Challenge Check-In: August 7th, 2019

How’s your reading challenge going?  For the past 3 months I’ve been traveling non-stop around Europe (the British Isles, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy), so my checked-off categories continue to look pretty dismal compared to the full 75 which I’m still hoping to complete. Somehow Colleen’s list of checked-off categories is still in good form, despite her two very busy part-time jobs this summer leaving her hardly any free hours to read—which I suppose are the benefits of hitting those categories hard in the first few months of the year. Alas, we sometimes have to admit that living life to the fullest and reading dozens of fabulous books are goals which do not always align!

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!


  1. A non-fiction book about science: Human Body Decomposition by Jarvis Hayman and Marc Frederick Oxenham
  2. A graphic novel: The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic by Emma
  3. A poetry collection: Rookery by Traci Brimhall

The nice thing about the poetry category is that once a year it forces me to sit on the couch with a cat on my lap for a few hours and actually read one of the many books of poetry I have bought and never read. The only reason I bought Rookery is because it contains Brimhall’s poem “Aubade in Which I Untangle Her Hair”, which I had encountered on Tumblr—an eerie, unsettling poem in which the relationship between the two speakers is not easily picked apart. I very much enjoyed spending an afternoon with Brimhall’s work, occasionally rereading those poems which needed some extra time to sink in. Rookery reminded me a bit of Richard Siken’s work, insofar as the visceral but constantly shifting imagery, the “let me explain this to you” tone of the speakers, and the deceptive readability of each poem. I definitely suggest this collection, so long as you are willing to spend some time in contemplation while reading.

  1. A true crime book: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich [book club]
  2. A romance novel (a good one!): The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  3. A book by a local author: Bitter Harvest by Ann Rule
  4. A book by an author using a pen name: Perfect Rhythm by Jae

My romance TBR shelf has been sorely neglected this year, and no one is more sad about this than me. Fortunately, when I looked to fill the “about music or musicians” category on my Seattle Public Library summer book bingo card, Perfect Rhythm was very ready to slide right in and take me one square closer to a blackout. I originally found this book in a list of romance novels with bi or homoromantic asexual women protagonists over on Autostraddle, and was enticed by its astounding Goodreads rating (4.27) and the fact that, despite being an independently published ebook, the cover actually looked halfway decent! (I love my independently or self-published romance novels, but my typical reaction to their covers is “…wowza.”)

Like many romance novels, the narrative switches back and forth in perspective between our two leading ladies—Leontyne, a burnt-out pop star questioning her music career, and Holly, a home healthcare nurse who’s tired of dating women who think her asexuality will magically vanish at some point once she gets past her “issues.” Their paths collide when Leontyne finally returns to her tiny hometown, after her father has had a stroke, and encounters Holly who has been working as Leo’s father’s nurse. The story tackles a question which the very existence of asexuality forces us to consider—what is “intimacy” in a relationship? How do you define it, for yourself or for others? And how do your romantic and sexual identities impact the way you view intimacy?

These kinds of tough questions are part of the reason I love romance novels, as they naturally facilitate a discussion, either with others or with our own selves, as we consider the infinite varieties of human relationships and how we connect with one another. Jae has done an excellent job bringing these topics into view while also providing the reader with a simple, charming, and very readable love story.

  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
  3. A book by an African or African American author: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  4. A book set (mostly) in space: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty [book club]
  5. A book set in a place you have visited: The Dry by Jane Harper
  6. A fiction book without a romance: Sadie by Courtney Summers [book club]
  7. A book with an elderly major character: The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone
  8. A book with a bisexual or pansexual major character: The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka
  9. A book with a black and white cover: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
  10. A book with a plausible murder weapon in the title: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

Although the premise of this book—discussing all the poisons used by Agatha Christie in her mystery novels and explaining how they worked—sounds like it might be a dry recap of Christie’s many murder mysteries with just a bit of surface-level science thrown in, I assure you the book itself is anything but. Despite having read Human Body Decomposition earlier this year (which literally had an entire chapter discussing the reliability of postmortem potassium concentration in the vitreous humor as a time-of-death indicator), A is for Arsenic is the 2019 read that truly prompted me to dust off any knowledge still lodged deep in my brain from my 10th grade bio-chem class and put my little grey cells to work.

Harkup goes through the various poisons in alphabetical order, with each chapter following a similar structure: quick overview of the book(s) in which Christie used the poison, general history of the poison’s discovery and use, how the poison works (with detailed biological and chemical explanations), whether or not there is an antidote, real-life cases involving the poison (all of which are fascinating), and a discussion of how accurately Christie portrayed the poison in her book(s). Harkup’s writing is engaging and easy to follow, even when she’s explaining some pretty advanced chemical reactions, and has a delightful sense of humor. Rather than talk any more about how wonderful this book is, I will just share what is possibly my favorite paragraph in the entire book:

The numbing effect produced by the alkaloids would have relieved localised pain, but the margin between a dose producing numbness and one causing serious toxic effects is dangerously narrow. The safety margin was too narrow for a Dr Meyer who, in 1880, prescribed aconitine drops to a young boy. After treatment the boy became ill with chills and convulsions, and his mother went back to see the doctor, blaming the medicine for the child’s illness. Dr Meyer was so outraged at someone daring to question his prescription that he took a dose from the boy’s medicine bottle to prove that it was perfectly safe. Five hours later Dr Meyer died of aconitine poisoning.

  1. A book with over 650 pages: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I love reading Victorian fiction and yet I hated this book so much. I do not recommend it. That is my entire review.

  1. A book you wish would be turned into a movie: Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
  2. A book you haven’t read yet by an author you love: When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll
  3. A book a family member recommended: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters


  1. A non-fantasy YA book: Sadie by Courtney Summers [book club]
  2. A non-fiction book about science: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
  3. A non-fiction book about history: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
  4. A fantasy book based in a non-Western culture: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  5. A book that was initially self-published: Band Sinister by K.J. Charles
  6. A Hugo or Nebula award winner: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

It isn’t news, at this point, that I absolutely adore N.K. Jemisin’s writing. The Obelisk Gate is the second installation in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and we continue to follow Essun’s journey to survive in the post-apocalyptic remains of her society, and watch her growing realization that she has the key to fix the catastrophe that has befallen the world. I knew that Jemisin went three for three on this trilogy and winning the Hugo, but even so, you sometimes worry that a sequel to such an incredibly strong start won’t be able to shoulder the full weight of your expectations. Let me just say, the Hugos knew what they were about here. Jemisin’s writing continues to be absolutely gripping, her world-building is immense and feels incredibly real, her cast of characters is hugely diverse in many ways, her social commentary is biting without being preachy… seriously, why aren’t you reading this already. The first in the trilogy is The Fifth Season. You’re welcome.

  1. A book in translation: The Mental Load by Emma
  2. A middle reader book: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  3. A graphic novel: The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
  4. A play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  5. A poetry collection: A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I find it difficult to talk about poetry. It can frequently be one of those things that make me question my own intelligence, because I’m not sure I “get” it. There have been multiple times where I’ve read a poem and was left thinking, wow, that sounded intelligent, pretty sure there’s some deeper meanings in there even though I couldn’t tell you what, so this is probably good? And, understandably, that’s left me hesitant to seek out poetry for myself – mostly, I read poetry once a year, because SOMEBODY keeps leaving it on the category challenge. But A Thousand Mornings didn’t leave me feeling confused or stupid or unsure. Oliver’s poetry is very simple and lovely. If I was describing my state of mind after finishing a poem out of this collection, I would say comfortable, quietly happy. I enjoyed this collection very much and recommend it especially to anyone else who, like me, is not so sure where they stand on poetry.

  1. An anthology or collection: All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell
  2. A book about an ism: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
  3. A true crime book: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich [book club]
  4. A book by a local author: Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule

Small Sacrifices is the chilling account of the shooting of three children by their mother, Diane Downs. Obviously, no true account of a murder will ever be easy reading, but I think it’s understandable that this one felt even more nightmarish than many. Ann Rule has set the standard for me for true crime – she brings these horrible and tragic events to life in a way that is compelling without falling into the trap of glorifying the violent criminals at the heart of these stories. I whole-heartedly agree with all of the points Ariana made about Rule’s writing in her write-up for Bitter Harvest in our previous check-in; those all apply here as well. I can add that Rule is able to write a trial scene like no other – despite sticking heavily to the transcript, Rule brings a sense of tension and drama to her trials that never fails to hold me captivated.

  1. A book with multiple authors: Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey
  2. A book by a famous author whom you’ve never read: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. A book by an author over 65: Bitter Harvest by Ann Rule
  4. A book by an author under 30: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
  5. A book by an African or African American author: Mem by Bethany C. Morrow
  6. A book set in a place you’ve always wanted to visit: Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare
  7. A book set in a place you have visited: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  8. A book set in your hometown or home region: Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule
  9. A retelling of a myth, fairytale, or “classic” story: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  10. A fiction book without a romance: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty [book club]
  11. A book with an “unlikeable heroine”: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
  12. A book with a disabled major character: El Deafo by Cece Bell
  13. A book with a non-cisgender major character: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
  14. A book with a bisexual or pansexual major character: Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian
  15. A book with an asexual or aromantic major character: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
  16. A book with a black and white cover: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  17. A book with a measure of time in the title: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
  18. A book with six or more words in the title: How Long ‘til Black Future Month? By N.K. Jemisin
  19. A book with under 150 pages: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  20. A book with illustrations: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
  21. A book that inspired a common phrase or idiom: The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
  22. Reread a book from your childhood: Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
  23. Reread a book with a plot you can’t remember: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  24. Reread a book that had a lasting impact on how you think: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
  25. A book a family member recommended: Educated by Tara Westover
  26. A book suggested by or seen in the hands of a stranger: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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