Completed 2018 Read Harder Challenge

My Read Harder Challenge 2018 is complete with 24 hours to spare. I appreciate that these 24 tasks push me to consider what I am reading, and give me a way to prioritize my choices. Below are all the books which I have read as of December 30, 2018 in attainment of these various goals.

I haven’t decided if I will continue with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge in 2019. I know that I will be working towards Reading Women’s 2019 Challenge though. We’ll have to see what the new year brings.

The Turn of the Screw (CBR10 #64)

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This was the Read Harder 2018 task I was looking least forward to, and I managed to push it off until the last possible moment, but at least I am completing the challenge this year. Task 24 was to “read an assigned book you hated (or never finished)”. In reality I have very few books that I never completed, and the ones that I hated I don’t really feel emotionally prepared to ever read again (Beloved is a tough book, The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald can fuck right off, and I’ve already read Lord of the Flies three times and The Metamorphosis twice so I feel as though I have done my time). It took months before I realized that I had a book sitting on my shelf that I had taken from my mother because I intended to get back to it all along, and just hadn’t yet. It was time, 20 years later, to give The Turn of the Screw another chance.

It wasn’t this book’s fault I never read it when it was assigned my sophomore year of high school. I missed the week we covered it in English as I was attending my grandfather’s funeral and my teacher exempted me from the assignments surrounding it as long as I did other parts of the unit. But Henry James, and his influence, are everywhere in the literary world of trans-Atlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he knew and influenced nearly every major writer on either side of the Atlantic during the same time frame.

The story concerns an unnamed governess who finds a position caring for two children in the English countryside, eight-year-old Miles and six-year-old Flora. Both children are sweet, and the governess feels an instant connection with the precocious Miles. He is supposed to be at boarding school but was expelled for mysterious reasons. The governess can’t understand what a boy as angelic as Miles could possibly have done to get expelled so suddenly and irrevocably.

As she watches the children, she notices a man watching them from afar. He frightens her, and she discovers from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that this shadow matches the description of the master’s former valet, Peter Quint. The governess begins to see another ghost: Miss Jessel, her predecessor. The governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair, and that both died mysteriously and that the two may have had an inappropriate relationship with the children. She begins to suspect that the children see the ghosts, too, and that the ghosts are determined to corrupt the children somehow. She vows to save them from these spectral predators from beyond the grave.

There has been debate over the years about whether the ghosts are real, or the governess is slowly losing her mind. Another one posits that the true villain of the story might be Mrs. Grose. It’s possible that Mrs. Grose, disgruntled at losing her place as the children’s primary caretaker slowly drives the governess to madness by planting disturbing ideas in her mind. These all fit in with what James is known for: describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters and making use of a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid in the discussion of a character’s psyche. This is on full display with this novel – we are left to puzzle out what we think is really happening, and the novel can be viewed from any number of vantage points. Its no wonder the ambiguity of his late works have been compared to impressionist paintings.

As far as the novel is concerned, I don’t think it has quite the same shock value it had when it was first published, but it still maintains an eerie quality. If gothic literature or classic ghost stories are your thing than you might want to add this to your list is you haven’t yet, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone else.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We begin our ELEVENTH year in the coming days and are always looking for new readers who want to review what they’ve read and help us raise money to say “fuck you” to cancer.

Reaper Man (CBR10 #63)

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Its been quite awhile since I read my last Discworld novel, but I wanted to read Hogfather this year (a goal I will be missing by a few days, but I’ve got it out from the library) and my need to read the various subseries in their orders meant I decided to go back and pick up where I left off with Death. I found myself with Reaper Man (and Soul Music) in my to read queue. Death (in all caps) is a loveable character through and through so I didn’t mind at all taking a side trip to get to my eventual destination.

Reaper Man chronicles what happens when Death is forced into an early retirement and all of the life forces of those who die before the new Death is online get backed up in Ankh Morpork. Taking us through that vein of the story is Windle Poons and everything else that has died since Death lost his job. The novel turns into an ever-escalating mass of controlled chaos where metaphors become reality, cities lay eggs, and swear words pop into physical existence as twittering, flying creatures. Thi certainly isn’t a treatise on the human experience (although my gut instinct is that taken together Discworld is) it does say some very specific (and hilarious) things about the human condition.

However, about a third to a full half of the book didn’t work well for me. I liked Windle Poons fine, particularly after he comes back to the world undead and in search of answers, but the madcap adventures of the Unseen University staff fighting off the trolleys and everything else popping to life from the extra life force hanging around left me feeling flat. I’m not really worried though, Death and his newish personality are a delight, as is the Death of Mice.

 

“LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?”

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We will be beginning our ELEVENTH year in a few days and we are always looking for new reviewers who want to read and review and say “fuck you” to cancer.

Calling Me Home (CBR10 #62)

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There are few things more disappointing than a book you had high hopes for letting you down. I really wanted to like this one, but the writing bothered me too much. The story is fine, not great but fine. There were a lot of stereotypical plot contrivances along the way. There were several times I rolled my eyes; popular media needs to stop perpetuating lazy stereotypes.

So, what is the story about? After hearing  a story how her grandmother fell in love with a young black man when she was a teenager author Julie Kibler took that inspiration and wrote a book about how that may have played out. We meet Isabelle McAllister as an elderly woman living alone in Texas and as the story unfold, we learn in flashbacks about Isabelle’s teenage years in small-town Kentucky in the 1930s, and the impossible romance that develops between her and Robert Prewitt, the son of her family’s housekeeper. The secondary story is that of Dorrie Curtis, a single mother in her thirties and Isabelle’s present day hair stylist. In much the same way we learn about teenage Isabelle in her POV chapters we also learn some of the details of Dorrie’s life and the relationship between the two women, despite their different ages and races in her POV sections. Together, they are on a cross-country road trip to a funeral where the great reveal of Isabelle’s past will come to light.

Like I said before, the writing itself bothered me. I’m not a first-person lover, but I’ve warmed to it over time, however, deployed in less than spectacular ways it can become clunky and that is exactly what listening to this audiobook felt like. This book used a lot of informal speech instead of actual descriptions, which misses the beauty possible in describing feelings and situations when a story is told well in first person.  Structurally the flashback chapters are set up to be Isabelle telling Dorrie about her past in detail, but tonally it didn’t land. I found myself waiting desperately to get back to the Dorrie chapters to recap the Isabelle ones and move the plot forward.

It felt as if the author wanted to cram a ton of issues into one book simply because there were big issues surrounding the meat of her story. Some of the events—the bigotry, threats, and brutality—are familiar and predictable and I can see why that would appeal to most readers. Unfortunately, I am not most readers.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Want to join us in sticking it to cancer one book at a time? Registration for our ELEVENTH year is now open. 

City of Ghosts (CBR10 #61)

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I read a bit of YA, but middle grades is not something I usually think to pick up, or even necessarily think of as a distinct genre. But as is often the case in my reading diet of the past few years the Read Harder Challenge had a task that needed sorting. Enter Leedock and her review of City of Ghosts – the perfect book to fulfill the “read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series”.

Now is when I admit to having never read a Victoria (or V.E. as she is sometimes known) Schwab book before.  She’s relatively well-reviewed around Cannonball Read and now that I’ve been initiated I can see why. Her writing is inventive and immediately sets the reader into her world. In the case of City of Ghosts we’re joining Cass and her best friend Jacob (who is a ghost, by the by) as the easy summer vacation at the beach away from the tap tap tap of ghosts on the otherside of the Veil is replaced by a family trip to Edinburgh, Scotland so Cass’s parents (writers of a series of books about paranormal happenings and ghost myths) can host a new travel show about the most haunted places in the world (an easy series maker, that).

The only thing keeping this from having been a one sitting read is that I was falling asleep the first night I picked it up and no amount of page-turning writing was going to keep me awake. The next time I sat down with the book I was however sucked in, and since this is a book aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although I think Schwab slightly missed the mark on this, it reads more 12 to 14 to me edging into the YA zone) I plowed through the adventures Cass and Jacob get into and the new friends they meet, and new dangers they find. The book was both a good story and a good book for building a reader’s skills – truly what I’m looking for in books aimed at this age range.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. You can join our bunch of ragtag readers and reviewers and help us raise money for the American Cancer Society. Every little bit helps, and goals of 13, 26, or 52 are available!

The Escape (CBR10 #60)

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I have a library hold backlog gathering on my kitchen table, so I decided best plan was to knock out a few quick reads and hopefully catch up. Part of the backlog is a few of The Survivors’ Club books by Mary Balogh. I enjoyed The Proposal and The Arrangement earlier this year and had immediately put holds on the rest of the series. In typical me fashion I was nervous about the next book, The Escape, when I wrote my review for The Arrangement (as I was nervous about the focus of The Arrangement when I finished The Proposal) but I should learn to just stop being nervous – Balogh seems to have everything well in hand.

The Escape is the story of Benedict Harper (referred to as Ben throughout) and Samantha McKay. They each have their own share of suffering – he lost full use of his legs as well as many other injuries in battle and she has spent the past five years nursing her dying husband. After said husband’s death, Samantha is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws with her sister in law Matilda running her life and enforcing the strictest type of mourning. Samantha wants to live, and the burgeoning friendship with Ben and his sister provides an outlet, until Matilda returns home to her parents and they demand Samantha remove to their home where they can enforce a “proper” mourning. Desperate, Samantha plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Ben insists that he escort her on the journey, both based on his gentlemanly responsibilities and the niggling flirtation he can’t quite leave be (equal parts glad to have a return of sexual desire after six celibate years but aware that it is entirely inappropriate to have said feelings for a widow a mere four months into mourning).

Over the next several weeks of travel and relocation to Wales, Ben admits to himself how much he wants Samantha, and she invites him to share a weeklong affair before they separate forever.  Romance novels being what they are, they continue to fall quietly and deeply in love. Mary Balogh’s common theme of broken people fitting their pieces together means that Ben and Samantha find much more in their relationship than they had ever expected, but that doesn’t mean that the timing is right or that it is going to work. Since Balogh characters are always sensible and wonderfully grown up Ben does leave at the end of the week, but a way back is set up.

I was surprised how much I felt for Ben and Samantha, for their pain and their struggles, their commitment to doing what was right, to being together, but making sure Samantha wouldn’t be stained by rumor. Ben and Samantha each had full character arcs separate from the romance storyline and I grew incredibly fond of both of them. Balogh lays in references to the previous two books, giving us a sense of time and pulling the various characters together to set us off on the back half of the series. I have the next two books here at the house; we’ll see when I get to them.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Career of Evil (CBR10 #59) (reread)

 

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Because my brain doesn’t seem to hold onto the details of mystery books the story is often new to me again. This time I didn’t have that experience though, I had already binged the BBC adaptation of the books, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with the characters. Once again Career of Evil is Rowling writing an intricate, but not unsolvable, mystery where the clues are right there in front of you, and even if you don’t catch the signs along the way, the resolution make sense after the big reveal.  This story dials down its setting and pace to the precision of a master craftsperson, making a long book covering several months move quickly and evenly to its eventual crescendo.

In my first reading of Career of Evil, I pulled apart the ways that sexism and misogyny were being examined and in this reading I saw more details Rowling was using in setting up those subtexts. This book remains explicitly and implicitly about misogyny. Rowling uses the sexism of daily life and the many incidental ways woman are made to suffer and are put at risk by the world we live in to create a looming sense of dread throughout the novel. It is also a discussion of prejudicial treatment of women both casual and pervasive. Rowling places us into the minds of the men who are in the wrong, from the story’s main antagonists (including a serial killer who objectifies women); to Strike himself, a man who tries to be good and still ends up short sometimes; and Matthew’s very real internalization of white male privilege and co-dependence we take a tour of what must be endured and hopefully conquered by women every day. All of this is before we even dig into the mystery at hand or how it relates to Cormoran’s military past.

As I discussed in my The Silkworm reread review, I had previously missed that Rowling had taken what I assumed to be a non-critical character in Charlotte and instead used her as a foil for a larger conversation. Instead of merely painting a picture of Cormoran’s past (as I thought she was there to do) she was really a comparison point to Matthew. In The Silkworm Rowling as Galbraith was gently showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive. Even though Charlotte does not appear in this book (except in a memory of Robin’s) her relationship with Cormoran is echoed in Matthew’s relationship with Robin. As I knew what to be looking for this time through I was more and more unsettled by how toxic, but entirely typical, Robin and Matthew’s relationship is (I also know that I am bringing some very personal baggage to the table here, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate).  We are supposed to see familiar behaviors and themes and gradually understand them to be the destructive forces they are. It works brilliantly layered in against the more obvious violence and abusive behaviors of other romantic partners in the book.

The other thing I didn’t talk about in my original review of Career of Evil that I’d like to this go round is Shanker. All of the character history I had assumed would only come from Charlotte is eclipsed by the revelations surrounding the character of Shanker. There’s something about the personal moral compass of Shanker (and his insistence that everyone pays for his services, regardless of history, loyalty, or friendship) that speaks to me. He lives his life on the wrong side of what most people would consider correct, but he is steadfastly about something, and often that something is something commendable, if gotten to in less than legal ways. Some of my favorite parts of the book include Shanker and I simply found him to be delightful.

I don’t know how the smile Robin gives the battered Strike while saying ‘I do’ to the ever-more-hated Matthew is going to play out, and now that the fourth book is finally out my waiting on the cliffhanger is almost over. I am however glad that I decided to read these books again before digging into Lethal White, if only to make sure then many moving parts are clear in my mind’s eye.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.