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24 Ways I’m Reading Harder This Year: Read Harder Challenge 2020

Read Harder 2020 groovy
Posted by The Carbonated Scholar
Read Harder 2020 Challenge
15/24 Books

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I’m participating in three reading challenges this year: Read Harder, Reading Women, and POPSUGAR (yes, I may be crazy!). A reading challenge is sort of like a book club with a twist. Instead of suggesting specific books, reading challenges provide unique prompts for their participants, who then choose their own books to fulfill each prompt. Half of the fun is exploring new books and planning out the year’s challenge. 

I love reading challenges, and Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge was my first foray into this exciting world. I first gave it a try way back in 2017 (though I started late and didn’t finish). I finally finished a Read Harder challenge in 2019, and I’m back for 2020. Read Harder helps me discover new books and get me out of reading ruts. I really like how it pushes me to read more diverse books and books in different genres

This article lists all the books I’ve read for the challenge so far (and a review!) and is organized by the Read Harder prompt. If you would like to follow along with me, you can purchase the books at The Carbonated Scholar Bookshop, which is an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores and gives back to the book community, or, if you prefer, you can press on the links to be directed to Amazon. If you want to start your own Read Harder challenge (it’s never too late), you can find the list of prompts and suggestions on the Book Riot website.

 I’ll continue to update this post throughout the year, as I finish new books.  

The Carbonated Scholar's Read Harder Challenge 2020

1. Read a YA nonfiction book

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

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

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

This books is a clever, engrossing book-within-a-book mystery that pays homage to both Agatha Christie and modern thrillers. 

The book starts with editor Susan Ryeland beginning Alan Conway’s latest novel, Magpie Murders, set in a quaint, sleepy English village.  On what will be his last case, our Poirot-character Atticus Pünd pulls out all the deductive reasoning stops and uncovers a classic mystery. 

Then the book abruptly ends, and we are launched into a real life mystery surrounding our author Alan Conway, with editor Susan Ryeland on the case. Come for the mystery, stay for the shocking word-play reveal at the end. I enjoyed every minute! 

Read my Goodreads review here.

4. Read a graphic memoir

5. Read a book about a natural disaster

This is Chance: The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It Together by Jon Mooallem

This book is about the fascinating 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska — the most powerful earthquake in American history. I had never even heard of the earthquake, so my learning curve was really high — my favorite type of reading experience! 

The story focuses around a remarkable radio reporter and mother Genie Chance, who reported on the earthquake for three days and then channeled her notoriety to become an Alaskan state politician. The book weaves together original research, interview, and broadcasts with a narrative structure based on the play Our Town. 

The information in this book is supremely interesting but beware — there is a strange shift when the author goes into the third person in the third act. I almost lost my marbles. I got the actual heebie-jeebies as I listened to the audiobook. I’ve heard it’s an Our Town reference, but seriously, beware if you are affected by such things — and maybe it would have been better to leave the metatheatrics on the stage.

Read my Goodreads review here.

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

7. Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, transl. by John E. Woods

This book is an acclaimed bestseller and international sensation first published in 1985, but one that was never on my radar. This is one of the things I love most about the Read Harder Challenge! It really pushes you (especially with help from the Goodreads community). 

Originally published in German, this book is set in 18th century France and is a bildungsroman of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a boy who has a perfect sense of smell and a related secret. His life is overtaken by the desire for smells — owning, collecting, destroying, creating. 

This is one of those books that will change the way you look at the world; it will have you thinking about your sense of smell, your personal smells, and the smells all around you. The book is dark, sensual, and (not a spoiler, check the title) murder. The end scene is one of the most striking I’ve ever encountered in literature. It’s worth reading just for the ending. 

Check out my Goodreads review here.

8. Read an audiobook of poetry

9. Read the LAST book in a series

Binti: Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

This is the third book in the series of science fiction, Afro-futurism novellas following  a young woman Binti as she leaves home for university (and returns).

The first book Binti is so imaginative and touches on important narratives of culture, culture shock, family expectations, diplomacy, violence, and genocide. I recommend it to everyone, especially first-gen college students (or future first-gen college students) as well as those who work closely with that community.

As I continued reading the series, I almost wish that I had stopped at Binti, not because the follow up novellas in the series are bad by any means, but I do think they dilute the poignancy of the original.

In this one, Binti returns to her home planet (something I don’t like, because I love learning about Oomza Uni), when, picking up from previous books, a violent conflict erupts. Once again, it’s up to Binti to try to prevent a war and deliver peace to her world.

I got tired at the beginning of the year after reading a number of books featuring girls and young women saving their worlds (The Children of Blood and Bone and His Dark Materials series) — girls can’t even get a break in fiction!

And while I had a hard time at the beginning , the last third of the novella picks up pace and is just an explosion of action, sacrifice, and love. Your mind and heart will be reeling at this series conclusion.

Read my Goodreads review here.

10. Read a book that takes place in a rural setting

Lanny: A Novel by Max Porter

What a book! I picked this up, because it was long-listed for the Booker Prize and fit nicely into this Read Harder Challenge.

This book is an ode to (and criticism of) contemporary English village life with a shadowy mythical character — Dead Papa Toothwort — watching all the while. The story comes to a head when the mythical past and the quotidian present elide in the figure of Lanny, a mischievous and dreamy boy.

The first 2/3s of the book are engrossing. I especially enjoyed the mosaic  of character snippets of the daily minutiae of the villagers. The last third, which is where the action is, was just not for me. The beauty is in the lush descriptions and piercing examination of contemporary village life not in the plot.

Read my Goodreads review here.

11. Read a debut novel by a queer author

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

This is an #ownvoices book about a high school student named Ben, who comes out to their parents to disastrous results. After being kicked out of their house, Ben must change schools and find a new normal. In comes Nathan, a popular and vivacious classmate, who refuses to let Ben spend their last semester in high school alone. This book explores the meaning of friendship and love in times of adversity and the process of self-acceptance. 

I loved this book for how it helped me better understand the experience of non-binary people in general and youth specifically. I also love that this book had therapy at the heart of the healing and recover process after trauma. 

Read my Goodreads review here

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

Naturally Tan by Tan France

I love Tan France and all of the Fab Five from Netflix’s Queer Eye. In this memoir, Tan charms with stories about his upbringing in a South Asian family in Northern England, about love for his husband Rob, of scores of lost jobs (and then business success), and how he scored his Queer Eye gig and became one of the very first openly gay South Asian men on a major show. 

For more snarkiness and spice, you can read the full review here.

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

14. Read a romance starring a single parent

If I Only Knew by Corinne Michaels

I read this just a few short months ago (though with a global pandemic and nationwide protests in the middle), and I honestly say I can’t remember a thing about it. Fortunately, I have the Goodreads review I wrote at the time and have perused the book summary to get a handle on it.

Basically, it’s a enemies-to-lovers, workplace romance with a weepy back story. I wrote in March that it was “very emotional and sentimental” and that I didn’t love the friendship between the women, which is the basis of series.

What I can say is that I enjoyed the book at the time, and it helped me escape from the stressful beginning of the quarantine, though I wouldn’t categorize the book as “romance escapism,” since it deals with such heavy topics. 

Read my Goodreads review here.

15. Read a book about climate change

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

This was the 2019 “One Book, One Chicago” selection, which, of course, means I meant to read it in the summer of 2019 but didn’t get to it (*shocking*). When I saw that Read Harder had a climate change prompt, I immediately thought of this book, and I’m glad I picked it.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and a number of other prestigious awards. It details the five mass extinctions that have affected Earth’s biodiversity and announces the sixth extinction occurring right now. The cataclysmic event this time is humanity itself. 

I loved how Kolbert wove together the distant past and the present and really interrogated the historical conception of extinction. That alone was worth the book.

Not only is Kolbert a superb science writer, she is also a fantastic communicator. For this book, she journeyed around the world to add a personal touch and unique insights into the topic, though I am yet to be convinced that these excursions were wholly necessary or fitting to the message of the book. Her research trips came off as wasteful in a book so centered on humanity’s role in climate change.

Furthermore, this book is DIFFICULT. It is extraordinarily depressing but incredibly insightful and valuable. I highly encourage everyone to read it, but maybe don’t read it during the early stages of a global pandemic, like I did.

Read my Goodreads review here.

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

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

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

After years (decades?) of meaning to read the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, it was HBO of all things that kicked me into gear. The HBO series looked so good (and it is!), but I just hate watching a movie or show based on a book before reading the book. (That’s how I found myself speed-reading Good Omens while delirious with a fever last year. I didn’t want to miss the debut of the Netflix series!).

Well, I read His Dark Materials as fast as the library could get them to me. I devoured them. While I wasn’t 100% convinced by The Golden Compass (too much girl-adventurer saves the world rah-rah!), the rest of the series was fantastic. 

I also immediately downloaded the associated short stories, including this one, which is my favorite. This short story explores events pre-His Dark Materials and corrects one of my biggest complaints of the series — we finally get to learn about the political and economic infrastructure of Lyra’s world. Plus more Lee Scoresby, Hester, and Iorek! 

If you’ve read His Dark Materials, definitely check out this short story. If you have not read His Dark Materials, what are you waiting for? Read it, so you can immediately read this fantastic short story! 

Read my Goodreads review here.

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

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López

I always have a hard time reviewing picture books, because I’m not a child, don’t have a child, and don’t spend any time around children. I’m so disconnected from the intended audience. So take my thoughts with a grain of salt, if you do fall into one of those categories.

This book has lavish illustrations with a laudable message of celebrating diversity and finding human connections in the little things. The language of the book is very poetic, which isn’t for me. Moreover, I found that the book skewed too negative. The ending was fantastic but 90% of the book is so negative, and I think the message could have been more powerful if it had been woven throughout the book and not saved until the end.

The book is worth checking out, if only for the illustrations, which are gorgeous.

Read my Goodreads review here.

19. Read a book by or about a refugee

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

This graphic novel is a devastating fictional account of the journey of two African brothers to Europe across the Mediterranean. The book flips back and forth between present and past to tell this heartbreaking story.

The artwork is fantastic, though the story is somewhat predictable and not as well fleshed out, which may be to be expected from a children’s graphic novel.

Read my Goodreads review here

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

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

This is one of those books that I had tangentially heard of but never read. I loved Lois Lowry’s books as a child — The Giver was my actual jam, but this one was just not on my radar. And what a mistake! 

This book is about a brave little girl named Annemarie Johansen helping her Jewish friend Ellen Rosen in Denmark during WWII. I have a lot of personal connections with this story, and I’m so glad I found it.

I highly recommend this lovely book to both adults and children.

Read my Goodreads review here.

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

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert 

This cute and enjoyable book is about a black, curvy, disabled British woman (the eponymous Chloe Brown), who decides to “get a life” (see what I did there) after a near death experience. This is a romance novel through and through but also has a really valuable message about disability, diversity, and finding your own way in life. 

At times the book is goofy, at others sweet; sometimes I just wanted to bonk the two main characters over the head and yell “GET SOME COMMUNICATION SKILLS” at them. 

The pure love (and lust) the male love interest has for Chloe is refreshing. He lusts after her curves and soft-body! The only problem is the male love interest just feels like a fantasy. Chloe is *REAL,* but her man is just too good to be true. But what’s a romance novel without some fantasy! 

Read my Goodreads review here.

22. Read a horror book published by an indie press

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

24. Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author

There, There by Tommy Orange

This book is a patchwork quilt of native stories that all connect together at the Big Oakland Powwow. As part of a community arts project, we hear the stories of participants, the personal and the collective, the funny and the painful. 

This is the first book I’ve ever read that gives a voice to the urban Native American experience. Honestly, I had never really thought this aspect of Native American culture. So many of Native American narratives are centered around the reservation or the past.

Orange particularly excels at connecting his readers to the young urban native male experience. I think he writes the most complex young male narratives I’ve ever read, native or not. 

I struggled at times keeping track of all the characters and stories, and I felt that women’s narratives didn’t necessarily ring true to me. Nevertheless, this ambitious book is on the whole a success.

This book is also difficult. There are scenes that made me want to yell and scream; there are scenes that are truly uncomfortable. 

I read this book with a diversity reading group of librarians, students, and alumni from my university. It was really great to think about this book with a group of other engaged people. I definitely recommend this for a book club or to read with a friend.

Read my Goodreads review here.

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