This year, I Decided I Need a Challenge and took on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. The challenge consisted of 24 categories of books with the goal of reading outside of your comfort zone. I read 14 books out of 24 for the challenge and, honestly, I feel like that’s pretty good.
Most importantly, I stepped outside of my usual reading habits and ended up reading books, like an anthology of essays, that I wouldn’t normally read.
Because I love researching and reading about books, I also had a lot of fun looking up books and figuring out which to read for each category.
Below is a synopsis of what I read and what I didn’t.
p.s. Please forgive any typos. This is a long post and I’m being a lazy editor. 🙂
Categories I Read
Read a biography of an author you admire—Harriet Jacobs: A Life by Jean Fagan Yellin
I adored Harriet Jacobs: A Life. What a difficult story to read. I’m glad I know more about her. Did you know she was hidden in a space where she couldn’t stand up for 7 years? I’d forgotten that from reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in college. Just, wow.
Read a book set in a bookstore—The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
I do not care that this book can be described as “cute.” I loved it. It’s the story of an English woman who gets downsized from her library job and, despite being fairly square and timid to boot, she moves to Scotland, buys an old van, fixes it up as a traveling bookshop, and becomes the local book dealer.
There are some love interests. It reads like a Hallmark movie—if Hallmark movies were actually good. I enjoyed it thoroughly. There’s also a charming intro. by Colgan about the best places to read a book. I love her even more as an author after reading that.
Read any book from the Women’s Prize shortlist/longlist/winner list.—Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
This contemporary novel is part love story (or marriage story, more like), part introspection on the part of the protagonist Martha, and part family drama.
If someone had described the novel in that way to me, I’d probably have passed. But I came to it with no expectations, not really knowing what the book was about, and was immediately sucked in by Mason’s incredible writing. Here’s the Goodreads link if you need a better description than mine!
Read a book in any genre by a POC that’s about joy and not trauma—The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America
What a wonderful category. It led me to The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America by Tamara Winfrey Harris. Winfrey Harris explains the origins of stereotypes assigned to Black women and then takes them on, discussing the ways in which they hurt Black women and degrade their place in society.
From the “angry Black woman” stereotype to the “Mammy” stereotype, Winfrey Harris takes us on a journey of understanding. I finished this book a renewed sense of the unfairness and struggle placed on the shoulders of Black women.
The “joy” (per the prompt for this selection) is woven throughout, however. In interviews with Black women and experts who understand the issues, hope abounds. There’s also a section at the end of each chapter titled “Moments in Alright,” which presents examples of women, along with statistics, that defy the stereotypes society has put on Black women.
Read an anthology featuring diverse voices.—The Lonely Stories, Edited by Natalie Eve Garrett
In August, I read The Lonely Stories, a book of essays on the topic of loneliness. I found so many of these moving. The topics range from chronic illness to moving to a new country to taking care of an aging parent. I don’t normally like anthologies and I never seek them out, but I highly recommend this one.
Read a nonfiction YA comic—The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson
This is a lovely memoir by a well-known artist who got her start in web comics. Sprinkled throughout the drawings are actual photos from Stevenson’s life, plus some solid writing. It’s a quick but touching work. Do recommend.
Read a romance where at least one of the protagonists is over 40.—Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
This is the charming story of retired Major Pettigrew (68), who falls in love with the Pakistani woman who runs one of the local shops in his English village. Romance and foibles ensue. There is also a story line about his son with whom the Major has a rocky relationship, which I found interesting. The characters, story, and tone come across with depth and wryness—a tough combo that author Helen Simonson masters. Would recommend.
Read a classic written by a POC.—Quicksand by Nella Larsen
I fell in love with Nella Larsen last year after reading her perhaps more well-known classic Passing. There’s now a 2021 movie adaptation, which I have yet to watch. Need to get on that.
In the meantime, I enjoyed reading Quicksand in April 2022. The story centers on Helga Crane, a woman who quits her comfortable teaching job despite the security it offers and goes from situation to situation, moving to Harlem, Denmark, and eventually to Alabama for various reasons. Race is a major theme as Crane has her own thoughts about how her race (she is half Black, half white) has affected her life and situation.
This is a story about a woman trying to find herself and the various geographical locations she finds herself in each teach her something about who she is and what she wants. The ending leaves Helga’s own ending to the imagination, which is both frustrating and a perfect ending in different ways.
Read a political thriller by a marginalized author (BIPOC, or LGBTQIA+).–Forbidden City by Vanessa Hua
This is a bit of a cheat. It’s not a thriller exactly, but it is political, and because I generally hate the political thriller genre, this is as good as we’re gonna’ get. I’m still counting it.
Anyway, what a great concept for a story. Apparently, Chairman Mao loved ballroom dancing and while he was in power, his underlings organized dances for him and his comrades featuring the company of beautiful teenage girls plucked from all over China for his entertainment (and bedding). This story features the rise and fall of one of these young women.
Read an entire poetry collection.—The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck
I said I would read this one and I did. It’s WONDERFUL. I began reading it in February and finished it in August, which is kind of perfect because the book takes you through the seasons from the perspectives of the plants that grow throughout each.
This may be my new favorite book of poetry. The imagery and perspective are so unique, with the content being both playful and profound at turns. If you like poetry, and especially if you are obsessed with plants like me, this is a great volume for you.
Read an adventure story by a BIPOC author.—Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
I LOVED Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. This is a heart-rending story of slavery and a young Black boy’s coming of age. The adventure comes in when Washington Black, an 11-year-old enslaved boy who lives on his master’s sugar plantation in Barbados, is selected by the master’s brother to assist him as he builds a “cloud-cutter,” a giant gas-powered balloon-like flying machine. Wash’s story is woven with heartbreak, adventure, love, and joy, and I lived it right along with him.
Read a book whose movie or TV adaptation you’ve seen (but haven’t read the book).—The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Did you know this book was the second in a series? I had no idea. There are more Hannibal Lecter books, apparently. News to me.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story. The book was just as gritty as the movie, but I found it slightly less dramatic because it’s definitely a police procedural. Not my usual brand, but I still enjoyed reading the book, then watching the movie again for comparison.
Read a horror novel by a BIPOC author.—Mirror Girls by Kelly McWilliams
On the recommendation of an old friend who commented on a Facebook post asking for suggestions, this was my selection. Mirror Girls is a gothic-y YA novel set in the South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. It centers on two sisters, one Black and one passing for white, who have just found out that they are sisters. Drama ensues. It’s good, but I don’t know that I was in the mood for the breeziness of a typical YA novel. It wasn’t too scary and it didn’t delve deeply enough emotionally for my tastes.
Read a queer retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, folklore, or myth.—Beast by Brie Spangler
Of course the Read Harder Challenge would have me read a retelling. I do not like retellings. I was becoming disheartened in my search for a good one back in March, finding all the books a bit plodding, and with my inability to suspend disbelief, it wasn’t going well. But I happily stumbled on Beast by Brie Spangler and it was great.
First, I couldn’t resist that pretty cover art. Second, I didn’t find it plodding. Third, the “retelling” part of the retelling was more of a theme than this overriding airy-fairiness that I usually can’t abide in retellings.
It’s about an exceptionally large and hairy teenager named Dylan. In the first scene he falls or jumps off of a roof–we don’t know whether he’s fallen or jumped, but readers will have their suspicions. After doctors treat his broken leg, Dylan’s mom sends him to group therapy because she has her own suspicions.
This is where he meets Jamie, a trans girl with issues of her own. The thing is, when they first meet, Dylan doesn’t hear Jamie say that she’s trans. Dylan falls in love and complications ensue. There’s a lot about identity in this one (and not just gender identity) so if you like books with that as a central theme, I recommend this one.
Categories I Didn’t Read
Read the book that’s been on your TBR the longest.
Read a new-to-you literary magazine (print or digital).
Read a book recommended by a friend with different reading tastes.
Read a memoir written by someone who is trans or nonbinary.
Read a “Best _ Writing of the year” book for a topic and year of your choice.
Read an award-winning book from the year you were born.
Read a book with an asexual and/or aromantic main character.
Read a history about a period you know little about.
Read a book by a disabled author.
Pick a challenge from any of the previous years’ challenges to repeat!
Can you tell I ran out of steam after awhile? It would’ve been so easy to pick a category to repeat from a previous year or to read about a historical period I knew little about. And Ben recommended at least 10 ideas for the “read a book recommended by a friend with different reading tastes” category.
But after awhile, I couldn’t be bothered. I just wanted to read what I wanted to read.
So here we are at the end of the challenge year. All in all, not too shabby.
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays, friends!