Monday, December 28, 2020

Read Harder: 2020 As Seen Through Book Riot's Challenge

This year, I read 209 books (and counting). Though a number of these choices were "quick" reads because they were single issue comics and audiobooks, the pandemic was my biggest influence in reading more this year than I have any year before. I feel stupidly smug about it, but, to be honest, it was mostly because my social life has evaporated. I'm bored and listless and reading has helped stave off the worst of my anxiety. I know others have had a great deal of difficulty focusing without a social life, work commute, or stability. Per the refrain across social media, 2020 has been an awful year.

So, I plan to tell it through the medium of books I read for Book Riot's Read Harder 2020 Challenge. Here's what I read and what was happening at the time:

Read a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman (Finished: 1/3/2020)

I found this enormously amusing. It combines my favorite things about period romances (saturnine love interests, mostly) and detective stories (COMPETENCE). I immediately read the sequel, which I didn't like quite as much, but am now considering reading the third book in the series anyway.

At this point in the year, I knew COVID-19 was a thing that existed! I knew it was scary, but hey, so was SARS and ebola. And they didn't impact my life, personally, I said to myself! But then, we had a minimally competent federal government that acted quickly to keep epidemics contained, so I suppose my expectations were skewed.

So, much like the characters in this book, I felt terribly clever and satisfied. I was starting the year strong, I said to myself!

I read two other books that fulfilled this challenge. The first was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, the first book of hers I've read all the way through (finished December 17th), and then Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey #1) by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is ALSO my first completed Sayers (finished December 21st). I was in a mystery mood! The former was fine and I see why people love it, but Poirot's methods felt increasingly preposterous. I kept expecting him to reveal he was a telepath or something! The latter is much more peculiar and fun. Also, it manages to have Jewish characters that don't lean into the very worst stereotypes, so, hurray, I suppose! Also also, Lord Wimsey is a charming man to follow around, like if P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster had the logic of Sherlock Holmes pumped directly into his brain.

Read an audiobook of poetry

Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert (Finished: 1/5/2020)

I got this book off of Hoopla sort of at random. I had no idea Mary Lambert was a singer and had been featured with Macklemore. Lambert's poetry is aching and raw. The piano accompaniment didn't hit with me, but the tone and subject matter made me nostalgic for open mic nights.

Specifically, this collection made me think of Wednesdays at Cambridge's own Cantab Open Mic. I wouldn't be surprised if Lambert performed there. The Cantab is a Greater Boston area institution and the home away from home for a number of poets (and Simmons students who don't have to wake up for work the next day). I debated going to it again after listening to this book, but the nights get awfully late there. Of course, later in the year, the open mic, like a lot of public events, had to shut down.

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

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco (Finished: 1/5/2020)

Beautifully spooky in some parts with good bits of true crime mixed in, but beyond the two main characters, the ethereal and grim Okiku and the darkly hilarious Tarquin, I had trouble getting invested in the story. This felt more like background sketches than its own work. Saying that, I do want to try the sequel.

Read a YA nonfiction book

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (Finished: 1/16/2020)

This memoir is moving and deeply painful with some wonderfully awkward, even funny moments sprinkled through out. My knowledge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is informed by panicked headlines, a passing knowledge of the dandy-adjacent Le sape subculture, and Nisi Shawl's alternate history, steampunk novel, Everfair, a favorite of mine. Sandra Uwiringiyimana provides a perspective from the ground, a young woman caught up in sociopolitical events beyond her control.

The culture clash when she first moves to America and the ongoing difficulty she has with depression and trauma is heartrending. It's a hard read. While Uwiringiyimana's life is uprooted and irreparably altered by violence, she's defined by so many other details: her life as a teenage girl, her heritage, her insecurities, and her bravery. Recommended.

I finished reading this right before attending Arisia 2020. It provided a nice contrast to the upcoming chaos and joy of the weekend. It was a lovely convention and felt like a normal part of a normal year.

Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non)

Borderline by Mishell Baker (Finished: 2/5/2020)

Millie is a razor sharp main character with immediate and cutting observations. She's often short with people and with good reason--she recently lost both her legs after a suicide attempt. Her nascent career as a director is put (perhaps indefinitely) on hold as she goes through rehab, learns of a wider magical world within the mundane one, and deals with her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. 

The prose is unadorned and moves at a wonderful clip. 

What threw me out of the story was the whole thing with "fey creative soul mates" thing, which is more of a personal preference. I just don't connect with soul mate narratives most of the time, with the notable exception of my childhood fascination with Sailor Moon! Also, based on the fantasy books I imprinted on at formative age, I have a very specific idea of what fairies should and shouldn't look like.

At this point in February, work had started to pick up again. I was stressed. The biggest, most terrifying thing that loomed on the horizon was the 2020 Presidential Election later that year. Considering we had to get through the Democratic Primary first, it looked like a long, painful haul. It seemed to me, at this point, that Senator Elizabeth Warren was the top contender, even though my neighbors all had their hopes pinned on Bernie Sanders. 

Read a book that takes place in a rural setting

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (Finished: 2/12/2020)

I cried, even though I knew the story and had seen the stage play. The treatment of disability has a dated vibe to it, but the themes of loneliness and pain are timeless. I found myself getting weepy over the audiobook at work.

Again, I read this before a convention, specifically Boskone 2020, an enormous contrast with a depressing book. It would be the last con I went to in-person for 2020.

Read a debut novel by a queer author

Hurricane Child
by Kheryn Callender, Kacen Callender (Finished: 2/21/2020)

A queer, contemporary middle grade novel. I love the prickliness of the main character, but the lack of plot was a let down. Callender's YA high fantasy, Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm #1), which I finished reading in September, was much more my speed--more plot, more emotion, and more for the characters to do.

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

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee (Finished: 2/26/2020)

I might have cheated, here, because while outerspace is not the U.S. or U.K., it's definitely not Earth. Still, it's space opera with definite Korean cultural influences and people that are central to the story. It's exactly what I figured Yoon Ha Lee would write based on the stories of his I read in Clarkesworld.

The magic was beautifully done. If I have a delta, it's that much of the story didn't stick with me after I was done. 

I guess Hurricane Child fulfills this challenge, too, but I'm trying not to "double dip." My honor for this arbitrary challenge must be kept intact! Think of the (bookish) humanity, I say. 

Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Finished: 2/29/2020)

One of my favorites of the year. 

This supernatural story reminds me why I love adult SFF novels so much. The gothic tropes are handled wisely. Also, Noemí is the kind of sophisticated, confident, smoking socialite heroine I can get behind.

I received an arc from the author at Boskone. Once I finished it, I immediately loaned it to a gothic horror enthusiast friend. Then I made one of my book clubs read it. By the time we met to discuss the work, we did so at a small, social distanced gathering in my backyard in the autumn.

Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages)

Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise (Finished: 3/1/2020 )

Slow moving. I have quibbles, but I do like the magic elements and the main character, Caleb.

I picked this book up because it was a Nebula Award nominee. I wasn't sure if I could make it out to the convention itself in Los Angeles, but I wanted to do the homework and try.

At this point in the year, I was prepping for Super Tuesday. I decided to go door to door for Elizabeth Warren because she was just my favorite at that point. I wanted her to be president with a fervor that has since burned down low. As the results came in that day, it became clear not even the senator's home state was behind her. I was heartbroken, but began to switch efforts to support Bernie Sanders and (no one's first choice, at least not in my immediate friend circle) Joe Biden.

Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) by Arkady Martine (Finished: 3/18/2020)

I've read and reviewed Arkady Martine's short fiction in the past, so this book was already on my to-read list. The fact it scored a Nebula nomination edged it into my path.

It has unique world-building, lovely prose, and wonderful references to a completely alien culture built with poetry and Aztec traditions. The human drama at the core is deeply compelling, something that makes or breaks sci-fi for me.

I finished this the week where, suddenly, things began to happen very quickly. All the students at the college where I worked were sent home. Seniors were heartbroken because it suddenly looked like their normal graduation had evaporated over night. People were in tears. I was being sent home to work remotely for the foreseeable future, so it was fitting that I began to...

Read a book about a natural disaster

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker (Finished: 3/25/2020) 

Every social center in Boston had shut down. My roommates and I were all wearing masks to leave the house. And, of all the books that had been nominated for the Nebulas, this story about a changed, more distant world after the end of the pandemic felt eerily prescient.

On its own, it's extremely well done. Pinsker is an excellent writer. Her characters and worlds feel real. I'm wondering just how much of this book will seem dated in the future, but hey, who knows? I attended the Nebula Awards virtually in May and got to see Pinsker accept the prize for this one.

Another book that fulfills this challenge is Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective by scott crow. Rather than sci-fi, this non-fiction book is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the activists who worked to piece together a functional response. It's unevenly written but deeply compelling. I want more people to read this. By the time I finished it on April 18th, I was a part of my local mutual aid group.

At this point in time, friends in my circle began organizing online events that are still happening regularly, mostly movie watches and gaming nights. I'm continuing to host book clubs and see theater through Zoom which, in March, seemed so temporary. Now it's part of my life.

Read a romance starring a single parent

No Earls Allowed (The Survivors #2)
 by Shana Galen (Finished: 4/1/2020)

It began to dawn on me that the next year was going to be a brutal one, to say the least. Almost immediately, I began to inhale books at one of two extremes: horror and romance. This was one of the fluffiest romances I could find.

Tropey characters to the max! War veteran who is a bastard and somewhat non-white (by English standards) romances a young heiress who has recently taken charge of an orphanage. Won't someone think of the orphans? Yes, it turns out, but only outside of the novel's steamier scenes.

Another book that could be considered for this challenge was Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller which I finished by April 25th. It's a space opera regarding a romance and culture clash between Er Thom, a master trader from a strict, honor-bound alien society, and Anne Davis, a human professor from Earth. Unknown to him, their brief fling years ago resulted in her having his child. This is an affront to his culture, which Anne discovers upon meeting him again and happily introducing him to his son. The rest of the book is them working through their cultural differences. I found the writing style wasn't my thing, but I adored the story and the characters, almost all of whom are actually very honorable people trying to do their best with limited information. It's very sweet.

Read a book about climate change

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (Finished: 5/3/20)

I had read Octavia Butler's Xenogensis series, Kindred, and even her vampire romance, Fledgling. Now, stuck at home and staving off loneliness during the pandemic, hoping desperately the rest of the country would decide to "flatten the curve," I sat down and read Parable of the Sower

What I suppose I should have seen as a dark and difficult piece of work became a spot of hope: people banding together in the face of climate disaster! A fearless leader rising out of the rubble of a racist civilization! It was delightful. Butler's theories on the future were grounded in the knowledge of the United States' history of genocide and oppression. The predictions of hers that were spot on were not due to some sort of precognition, but because she knew the modern world well. The latter part of the book where our heroine, Lauren, has lost her home and is now on the road, finding likeminded individuals, is my favorite. Saying all that, I found the "crack baby" style drug fears and cannibalism very '80's and over-the-top, almost quaint in their exaggerated violence.

Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Finished: 5/6/20)

Now that the weather this time of year was improving, so was my mood. I read this poetry chapbook laying in a hammock on the front porch of my apartment. 

The book itself, and the poems, are beautiful and difficult. I'm so jealous of Diaz's writing!

Read a graphic memoir

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges (Finished: 5/7/2020 )

This was an emotional read. Poor Nicole! I love her art and the intimacy of her style. I think I had it on my shelf for a long time because I was afraid it would make me feel things. Surprise--it did!

I guess it's fitting that I would start to go through my own family difficulties at this point. In the coming weeks, I would learn my great uncle had contracted COVID. His death was quick. My cousin wrote an editorial about it for the Des Moines Register, ultimately (and, I believe, correctly) laying the blame for the mishandling of the pandemic at the feet of the federal government and the sitting president.

Read the LAST book in a series

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series #3) by Cat Sebastian (Finished: 6/7/2020)

Much like No Earls Allowed, this is a fluffy, historical romance. But much more gay. I thought it was a great deal of fun. 

Read an edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical)

Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet No. 41 (Finished: 7/8/2020)

I get this in the mail regularly and am currently reading through issue #42. I love the taste for weird fiction that editors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant have spent their careers cultivating with Small Beer Press. My favorite short story of this issue is David Fawkes's "Letterghost," where two homeless individuals run into magical happenings, followed closely by Rachel Ayers's "Magicians & Grotesques." Holly Tamsin's "Fogdog Films" remains mystifying but I know it has to do with creating films.

Fittingly, the nonfiction in this issue is titled, "Quarantine Pantry Challenge."

Read a horror book published by an indie press

Into Bones like Oil by Kaaron Warren (Finished: 7/29/2020)

I love atmospheric books and this one has a gloom in spades. I eventually found the lack of momentum more trying rather than intriguing, but some elements of the book remain with me. I think that's a sign of a successful story, right?

I think I also read this book in a poor mindset. Every day at this point of the year was beginning to feel monotonous. I decided to set aside the challenge for a little while, read what I wanted, and focus on my physical and mental health.

Read a book by or about a refugee

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang (Finished: 9/8/2020)

Yes, that's right--a cape comic! And, I swear, this totally fulfills the challenge! It's a take on Superman that emphasizes his alien-ness and his status as a refugee from a destroyed planet. The metaphor of his heritage is connected intimately with the radio show arc of the same name Yang partially adapted. I've enjoyed his other comics, especially American Born Chinese, and he nails the story's issues with a moving sensitivity. He doesn't talk down to his intended child audience, either. The depiction of a Chinese family in 1930's U.S. feels lived in.

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child should also count for this one but, again, double dipping.

Also, my nerves were a wreck this time of year. All I could think of was the presidential election, my anger at the Trump administration, and my reservations about Biden's team. The biggest balm to my soul was preparing for Halloween and rigging a candy delivery system with my roommate for trick-or-treaters.

Then November began. It was eventually clear our 45th president had lost re-election. For that alone, my roommates and I split and drank champagne. The Saturday when Biden was confirmed to have won the electoral votes he needed, I passed cars that beeped and crowds that yelled in celebration. It felt like a reprieve. 

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

Pick a Pup by Julianna O'Neil (Finished: 11/30/2020)

Cute and very short. I am neither a child, a parent, or a children's book person, so this wasn't for me! 

It got me back into the reading challenge, though, which I suddenly knew I wanted to finish before the end of a very frustrating year. I can't control the rising COVID numbers, but hey, I could do this, right?

Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author

Bordertown by Culture Clash (Finished: 12/2/2020)

This is a play constructed of fragments. It was put together by the playwrights from interviews at the San Diego/Tijuana border. Immigrants, conservatives, people living their lives, self-appointed vigilantes, renters, yuppies, space aliens--it's all over the place. It isn't exactly a story, more of a snapshot. It absolutely contains some dated ethnic stereotypes, so fair warning on that. It's candid, though, and a good time capsule of 2001 before September 11th advanced the paranoia of the conservative right. 

I'm so used to thinking of anti-immigration law and detention centers as a problem of our immediate present, I forget that, no, this has all been happening for years. It's built into the U.S.

Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before

Extreme Food by Bear Gryllis (Finished: 12/11/2020)

This was a really tricky prompt! I actually eat fairly widely. I like to try new food! So, when I looked for a cuisine with which I had no experience, I decided to look for books about something I never do: camp in the remote wilderness.

So, this book is essentially Gryllis foraging, hunting, fishing, and bragging about all the weird food he's eaten on location while giving reader tips to do the same. The content is mostly about how to safely eat earthworms or, should you need to, wrestle, decapitate, and cook a gator. In all its peculiarity, this choice reminded me of how Book Riot's yearly challenge pushes me to encounter work I never would have otherwise.

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

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV and Desmond Tutu (Finished: 12/12/2020)

Mostly, I just found this book very nice. I don't know how useful it is in contemplating my own faith or how I relate to the world, though. I already spend far too much time panicked over climate change and the suffering of people I'll likely never meet. Still, I found the interviews between these religious leaders awfully comforting, at least to an extent. Their harmony is so kind.

To balance out the warm, fuzzy feelings this book inflicted on me during the Christmas season, when I'm often in Grinch mode, I decided to balance it out with a reading choice that ended up fitting the prompt, as well: Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which I recently finished on December 22nd. It's a grim, novel-length essay that touches on everything from Ligotti's contempt for the vision of an ordered, God-fearing universe to his interest in the nihilistic themes of the musical Sweeney Todd. It apparently had a moment of vogue when True Detective's first season quoted a lot from it. In a view where human consciousness is just a mistake of evolution, Ligotti seems to suggest we neither despair of nor celebrate humanity, but dispassionately observe it. I don't agree with his entire argument, but his vision of a meaningless world, to me, suggests we get to decide our own meanings in lives that exist in brief, exciting flashes before receding into nothingness. In that sense, while in the depths of a pandemic, it's a perspective I found freeing. Also, yes, while I know this book is intended to be very serious, Ligotti's continued obsession with puppets as a metaphor made me laugh, like, every time. (Sorry, man.)

I think I also gravitated toward the latter because my holiday season was made even more peculiar by the fact my dad contracted COVID. He's now feeling better and planning to return to work. He doesn't seem to have made my mom sick and he seems pretty cheerful, but it's all been a sour reminder of our helplessness in a chaotic year.

My ending notes are simply this: I'm not hopeful for a perfect year but I am looking forward to some of the things that will make things better. I feel mentally stable and physically fit, which is probably a good way to start January 2021.

I plan on trying to be patient for the vaccine and tough on the incoming administration as it grapples with the public health crisis. I'll continue to lean on friends and family for support through texts and Zoom. Finally, while the waiting game continues, I hope to do my best with Book Riot's 2021 Read Harder Challenge

I don't know what projects and challenges you're using to distract yourself in the coming months, but I hope they're successful.