Hops and Skips

Book Riot’s 2019 “Read Harder Challenge”: Halfway There!

One of my previous blogging lives was writing about the books I read, and for a period of time about a decade ago, I did it with such dedication and enthusiasm that I had a steady stream of review copies sent to me from publishers. That phase, like so many in my life, of course fizzled out as life shifted paths and priorities changed, but I do still miss writing about my reading. It was a way to help me read deeper, with more purpose, and actually remember what I read, instead of just blowing through one book after another. It was kind of like a level of accountability I required of myself, and I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve referenced those blog posts for one thing or another.

When I decided to broaden my online writing earlier this year, one of the things I said I’d write about would be books, so here we go. It’s halfway through 2019, and I’ve successfully stayed “on schedule” with this year’s Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, which I spoke of back in January. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading.

[Note: I’m sharing in the order in which I’ve read, and the “category number” corresponds to the official Read Harder Challenge list. I’m just sharing my quick thoughts, but click on the book title or cover for a link to its Goodreads page for a full synopsis.]

#19 A book of non-violent true crime
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
A little bit of mystery, a little bit of social psychology. This attempts to explain why people (these people, in particular) behave the way they do, and it’s fascinating to consider the complexities and influences behind both individuals and societies. I wrote about this one in depth, as it was the first I read for this challenge, so you can reference that additional commentary if you’d like.

#2 An alternate history novel
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I should’ve written about this immediately after reading, because it’s hard to conjure up my initial reaction six months later. Vivid, gut-wrenching writing. There’s a bit of a fantastical element to the plot structure, but it by no means detracts from, or alters, the impact of the real and true historical events that this story aims to represent. This one was heavy, definitely “literary” in nature, as it is certainly worthy of a deeper read, and analysis, and consideration.

#7 An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erica L. Sánchez
The first YA book (or, actually, any book) I’ve read in a while that I ADORED, and I didn’t even realize it was categorized as “young adult” until I checked it out from the library. Fantastic story with loads of different story elements – mystery, family drama, mental health, coming-of-age. I can’t recall another book I’ve read with a narrator like this one. She’s frequently sarcastic, often grumpy, and sometimes just downright unlikeable, but she’s also refreshingly honest. A compelling, unique voice for an engaging story.

#3 A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A novel in verse with writing SO GOOD it’s a shame I didn’t annotate all the good stanzas and phrases as I read. I feel like conflict and uncertainty based around religious identity are less common in youth literature, but this was very much a key element to the narrator, Xio’s, story.  She’s strong, but conflicted, and doesn’t necessarily lack confidence. Most of Xio’s conflicts were internal, instead of external, and it was refreshing to read a story in which the character’s growth is not just dependent on other people’s opinions.

#1 An epistolary novel or collection of letters
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This novel is quiet. Observational. Reflective. Some of Ames’ meditations are heavy, getting at the foundation of human psyche and emotion or the collective norms of a community. Some are quaint musings, like the word “old” used as a term of adoration instead of descriptor. The reader gets a lot of Ames’ personal history but also a lot on the stories of his neighbors and congregants. You see how even a minister, this oft-perceived expert on morality and belief, can be conflicted, and no part of living is simply black or white.

#21 A comic by an LGTBQIA creator
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
This was one of our annual Battle of the Books titles for middle schools in our district, which makes me so proud to work in a place that supports and promotes diverse voices for our young readers. The story shatters gender roles and stereotypes with a story that doesn’t even read like it’s trying hard to do so intentionally. It’s got a fairy-tale vibe and tone, and the characters succeed because they bring out the best in each other. You can’t beat that message.

#4 A humor book
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
I’d never read Sedaris, and I figured why not complete the category with one of its gold-standard authors? I find most humor essay compilations to be hit or miss, and this was no different. His sense of humor is very dry and often cynical, and though I LOLed at a few parts, most of the rest was mildly amusing at best. It makes me kind of wonder if I’m missing half the joke, since everything Sedaris writes seems to be so beloved by the masses. But then I also start to wonder if maybe everyone is actually just faking it so as not to feel so witlessly left out.

#22 A children’s or middle grade (not YA) book that has won a diversity award since 2009
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
The cover art totally brands this as a likely light-hearted middle school read, but it’s actually pretty heavy – good for shining light on diverse stories and perspectives to an age group that easily gets trapped in their immediate environment. The story has a lot of tension, and it was easy to sympathize with the main character, a preteen girl who’s getting an early, nasty taste of racism and economic inequality. Like most books written for this target demographic, despite touching on darker subjects, the light shines through by the end, reminding readers that there is good in the world.

#12 A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
The Travelling Cat Chronicles
by Hiro Arikawa
A story told from a pet’s perspective has potential to be as saccharine as a cloying Disney movie, but this is definitely not that. To me, this is perfectly reflective of Japanese culture, on a larger scale – precise, poetic, reserved. There was a great deal of thought put into how a cat is going to narrate such a complex experience as sharing one’s life with another. The writing was deeply emotional without succumbing to banal descriptions. Beautifully executed, the kind of book that causes a deep sigh and smile upon completion.

#13 A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
If you don’t know what “neurodiverse” means, well neither did I; I had to Google it. Apparently “neurodiversity” is the recognition of variations in the brain that cause often-stigmatized conditions, like autism, ADHD, depression, dyslexia, etc. Books by or about characters that are “neurodiverse” intend to erase some of that stigma by sharing stories and experiences that highlight the vast variety of the human (brain) experience. My choice was a YA book, and I LOVED it. Not only does it feature “neurodiversity,” it gives the voice of a condition (in this case, depression) to a narrator that isn’t often represented in this regard – a non-white young MAN. But even though I read this for its “neurodiverse” facets, it still wasn’t a book about depression. It’s a whole-picture experience, if that makes sense, demonstrating how everyone is a multi-faceted individual with many issues, and, really, we can all relate to each other.

#18 A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
George by Alex Gino
The reading level is low, on the elementary level, and the plot seems to follow that same level of simplicity. But the elements of that plot carry a much higher level of complexity. For many young readers, this could very well be their first encounter with a transgender experience, and I think it’s perfectly executed for a young audience. It describes the isolation and confusion of George, a student born a boy who knows she is a girl. Pronoun use is purposeful in this book, an important message to readers, and I was impressed the author didn’t shy away from addressing the complexities of identity faced by George, just because they’re writing for a young audience.

#17 A business book
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
I somehow got sucked into the Theranos story via a rabbit hole of internet articles, so I was very excited to read this thorough account. The story itself is incredible, and frankly I’m puzzled as to how I missed it all as it unfolded in real time. It’s one that demands an in-depth play-by-play, and fortunately that’s what Carreyrou has provided. To some, the writing may feel superfluously detailed, but these details are necessary because they slowly and methodically paint the picture of just how many layers there were to this ruse. Problems were constantly solved with band-aids, and new band-aids to fix those band-aids, and eventually there were just so many balls in the air, it was inevitable they all came crashing down. SUCH a compelling story.

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