Completed Read Harder Challenge 2019

Just under the wire, I’ve finished my fifth Read Harder Challenge. I’ll be doing the 2020 challenge (I spent awhile today sorting out which books I’ll be reading for half of the tasks. But first: my Read Harder Challenge 2019 completed tasks

  1. An epistolary novel or collection of letters
  2. An alternate history novel
  3. A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
    • We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature)
    • Normal People by Sally Rooney (Costa Book Award – Novel)
    • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (NAIBA Book of the Year for Fiction, Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction)
  4. A humor book
  5. A book by a journalist or about journalism
  6. A book by an AOC set in or about space
  7. An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
  8. An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
  9. A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads
  10. A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
  11. A book of manga
  12. A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
  13. A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
  14. A cozy mystery
  15. A book of mythology or folklore
  16. An historical romance by an AOC
  17. A business book
  18. A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
  19. A book of nonviolent true crime
  20. A book written in prison
  21. A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
  22. A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
  23. A self-published book
  24. A collection of poetry published since 2014

Like Water for Chocolate (#65)

Like Water for Chocolate

I’ve missed the cutoff for CBR11, but I did read one more book which fulfills task 7: read an #ownvoices book for Mexico or Central America for Read Harder 2019. I revisited Like Water for Chocolate and while it is both better than I remembered, it is also less satisfying.

I read this in high school, closer to its publication 25 years ago. It was my first foray into magical realism and I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time. In the intervening two decades I’ve expanded my reading (looking at you, Allende) and now my brain knows how to process the story more easily.

I don’t know how I feel about the resolution here. I never felt any connection to Pedro and Tita as a couple, or really to Pedro at all. So as much as I was invested in Tita, I never really sunk into the entirety of Esquivel’s narrative, even though it is so much more than just these two. The descriptions of life, and food, and home in this book are worth the reading – as are the recipes spread across the chapters which are broken up to match the months of the year.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing (CBR11 #64)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

I don’t read all that much alternative history, so it took a bit of digging through my to read list in order to find something to read for Read Harder’s Task 2. But, sure enough I had one and while I let it sit to very late (although not the latest on my to read list for this year’s challenges) it was an enjoyable, if slightly unexpected, read.

For plot summary purposes I’m going to borrow from Goodreads, since I’m not sure I could do it more succinctly:

“Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved, not by the cost of blood and theft but by effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a novel of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world. Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.”

For the first 65 pages of this one confused as to some of the mechanics of Johnston’s story. The chapters are broken up with interstitial tidbits that after that mark do a great job expanding the universe of the story and layering in details that help build the narrative but up to that point are hinting at a hidden plot point but instead confuses matters. Once Johnston gets out of her own way there (really, if she had saved the text message chats for slightly later or broken them up with the more world building stuff it would have been better) things progress well. The next 200 pages go great, characters are well developed, the world continues to solidify, and Johnston very deliberately plots out an incredibly diverse and inclusive world. And then… the final 60 or so pages wrap up too quickly. It’s a bit of a spoiler to discuss what about the ending didn’t work for me so if you keep reading it’s on you…

…. seriously…

… I am on board with the polyamorous relationship as the solution to these characters wants and responsibilities. What I wanted to hit my head against the table about was the combined choice of not laying in more track for August’s attraction to Margaret or giving August more hesitation about the proposal being made to him by Helena and Margaret. We see on page why this marriage and court position work for the women, and why they would concoct it, but we aren’t given enough of August’s inner choice about becoming the prince consort.

With all that I’m still rounding this up to four stars, because what Johnston gets right, she gets very right. I would love more books in this universe, and I’m even more interested in her other works than I was before.

Completed 2019 Reading Women Challenge

This year I actually managed to complete this challenge. I’ve peaked at the 2020 list and it looks a bit intimidating but once more into the breach!

Here we go:

All books read for this challenge must be by or about women.

  1. A mystery or thriller written by a woman of color
  2. A book about a woman with a mental illness
  3. A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand
  4. A book about or set in Appalachia
  5. A children’s book
  6. A multigenerational family saga
  7. A book featuring a woman in science
  8. A play
  9. A novella (A novella is a text of fictional, narrative prose between 17,500 and 40,000 words)
  10. . A book about a woman athlete
  11. A book featuring a religion other than your own
  12. A Lambda Literary Award winner
  13. A myth retelling
  14. A translated book published before 1945
  15. A book written by a South Asian author
  16. A book by an Indigenous woman
  17. A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award shortlist
  18. A romance or love story
  19. A book about nature
  20. A historical fiction book
  21. A book you bought or borrowed in 2019
  22. A book you picked up because of the cover
  23. Any book from a series
  24. A young adult book by a woman of color


The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (CBR11 #63)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

While I like to think of myself as generally well-read there are definite gaps in the more classic authors of certain genres. Authors I enjoy, including Neil Gaiman, have pointed to Angela Carter as an immense influence on their own work. Thankfully someone had gifted The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories to me a few years ago. The stories in the collection share a theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales and Carter toys with Gothic fiction and gender, utilizing classic Gothic symbolism to push the narrative forward. These short stories emphasize terror and the gruesome, in order to build an atmosphere, while also working to flip certain gendered tropes on their heads. My quick assessment is: sometimes it worked too well and I didn’t care to continue.

A bit of digging around tells me that Carter’s fairy tale retellings are well known for being feminist. And I have to admit that while the stories didn’t always feel modern forty years after their initial publication, that doesn’t mean that Carter wasn’t doing important work that pushes us to work like Her Body & Other Parties. Carter’s feminism is tinged with wanting women to seize what they needed—power, freedom, sex—and seeing no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that. In The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories Carter examines the traditional stories we tell through that lens, but it can mean that her female characters fall flat, or feel a bit one dimensional – she doesn’t allow her heroines much softness or weakness.

I find myself simultaneously running hot and cold with this collection. I appreciate the duality of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, “The Tiger’s Bride”  and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, wherein she gives us the original ending where the beast transforms and also a reversal as the heroine transforms into a glorious tiger who is the proper mate to the Beast, who will from now on be true to his own nature and not disguise himself as a human. I can also trace the Gothic symbolism latent in “The Bloody Chamber,” as emphasis is placed on images of the ominous castle, the blood on the key, or a blood-red choker awarded the heroine as a wedding gift foreshadowing the story to come. However, I found the story itself dreadfully boring.

Carter doesn’t seem to have cared much about character development or plot, and instead focuses on emotion and creating images in the reader’s mind. Her technique and craft support her ability to do just that, leave sentences burned on the mind, so while this isn’t for me at the end of the day I was happy to pass it along to another friend whom I think might enjoy it much more.  

A Match Made for Thanksgiving & A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas (CBR11 #61-62)

A Match Made for Thanksgiving (Holidays with the Wongs, #1)

We’ve reached the time of year where I usually plow through a couple holiday romance novellas while traveling and wind up my Cannonball year. I’ve read two such novellas (and have emmalita to thank for getting them on my radar) and I couldn’t be happier about it. It has also added a new to me author to my buy list so thank goodness I just got a gift card for books in my work Secret Santa!

A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas (Holidays with the Wongs, #2)

A Match Made for Thanksgiving and A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas are the first two books in Jackie Lau’s Holidays with the Wongs series. I love the conceit of these novellas; there are four Wong children, all unattached, and their parents and grandparents hatch a plan to set them up with potential partners at (Canadian) Thanksgiving. Lau is writing the types of books she (and I) wants to see – holiday romances featuring people of color. I’ve read several romances featuring people of color this year and was happy to add two more to the list, specifically to check off my unofficial holiday tradition.

Of the two I preferred A Match Made for Thanksgiving over A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas, but both were very solid novellas. In Match we are with Nick Wong, fancypants advertising executive and Lily Tseng who is looking to try new things coming out of a period of complacency in her life. One of those new things is a one-night stand with Nick, whom she runs into the next weekend at his family’s Thanksgiving as the blind date of his older brother Greg.  In what is really a masterstroke of plotting Lau has Mrs. Wong and Ah Ma set up the blind dates based on romance novel tropes and then goes ahead and unpacks different tropes then what the “match” had been. I hooted with laughter when Ah Ma explained their reasoning to the table of Wongs and their blind dates.

What I liked best about Match is that the “obstacle” in the way of this relationship was hurdled early which gave us a chance to see the pair grow past it and into a functional relationship which showed growth for both parties.  Which is probably why I liked Second Chance a little less, as the obstacle is resolved much closer to the ending. We get Lau playing with the second chance (its right there in the title) and one bed tropes in this one and those also aren’t really my favorites but Lau did manage to make me care if Greg managed to rekindle in Tasha the feelings they had for each other fifteen years ago and possibly try again, and that’s what I’m looking for in a romance at the end of the day – to care.

Up next is A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year which is being published in two weeks (and already on my CBR12 list) and a novella set for Valentines Day featuring the sole Wong sister. I’m looking forward to both immensely.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (CBR11 #60)

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

I definitely only picked this up because I was a recommended selection for Read Women challenge task 4 – read a book about or set in Appalachia. I was hoping to find something fictional, but here we are. Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is written as a rebuttal to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book I have not read and have no intention of reading. Watching from the cheap seats I’ve seen Elegy get pulled apart as Vance’s inconsistencies and frankly racist sources get exposed. While it is certainly a memoir, it isn’t a reliable history.

Which brings me to my only major detraction when it comes to What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte wrote this riled up in the immediate aftermath of her home territory getting labelled “Trump Country”. Catte refutes Vance and his warped picture of Appalachia (which it should be noted is not a new warped view, it’s the same old same old that was used to get affluent whites to care about poverty in the 1930s and later and edges into eugenics) by bringing in a more well rounded account of modern Appalachia. But that doesn’t prevent her from running over to polemic instead of social history on occasion. Catte doesn’t pretend that the negative parts of Appalachia don’t exist, she instead unpacks all the ways that those negative aspects have been oversold and used to erase the other more multicultural and middle-class stories that exist.

This is a good, dense, read and the bibliography alone is worth a look. The U.S. is a big, complex place and the overarching narratives of our regions need to be unpacked and this book certainly does that.

The Princess Saves Herself in This One (CBR11 #59)

The Princess Saves Herself in This One (Women Are Some Kind of Magic, #1)

In my review of Crimes of the Heart I took a potshot at Poetry as a genre, mostly because it has had a high barrier of entry to me in the past (graphic novels/comics has been my other major hurdle) but in fairness I have gotten better at finding poetry that works for me in at least part due to all the reading challenges I do that require poetry. In 2018 I read two collections I quite enjoyed, No Matter the Wreckage and Depression & Other Magic Tricks. I’m happy to add Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in This One to the list of contemporary poetry collections that really work for me.

Lovelace’s work shares being subject driven with Kay’s No Matter the Wreckage, this is Lovelace’s personal history writ large in a slim volume. It is also quite like Benaim’s Depression & Other Magic Tricks I felt seen, I felt that the person writing these poems experienced the world in a way recognizable to me.  I’m finding that poetry that shows the author processing themselves and putting what they find back out into the universe so we can know that we aren’t alone is the stuff that really works for me.

The biggest things structurally that work for me in her work is the way she plays with mechanics. Like Katsings said in her review, Lovelace’s work is sometimes reminiscent of e .e. cummings, another favorite of mine. The writing is often sparse, but in a beautiful way that helps you sink into your own mental reactions. There were so many lines and phrases that I loved as I went through that I had trouble keeping track to decide which to include. This collection also contains my favorite poem that I’ve found in the wild over the past couple years and I had no idea. This book and I were meant to cross paths.

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Crimes of the Heart (CBR11 #58)

I hate reading plays. I HATE IT. We don’t expect people to have great literary experiences reading movies scripts, but we do with plays. I do reading challenges every year (this one is for Reading Women) for the express purpose of making my reading more diverse so I’m not going to let plays defeat me is poetry hasn’t in years past. But I did no enjoy a single minute of it.

I’m still rating this three stars because it isn’t the play’s fault I’m not the right reader.

Crimes of the Heart is a drama in three acts that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981 (see – I’m likely the problem here, it was also nominated for the Tony in 1982 and turned into a movie in 1986 that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen). It is set in a small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and scrutinizes the lives of three sisters who have gathered at home to deal with fallout of their lives. Over the course of the play (about two days) the sisters unearth grudges, criticize each other, reminisce about their family life, and attempt to understand their mother’s suicide years earlier.

Henley created three strong, yet emotional unstable characters in Lenny, Meg, and Babe. Each sister has faced her share of hardships during her life, specifically their mother’s suicide from which none has completely recovered twenty years later. Coping in their own way by becoming a caregiver, running away, or marrying the town bigwig, each sister deals with the loss of their parents uniquely, but they learn that its easier faced together. I just wish that I cared while reading.

The Austen Playbook (CBR11 #57)

Lucy Parker is an auto buy author for me, one of very few. The stories she is telling in her London Celebrities series use the extravagant backdrops of theatre, television, and movies to tell small scale, human love stories. I am an unabashed fan of Romance books – I am here for the guaranteed happy ending – and Parker is perhaps the most reliable author I’m reading right now.

There is a lot of plot packed into this one. We meet Frederica “Freddy” Carlton and James “Griff” Ford-Griffin as the latter is recounting one of his more critical analyses of the former’s current performance in London’s West End. Freddy agrees with Griff’s assessment and begins to mentally work through what would make her happy and bring back the spark to her performances. A few months later Freddy takes the role of Lydia Bennet in The Austen Playbook which is being rehearsed and performed at Griff’s family estate in the very theatre that Griff’s grandfather built for Freddy’s grandmother during their tumultuous affair.

Freddy comes from a centuries long family dynasty of actor’s and her grandmother expanded the family business into playwriting – producing one of the most studied plays of the past century. Griff’s family has fallen on a bit of tough financial times as large English estates simply eat money and Griff’s parents spend wildly, seeming not to realize that the money is coming to an end. Doing his best to help, Griff’s brother brokers a deal to host The Austen Playbook production for a cut of the profits while Griff is working diligently to bring the story of Henrietta and her play to film. However, a budding attraction that is blossoming into something more between our leads is far from the biggest problem facing them across several avenues.

The Austen Playbook has many, many things I enjoy. We’ve got a grumpy hero who never smiles, a witty heroine who is a ball of energy, so much banter, sexy times, a bit of soulful pining, two meddling troublesome families, and good old-fashioned shenanigans. While it is lacking in Austen tropes; it does have the backbone of Austen’s works in the background. Its difficult to pick a favorite of Parker’s books, but this one might be it. I think I need to revisit them to make a firm decision, but this is the only one I’ve rated five stars on Goodreads. I am now excitedly waiting for book five, Headliners, to arrive next month because after the events of the end of this book Parker gave herself quite the mountain to climb, but emmalita’s review of the ARC tells me she succeeded once again.