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!

Book Review: THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle

Then he stopped suddenly and said in a strange voice, “No, no, listen, don’t listen to me, listen. You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.”

I have fond memories of the movie based off of this book, watched several times when I was a child. Of note to me was how closely the movie follows the book as compared to current book-to-screen adaptations (perhaps because of its shorter length, but also likely thanks to the author also writing the screenplay). And the movie’s soundtrack – the music moves me to this day!

“Do you know what I am, butterfly?” the unicorn asked hopefully, and he replied, “Excellent well, you’re a fishmonger. You’re my everything, you are my sunshine, you are old and gray and full of sleep, you’re my pickle-face, consumptive Mary Jane.” He paused, fluttering his wings against the wind, and added conversationally, “Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.”

“Say my name, then,” the unicorn begged him. “If you know my name, tell it to me.”

“Rumpelstiltskin,” the butterfly answered happily. “Gotcha!”

I liked the book well enough. The writing was certainly poetic and lovely, the unicorn remains a sort of tragic fairy tale heroine, but tragic only through the lens of a silly mortal. Humorous at times, the story also has deep messages about mortality, joy, beauty, and the overall fleeting nature of human experience. Here seems like a good place to mention that I think King Haggard is a seriously underrated character in classic fantasy!

“They are nothing to me,” King Haggard said. “I have known them all, and they have not made me happy. I will keep nothing near me that does not make me happy.”

It’s hard to say what I would have thought of this book without the associations of my fond recollections of watching the movie as a child, but really a middle of the road 3 stars seems apt. I appreciated some aspects of the fairytale and the language, other parts of the book were a miss with me. I couldn’t always account for the characters and their behavior, or why everyone else seems to love the roving outlaw part while I just found it kind of annoying.

But did I mention Haggard?

“I suppose I was young when I first saw them,” King Haggard said. “Now I must be old–at least I have picked many more things up than I had then, and put them all down again. But I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old.”

Not a favorite of mine, but a solid read. And you know what, from the sheer quotability I’m finding as I write this review, I’m going to go ahead and award a fourth star out of five.

“I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.”

Interlude

I recently read A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. My good friend Court saw the cover and remarked, “Hey, that book is about me!” You know, since his name is in the title. I agreed, saying it was a biography about him. “You know, not so much with the wings, but a whole lot of ruin.” In response to which he quipped, “Little Wings, Big Ruin.”

I’m sharing this just because it makes me giggle, and maybe you’ll giggle too. “Little Wings, Big Ruin: The Memoirs of Court Chapman*”.

*To protect his identity, I have changed his name. You know, just his last name. Obviously I didn’t change his first name, or else this entire anecdote wouldn’t make any sense. I mean, I’m not a total liar-geez, guys, back off!

Oh My Blog!

This website is supposed to be for my writing, but I have another blog where I post whatever random things I feel like sharing. I just published a new post there, unrelated to my books. If you’re interested in checking out Oh My Blog! go have a look!

Bittersweet Dreams are Made of This

I’m hard at work on The Prophecy tonight, honest!

But I wrote this post earlier for another blog of mine, one in which I write about whatever the heck topic I feel like expounding upon at any given time, and decided I wanted to repost it here. It’s not related to my books or writing, but rather is a subject of a personal nature and something I feel compelled to share. So here it is. (And now back to work!)

 

My sister was my very best friend. She passed away 4 years ago and even now it seems I dream about her every night.

It may just be that I am more likely to notice and remember the nights I dream of her, but even if that’s the case, I sure do dream about her an awful lot.

Sometimes this is a joyous thing. It’s like having the opportunity to hang out with her again, even if we now spend our time together protecting giant (and I mean GIANT) spiders from mall cops with dubious intentions.

Every now and again my sleeping mind recognizes that she is dead and it’s as if she is communicating with me in light of that fact, commiserating with me about how sad it is to be separated, or showing me glimpses of some fantastical afterlife and assuring me I’ll join her there some day, but that the time for that has not yet come (a belief to which, sadly, in the waking world I do not subscribe.)

More often though, the dreams that acknowledge she has died are chilling. These I wake from unnerved, but also enormously saddened.

She spent 26 days in the ICU before succumbing to what ailed her. As her condition worsened, we faced new steps in attempting to manage the illness and treat her, and I remember when she first died the initial feeling was that this was just a new obstacle to overcome. Okay, now what are the treatment options for her death? How can we overcome this next hurdle? It took some time for the constant panicky adrenaline rush of her decline to wear off and to realize there was nothing more to be done. It was over.

Some of my dreams are fueled by this idea. She is dead, so now what’s our next step to help her get better?

Many times her “death” is represented in my sleeping mind as her being in bed, back in her old bedroom in our childhood home. The room is always dark, we have to be ever so cautious and quiet around her so as not to disturb her. Sometimes her body only appears there at nighttime. Sometimes I crawl into her bed at night, anxious, knowing that after I drift off to sleep I will wake with a start in the dark of night to find her in the room with me. This can be a happy thing, but also frightening because she is not always the only thing to break through the veil between worlds at that hour.

Other times the dreamtime logic insists that she lives again only when I sleep, and so it’s a happy and exciting occasion to bring her back in my dreams, although bittersweet in the knowledge that as soon as I wake, she will be gone again.

One of the scariest scenarios for me is the one where she has come back to life, in a manner, but is changed. She knows her family but feels nothing for us, she seems an entirely different person. Even then we are very protective of her in her “condition” (aka dead, returned to us on loan, a fleeting opportunity to be with her again even if she is not the same as she was in life.) Those dreams, when she no longer cares for me, are heartbreaking.

For some reason I have many, many dreams in which the house my sister lived in at the time of her death is a sprawling mansion filled with magic but also haunted by some great evil. I go there to try to encounter her again, but the horrible presence lurks there as well, and my sister’s spirit fears it as much as I do.

Just today I experienced sleep paralysis. You know, when you’re aware that you are half-asleep but can make no move, nor bring yourself fully awake? But my mutinous mind was convinced that my sister had returned as some malevolent spirit and was possessing me, not allowing me any control over my own body, bringing me to insanity. I worried for all my loved ones, who would not know why I would rise from bed as a completely changed, deranged person.

I don’t know why I dream of her returning with a totally different personality or as some dark presence. But whether it’s one of those dreams, or one where I get to briefly spend time with her as sisters or continue the never ending struggle to “cure” her from her death, to this day I still wake up crying. Four and a half years later.

I hope tonight will be one of the nights where we just hang out and do nonsensical dream things. That would be nice, spiders and all.

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My sister in the year before her death. She went to the Otasaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, NY for a weekend-long event with the folks from the SyFy show Ghosthunters. She won the chance to have this light-painted photo (of ghosts attempting to communicate) done with two of the shows regulars, Amy and Britt of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society)

 

Striking the Match

I tend to swing between periods of furious writing and droughts mainly fueled by two things: a rush of self-doubt or loss of confidence (no one is going to want to read this anyway, boohoo!) and, well, distractions.

What I really need is a fire lit under my you-know-what. This is usually achieved when I see a new review or get positive feedback (they like it, they really like it!)

Rest assured, I finally did sit down to work on revising my draft of The Prophecy just this evening. (By the way, here is something I’ve noticed in my work as well as that by other indie authors: we are booklovers, and as such, we delight in writing protagonists who are booklovers as well. Here’s a tidbit from the chapter I worked on tonight: “He had underestimated my appetite for reading when I had nothing but time on my hands and an urgent need to keep my mind off of my own all too real troubles.”)

So consider the flames fanned beneath my butt. I certainly hope to get more editing work done tomorrow.

In the meantime, before heading to bed, allow me a moment to expound upon the aforementioned distractions.

Besides the full time job and two lovely little boys, I’ve also still been working on training this pretty baby:

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Miss Maya (aka Peakes Brook Night Prowler!)

She’s a smartie and picks up commands pretty easily, but she’s also a puppy and therefore sometimes kind of batcrap CRAZY. (Batcrap. Never used that phrase before, but it has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?) She is bell-trained, meaning that she rings bells hanging from the doorknob when she has to go out to do her business. She has been doing this for a month or so now. However, today she realized she could ring the bell any time of day, all day, over and over again, just because she wanted to enjoy the great outdoors. And of course you don’t want to call her bluff at the wrong time. So yeah, there was a lot of in and out and in and out today.

The other main distraction was, as usual, a video game.

Since my last post I have played one more chapter in the Life is Strange story. It’s still a lot of fun, but I do have one complaint. The character you play, Max, is an eighteen year old girl, who reunites with her childhood best friend, Chloe. I give the game props for allowing what seems to be the possibility of a romance between these two female characters. However…Chloe treats Max like crap!

lifeisstrange

I realize the situations that arise are designed to force the player to make choices that somewhat alter how future scenes in the game play out, but some of them leave a bad taste in my mouth. There is a huge movement of players who “ship” Max and Chloe, a prospect which quite honestly makes me cringe.

Some examples: Chloe gets caught with marijuana and tries to pin it on Max. You, playing as Max, can either take the blame or deny it. If you tell the truth (it’s Chloe’s weed), the rest of the game is littered with digs from Chloe for throwing HER under the bus. At another point in the game, Max and Chloe are at a diner when Max’s phone rings. The call is from a classmate who is being bullied and has been showing signs of severe depression. Chloe tries to dissuade Max from answering the phone, saying, “I thought you were here to hang out with me, not to talk to her.”

Lis
Chloe Price from Life is Strange

Chloe is a fun character in that she adds an interesting facet to the story, but her relationship with Max, even when they’re just friends, SCREAMS “unhealthy and emotionally abusive” to me.

But wait, that’s not even the game that has been ruling my life lately! That honor goes to the Game of Thrones episodic adventure by telltale games.

This is fun. A lot of fun. There is so much about the story and characters that I love. The first episode was released in December, but I only jumped on the bandwagon a few days ago. I tore through episodes 1, 2 and 3. Lucky for me, episode 4 was just released today (and yes, it’s finished already). Sadly, I probably now have about 6 weeks to wait before the 5th and penultimate episode.

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Mira Forrester is handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell

So I love love love playing this game…BUT (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

I started reading George R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series years ago, when the fourth book in the series had just been released. I read through them all in short order, then had another 5 or 6 years to wait for the next book. In the meantime, the TV show came about, and I enjoy that a lot as well.

The game fits in with the show, even with the same actors providing voices for their characters, and it begins the night of the Red Wedding (you know, when Robb and Catlyn Stark…you know). You get to play as several members of House Forrester, a family mentioned in passing in the books. Telltale gets the feel of Game of Thrones just right, which is amazing. However, this means the game has also inherited the same pitfalls as the book and TV show. Namely, an overwhelming sense of futility because EVERYTHING BAD THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN CAN AND WILL BEFALL ANY CHARACTER YOU CARE ABOUT.

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Ramsay Snow. Er, I mean Bolton! Lord Bolton!

Any time things start to look up for someone, anyone, you know things are about to get real ugly real fast. The problem with this being true in the game is that it takes away some of the fun of playing as the characters, knowing that whichever choices you make, terrible consequences are going to befall them no matter what. Do what you will in the game, everyone’s pretty much f****d anyway.

I still love this game. A lot. It just also drives me to drink, weeping into my glass as I drain it.

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Talia and Rodrick Forrester

Anyway. Thanks for letting me rave and rant for a bit. Now, as promised, I have work to do on The Prophecy!

Local Author Showcase at Barnes & Noble

On Thursday, May 7th I will be at the Barnes & Noble in Dewitt, NY from 6:00 to 7:30 PM for their Local Author Showcase! I was hoping to have The Prophecy published in time for the event, and although it doesn’t look like that will be happening, stop on by for a chat and to check out The Sentient as well as books from other authors in the area. Local bookworms, unite!