Completed Read Harder 2021

After a few touch and go weeks where I wasn’t sure if I was going to complete this Challenge for the second year running, I managed to pull it out at the end. 2021 turned out to be a year I read more than I have in several, and as usual this challenge helped round it.

Read Harder Challenge 2021

  1. Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read
  2. Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism
  3. Read a non-European novel in translation
    • Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, Margaret Sayers Peden (translator)
  4. Read an LGBTQ+ history book
  5. Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author
  6. Read a fanfic
  7. Read a fat-positive romance
  8. Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author
  9. Read a middle grade mystery
  10. Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color
  11. Read a food memoir by an author of color
  12. Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color
  13. Read a book with a cover you don’t like
  14. Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada
  15. Read a memoir by a Latinx author
  16. Read an own voices book about disability
  17. Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain
    • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon
  18. Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader
  19. Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist
  20. Read a book of nature poems 
  21. Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability 
  22. Read a book set in the Midwest 
  23. Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness 
  24. Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die 

Eva Luna (CBR13 #77)

Eva Luna

It has been a few years since I last tackled an Allende work, but with tasks in both the Read Harder and Reading Women challenges about translated works (the former asking for non-European novel in translation, the latter asking specifically for a book by a South American author in translation) I had the perfect excuse to move Eva Luna up my to read list.

The amount of emotion, detail, and characterization that Allende weaves into her writing is simply astounding. It always takes me a long time to work through her novels, but that is not a bad thing. There is so much history, allegory, and personal stakes woven into the story that you want to spend the time, you want to give the book its due. Like The House of the Spirits each paragraph, each page, and each chapter in Eva Luna need time to be digested and understood.

The book follows Eva from her earliest years, moving from Eva’s description of her mother’s life, and her own conception. Eva’s mother dies when Eva is still young, and she is forced to fend for herself. From there we follow Eva as she faces the death of her mother’s employer the Professor and is forced to move on and eventually stumbles her way into the care of La Señora, the owner of a brothel, and then eventually on to Agua Santa, and then back to the city where she reunites with Melecio, now known as Mimí and takes back up with Huberto Naranjo a leader of a guerrilla unit fighting a revolution. In typical Allende style the country remains unnamed, and it doesn’t matter.  As time goes on, Eva realizes that Huberto is not the man for her. Throughout the novel a parallel narrative is told: the life of Rolf Carlé. As Rolf grows up, he becomes interested in reporting news and becomes a leading journalist, shooting film footage from the front line. Rolf films the guerrillas, meeting Huberto, and later Eva.

Eva Luna easily finds its place in Allende’s works which all involve young women and misfits of society who search for truth and love all while combating class conflicts and oppressive governments. The picaresque is combined with magical realism in Eva Luna, in which the title character survives one crisis after another with the aid of unseen powers and the force of her own imagination. Eva’s ability to induce others with her stories is her gift to the world, helping her deal with the difficulties that many women, like herself, faced in a tyrannical and explosive political environment.

So You Want to Talk About Race (CBR13 #74)

So You Want to Talk About Race

I wish I felt better so I could really give So You Want to Talk About Race what it deserves, review-wise. The short review is if you haven’t already read this, you need to. Maybe you are like me and put it on your TBR right after its publication in 2018 and then it fell slowly down the list. Maybe you saw it on all of the recommended reading lists that proliferated in summer 2020 (A Reading List on Race for Allies, Antiracist Reading, Understanding and Dismantling Racism, 20 Books For 2020: A Reading List On Race In America) but it was just too heavy then, your brain could not do it as it battled the realities of pandemic and what it did to your reading (just me?) so you pushed if off again, promising yourself next year was the year.

Whatever the reasons to have not read it, or not re-read it recently, you need to make space for this one post haste. Ijeoma Oluo has an incredibly easy to read style, which is important when breaking down enormous topics like intersectionalism, privilege, and microaggressions and how to talk about them with others. Her messages are passionate, finely tuned, and crystalize ideas that could otherwise be vague but with compassion and the ability to turn her lived experience into universal moments of understanding. There are many reasons why Oluo’s work on race has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among many other publications and they are easy to see when you spend time with her words.

Purple Hibiscus (CBR13 #69)

Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age story and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s debut novel. It is the story of fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja who lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. In some ways they are completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, it is revealed rather quickly that things are less perfect than they appear. Although her Papa is generous and well respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home—a home that is silent and suffocating. As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent to their aunt, where they discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority.

The mechanics of Purple Hibiscus are very strong. The atmosphere of living with an abusive parent was captured well and the book is full of expressive prose that captures the emotional turmoil of adolescence. While the writing itself was excellent, I had a hard time with everything that those mechanics were meant to be delivering. It can be easy to be swept up in beautiful language but there was lurking here a hollowness that I couldn’t see past. The character of Kambili is the easiest place to explain the problem. I was made to feel sympathetic towards her (and her mother and brother), but it wasn’t because of a connection to them, but instead because of an understanding of the monster lurking in Kambili’s father that was never very far below the surface.

CW: miscarriages due to physical abuse (mostly off-page), spousal abuse, child abuse.

Reviewer’s note: it should be noted that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a history of anti-trans and pro TERF statements, including a defense of J.K. Rowling in late 2020. I have attempted to review this work without taking that knowledge into account, but it is likely that this is my last Adichie novel. While it is possible to separate the art from the artist, I find it difficult to do so in cases where the author is promoting views which are actively harmful to our trans and non-binary siblings.

Questionable Communications Skills series (CBR13 #68)

I have kept up with the fanfic habit I gained in 2020, although I have slowed down a bit, partly because my ability to focus on traditionally published books has increased, and partly because I have not been keeping up with one of the television shows that fed most of my 2020 consumption. But one of the wonderful things about fanfic is there is so bloody much of it that whatever small thought might be scratching at the back of your mind, or story thread you would love to see explored a bit further, it exists for you to find.

One of those story threads that jumped out to me earlier this year is the Sam and Bucky of it all at the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. Of the shows, it is my least favorite live action (I have major problems with What If that drop it right down to the very bottom of my personal rankings), but Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie have such good chemistry and at the end of the series I wanted more of that pairing being soft and fluffy together. So off to AO3 I went. I found what I was looking for by the truckload, and one of those is the ongoing series Questionable Communication Skills which takes a slightly skewed version of the characters we have seen on the show and movies (and one can only assume comics) and shows the ways these two characters can screw up basic communication, because feelings are hard.

Uploaded image

It’s grown over time, first arriving in late April 2021 as a place for the author to play around with some of the events we see in the show and all the side characters we see (and a few of their own creations) being nosy, gossipy shippers (like the rest of us). In the months that followed we have been treated to a full rundown of the pair working on their communication (119 posts worth so far as of this review), dealing with the public, getting together, Bucky getting a bestie who is also a newspaper reporter (she is great), the spider kids get involved… there is a lot happening. It is told in quick bursts, often posts are just a couple hundred characters long and are formatted to look like text messages or Instagram posts. Abhorsenbranwen also weaves in tons of easter eggs, New York, and Brooklyn specific history, and has been highly active in taking suggestions from the readership in how they progress the story, but also doing a commendable job not letting themselves be derailed, just sent down fun side paths. They’ve been playing around with established characters and spaces and giving us their own view, their own original characters, and at the end of the day a bit of fun.

Bucky and Sam in episode 6 of Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I started early on, within the first few posts, and it could be confusing at times since the individual works were not posted in chronological order. If you read now the posts have month and year headers to let you know where you are in the timeline, but it does still bounce around quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed this series a lot, and for many months waiting for the regular subscription alerts provided a much-needed endorphin hit – it turns out I do enjoy a bit of serialized fiction. I can’t say when or if more of this series is coming, odds are yes since abhorsenbranwen has indicated where their story is headed next in the notes of the latest post, but its from over a month ago.

As of December 18, 2021, Questionable Communication Skills has 119 works and is 125,621 words.

Resistance Reborn (CBR13 #62)

Resistance Reborn (Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker #1)

The reading experience of Resistance Reborn is a story of two halves for me. I enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’s writing, I find the way she uses a sparring amount of words to build a mood, and from a mood a setting to be incredibly effective. On the other hand, though, I wasn’t floored by the actual story covered within the pages of this book.

Broadly, in this novel, Poe Dameron, General Leia Organa, Rey, and Finn struggle to rebuild the Resistance after their defeat at the hands of the First Order in Star Wars: The Last Jedi after the defeat and narrow escape at Crait. We join action in progress as Dameron and the other members of Black Squadron defeat a small First Order force on the planet Ikkrukk but fail to gain it as an ally. Maz Kanata meets with Dameron on the planet Ephemera, but she also declines to join the Resistance, but she does share that those who would be potential allies across the galaxy are disappearing, often suddenly and without explanation.

From there we are introduced to the threads that make up the larger narrative. On Corellia, the planet’s shipyards have been turned over to the production of new ships for the First Order, using slaves, droids and political prisoners. Winshur Bratt, the executive records officer of the shipyards, is tasked by the First Order with accepting 15 political prisoners and hiding them within the shipyard workers’ population. The Millenium Falcon arrives on the planet Ryloth, where Leia calls on former Rebel allies, who take them in secretly. Yendor, the head of the Ryloth Defence Authority, agrees to hide the Resistance on Ryloth temporarily, allowing the Resistance to regroup, but they are immediately under threat from the First Order who is demanding payment from Ryloth or a blockade. Prisoners need to be freed, a base needs to be secured, and the Resistance needs to gather the people and supplies to continue the fight.

I probably would have liked this book more if I had read it before having seen The Rise of Skywalker, or even just closer to having seen it. This novel also ties the movies in with the Aftermath trilogy (which I haven’t read) and Bloodline (which I have). Wedge Antilles, Norra and Snap Wexley all have supporting roles, which was enjoyable but not enough to push this one above three stars for me.

Other Words for Home (CBR13 #59)

Other Words for Home

I read Jasmine Warga’s debut My Heart and Other Black Holes in 2016, and its one of the books that has stayed with me most as it contained some of the truest descriptions of being a teenager that I have ever read. When I was hunting for a book to fulfill the Muslim Middle Grade novel task for the Reading Women challenge and came across Warga’s name I decided that Other Words for Home would be the book I read, without looking any further into what the story actually contained. While a dangerous move, it was not a mistake.

Told in verse, Other Words for Home is Jude’s story. When things in her Syrian hometown start becoming unstable, Jude and her mother go to live near Cincinnati with her mother’s brother and his family, leaving behind her own father and older brother. Jude was happy in Syria and initially doesn’t want to make the move but promises to be brave. From there, the story traces Jude’s experiences in all that is new to her in the United States, from making new friends, living with whole new family, through to a school musical that Jude might just try out for.

This one is geared towards middle grade readers, but certainly not out of place on any grown-up’s shelves. This book tackles big things as it is set in the midst of the Battle of Aleppo (where Jude’s brother goes), and touches on prejudices against Muslims writ large and refugees and immigrants. Warga also doesn’t shy away from the way people, particularly white women, can choose to see choices that are not their own as not a choice at all.

I’m glad to have read this one, and not ashamed that it made me tear up several times, something I was not expecting in a novel in verse since I so often struggle with poetry.

“There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It is said about
the nicest
kindest
people.
The type of people
who help you
rise.”

If the Fates Allow (CBR13 #57)

If the Fates Allow: A Short Story

A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement on Rainbow Rowell’s Instagram that she was releasing a holiday short story this year and I rejoiced. I like Rowell’s short form work as much as I like her novel length ones. I’ve read Kindred Spirits, her 2016 take on fandom and waiting in line for Star Wars. Rowell also has holiday themed ones: Almost Midnight, 2017’s collection that includes both Kindred Spirits and Midnights. Midnights tracks a pair across several years’ worth of New Year’s Eves and 2019’s Pumpkinheads which is a delightful graphic novel that celebrates all things Halloween.

If the Fates Allow brings Reagan from Fangirl forward in time to now, including all the COVID-19 reality we’ve been living through the past nearly two years, and gives us a peek into her in her early 30s (I think, the math is throwing me a bit). Reagan is still just as kick-ass as she was when we first met her: she’s quippy and quick, she’s a bit of a misanthrope but she cares about the people who matter to her. In 40 pages we learn that social distancing came easily to Reagan (girl, I feel you). Maybe a little too easily (yep). But it’s Christmas 2020 and Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for his first Christmas as a widower, and like everyone else (who is properly isolating) he’s already spent too much time on his own. After quarantining for two weeks Reagan leaves Lincoln and heads back to her hometown to spend the holiday with him. What Reagan wasn’t expecting or planning for was to run into the boy next door. Mason’s family has lived next to her grandpa for years, and like Reagan he is all grown up now, not that Reagan can remember him from their shared years in high school. The person in front of her now is considerate and funny, and just the sort to put himself in a bit of danger to help someone who needs it.

In their short time together Mason’s warmth defrosts Reagan a bit. Not that he’s trying to, one of the things I liked best about Mason was that he wasn’t put out by how prickly Reagan is, in fact, he appears to like it (and perhaps always has). This is Rowell, she’s able to craft quality characters quickly and she deftly handles how COVID effected interacting with others, both those we know well and those we’re meeting again. I’m going with four stars for this because it wraps up a bit too quickly, and I didn’t feel like the first and second halves were balanced, but I was glad to have spent the time back in this fictional neck of the woods and I’m sure I’ll probably read it again before the end of the year.

(There’s also another check-in on Levi and Cath, like in Landline, and it made me smile to read it.)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb (CBR13 #54)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is Sebastian’s trade paperback debut and I’m excited for the people who get to discover her work with this outing. There were times during The Queer Principles of Kit Webb that I was reminded of the first Cat Sebastian I ever read (her debut) The Soldier’s Scoundrel. There’s a class difference, one character making their living on the wrong side of the law, and a major injury. Plus, I really, really liked it. Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the protagonists find their matches in their partners. We have two characters falling in love despite themselves, humor, and found family – which is catnip for me.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is set earlier in time than the other of Sebastian’s works that I’ve read. We’re in the mid-18th century, 50 years at least before the more common Regency era. I’m borrowing much of narfna’s plot summary since she nailed it and I’ve been struggling for a week to write a better one. We get our two heroes, the titular Kit Webb, a former infamous highwayman who is now retired due to a job gone wrong that left him disabled and with a dead partner. He now runs his coffee shop, once simply a front for his criminal activity it is now his entire life. When we meet him, he hasn’t much left its general environs in weeks. Next, we’ve got Edward Percival Talbot, Lord Holland, who goes by Percy. Percy has returned from the continent to several pieces of awful news not the least of which is that a blackmailer has surfaced with proof that his father the Duke is a bigamist, making his mother, his childhood best friend and now stepmother Marian (and there appears to be much drama there) victims, and himself and his new baby sister Eliza illegitimate. Marian and Percy have only a few months to concoct a plan to salvage their futures and punish Percy’s father. Marian is the brains of the operation and it’s her idea to hire Gladhand Jack, Kit’s alter ego, to rob the Duke, so that she and Percy can get the book they need for leverage. When Percy approaches Kit, it’s clear that his bad leg will make performing the robbery impossible, so instead, Kit offers to teach Percy to do it himself. From that point we watch as the two men are drawn to each other while Kit teaches Percy the skills he needs to commit the crime and Percy plans for his future. This outing also features Sebastian’s command of banter, her salty secondary characters and situational humor balances everything out.

Sebastian takes on the different elements of privilege that are tied up together and starts pulling them apart. In this case it’s how Kit and Percy are seen by the world around them– specifically in the ways they use artifice to hide. Class plays a significant role in the story, as Sebastian writes characters who are conscious of class – as the should be – and hinges much on characters moving up and down the social rungs and what life looks like when they do. I love Sebastian’s “eat the rich” mentality and how in this book she has Kit blatantly state it. It could be the thing that breaks these two characters of vastly different backgrounds, but it isn’t. Because Percy has come to agree that while the trappings of the wealth mean home to him, they are in fact not worth what they cost in terms of people’s suffering and use of resources. It is an example of how Sebastian uses her craft to create tension and release it without having to write a break-up at the 80% mark and I appreciate that about this book, much as I did with Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal.

The other is how she navigates the differing sexual identities of her two leads. Percy is pretty open about his only being attracted to men and finds himself a bit of a challenge in understanding Kit, who appears to be sexually interested in him, but does not act on it for a decent amount of the story. We the reader bounce between Kit and Percy’s viewpoints so we know that Kit is likely what we would now term a demisexual in that he feels sexually attracted to someone when he has an emotional bond with them as well as being bisexual having had a fulfilling sex life with his deceased wife. Kit’s need for emotional connection, and Percy’s relative inexperience in the emotional arena is the other tension point Sebastian works her characters through. I would have liked to see it get a little more conversational space in the story, but that even isn’t much of a complaint. I do wish I knew going in that there are significant portions of the narrative that are left on a cliffhanger, even though Kit and Percy find a way to be together even though they live in a society that has deemed it illegal.

In an interview Sebastian commented about writing to reflect identity and I find it instructive to understanding why Sebastian’s books work so well for me. “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better!”

Content notes (from the author): non-graphic violence (including gun violence), reference to past infant death, reference to character being imprisoned in the past, period-typical homophobia, explicit sex, alcohol use

Children of Monsters (CBR13 #53)

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators

I had been looking forward to this one for a while, and I’m bummed I didn’t enjoy the reading experience more. I know, you’re wondering what exactly I thought I’d be “enjoying” while reading about the titular “children of monsters” in Jay Nordlinger’s 2015 book. I find the human mind fascinating, and when it comes to some of the biggest “monsters” of the twentieth century, how much could be expected to travel from parent to child? I’m not sure Nordlinger is the author to write the kind of book I was actually looking for or expecting when I picked this up. I was on the hunt for a book that was a psychological study of these people, and the milieus they were developed in, but that is not really this book, unfortunately.

Structurally the book is comprised of biographies to tell a story through the historical narrative. Each chapter is a description of a dictator and his children. Nordlinger is obviously attempting to build a case for a handful of psychological profiles of the progeny of dictators. The problem is, it smacks of armchair psychology. Nordlinger states what seems right to him without considering empirical data, without accessing the larger body of psychological work. In fairness to the author, he does have a good amount of primary sources in the form of books and interviews with people in positions to know at least some of the truth, but it falls short.

One downside was the failure to define dictatorship at the start, the author decides what he wants a dictatorship to be for his needs and announces his loose organizational structure in the Foreword and jumps in. What becomes clear is that the dictators are cherry picked to suit a certain western audience. There was no mention of South American dictators which is a glaring omission. The other component is that dictators’ regimes are often hermit kingdoms, closed in many important ways to the outside world. Which made getting information for this book, and providing appropriate context difficult and made it even stranger that these 20 were chosen, or that it was 20 at all.

The author’s tone also threw me off, its both often too sympathetic towards people who have done terrible things as well as being very casual with the reader generally. The idea, I’m guessing, is to set up the experience like a conversation, but it just doesn’t quite hit the right balance in order to be approachable while also maintaining intellectual authority. By failing to maintain the balance the writing does not match the seriousness of the topic, nor does the book commit to being lighter pop history fare.