Challenge Completed! 2021

readharder2021

I was pleased to have finished the Read Harder Challenge in the middle of September this year, which left me plenty of time to catch up on some classic science fiction and some new buzzy reads of the year. As always, I kind of wane toward the end of the year, wanting to get it finished, but I’m glad that I pushed through and forced myself to read some of the books that have been on my To-Be-Read list for ages. And, as always, this year was a bit of a mixed bag, but with some surprising wins right along with the unfortunate flops. Here’s the breakdown for each task:

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Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read: Dune by Frank Herbert. My original pick for this task was Don Quijote, and I got halfway through (a thousand-page book!), realized I absolutely hated it, and decided to abandon it. Dune was a book that intimidated me not because of its length but because, despite it being called one of the foundations of science fiction, I strongly suspected I wouldn’t much enjoy it. Let’s just say, my suspicions were not incorrect.

Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism: How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I was a huge fan of Kendi’s award-winning Stamped from the Beginning, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his next effort. Here, Kendi advocates strongly for intersectionality, claiming that one cannot be antiracist if one is oppressing others in different ways. However, some of Kendi’s arguments fail to fully convince, such as the claim that all aggressions are of equal consequence.

Read a non-European novel in translation: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. I loved this speculative fiction novel about a Japanese island where objects are marked for deletion, both physically and from citizens’ memories. Those people who do remember these banished objects are subject to persecution by the Memory Police. It’s a brilliant commentary on the disappearance of rights, and the fact that it was originally published in the 80s shows how little our concerns have changed.

Read an LGBTQ+ history book: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. Not so much a book about LGBTQ+ history as it is a book important to LGBTQ+ history, this collection of essays is a major contribution to the discussion on intersectionality. Lorde reveals how the feminist movement largely leaves out both women of color and lesbians and she addresses the need for boys to be raised in a feminist environment. If Lorde were alive today, there’s no doubt she’d be slinging her words on toxic masculinity and the inclusion of trans women in the discussion of women’s rights.

Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. This so-called horror novel has won awards and I’m hard pressed to understand why. Focusing on four men of the Blackfeet Nation who infringe on tribal rules and commit a wrongdoing that comes back to haunt them ten years later. With few elements that were actually scary, and more that were quite laughable, I found little to enjoy in this one.

Read a fanfic: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. What could better qualify as a fanfic than a gay romantic retelling of The Iliad? While I think many readers loved the unambiguous relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus, I most loved the attention Miller paid to the destructive consequences of hubris and all the ways it can play out. 

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Read a fat-positive romance book: Shrill by Lindy West. After being mostly disappointed by and not interested in the romances I’ve read, I decided to focus on the fat-positive aspect of this task and put aside the romance part. This book of essays focuses on West’s experiences as a fat woman in both the online sphere and in the everyday world. Her humor and savagery are infectious and will make all readers contemplate how they view their bodies and the bodies of others. This ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year.

Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. This is precisely why I’m not forcing myself to read romances anymore. Yadriel is a trans boy determined to prove to his traditional family that he’s a brujo, as well as find out what’s behind some mysterious murders, including that of bad boy classmate Julian. Unfortunately, Thomas spends too much time in exposition lecturing the readers about trans and Latinx culture and not enough time developing an engaging story and characters.

Read a middle grade mystery: The Case of the Empty Crates by Steve Brezenoff. This is a cute story about a group of four friends who have to find out why the delivery of telescopes for the Capitol City Air and Space Museum is empty. The best part is that it features a cast of diverse characters whose personalities are determined neither by their genders nor their ethnicities.

Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color: Octavia’s Brood edited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha. Inspired by Octavia Butler’s work, this collection brings together a variety of texts by those working for social justice. Unfortunately, not every contributor is a writer, and that can be plainly seen, but the collection still has some intriguing pieces, including an excerpt from LeVar Burton’s novel.

Read a food memoir by a person of color: Buttermilk Graffiti by Edward Lee. With the idea to tell the story of America’s immigrants through their food, Lee sets off to a number of locations to try food and speak to those who have made the country their new home. Unfortunately, Lee spends much more time talking about himself and less time revealing those immigrants stories, rendering this project something of a failure.

Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color: We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang. This short but powerful book looks into the concept of race in a land that is supposedly free. Reporting on the effects of historical segregation and the insidious ways it continues to day, Chang discusses Black Lives Matter protests, the University of Missouri’s backwards notion of what systemic oppression really is, and his own experiences trying to come to terms with what it means to be “Asian American.”

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Read a book with a cover you don’t like: Queen by Alex Haley and David Stevens. I don’t hate this cover, but it’s a bit dated, and it seemed like a good excuse to push me to read the sequel to Roots. This book focuses on Haley’s paternal grandmother, the product of an enslaved woman and the son of an Irish immigrant. Although not as viscerally shocking as Roots, this volume continues to expose all of the hardships enslaved people endured and how that was significantly more difficult for women.

Read a realistic YA book not set in the US, UK, or Canada: The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. At fourteen, Adunni’s father sells her to a much older man to be his wife, which means that she will have to leave school and abandon her dream of becoming a teacher. Through many heartbreaking trials, she eventually finds a way to have the “louding” voice she always wanted. This book is filled with difficult topics and perhaps not appropriate for very young readers, but it will certainly open up one’s eyes to some of the oppressions girls across the world have to face.

Read a memoir by a Latinx author: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Part memoir of Cornejo Villavicencio’s own life as the daughter of undocumented Ecuadorian immigrants and part exposé of the hardships many undocumented immigrants face, this is a necessary book for all who live in a country that claims to be founded by immigrants while also saying we have room for no more.

Read an own voices book about disability: Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. This collection of essays written by people with various disabilities is an eye-opening look at the way society largely ignores the one demographic into which we all have the potential to fit. Although not every essay is written with finesse, they all force the reader to think about the privileges and lack thereof granted to each person based on their body’s abilities.

Read an own voices YA book with a black main character that isn’t about black pain: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney. This modern take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland features the teenage Alice who is sent to Wonderland to be a Dreamwalker and fight Nightmares. The source material is one of my favorite books, so I was a little nervous, but I loved the way McKinney wove the original characters and themes into 21st century life. There is a small amount of black pain, but the majority of the story is about the battle Alice must fight in fantastical Wonderland.

Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader: The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams. Not wanting to read a political memoir, I turned to this book chronicling the eight-day meeting of those two religious leaders. This was a treat and offered many useful words of wisdom on how to live with joy in times of uncertainty and unrest. It was a much needed text for the year.

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Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Imagine my surprise when this much talked about, highly lauded book actually turned out to be good! Aging Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo agrees to tell the intimate details of her life to exactly one person: magazine writer Monique Grant. Through their chats, we learn the stories behind each of the infamous husbands, the hardships Hugo and other minority figures faced, and who she was really in love with for all those years.

Read a book of nature poems: Devotions by Mary Oliver. While the poems in this collection are simple and easy to get through, taking on a 400+ page book as my introduction to Oliver proved to be a bit too much. Some of the poems were lovely, but a collection that big quickly started to feel repetitive.

Read a children’ book that centers a disabled character but not their disability: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. This was my introduction to the well-loved Percy Jackson, and I loved it. With his dyslexia and ADHD serving as capabilities, not disabilities, in the world of the gods, Percy is a charming and engaging young protagonist whose story I very much want to continue to read.

Read a book set in the Midwest: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. The world suddenly starts evolving backwards and the humans who are born begin resembling their pre-homo sapiens ancestors. Of course, this puts all pregnant women in peril, not just from nature but from society. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is one of those women, and we follow her journey to find safety and freedom in this new version of the world. Although the end was a bit of a letdown, I still enjoyed the ride this book took me on.

Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness: Infectious Madness by Harriet Washington. Washington starts by presenting a convincing argument for the idea that many mental illnesses are actually the result of infections or communicable diseases, but she loses steam halfway through when she starts trying to prove that known physical diseases also have a mental component, as well as offering the idea that xenophobia is akin to disease. These ideas aren’t necessarily incorrect, but they fall outside the scope of her proposed book, making it seem like she simply didn’t have enough material to complete the project.

Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. This hilarious take on the zombie apocalypse novel told from the viewpoint of a pet crow named S.T. lands as one of my top reads of the year. Buxton’s prose and narrative voice are to be marveled at, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

9 thoughts on “Challenge Completed! 2021

  1. Wow, it looks like you’ve been reading some great books Veronica! The Memory Police was one of my recent reads and I thoroughly enjoyed it too, even though it made my brain hurt sometimes! I also loved Zami by Audre Lorde but haven’t read any of her other books so Sister Outsider will definitely be going on my list 📚❤️ X x x

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    • Yes, some were excellent! The challenge can sometimes be a mixed bag, but even if I don’t like some of my choices, I always end up with some that I love and would never have read otherwise. The Memory Police was definitely one of the highlights.

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  2. Congrats! That is a serious list of hard books! I tried reading Dune when I was a teen and couldn’t. I have never warmed up to sci-fi, except for the occasional time travel, but this type of book has close to zero appeal.
    I loved Song of Achilles as well as Circe.
    A Blade So Black sounds really interesting. I grew up listening to and then reading Alice in Wonderland as it was part of the canon that my Dad read nightly to me and my siblings, but I am willing to enter that world through a different door and see what happens.

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    • I was pretty skeptical about A Blade So Black, but I really liked it. I think it borrows just enough from the source material that you can enjoy the nods, but it’s not trying to be a direct retelling so you can also get lost in a completely new story. Circe was also great, but yes, I don’t know how anyone gets through Dune. I could see that turning me off sci-fi if it had been my introduction to the genre!

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  3. What an excellent list! I’ve suffered through the whole of four books of Dune when I was on holiday on a houseboat in the 90s and ran out of books and they were the only ones on the boat. Argh! I’m excited to know someone who’s read Queen as I have that as a project for next year – I have a dated cover version, too; I’m looking forward to reading it as got such a lot out of Roots in September. I am trying to find a disability anthology like that one but UK based as many issues are again different here (austerity and our social services, for a start).

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    • Oof…I can’t imagine being stuck somewhere with no entertainment except for Dune books! That’s a hard spot to be in. I hope you enjoy Queen…I found it every bit as engrossing as Roots, and it was particularly interesting to take a look at Haley’s family from the side the immigrated from Ireland. I would also be curious to know how disability issues vary based on country. The different laws and societal conceptions would make for an interesting comparison.

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      • I’m looking forward to Queenie and hoping to read along with the Canadian and Australian blog friends I read Roots with. It won’t be for a while yet though. And yes, Dune was pre-Kindle – argh! Regarding disability, I might read some US stuff to see the comparison. Here our authorities see people with disabilities as second-class citizens. They were not protected during Covid – young people with learning disabilities died at an alarming rate with little care – and the system for getting social care support and the physical infrastructure are both dire. We have some great activists making a difference but it’s still awful and unequal.

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