Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge

This year, I am undertaking Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge for the first time. The challenge provides 24 tasks that prompt you to read things outside of your usual purview. Book Riot also provides a reading log to help you track what you read throughout the year, and offers stats on how many books you read of each genre, how many by authors of color, how many with LGBTQIA protagonists, etc. As far as the challenge, here are the tasks I’ve completed so far.

Task #1: Read a YA nonfiction book.

IraqiGirl: Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq by IraqiGirl

This is a collection of blog entries written by a teenage girl in Iraq during the US occupation after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As such, it left me wishing for something that went a little deeper, something a little more reflective, but this never purports to be a memoir. It is a great source for showing readers just how the lives of Iraqi civilians were affected during this time, and how they felt about it all. However, I have to admit it bothered me a bit just how one-sided the author’s thoughts seemed to be. She blames the US soldiers for all of the flying bullets and explosions, but never once seems to consider who or why they are attacking. I can understand just wishing the occupying forces would leave to put an end to the fighting, but there should at least be an acknowledgment that there were insurgents exchanging gunfire and planting car bombs. The author also does not acknowledge what the US was aiming to do during the occupation, why the forces were there, but I suppose the lesson here is that civilians whose lives are seriously disrupted, endangered even, don’t necessarily understand or even care why. They just want the disruption and danger to stop. Something to be considered no matter how you feel about it intellectually. 

Task #5: Read a book about a natural disaster.

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

In the nineteenth century, a dam was built in the mountains of Pennsylvania to facilitate the canal that was being built at the time. By the time the dam was completed, the canal was defunct. It sat neglected for years before being purchased by an exclusive gentleman’s hunting and fishing club. The reservoir created by the dam was stocked with fish, cottages were built along the lakeside, and Pittsburgh’s successful and wealthy businessmen visited the clubhouse in pursuit of leisure. Over the years, the stability of the dam was questioned, and shoddy maintenance was performed by people wholly unqualified. In 1889, a storm unlike anything seen before caused the neglected dam to fail, leading to nearly 20 million tons of water cascading down the mountainside and completely decimating Johnstown below, killing over 2,000 people and wiping out almost every single thing that stood in its path. This book gives a detailed history of the disaster, everything leading up to it, and what followed. The eyewitness accounts are harrowing. This is a fascinating read, although I’m not entirely sure it counts as a natural disaster, as it was the failings of men that led to the extreme rains having such a calamitous outcome.

Task #8: Read an audiobook of poetry.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Poetry generally isn’t my thing, but then again, the point of this challenge is to read outside of your comfort zone. I don’t listen to a whole lot of audiobooks, either – nonfiction I can do, but fiction in audio format just does not work very well for me. However, listening to this book of poetry as read by the author is definitely the way to go. Warsan Shire is a Kenya-born Somali poet based in London. Born in 1988, she is an artist and activist who uses her work to document narratives of journey and trauma, often as told through women’s bodies.

“Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
but God,
doesn’t she wear
the world well.”

Task #11: Read a debut novel by a queer author

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1) by Tamsyn Muir

I read this book before deciding to take on the Read Harder challenge. I will copy my Goodreads review here, which is quite a bit longer than the those I wrote above.

Well hot damn!

A solar system of necromancers across nine planets is overseen by an Emperor god, Necromancer Divine, King of the Nine Renewals, the Resurrector, Necrolord Prime. Saints from each of the Nine Houses have served the Emperor as immortal Lyctors for the past 10,000 years, but over time their numbers have dwindled and vacancies have opened up. The heir to each House and their cavalier primaries are invited to the ancient, ruinous, (haunted?) Canaan House to face a challenge involving mysterious necromantic tech to earn a place as a new Lyctor. Some of the competitors are being picked off, but by whom…or by what?

The Emperor needs necromancers. The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman. Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

This book is marketed as “lesbians in space,” which, strictly speaking, is true. However, that blurb gives many readers the false impression that character sexuality may take precedence over plot, and that the space setting is at the forefront of the story. The main character has one hell of an adventure, all while she happens to be a lesbian. Almost all of the story takes place in a palace on one planet, as “decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor”. And it’s great!

This Science Fantasy story reminds me a bit, in some aspects, of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. The “decadent nobles” with Latin-inspired names, potentially from Greek mythology-inspired Houses, travel to another planet to compete with one another in a challenge. And I get the feeling that, similar to the RED RISING series, the sequel will have us spending much more time in space.

The story matter may be quite grim, but the snarky tone of the narration is endlessly amusing.

She said, “I’ll still do it.”

Harrowhark chewed on the insides of her cheeks so hard they looked close to staving in. She steepled her fingers together, squeezed her eyelids shut. When she spoke again, she made her voice quite calm and normal: “Why?”

“Probably because you asked.”

The heavy eyelids shuttered open, revealing baleful black irises. “That’s all it takes, Griddle? That’s all you demand? This is the complex mystery that lies in the pit of your psyche?”

Gideon slid her glasses back onto her face, obscuring feelings with tint. She found herself saying, “That’s all I ever demanded,” and to maintain face suffixed it with, “you asswipe.”

Some major mysteries are left unanswered at the conclusion of this part of the story, and I am 100% along for the ride when the sequel comes out this summer! (August 4th is the release date!)

Task #16: Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman

I had also already read three books this year that qualify for this prompt before starting the challenge. These include Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1), and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Here I’ll post my Goodreads review of the last one.

Er, it turns out I never actually wrote a Goodreads review, just a post in the group for a book club consisting of some coworkers. So it’s not very thorough, but here were the thoughts I posted there:

I enjoyed this book. Sometimes you just want to reach into the pages and strangle some of the characters, but overall I thought it had a lot of really accurate messages about relationships – as parents, as siblings, as spouses. Parts of it really resonated with me.

I feel like Wendy was a really great character. I mean, she was definitely a jerk at times, so not like she was a great person, necessarily, but a really interesting character that added a lot of color to the story.

Task #17: Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages)

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

I love the world constructed within the pages of this book, a steampunk alternate history New Orleans influenced by African deities, the Orisha. I enjoyed the voice of this story as well, the dialect writing. My one issue was that, with its novella length, it just didn’t do enough for me overall. I would totally read more by this author, though!

Task #20: Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the US or the UK

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

This is another book I read before starting the challenge, for another Goodreads book club I am in, Sword & Laser. I think it counts for this challenge prompt, as the majority of the story takes place in the fantasy world of Fantastica. I listened to it in audio format, which I already said is not usually how I like to consume my fiction. Maybe that had something to with why I really, really did not care for it. Another likely reason is that it is middle grade fiction, something I don’t often find myself able to appreciate. Things were overly dramatic and very black and white. The movie based off this book actually only portrays the first half of the story. After the events in the movie have occurred, Bastian’s adventures in Fantastica are relayed, during which he becomes a giant douche. If you like reading drawn out, oversimplified stories about giant douches having dramatic adventures in a fantasy world where everyone and everything is cookie cutter, then this might be your jam.

Task #21: Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non)

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

This is an #OwnVoices story featuring a girl living in a historically-based village on Martha’s Vineyard where 1 out of 4 people was born deaf. I didn’t exactly love this book, again probably only because middle grade fiction just doesn’t really do it for me. However, I think this would be a great option for assigned reading for elementary school students. Everyone in the village knows sign language, and families often come up with their own dialects. The story addresses how villagers feel about the Wampanoag and freedmen in their midst, as well as how mainlanders feel about the island’s deaf population, and the main character learning how to deal with her neighbors whose views differ from her own.

Those are the Read Harder Challenge tasks I have met so far, and I plan to post again with updates as I forge ahead. Happy reading!

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