Read Harder Challenge 2020 Retrospective

Read Harder Challenge 2020 Retrospective

My retrospective of BookRiot's Read Harder Challenge 2020.

Background

I enjoy reading: reading lets me imagine what life is like for different people, lets me hear stories different from my usual life, lets me learn and grow from the author's experiences.

I keep a list of books I've read. A few years ago I ran some statistics, and discovered that I was overwhelmingly reading books from male authors, overwhelmingly based in UK/USA. People like myself. I was surprised: I hadn't set out to restrict the authors I read, I'd just gone with the flow, and just hadn't tried very hard to look for different authors.

If my goal with reading is to hear different stories, by listening to such a narrow population of authors, I was probably missing out.

I wanted to grow the set of authors and genres that I read, but I didn't really know how. I found a few reading challenges online, and decided on:

BookRiot's Read Harder Challenge

BookRiot is a site dedicated to promoting diverse reading. For the last few years, they've hosted their "Read Harder" challenge, giving readers 24 tasks for books to read during the year, a pace of about one book every two weeks.

For example, BookRiot's 2019 challenge included tasks like:

  • A book written in prison
  • An epistolary novel or collection of letters
  • A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
  • A self-published book
  • A book of manga
  • A book by an Author of Color set in or about space

Counting one book for two challenges is allowed, but I didn't do this.

I found the structure of the challenge really helpful:

  • Many other people are reading at the same time, and discussing what book they will choose for the task, in Goodreads forums. Choosing books is hard and it's great to have the support of others.
  • BookRiot publishes book suggestions for each task: extremely helpful for me: I had no idea where to start with e.g. manga.
  • The challenge is motivating, and at the end of the year there's plenty of time to catch up on the challenge over Christmas holidays.

My Top 5

A graphic memoir

Persepolis – Marjan Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa

I did not expect a graphic autobiography in translation to be my #1 book of the year, having never read a graphic memoir before. But here we are.

This story of revolutionary Iran, seen through the author's childhood eyes, with their politically-engaged parents doing all they can to shield their daughter from the disaster unfolding, was poignant, sad, and often funny. An extraordinary window into day-to-day life under a collapsing regime. Worth your read.

A doorstopper published after 1950, written by a woman

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Of course this book is good. This story of Henry VIII's right-hand-man, banker/soldier/father/courtier/thug Thomas Cromwell is told very well. I particularly enjoyed the thoroughly modern protagonist and the meticulously researched technocratic economy of 16th-century London, diving into wool prices, loan sharkery, and which seasons to import which fruit. Hilary has a wonderful way with words, as you'd expect from a double-Booker winner.

Basing this book on a real character is a masterful move: truth is truly weirder than fiction, and some of the tragic twists in this book would surely be dismissed as ridiculous had they not actually happened.

There are a few complaints about pronouns in reviews of this book: that it's hard to tell who's talking when half the charters are named Thomas and the author doggedly only ever refers to the protagonist as "he" or "him". It doesn't really help the reader's understanding, but it does add an aura of importance to the protagonist. I see this as Mantel showing off: "I can still win the Booker, even with one hand tied behind my back". If you go in understanding that whenever the word "he" is used, it's almost always the protagonist, you'll be OK.

A mystery where the victim is not a woman

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

A wonderful murder mystery set in the dark mountains of borderlands Poland, where our elderly horoscope-obsessed, William Blake-translating heroine housesits an empty vacation town for their absentee owners. The setting is just wonderful.

People go missing, our heroine is convinced they can solve the case, but is met with useless police, and dismissal as a crank, mostly on account of her age and gender.

Tokarczuk wrote this book in Polish, and I read the English translation. There are passages where our heroine is translating English poetry into Polish – this must have been a challenge to then translate back into English for this novel.

The English in this book is beautiful. I have to wonder how much of that's due to the author vs the translator.

A horror book published by an indie press

Sourdough – Angela Slatter

I didn't expect a collection of horror short-stories – fairy tales! – to make my top 5.

Fairy tales, a timeless setting, are a useful framework to tell timeless stories. These fairy tales

This book centers the tales of women in and around the city and forest of Loddelan. The common theme is of women mistreated: the prince's wet-nurse abused by the King, the seamstress weaving souls into dolls, Rapunzel locking herself in the tower to escape the abusive prince, the slave-owner and the slaver, the girl betrothed to the abuser. And how they fight back, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Witches and their magic are omnipresent: the subtext is that every woman has a bit of witch and a bit of magic inside.

"A Porcelain Soul" was the standout story for me, about a seamstress who sews tiny slices of her own soul into children's dolls. She is a master crafter, so caught up in excelling at her work that she never asks whether the work is evil. That story sticks with me, almost a year after reading.

A book about a natural disaster

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us and What We Can Do about Them – Lucy Jones

A wonderful book. Come for the technical details of how disasters strike, stay for the exploration of the social response to disasters over millenia.

This book goes from Vesuvius' eruption over Pompeii to modern-day disasters, explaining the rationale behind the sometimes-illogical response people have to disasters. Scapegoating, blame, recovery, and prevention are all shown.

Stories that stuck with me:

  • Pliny the Elder dying at Pompeii, with eyewitness accounts
  • The USA built huge levees to control the flooding of the Mississippi river. But when the river levels got high, and the levees were about to breach, police patrolled the river for landowners crossing the river with boats full of dynamite: people were plotting to blow up the levee on the other side of the river, to spare their own side. A real-life prisoners dilemma, a social weakness in technical infrastructure.
  • Step-by-step walkthrough of the Fukushima disaster
  • How racism in the USA hamstrung the response to Hurricane Katrina, militarizing what should have been a humanitarian response

The moral: disasters happen, steps can take to mitigate disasters, and it's very important that we work together in disaster recovery rather than scapegoat each other.

My Bottom 2

I'm compelled to talk about how bad these books are, because they get good reviews but I found them... bad! And for similar reasons.

The last book in a series

Death's End – Cixin Liu

This will be a controversial take: I got a lot of recommendations for this series from friends. And I did enjoy the first book in the series! But this one, currently holding 4.4 stars on Goodreads (an extraordinarily high rating), didn't do it for me.

What I enjoyed about this book:

  • Many reviewers will be rating this book on the science in the science fiction, which is admittedly extraordinarily in-depth and well-researched. And there is a lot of science ideas in this book!
  • No faster-than-light travel is a useful constraint
  • Travelling through higher dimensional space is described well.
  • I haven't seen other authors attempt a story with such a long scope, spanning billions of years, analyzing the social trends over time.

But as compelling fiction, as a story, as a narrative, as a beginning/middle/end, I think this book fails:

  • The narrative's driver is a frankly stalker-ish "romance" between a man, Yun Tianming who barely met a woman, Cheng Xin, and "fell in love" with her (more like unrequited lust IMO), buying her a star.
  • The ending is uncompelling, doesn't tie up the plot arc of the "romance".The two almost meet, but miss each other by millions of years, and both the leads shack up with their assistants instead of each other? It feels like the author has run out of ideas and runs down the clock until the end.
  • The set-piece drags on for too long.

The author's treatment of gender is pretty misogynistic! At one point, the author takes us to a future society where everyone is feminized: soft faces, long hair, and dainty. This is depicted as a society too soft to survive. The rest of the plot is Cheng Xin repeatedly being entrusted with the fate of humanity, and screwing it up again and again. The author always seems to suggest Cheng's feminine attributes as being to blame: she's too compassionate, too soft, too protective, too unwilling to risk harm. The few leftover stereotypical "tough guys" are proven right again and again. It's exhaustingly repetitive.

In Cheng Xin’s subconscious, she was a protector, not a destroyer; she was a woman, not a warrior.

Consider the above gender issues alongside the gross story from book 2, where Luo, our hero, a man with unlimited power, draws a sketch of the girl of his dreams, his "perfect woman": a beautiful, submissive waifu, and asks the police to find her, and the police find someone who looks like that, and they have children together? Pure wish-fulfillment. I was cheering when she eventually left his ass and ran off with the kids. Read more on the gender issues in Book 2 at The Book Smuggler's Review.

Can we talk about how terrible this cover is? It's got all the sci-fi tropes: explosions, skulls, planets exploding, a floating CGI man... but none of it relates to the story.

A historical fiction novel not set in WWII

The Stationery Shop of Tehran – Marjan Kamali

I really wanted to like this book. I've read some amazing books set in Iran, the cover is beautiful, and it promises a stationery shop! It's averaging 4.2 stars on Goodreads! Sounds like all the ingredients for success!

This is a long-term romance book, about lovers split apart after a violent coup d'etat, reuniting after 50 years at the end of the book.

I have a few problems with this book:

  • The rich adult stationer's stalking and assault of a poor 14-year-old girl at the market. This is disastrously painted up as romance. Nope. Utterly disastrous.
  • The protagonist seems to have no free will, no drive. She just goes with the flow. We learn she likes reading, but we don't really learn much else about her. Her parents are likewise one-dimensional. Even the love interest has very little going on.
  • The protagonist reunites with her teen lover after 50 years, having been married to and raising a family with her husband. I mostly felt sorry for her husband, who seems a decent bloke, being abandoned for this teenage memory.
  • The middle of the book just didn't matter at all. It's a shame to spend so much time on something that really doesn't give any payoff at the end.
  • If the engine of the entire book is romantic yearning, you have to make the reader invested in that romance. There were just a few letters and maybe a date or two at the start of the book! Not really enough to get me invested in the romance.
  • Using 'mental illness' as a cover for the mother-in-law's evilness is a pretty harmful stereotype. I'd love to have heard more from the mother-in-law's perspective.

Lara's Goodreads review says this better.

The Middle

A sci-fi/fantasy novella

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

A wonderful little book about solving disputes with compassion and negotiation. I really enjoyed it, although it was a bit scary at times. It's a trilogy now, perhaps I should read the other two books.

A book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author

The Yield – Tara June Winch

Ambitious. Generations of an Indigenous family in western New South Wales, going back to the mission days. Historical fiction set both in the modern world, and back in the missions set up to control/assimilate. I enjoyed it.

A memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again – Rachel Held Evans

This is the story of someone struggling with their faith, struggling with growing up and understanding that Giants aren't real, that you can't walk on water, and what does this mean for faith?

The author argues these are metaphors, stories dressed up with embellishments to make them memorable, that  her awe when she heard these stories as a child is the right frame of mind to consider them in as an adult. That the moral of the story is worth living your life around, even if people didn't literally walk on water.

It was interesting to hear of the author's struggles with faith. Not the kind of book I would have usually picked without a challenge.

Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color

One Thousand and One Nights – Hanan Al-Shaykh

A play by an author of color and/or queer author

We're Gonna Die – Young Jean Lee

This short, bittersweet play comes with a CD, and chord sheets, and instructions to the band. The author encourages people to perform the songs at home. I like the idea of this, but I never did get around to performing it – I don't think we have a CD player. Maybe one day.

An edition of a literary magazine

Voiceworks – Various

An Australian quarterly literary journal, with contributors all under 25. A bit uneven, as you might expect, with a few gems. Probably wouldn't have read this without the prompt, and it was nice to try a different style of book.

A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability

Wonder – R. J. Palacio

A wonderful middle-grade book about August, a boy who loves Star Wars, who also has Treacher Collins syndrome. The book follows August and his friends and family, who are a remarkably complex set of characters. Highly recommended.

A book that takes place in a rural setting

The Cedar Cutter – Tea Cooper

Earlier this year, we cycled around around the Hunter Valley, staying a few nights in the cosy historical town of Wollombi. I picked up this book to learn more about the area.

This historical romance is set in the Wollombi of the late 1800s, featuring an on-the-run-from-Sydney single-mother heroine and an Irish cedar woodcutter.

The book is refreshingly feminist, with the heroine setting up her own self-sufficient business and rearing her kid without help.

There were a few too many coincidences in the hero's past, and the villain's behaviour didn't really make sense at times (Why did he murder his foreman but not directly murder the hero? Why did he kidnap the child when he was about to win the child in court?), but overall this was an engaging look at 1800s NSW society and a fun look at the history of a town we visited.

A food book about a cuisine you've never tried before

The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods with Recipes – John Newton

Fun book. I like books that focus on the history of a food (rather than just recipes). This goes in to the history of indigenous food, touching on pioneers trying to grow the food, market it overseas, and bring it into Australian kitchens.

The history goes back to the earliest Europen settlement history, when Sydney was starving, European settlers broadly ignored the local cuisine, because food is more than just sustenance, it's about culture, and sometimes people choose to starve than to give up your culture.

The author makes a good case for Indigenous food being held back by "food racism", with interviews with pioneering restaurant owners, reviewers. In particular, calling out the cultural cringe of Australian native food only being broadly acceptable to Australians after finding success first overseas, e.g. the Macadamia nut, which found success after being commercialised in Hawai'i and rechristened with a European name (MacAdam).

Farms are also covered, and the challenges of commercialising native foods, particularly if there isn't a reliable market yet, and how do grow the foods consistently with tradition and equitably to the farmers.

I'm interested to try some of the food mentioned at restaurants.

A middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK

Catch a Falling Star – Meg McKinlay

A lovely little story about children grieving their dead father, set in small-town 70's Western Australia, as the Skylab space station is about to crash to earth.

The brother character was underdeveloped/one-dimensional, but the rest of this book was great.

A Young Adult nonfiction book

Growing up Asian in Australia – Various, edited by Alice Pung

I really enjoyed this book: a collection of short, true stories, told mostly in their own voices. The authors grew up all over Australia, and there is a real contrast between stories of growing up in the 60s and growing up today. The stories wonderfully told, often hilarious.

Some themes carry through the book: struggling parents putting their hopes in their children, high expectations, identity crises, bullying. But far more than that, the takeaway is the diversity of the author's experiences: everyone's experience of growing up is different.

A book by or about a refugee

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

A wonderful book, far above my expectations. Thanks Gleebooks for recommending it.

This book tracks a violent uprising in a formerly-safe, unnamed middle-eastern city, and a young couple's escape through magical doors, which lead anywhere in the world. The magical-realism element is similar to Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad, which has a literal rail tracks.

The book starts off fairly predictably: tracking the fall of the city in slow measures, then the couple's escape to Mykonos in Greece, and then to London. But then the book opens into so much more: imagining a beautiful open-borders world, if borders were incapable of being policed, if anyone could move anywhere in the world, what would that look like? How could we overcome resistance, and make that a wonderful world? This imagined world is wonderful. We need more positive imaginings of the future.

The writing awed me: the author writes long compound sentences, that are somehow still concise, beautiful and never unclear.

A debut novel by a queer author

Heat and Light – Ellen Van Neerven

Ellen Van Neerven is a nonbinary Indigenous author from south-east Queensland, and this is her debut novel.

More of a collection of short stories about misfits, lesbians, Indigenous Australians, struggling to find their way in the world. The book is divided in three

  • A generational story of a family cursed. I would have liked to read more about this family: I think more crossovers and backstory could have added up to a coherent novel. I was left wanting more, which is good with short stories.
  • A speculative-fiction near-future Australia: the metaphors were a bit too heavy-handed in this story for me: at times, explicitly spelled out. Didn't love it.
  • A third collection of short stories: some gems, a bit uneven. My standouts were the cover story about the Ferris Wheel, and the final story about a struggling brother and sister was the best.

An audiobook of poetry

Pillow Thoughts – Courtney Peppernell

I've never heard an audiobook of poetry before. I enjoy slam poetry – the emotion and energy, so I thought an audiobook of poetry might be similar? But this was very different: poems written for the page, read rather neutrally by the author.

This book, written and read by Courtney, a local Sydney poet, touches on recurring themes of modern love and breakups, with a touch of suicide prevention. I enjoyed it.

A book about climate change

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming – Various, edited by Paul Hawken

An interesting look at 100 ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, ranked by cost and benefit. It was tough to choose this book for a reading challenge though: it's hard to read a reference book cover to cover. I skimmed this, and it was interesting.

I also considered reading something by Naomi Klein.

A picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community

I didn't complete this challenge item.

Thanks

I enjoyed the challenge – having constraints really helps when choosing books. I read a lot more than I would have otherwise, a lot more ficiton, and a lot less books about work/business. I think this was healthy.

I would recommend trying the Read Harder challenge to people who are interested in reading a wider variety of stories. BookRiot has just published their 2021 challenge tasks, and I'll challenge myself again. See you next year!