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: AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon

 

 

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

 

“All that was left were the taunts, and the crack of Scar’s knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything else, used her up and then was done.”

Well I thought this book was pretty great!

The setting is one thing that didn’t work all that well for me, as I never could grasp the details of the spaceship Matilda – its size and layout, the population aboard, how it sustained…well, everything. It runs on autopilot and (almost) no one is paying attention to its trajectory. We also never know how exactly it came to be that a society capable of launching a generation ship into space and sustaining its population for centuries had also managed to backtrack to the point of organizing society in a way just like that of the antebellum South.

But I was able to look past that and very much enjoyed the story set within those parameters. Aster, a black intersex autistic alchematician, is such a great character. Taking everything at face value, her authenticity is a delight. Her relationship with the Surgeon/the Hands of the Heavens/the queer ascetic bastard child of the former Sovereign and one of the black lowdeckers, is nothing short of wonderful. The plot of this story revolves around Aster following the clues left behind by the mother who died shortly after birthing her, the mechanic who may have found a way to leave Matilda behind and make it to a better world.

“A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost was not a person.”

This book was troubling to read at times, as it deals with abuses of nearly every kind. I actually choked up when Aster broke down, saying, ‘”Nobody is allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”‘ This in reference to her recent line of thinking about every living thing being owed the same basic respect.

“People like this guard tried so hard to make Aster feel lesser, but some days, like today, it didn’t work, because she saw clearly how superior she was.”

If you can suspend disbelief about the details of the setting, and you can stomach the non-gratuitous but plentiful scenes of violence and implied sexual assault, I recommend taking this journey with Aster. You might be surprised at where you wind up.

Book Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

jade city


Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

 

Color me impressed with my first encounter with Fonda Lee’s writing!

In Jade City, Lee does an incredible job creating a world that is wholly believable. She manages to flesh out the geography, culture, politics, commerce, international relations and religion of Kekon and its surrounds, without ever resorting to infodumping.

Jade City 02

Then she adds a dash of magic. In this world, jade can be used to amplify a person’s energy, focusing it into superhuman powers. Green Bone warriors train in martial arts with a twist, incorporating feats of Lightness, Strength, Deflection, Channeling and Perception. The result looked in my mind a bit like the fighting seen in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Against this lush backdrop Lee has painted for us is what is essentially a gangster family saga, with lots of East Asian influence. The Clan of No Peak is led by the Kaul family, while the Mountain Clan answers to a ruthless woman named Ayt Mada. Each group takes tribute from areas of the city of Janloon that it considers its own territory, in exchange for protection and endorsement. Each controls a significant portion of the nation’s most valuable commodity of jade. The characters on all sides of the conflict are pretty great, which is not to say they’re all good people.

Jade City 03

The most compelling relationships for me were the ones among the Kaul siblings. Lan, Hilo and Shae are as different as can be, but family still holds an implacable bond to the Kekonese, no matter how one might try to escape it.

“Screw you, Hilo,” she snapped. “I can kill my ex-boyfriends myself.”

If forced to come up with something I didn’t appreciate about this book, the only thing I can think of is my confusion over the apparent lack of cell phones. By all appearances Janloon is a modern place, with luxury vehicles and airports – but every time they use a phone, they need to first locate a landline, even when contacting one another with new developments can literally be a matter of life and death. This is as far as can be from a big deal for me, but it did pull me from the story long enough to stop and wonder.

Jade City is an adult fantasy novel with a bit of sex and a fair share of violence. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy, and tells of what amounts to the opening salvo in a larger war to come. I look forward to finding out what happens next with the clans of Kekon.

“All he knew now was that remorse had a natural limit. After a certain amount of time, it finished eating a person hollow and had to alchemize into anger that could be turned outward lest it consume its host entirely.”