2019 Reading Challenge Check-In: April 9th

How’s your reading challenge going? Now that we’re three months into 2019, my friend Colleen and I have put together a quick look at where our reading challenges are at so far. Hers is most definitely in excellent form, while mine is rather dismal to behold. But there’s another nine months to go, and plenty of time to catch up for all of us!

We’re hoping our category fillers will help you find some suitable candidates for your own reading challenge—and to that end, we’ve included a few quick reviews of our favorite reads. Hopefully you’ll find some winners of your own as you rack up categories over the next few months! Best wishes, and happy reading!

Ariana

  1. A non-fiction book about science: Human Body Decomposition by Jarvis Hayman and Marc Frederick Oxenham
  2. A true crime book: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich [book club]
  3. A romance novel (a good one!): The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

I’d been hearing great things about The Kiss Quotient for a long time, so when I decided I should really read at least one fantastic romance novel during the heart-filled month of February, this book seemed like a pretty solid bet. The novel’s protagonist Stella Lane is shunted into panic mode at the beginning of the book when her mother becomes determined that Stella improve her largely nonexistent dating life. Since this is a romance novel, Stella of course decides that the only way to improve upon the very terrible dates and their resulting sexual encounters she’s had in the past is to acquire a tutor—a very, very sexy sex tutor. Enter Michael Phan, a part-time escort, who has no real idea what he’s signed up for when he shows up to his first date with Stella.

As you might have guessed, this book is fake dating to the max, and it is terrifically fun, while also giving you characters you won’t forget as soon as you turn the last page. Like the author Helen Hoang herself, Stella is on the autistic spectrum, which is also the case for the male protagonist of Hoang’s next book in this series of romances. If you’re looking for a lovely easy read, with interesting and charming characters who keep you turning pages even when you know you should be heading to bed, I highly recommend this novel.

  1. A book by a local author: Bitter Harvest by Ann Rule

Having read The Stranger Beside MeSmall Sacrifices, and Green River, Running Red last year, I needed my next Ann Rule book to dive into—and so promptly picked this one after Colleen read it and said it was great. Much like Small SacrificesBitter Harvest is a thorough, sometimes slightly claustrophobic portrait of a woman who has done something violent and unthinkable. After beginning with a disquieting snapshot of the crime that prompted the novel, Ann Rule takes us back to the very beginning of the story, starting with Debora Green’s childhood and working forward to her marriage with Michael Farrar and the births of their three children. The feature of Ann Rule’s writing which I love the most, and which I wish was practiced by all true crime authors, is her simple laying out of facts. Rule avoids presenting information with assumptions attached or emotionally charged descriptors. Rather, she gives you all the facts which she knows to be accurate, along with all the things different people have said, true or untrue, throughout the course of her research, and then leaves it to you to decide what you think happened.

Bitter Harvest is another excellently researched and written true crime novel from the master of the genre, and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a book that challenges you to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions from the evidence presented to you.

  1. A book by an author under 30: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  2. A book by a Middle Eastern or Middle Eastern American author: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

My read of A Thousand Splendid Suns was prompted by going to see a performance of the play adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma at Seattle Repertory Theatre last autumn. I read The Kite Runner when I was much too young to read The Kite Runner, and so had been reluctant to read more books by Khaled Hosseini due to my rather negative associations ever since. For shame!!! The play was outstanding, and did a masterful job of condensing a 40-year intergenerational epic into 2.5 hours of beautiful storytelling. Of course, my curiosity was immediately piqued, and finally I had the chance to read this book in a two-day sprint while on a skiing trip in February.

Hosseini’s novel revolves around two main characters: Mariam and Laila. Mariam grew up in the country, poorly educated and isolated from others due to her illegitimate birth. Laila, born a generation later to a liberal-minded family in Kabul, grows up very educated and well-loved by her father. Despite such polarized backgrounds, their lives intersect through the man they both end up marrying. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a beautifully drawn portrait of the ways in which decades of war devastate a country, especially its women and children who have to do their best to survive bombings and violence, as well as shortages of food and medical supplies. The book also examines how women have, in the course of history, often had freedom taken away from them in the name of preserving their safety, and shows how many sacrifices women must make in order to regain the ability to determine the course of their own lives. Despite its heavy subject matter, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an incredibly readable book, and it will seem as if it is flying by. I highly recommend this novel.

  1. A book set in a place you have visited: The Dry by Jane Harper
  2. A fiction book without a romance: Sadie by Courtney Summers [book club]
  3. A book a family member recommended: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Colleen

  1. A non-fantasy YA book: Sadie by Courtney Summers [book club]
  2. A non-fiction book about history: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
  3. A book that was initially self-published: Band Sinister by K.J. Charles
  4. A middle reader book: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  5. A graphic novel: The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
  6. A play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  7. An anthology or collection: All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell
  8. A book about an ism: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an extensive review of both the science and “the science” exploring whether there really are gendered differences in our brains. It is very satisfying to watch Fine rip apart some of the worst excuses for arguments that have been put forth on this front. I learned a lot about the ways that gender really does impact and affect us in our daily lives. The topic can be heavy, but Delusions is extremely readable and I would readily recommend it.

  1. A true crime book: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich [book club]
  2. A book by an author over 65: Bitter Harvest by Ann Rule
  3. A book by an author under 30: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
  4. A book by an African or African American author: How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is firmly cemented as one of my favorite authors at this point, so I was very interested to see how she handles short stories. Some authors are brilliant at both full-length novels and short-form work, and some are strongest sticking to one format. I am delighted to report Jemisin belongs to the first group. This is a fantastic collection. She explores some very cool concepts that stuck with me well after each story ended. Some of my favorites were “Cuisine des Mémoires,” “On the Banks of the River Lex,” and “Non-Zero Probabilities”—but honestly, I loved them all, and if you’re open to some sci-fi Afrofuturism, you cannot miss this collection.

  1. A book set in a place you’ve always wanted to visit: Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare
  2. A book set in your hometown or home region: Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule
  3. A retelling of a myth, fairytale, or “classic” story: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver is primarily a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but there are aspects of various other fairy tales snuck in too. If we had the “read a book you can’t put down” category in this year’s challenge, this would be a strong contender. It’s very easy to get lost in Novik’s world here, but she keeps it grounded, and it feels very real despite the fairy tale elements. The three female protagonists are all very well-crafted characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them find their own paths to take control of their lives.

  1. A fiction book without a romance: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
  2. A book with an “unlikeable heroine”: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
  3. A book with a non-cisgender major character: Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian
  4. A book with an asexual or aromantic major character: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
  5. A book with a black and white cover: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  6. A book with a measure of time in the title: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
  7. A book with under 150 pages: All About Emily by Connie Willis
  8. A book that inspired a common phrase or idiom: The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
  9. Reread a book from your childhood: Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
  10. Reread a book with a plot you can’t remember: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  11. A book a family member recommended: Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was raised in a fundamentalist family with prejudices so severe that Westover was seventeen before she set foot in a classroom for the first time. Educated is the story of her journey to receive an education, and it is riveting. This is what I texted Ariana immediately upon finishing the book: P.S. Educated was intense and fascinating and hard to read and eye opening and it made me very angry and I recommend it.

  1. A book suggested by or seen in the hands of a stranger: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

After becoming a mother herself, Thi Bui was prompted to look deeper into her own parents’ histories to help her understand what family means. She traces back through her parents’ childhoods in Vietnam, her family’s escape after the conclusion of the Vietnamese War, and her childhood growing up as the daughter of immigrants in America. The result is a powerful memoir, enhanced by Bui’s simple and evocative style. I learned a lot, and was left with a lot to think about besides.

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