuff. 

RHC 2019: The Bees by Laline Paull

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character.

I wholeheartedly love talking animal books, which I know aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I grew up with a steady diet of horse books, dog books, bear books, wolf books, mouse books, and rabbit books (more on that, inevitably, in a sec). I don’t read many mysteries, but I loved Three Bags Full (the detectives are a herd of domestic Irish sheep). A Dog’s Purpose nearly sent me to the hospital for emergency rehydration. I love plenty of comics in this vein as well.  

Of course there’s no talking about talking animals without mentioning Watership Down, which I think numbers not only in the highest ranks of talking animal stories but in that of English-language novels, period.

There’s no way to read a book like The Bees without thinking about those rabbits. Laline Paull pretty clearly knows that – her bees refer to their natural predators as The Myriad, which is a nice echo of The Thousand. She doesn’t go so far as to give her bees an apis (apine?) language, but there is a common tongue among insects that’s reminiscent of Hedgerow. She’s also developed a very logical religion for her characters, complete with Deuteronomy-style codes of conduct (“only the Queen may breed”) enforced by capital punishment. 

A lot goes right here, and if you’re looking for an offbeat novel with an unusual protagonist and a highly detailed world, this is a good choice.

RHC 2019: Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads.

Alternate: A collection of poetry published since 2014.

Springdale, Arkansas (near where I live) is home to the largest population of Marshallese nationals outside of the Marshall Islands. That migration started in the 1970s and snowballed from there, in an emigration pattern quirk that lends a wonderful and unique blend of languages and cultures to the area.

Nevertheless, there’s uncomfortable complexity to that escalating migration in terms of what it means for Marshallese identity as more and more people leave the islands. This Guardian article gets into that.

Now, there is an absolutely disgusting history between the US and the Marshall Islands. I know there’s a lot of black marks in US history, but what the US did on Bikini Atoll should be something we handle the same way that Germany handles the Holocaust, by taking it extremely seriously and educating everyone here about exactly what happened and what we can do to prevent anything even remotely similar from happening ever again.

We… don’t do that.

RHC 2019: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: An #ownvoices book set in Oceania.

Jo found that the pieces of land, dismembered from each other, the orphaned parts of the now-dissolved whole, were to be found on the maps all numbered the way the graves at the Mullum cemetery were numbered… The way that convicts – rapists and murderers – were numbered in prison.

We have family in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve had the extremely excellent experience of visiting twice. Between people I care about living there and having taken a couple of extended trips, I always perk up when Oz comes up.

Most of what I know about Australia comes straight from my sister-in-law and her family, including the very little I know about Aboriginal rights. I’ve been at events and looked at programs that included a Welcome to Country statement, which seems to me to be much closer to the front of the white Australian consciousness than the equivalent circumstances in the United States and Canada. I mean, words are cheap, sure, but it seems like a start, at (the very) least.

RHC 2019: The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman.

Alternate: An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America.

I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.

I originally picked this out after listening to an interview with Valeria Luiselli on the First Draft podcast. I’d been thinking it would be my pick for the Mexico/Central America own voices challenge, but after reading it, it felt more in the spirit of the book to use it for the translation task instead.

I enjoyed this before I read the concluding remarks from the author, but MAN does that author’s note drive the point of the whole book home. On its surface, The Story of My Teeth is the story of Highway, an accomplished auctioneer offering a series of auctions of his own teeth at varying levels of postmodern absurdity.

RHC 2019: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book by an author of color set in or about space.

I am a boy and a girl and a witch wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body.

Hurray, it’s sci-fi time! I read a couple of science fiction books last year (The Stars Are Legion and The Three-Body Problem), both of which I greatly enjoyed and which went a long way toward reassuring me that all non-YA / non-children’s sci-fi isn’t Dune. I really hate Dune. This is a pretty entrenched position, and I’ll talk your ear off about it given the opportunity. Nevertheless, I’m excited about being excited about sci-fi again.

Anyway. An Unkindness of Ghosts is definitely not Dune. It takes place on a generational ship called the Matilda, which left the Great Lighthouse (Earth) about three hundred years ago. The Matilda has been on autopilot, drifting through the universe ostensibly in search of a new planet. Over the centuries, a religion related to the ship and its course has sprung up, and a cruel, painfully resonant caste system has been put in place.

RHC 2019: Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by a journalist or about journalism. 

I’ve only been to Oklahoma City once, when I went with some friends to see The Flaming Lips play the Zoo Amphitheater. I didn’t know it was going to be one of the last “pile in the car and sleep at somebody’s parents’ house” style trips of my life. I was twenty-three, freshly heartbroken, and completely unaware that the lead singer of the Flaming Lips is kind of a sketchy jerk, and it was 2006.

Under those very specific circumstances, there were few highs as high as a Flaming Lips show. I saw them a couple of times in college, but this third show was in another league. Being in an outdoor venue and on the Lips’ home turf brought a whole new dimension to the dancing Santas, the confetti cannons, and Wayne Coyne rolling around on all of our intensely loving heads in his giant plastic hamster ball. Honestly, it’s probably the best show I’ve ever been to. I know that’s not a particularly cool thing to say here in 2019, but it’s true. 

RHC 2019: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a humor book. 

In 1999 or maybe 2000, I was at a dear friend’s house (at the time, he was in the high school boyfriend iteration of said friendship – long story with many revisions). We were high school kids with driver’s licenses and big dreams in a small town in Arkansas eating pizza pockets in front of his parents’ TV on a weekend night, when we channel-surfed into Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill HBO special.

This wasn’t just any TV. Matt had satellite TV. He had so. many. channels, including MTfreakingV (my hometown’s standard cable package was a VHI-only deal, which is part of the reason I’m so well-versed in 1980s one hit wonders). Keep in mind that these were pre-YouTube and pre-Napster days. Discovering new music often involved shelling out for an actual $9.99 CD, which would then be lovingly installed in my six-disc changer and listened to obsessively while poring over the liner notes. 

Anyway, watching TV at Matt’s house was a big deal.  

And so we were surfing the mind-boggling number of premium channels in his satellite package when we came across a British comedian wearing thick eyeliner, bright blue eye shadow and heels, but who also appeared to be a man.

You need to understand that at the time my understanding of transgender identity was largely informed by Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, and, mercifully less damagingly,  Wanda in The Sandman (because we were cool kids, mind you). So I was confused by this person so confidently and unapologetically coloring outside of the lines.

I hadn’t had much exposure to his style of comedy either. It bounced around wildly between cerebral, ridiculous, surreal, and big-hearted. 

I’d never seen anything so funny in my entire life. 

RHC 2019: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an epistolary novel.

I’m trying to fill in major gaps in my understanding of American literature, since I’ve read an appallingly low number of major works by black writers. I was excited to read The Color Purple, especially since I kept coming across references to it after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God a couple of years ago. I knew the title The Color Purple, I knew Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg were in the movie, and I knew the musical was a big deal. Other than that, I walked into this book completely blind. Just a heads up: there are going to be a lot of spoilers in this post, and if you have also managed to remain ignorant about The Color Purple, I highly recommend you go read it without knowing anything about it.

I expected it to wrestle with race and gender, but I had no idea it also dove straight into same-sex relationships and stark criticisms of American Christianity. There were a lot of “so THAT’S why it’s banned all the time!” moments while I was reading, with the parallel thought, of course – “so THIS is why everyone should read this book!”

Now, I was also aware of a thorny literary controversy about Alice Walker recommending a book generally perceived to be anti-Semitic in a New York Times interview in December 2018 (I’m not trying to be cagey with that “generally perceived” bit – I just don’t know much about it). Here’s a link to a Vox article about the whole thing, which also includes a disappointing rundown of the trend of anti-Semitic threads in Walker’s recent output.

I’m not sure how to comment on this, and I think I’m going to leave it here: The Color Purple is an astonishing book that’s at complete odds with bigotry. That may not mean that its creator is free of it, though.

Anybody who loves Ender’s Game  or Roald Dahl’s work knows the drill, I suppose. Still, it’s jarring.

RHC 2019: American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an alternate history novel.

This is my third round of the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, and I recommend it to everyone I know. Reading more widely and posting here about it has done a lot to improve my reading (comprehension, retention, and enjoyment), which of course is nothing but a positive for my writing as well.

I’ve been reading more, generally, outside of my challenge books, and it’s been wonderful to finally get a grasp on the book world again. This process has also involved setting some limits on my phone. I’m happier and I get more done when I’m not constantly and  mindlessly scrolling, and I’m a better reader for it. I haven’t gone to extremes like deleting all social media from my phone, but being just a teensy bit more aware of how often I’m staring at a little beeping buzzing LCD screen has helped me reclaim more reading time than you’d think a parent with a full time job could scrounge up.

But even apart from (sort of) untethering myself from my phone, I believe that doing these challenges has helped me become more curious and willing to jump into material I may not know anything about or have any sort of experience with. It’s brought a lot of the pleasure of words back into my life, and so yes, I’m going to keep doing this, and yes, I’m going to keep blogging for my mother about it.

Which brings me to my first Read Harder book this year, which is wall-to-wall feral hippos, pregnant Latina assassins, and nonbinary explosive experts. Weeeee!