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A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

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Reading Challenges: Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge

If you’re entrenched in the world of books, you’ve probably heard of Book Riot’s annual Read Harder challenge. When I reminded friends on Facebook that the challenge was available, we had a discussion about the appropriateness of the title. Because this challenge focuses several times on people of color and other underprivileged groups and we can pretty easily assume that much of Book Riot’s audience are white, cis-gender, heterosexual folks, there’s an implication that books by and about POC and other underprivileged groups are inherently “harder.”

I think in this case “harder” probably means with more enthusiasm, but the ambiguity alone is troubling. Of course, the challenge doesn’t solely focus on underprivileged groups (the first category refers to reading about sports, for example), so it’s likely this is entirely innocent. If you have thoughts on this, I encourage you to add them in the comments. It’s an important discussion to continue regardless of Book Riot’s intent, and now that we’ve touched on it, I’ll move on to the actual list, what books I’ve selected to fulfill the categories, and the strategy I used to find the books. I hope this will get you started in your own 2017 reading challenge, whether you choose to follow Book Riot’s to a T, to adapt Book Riot’s, to try another challenge, or to make one of your own.

If you’re going to follow the original list, Book Riot has some great resources within the article in the form of embedded links. Many of them redirect to other articles by Book Riot, though you’ll also find some Goodreads lists among others. Otherwise, feel free to use any of the books I’ve listed below or ask me for a recommendation. Meanwhile, check back for reviews of each of the books throughout the year.

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  1. Read a book about sports. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella – For this category, I knew right away which book I wanted to read. While Shoeless Joe has never officially made it onto my to-be-read (TBR) list, it’s always been in the back of my mind. I grew up watching Field of Dreams (and visited the filming location when I was a toddler) with my dad, so of course I have to get around to this one. I’m glad to finally have an excuse to officially get it on my list and cross it off. 
  2.  Read a debut novel. 

    If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio – This was another I knew I wanted to do right away. I can’t tell you too much about how I know about it (suffice to say an anonymous book blogger wrote a book and, using my handy librarian skills, I found out their identity and thus the title — update, April 2017: I can now tell you that blogger is DukeofBookingham). This novel is soaked in Shakespeare and murder, so what more could you ask for? It’s supposed to come out in April, but the release is still a bit up in the air. I’ve got a Barnes & Noble card saved especially for this one, though, so I can’t wait! Review.

  3. Read a book about books. 

    The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller – This one was not on my TBR, though like Shoeless Joe, I was aware of it and it was a mental TBR. Goodreads has a few lists of books about books, so it wasn’t too hard to find something that interested me. I’m always interested in the reading lives of others, so I’m looking forward to this one with hopes that it won’t give me too many more books to add to my TBR.

  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author. 

    Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez – The funny thing about being a librarian is that customers think you’ve either (a) read every classic work, (b) read every book in the library, and/or (c) read every book in the world. As much as I wish I had the time for that, the sad truth is, I don’t. So I’ve not yet gotten around to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that would fit this category (shame, shame). There’s a reason his books are so beloved, I imagine, so I hope I’ll get an idea why when I dive into this one.

  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative. 

    In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero – If you’ve watched Orange Is the New Black or Jane the Virgin, you’re familiar with Diane Guerrero. In the Country We Love discusses her life in America as her family deals with immigration laws. I’ve been on something of a biography/memoir kick the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that Guerrero is just a brilliant writer as she is actress. This topic is somewhat unknown to me, and I know I’m going to learn a lot from this book. Review.

  6. Read an all-ages comic. 

    El Deafo by Cece Bell – Back when I attended the Virginia Library Association conference in 2015, Cece Bell was one of the authors who spoke in a session. I wasn’t able to attend that one (too many good options!) but I was intrigued by her work, even though I’m not usually one to read graphic novels or comics. Friends with disabilities have pointed to El Deafo as a great piece on disabilities, so I’m definitely itching to check this one out.

  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950. 

    Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – Ah, yes, another classic I’ve never touched. It’s been on my TBR for a while now, though, and I’m happy to whittle down my list in the name of this challenge. (It also fulfills one of the books on the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge!)

  8. Read a travel memoir. 

    What I Was Doing while You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman – I had to use one of the Book Riot lists for this one. Though I haven’t yet touched Eat, Pray, Love, I wanted to do something I hadn’t heard about a million times over. This work is written by one of the writers of How I Met Your Mother, which I (mostly) loved. I’m sure this travel memoir will be filled with a lot of the same humor found in the show (though hopefully with a touch or more less misogyny) so it’ll be a fun read. Review.

  9. Read a book you’ve read before. 

    Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery – I was on the fence about this one, because I’ve been meaning to reread The Bell Jar and other books, too, but since I have vague plans to visit Prince Edward Island in the nearish future, I thought this would be a fun way to get me extra excited about the trip. Plus, I kind of feel like I need a palate cleanser after seeing the latest film adaptation. Sorry, Ella Ballentine, you have nothing on Megan Follows. Review.

  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location. 

    The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson – This category was a tough one. Most book descriptions don’t include the setting and it’s not often something listed in the subject headings in the library catalog. That’s not always the case, though, so I was lucky to find this one in my library’s catalog by just searching for “washington dc.” Of course, if you live in rural Montana, my guess is you’ll have a harder time finding something (I couldn’t even really pin down anything for Northern Virginia that wasn’t D.C. easily — I found one in Richmond, which is 105 miles away, according to Google Maps, and since I’m a perfectionist, well, that wasn’t going to cut it for me). This is one of the categories that is easier if you’re willing to reread something. Either way, this book looks pretty exciting and a little bit outside the realm of what I usually read. Win! Review.

  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location. 

    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea has been on my TBR for forever. If you don’t know, it’s an extension of Jane Eyre, telling the story of Rochester’s attic-dwelling wife prior to her imprisonment. It takes place in Jamaica (and the author is from Dominica), a cool 1,434 miles from Arlington, VA so I’m expecting to read of lots of unfamiliar cultural bits, both due to location and history. Review.

  12. Read a fantasy novel. 

    Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – This book has been blowing up in the booklr (bookish Tumblr community) scene, especially since its sequel came out recently. It’s been on my TBR since I heard about it, so I’m thrilled to cross another off that list. This book is also rallied around for its diversity — as I understand it, it features multiple characters of color, characters with disabilities and mental illnesses, and characters of various social and economic classes. (Hopefully one day this won’t be something worth celebrating, but for now, yay!) Review.

  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology. 

    The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson – This was a tough category for me. Nonfiction on technology isn’t really my go-to for nonfiction (I’m more interested in soft sciences there, generally), so I asked a friend for suggestions. He didn’t have any off the top of his head, so I did a basic search for “technology” in my library’s catalog and limited the search to books published in 2016 and nonfiction. I came across this title in that list and, despite the missing Oxford comma, decided it sounded fairly interesting. Isaacson’s name was vaguely familiar to me and the book was listed on a few tech websites as a good read. I’ll let you know how it goes when I get to it.

    Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty – This came to me as a bit of professional development reading. Makerpsaces are fairly big in public libraries among other spaces at the moment, so I grabbed this work and realized it fit the technology category pretty well after I read it. Two birds: one stone. Review.

  14. Read a book about war. 

    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – Oh, war. I really wasn’t up for reading nonfiction for this category. With all of the wars going on right now, I read enough about it in the news on a daily basis. Catch-22 has been on my mental TBR for a while (since, oh, middle school), so this was another good opportunity to buy one, get one. I hear this one is full of just the type of humor that suits me, so I’m hoping it’ll be a good motivator to get me through the beginnings of the upcoming administration.

  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. 

    Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour – I used one of the Book Riot lists to find this one. It has an absolutely stunning cover and an interesting premise that, according to the ratings I’ve seen on Goodreads, is backed up with some great writing. It’s exciting to read a new-to-me author, as well — I could have gone with the old David Levithan or Alex Sánchez, but I’ve read so many of those that I’m ready for something new. Everything Leads to You seems like the perfect fit. Review.

  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country. 

    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I can’t tell you how long this has been on my TBR and sitting on my shelf. Now that a TV version is coming out on Hulu, I’ve got no excuses. Despite my twenty-five years, I haven’t yet encountered any spoilers for this one, so it’s now or never. I love this particular challenge because it’s a great reminder, outside of Banned Books Week in September, that challenging, banning, and censorship is still an issue we face today. Review.

  17. Read a classic by an author of color. 

    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – Remember what I said about librarians not reading every book in the world? Yeah, I haven’t gotten around to any Toni Morrison (nor Maya Angelou, nor Alice Walker, nor Zora Neale Hurston — truly my exposure to black women authors is abysmal). Beyond the very simple descriptions I’ve read of the plot, which I understand involves internalized racism, I really don’t know anything about The Bluest Eye — exciting! Review.

  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead. 

    Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson – I’ve said before I’m not big on comics and graphic novels. Occasionally one will catch my interest (Paper Girls was great, for example), but overall, I find the hypermasculinity to be bland and I can’t follow the art well enough, so I focus on the text which causes me to miss a lot of context. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ms. Marvel, so I’m hoping that it will be another good entry point for me and my journey to read more broadly in format.

  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey. 

    Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova – This category was tough. It’s another that you can’t easily search for in a library catalog or otherwise, so I had to rely on other options. I found this one by using the Book Riot discussion board for the 2017 challenge, which has many recommendations and ideas for all categories. I’d seen the cover floating around social media and was intrigued but it hadn’t yet made it onto my TBR. This looks like a unique and exciting read so I can’t wait to dig in.

  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel. 

    Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sanchez – So, I’ve mentioned I’ve read David Levithan or Alex Sánchez, so those were out for this category. Meanwhile, everyone has been raving about Aristotle and Dante, so I figured this was a good opportunity to cross it off my TBR. I hear Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reading of the audiobook is fantastic, so I’m torn as to whether or not I should give that a go or not (since I’m usually not one for fiction audiobooks). If you want to try to sway me toward it, I’ll see you in the comments!

  21. Read a book published by a micropress. 

    When I’m Old, and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell – Like some of the other categories, this one was tough to search for in a library catalog. Books aren’t cataloged by whether or not they were published by a micropress, but the name of the publisher is always listed in the bibliographic record. I went in search of a list of micropresses, found ones that published material that looked interesting to me, and tried an advanced search in the catalog of books published by those presses. The Arlington Public Library in Virginia had several from Alternative Comics, so I ended up with When I’m Old, and Other Stories. The idea of short stories in a graphic novel format rather than a full-length piece in a graphic novel format is really interesting to me, plus I’ll get more exposure to graphic novels. Review.

  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman. 

    Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – I’ve yet to read any of Roxane Gay’s work, and I suppose I should probably start with Bad Feminist, but Book Riot has been pushing this collection so much lately that I figured this might not be a bad place to start, either. While I love writing short stories, I’m usually less interested in reading them (especially contemporary ones). Who’s to say this collection won’t change my mind? Here’s to retrying new things. Review.

  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

    The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer – I’ve read bits and pieces of The Canterbury Tales (don’t we all get introduced to the Wife of Bath in high school?), but I’ve never read it in full. I’ve always seen this (along with The Aeneid, The Odyssey, and The Iliad among others) to be a piece of literary canon that is capital-I Important and probably necessary to at least skim if you have any intent of writing literary fiction, though I’m sure there are plenty of examples to prove me wrong. Either way, I felt this was an interesting interpretation of the challenge. If you’ve ever tried to read The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English, you’ve probably been surprised at how much our language has evolved. While I’d love to have the time to learn Middle English and read this set as it was written, life’s short, so I’ll stick with the translation.

  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color. 

    The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang – This came as another recommendation from Book Riot. Jade Chang served as a co-host on Rita Meade’s Book Riot podcast, Dear Book Nerd (sadly no longer a podcast but still existing as a written column on their website). While, again, this is a category better filled with a book you’ve already read as books are not cataloged by the narrator’s (or narrators’) race, I was able to find some suggestions in comments of the Goodreads page for the Read Harder Challenge. Review.

So there it is. I hope this provides you with some ideas if you’re planning on taking on the challenge this year or are just looking for something to read. If you’re stuck on a category and need some help searching, feel free to hit up your friendly neighborhood librarian or get in touch with me for a bit of guidance. Recommending books is my favorite, so don’t be shy. What are your reading goals this year? Let me know in the comments!

Abby Reads: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Grove Press, 2017, 272 pages
Short Stories

Famed feminist writer Roxane Gay collects several short stories in Difficult Women. From a woman who is essentially married to twins to sisters who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a stranger for a period of weeks during their childhood, these stories explore primarily women and their Image result for difficult women roxane gayrelationships with the men in their lives.

This is the first work of Gay’s that I’ve encountered. My expectations were pretty high: plenty of people have recommended and buzzed about the collection and Gay has a reputation for being an excellent writer with a strong feminist angle. While short stories are not usually my thing — I find it hard to invest in plot and characters in such a short period — this collection was especially challenging.

Though each story tells of different women, the collection ends up feeling incredibly repetitive. At the heart of each story is this message, at least based on my reading: sex with men means bad things for women and in order for a woman to enjoy sex, it must be painful or punishing for her. Perhaps this is what Gay wished to get across. Based on her history of feminism, I somehow doubt it, or else I am misunderstanding how this depiction of heterosexual relationships is feminist. Or, perhaps Gay was purposefully anti-feminist in this collection. I’m not sure. Regardless, I was troubled by the depictions at all, but especially troubled by the fact that this was the same story again and again.

Most of the women in Gay’s stories seem to be thin, light-skinned (if not white) women. This gives me pause only in that she perhaps uses sex as the forced circumstances of life for white women and it becomes a metaphor for living as a black woman in America. The women in these stories abuse themselves either directly or through asking or allowing others to abuse them in various ways, often for things that are out of their own control. Is this a comment on life as a black woman in America? The constant barrage of abuse in one form or another, certainly undeserved, that they face? This is the only thing I can think of that makes any sense.

Beyond the content of the stories, I was disappointed in the prose and writing style, which often felt forced. Gay frequently refers to venison and hunting — perhaps this is something highly present in her own life, perhaps she’s drawing another metaphor here — which felt like overkill. And in many instances, I felt the story ended just where it was getting started, and not in the way many authors want.

While I mostly enjoyed one story titled “The Sacrifice of Darkness” — and it was a science fiction story, so perhaps that makes the difference for me with her — Difficult Women was a total letdown for me otherwise. Where I expected to read about a huge variety of women being difficult against others, I got the world being hard on mostly thin, white, heterosexual, cisgender women. Maybe I’m missing something here, but Difficult Women wasn’t for me.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #22, “Read a collection of short stories by a woman,” and I leave it behind with one-and-a-half hearts.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell

When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Alternative Comics, 2003, 128 pages
Graphic Collection

In a collection of short graphic stories called When I’m Old and Other Stories, Gabrielle Bell describes her life and the lives of others with a grungy art style paired with some pretty bizarre text and narratives. Bell explores the idea of imagining herself, as the title suggests, when she is old, as well as a relationship with a grandparent, the effects of alcohol, and more.111263

Throughout When I’m Old and Other Stories, you’ll likely be reminded of a feel of the ‘90’s, though the collection was published in 2003. It features a grungy, sort-of grotesque atmosphere and style that I have always ascribed to what it was like to be a teenager and young adult in the ‘90s (though I only ever got as old as nine in that decade). Though I haven’t seen Daria, I was reminded of the show, albeit in a darker way than I understand Daria to be from what little exposure I’ve had, with each turn of the page. There’s something delightfully disgusting about When I’m Old and Other Stories, and it is perhaps Bell’s absolute rejection of traditional femininity in the work that makes it so.

But this rejection of femininity often felt like a sort of internalized misogyny. The macho sort of attitude her characters carry, particularly combined with these elements of the obscene, the grotesque, the disgusting, makes When I’m Old and Other Stories feel like an outright accusation against feminine women, though there really is no outright statement I saw that actually gets at that point. This, again combined with a vague feeling that Bell is trying to prove herself or make some sort of point — again, something I couldn’t point out specifically in the work, just a general feeling — made the collection a challenge for me.

There is, perhaps, a deeper meaning here that I’m not getting. There may be layers that better define a point that I simply wasn’t willing to work for. But when Bell’s art style is so unremarkable and the text chaotic and, frankly, often seemingly drug-influenced, I didn’t find that I particularly cared. If Bell was not going to put forth an amount of effort I felt appropriate, I was not going to make up the difference. Of course, When I’m Old and Other Stories was published by a micropress — and one named Alternative Comics. It has a zine feel to it, and I suspect that’s by design in some sense. So, perhaps it’s still my failing that I expected more.

One final struggle I encountered: it was never entirely clear to me what in When I’m Old is autobiographical, what is fiction, what is a mix of the two, and so on. The title would suggest all autobiography, but some elements were too fantastical to be real and some stories conflicted in one way or another. Though Bell’s glimpse into the future in “When I’m Old” is likely some sort of autobiography (an interesting question — can we write autobiographies of our futures?), other stories are far less clear, like “Amy Was a Babysitter.” (The Amazon description seems to clear up this confusion, but the autobiographical influence and degree to which it’s present is still unclear.)

The book is a quick read if you, like I, don’t care to dive too much into it and assume Bell is speaking only on the surface here. It somehow feels significant, but it’s not especially entertaining — rather, it’s depressing in places, which is fine but not for me. I’ll reference more work I haven’t personally engaged with but felt tickling the back of my brain as I read this: Broad City and Girls and, perhaps even Portlandia (which I have seen a bit of). I wondered if When I’m Old and Other Stories represented a sort of prototype for these shows, which I imagine to be depictions of women as human. The difference is When I’m Old is far less commercialized, and perhaps, then, more true to its content.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #21, “Read a book published by a micropress,” and I leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2016, 368 pages
Realistic Fiction

Beginning at the end of Charles Wang’s beauty industry fortune, The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang follows four-fifths of the remaining Wang family on a road trip across the country to older sister Saina in New York. When Charles Wang loses his money thanks to a nation-wide The Wangs vs the World by Jade Changfinancial collapse, he gathers his wife Barbra, his younger daughter Grace, and his son Andrew before embarking on a trip which will reveal the priorities and desires of each character. A backdrop of a crushed American Dream sets the stage for this Chinese-American family while characters continue to grapple with the death of Charles’s first wife, now dead for many years.

It’s no surprise The Wangs vs. the World got as much praise as it did when it came out. Though Chang is an already-established journalist, this debut novel gets at the heart of first-generation life and the pressures the idea of America held against the country’s inhabitants — particularly immigrants. While I am not Asian myself, I recognized a lot of Chang’s stories from family stories my Chinese-American partner has shared with me. This prompted a lot of interesting introspection on my part, and opened a world that was somewhat new to me.

Chang’s characters are highly individualized, each dealing with their family’s downfall differently, or not at all. This high level of development is necessary to propel the prose forward as the novel is primarily literary fiction, and one that focuses on how an event impacts a group of people rather than how a group of people enact a plot. Like lots of literary fiction, The Wangs vs. the World does feel slow at times. With chapters alternating perspectives, still in the third-person, the novel sometimes struggles to keep an even rhythm with interruptions to reconnect with characters that have been ignored in favor of others and some characters carrying more weight than others. Chang, however, has something for everyone; one character might be supplementary for one person, but totally central to another. For example, Chang’s depiction of Charles’s second wife, Barbra, often felt secondary to me as we are such opposite people in every way imaginable. However, Barbra could easily find identification in the many women like her who read the book. Meanwhile, I found more connection with the three children of the story (Saina, Andrew, and Grace — all at different stages in their emerging adult lives), whose lives are more similar to my own.

While each character has a struggle that is specific to them outside of their shared collapse, Saina’s is perhaps the most disappointing. Though her career as an artist also seems to be in trouble, it is her challenges with men in her life that take the spotlight. Despite her otherwise successful adult life, Saina cannot get around the difficulties these men present her, seemingly feeling incomplete without them. Barbra, however, is just the opposite. Although readers might expect a particular mode of operation from the children’s stepmother, they may well be surprised by Barbra’s personality when it is revealed in full. Her complexity is easily one of the most interesting pieces of The Wangs vs. the World.

On top of examining individuals, Chang uses The Wangs vs. the World to inspect family relationships, particularly in the specific Chinese-American cultural context which offers pressures that are different from other cultures.

Ultimately, The Wangs vs. the World is a fascinating study of a myriad of things, juggled wonderfully by Jade Chang. Despite some moments of jerky pacing, the overall novel is definitely worth the read, even for those who typically stay away from literary and character-driven fiction.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #24, “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: First & Then by Emma Mills

First & Then  by Emma Mills
Henry Holt and Co., 2015, 272 pages
YA Fiction

Obsessed with Jane Austen and dealing with the new presence of her cousin in her home, Devon of Emma Mills’s First & Then doesn’t want a whole lot to do with anyone. With her cousin Foster comes local superstar football player Ezra, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be out of her life anytime soon, no matter 23310751how much she may want him out. But Ezra perhaps does not have the perfect life everyone believes he does.

With a plot and structure that mimics Austen to some degree, First & Then follows Devon and her mild obsession around the famous author. Mills struggles to define Devon, however — for all of Devon saying she loves Austen, it’s rarely demonstrated in action and the origins of her interest are never explained. It feels, instead, like a symbolic character trait: Devon loves Austen, so her story — at least in this novel — will be one about love and commentary on societal contentions. You know, like an Austen novel.

Despite Devon being somewhat bare bones in the personality department, her love interest is rather interesting. Genuinely mature (as opposed to the fake mature that you often see in YA literature — Edward in Twilight comes to mind first: seemingly mature and experienced, but really just brooding and quite emotionally immature when it comes down to it), the character provides a refreshing example. Though a revealing detail (see more on that at the end of the review, if you don’t mind major spoilers)* ends up being half-baked and underdeveloped, the character overall is fascinating as an individual.

Other folks in Devon’s life make the novel a touch crowded. Too many characters come in and out, which is a mark of real life, but ultimately makes First & Then harder to follow, canceling out any of the realism this aspect provides. Meanwhile, Mills’s plot is a bit slow and subtle, which adds to the vague lack of readability. Furthermore, if you’re not a fan of football and know nothing about it, several football-heavy scenes will again make this book a bit more of a chore than you might expect.

Finally, Devon’s tendency to call other girls at her school “prostitots,” or “PTs” for short, is a frustrating one. She never grows out of this, which I found disconcerting for a number of reasons. While main characters need not be perfect by any stretch, there seemed no real reason for this inclusion, except perhaps some dislike of girls typically deemed as pretty, popular, and perhaps promiscuous (alliteration unintended) by the author in her high school years.

First & Then is not something I’d go out of my way to read. It needed a bit more polishing and a stronger structure to hold my attention. While the prose style was sufficient, the overall concept was in places too subtle or otherwise underdeveloped to be gripping.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

Ultimately, the love interest holds a secret to avoid attention he doesn’t want. This “secret” is that his younger brother died in a car crash. This felt terribly gimmicky and, from someone who lost a brother to fatal injuries in a car crash, I was mildly insulted. The love interest never even gives his brother a name, suggesting that the crash only matters in so much as it is connected to the love interest and his life, as opposed to just being an important event on its own. Though everyone grieves differently, I found this portrayal strange, off-putting, and generally tone deaf to what it’s actually like.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero
Henry Holt and Co., 2016, 272 pages
Memoir

In Diane Guerrero’s memoir In the Country We Love, the actress recounts her life from her earliest memories to the present. Guerrero, an advocate for immigration reform, relives some of her most difficult moments, including the process with a lawyer who promised citizen status but stole thousands from her parents, and the eventual deportation of her family. While she bounced around friends’ homes and eventually In the Country We Lovefound her way into acting, Guerrero never forgot the struggles of her family and continues to fight for immigration reform today. In an updated edition of her memoir, Guerrero wonders about the impact of America’s 45th president with a renewed dedication to her cause with an added afterword.

The prose in Guerrero’s memoir is fantastically eloquent. Despite taking on a challenging and complicated topic — and one which many people feel strongly about and, even further, strongly against Guerrero — her arguments are always clear and made simple to follow. Though immigration reform is likely a difficult topic for Guerrero to write about at length, she always makes social issues easy to understand and visceral, for readers who are more removed from the challenges wrapped up in immigration. It is her ability to make these challenges real and immediate that sets her arguments apart. The February 2017 addition to the book makes this even more evident with words and ideas that are both powerful and unapologetic. From her discussion around immigration to her descriptions of more light-hearted topics, Guerrero paints a clear and vivid picture without fail, making In the Country We Love an enjoyable read.

Toward the earlier pages of the book, Guerrero admits the memoir will be difficult to get to for her. She acknowledges that talking about immigration and her own story will be personally emotionally challenging. Despite this, she says, it’s important to her that the book is written: she felt alone when her parents were deported, and she feels a responsibility to let other young people in her position know they are not alone. Guerrero certainly gets the job done as she is painfully honest in her storytelling. This means she not only lets others know they are not alone, but lets those who have not been in her position in on the reality of it, perhaps to the benefit of swaying them to her “side” if they aren’t already there. This goal is incredibly admirable, given that this story is one that is, often, incredibly personal.

But Guerrero’s memoir is not all hard edges and realities. She’s endlessly funny and finds humor in dark places. With optimism and lightness of heart, Guerrero makes her otherwise heart-rending work one that is a breeze. In the Country We Love is fantastically readable and a breeze to move through, despite its heaviness. Her sense of humor combined with her determination and interesting story propels the reader through to the end quickly. Yet In the Country We Love is not strictly brain candy — with her calls to action and explanation of social issues, Guerrero easily leaves her readers feeling as if they’ve learned something and are empowered to act.

Though Guerrero does not go into extreme detail on her work with Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, she provides enough information that most readers will be satisfied. More interesting, perhaps, is Guerrero’s journey to her life as an actress. Her skill as an actress is especially highlighted not in her descriptions of her work, but rather the vivid images she provides of people in her life. Her deep understanding and sketches of these people make it clear how she is able to so exactly bring her characters to life in her various acting jobs.

Whether you’re interested in Guerrero as a celebrity or interested in opinions on immigration reform, In the Country We Love is a heartbreaking and heartwarming tribute to life as a new American and living in immigrant families.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #5, “Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Henry Holt and Co., 2015, 480 pages
Fantasy

Offered the opportunity of a lifetime, Kaz Brekker knows he has to pull together the best possible team to pull of the most ridiculous heist ever attempted. It’s hard enough with antagonists after the team left and right, but with a team that can’t get along with itself, the caper is even more difficult. Six of Crows by Leigh BardugoRelationships old and new appear in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, set in a world familiar to readers of her other books.

Okay — let me be completely honest: I didn’t really know what was going on for 90% of this book. It’s a hefty object in hardcover, though I was surprised to find it was only 480 pages when I checked for the data above. It felt like at least 600. Six of Crows has an interesting premise and its fans love the characters and root for their favorite couples. I would, too, I think, if it weren’t for the fact that it was like walking through molasses mixed with superglue to read. Six of Crows is especially slow at the beginning as Bardugo introduces readers to her main characters and their motivations. When the group finally gets together, they are rarely all present on the same page, making it difficult to see how they really operate as a team.

The plot is burdened not only by its slow pace, but by its seeming lack of stakes. Though Kaz and his crew are clearly motivated to receive their rewards for the heist (which I’m still not clear on the details for), the stakes never felt particularly high or driving. This lack of drive might come from the lack of clarity I struggled with so much, but regardless, it had a serious impact on how interesting I found the book.

Adding to the slow pace of the plot is a narration style that is overly stylized. While this might have been appropriate for a shorter work, Six of Crows is already weighed down with a slow plot and a whole lot of world building (not to mention characters who are guarded — I’ll get to that). Although the prose might help suggest the sort-of-steampunk setting, it doesn’t do so enough to warrant how severely entrenched the style is.

Bardugo does produce an interesting round of characters, to some degree. Nina and Matthias, in particular, are both characters who often behave in unexpected ways and play off each other nicely. This is heightened by a fascinating backstory (which is perhaps part of her other series? I’m not familiar and can’t say.) that is touched on here and there throughout Six of Crows. The pair have a realistic and smoldering sort of chemistry, which left me skimming through pages just to reach scenes that featured them together. Meanwhile, Kaz, for all his Tumblr fans, seems awfully simplistic in his jaded ways and, beyond Kaz, Inej, Matthias, and Nina, none of the other characters are terribly memorable (including the two other main characters, Wylan and Jesper, both of whose names I forgot multiple times while reading).

Despite the decided cliffhanger at the end of the novel, Six of Crows didn’t compel me to run out for the next in the series, Crooked Kingdom. While I’d consider returning for the sequel, it’s not at the top of my list and it has some serious redeeming to do for Six of Crows in my book.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #12, “Read a fantasy novel,” and I leave it behind with two-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Everything Leads to Your by Nina LaCour
Speak, 2014, 336 pages
Fiction

A set designer for movies, Emi lives in Los Angeles in Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You. With her brother out of the country, she and her best friend move into his empty apartment. Though regular interactions with her ex-girlfriend (and her ex-girlfriend’s current partner) make her uncomfortable, EmiImage result for everything leads to you is determined to make the most of this opportunity and make a break into the behind the scenes of Hollywood. When she discovers a note from a famous actor in an estate sale, Emi is driven to a new mission: find the woman referenced in the note and join the woman with her inheritance. But things are never as they seem in the movies and only sometimes as they seem in real life.

LaCour pieces together a beautiful coming-of-age in Everything Leads to You. Unlike so many other LGBTQIAA+ novels, Everything Leads to You features a young lesbian woman but the story does not revolve around her coming out or around her sexuality at all. While her relationships play a large role in the plot and her sexuality is by no means glossed over, it is not the novel. Coming out novels are, of course, important — but so are celebrations of homosexuality as the everyday. LaCour’s depiction of Emi and her relationships emphasizes the normalcy of it all, which is something sorely missing in most LGBTQIAA+ fiction I’ve encountered.

What’s more, the novel has a totally unique setup, particularly for a young adult cast. Just out of high school, Emi has a job that is unlikely for most people her age, but reasonably realistic all the same. The Los Angeles backdrop makes for an environment that feels new. LaCour’s commitment to the unique location helps to create an atmosphere that is rich and and full of the sort of wonder and style that is only inherent to Hollywood — or, at least, how many of us imagine the area.

LaCour does fall short in prose. While adequate, the sentence structure and vocabulary doesn’t do anything to add to the emotion of the book. It simply tells the story, leaving much of the ambiance up to setting and character actions. Further, Everything Leads to You might be categorized as a sort of light example of literary fiction wherein the focus is on character development over plot, but it remains that the primary conflict simply did not drive the book forward enough. Without a higher level of definition and development, the plot seems more offhand than suits the rest of the novel. This is again emphasized with the lack of chemistry between Emi and the primary love interest.

Everything Leads to You is an important addition to the LGBTQIAA+ fictional catalog, but it has its faults. Like a book in watercolor, it’s a lovely reflection of even the slightly grittier sides of movie making and a tribute to films themselves. A few more rounds of edits might have bumped this one up several notches, but I ultimately finished the novel feeling interested in LaCour’s other works.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #15, “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts. 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson
Ember, 2015, 304 pages
YA Fiction

After the death of her politician father in an unnamed Middle East country, Laila, her mother, and her little brother — the heir to her father’s seat — move to the outskirts of Washington, D. C. for protection. As Laila adjusts to her new American life, she discovers her mother is perhaps not as innocent as sheThe Tyrant's Daughter originally believed and there is more to the American government’s intent than she’s told. J. C. Carleson tells Laila’s story in The Tyrant’s Daughter.

With Carleson boasting her background in international affairs (specifically, “as an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service”), readers might expect her to bring knowledge, expertise, and detail to destigmatize the Middle East, refugees, Muslims, and people of color. Despite her personal experiences, Carleson seems only to perpetuate stereotypes and the fear many Americans express around these groups. While Carleson, in the notes of the book, points out she does not name a country for Laila’s origins for a variety of reasons, she fails to acknowledge that, in not naming a country (or, alternatively, making one up), she allows readers to assume all Middle Eastern countries are suffering under the rule of a nefarious dictator who, among other things, oppresses women in the name of Islam. This problematic approach only serves to other those from the Middle East, those who are Muslim, those who are refugees, and, to some extent (though less so, in this context), those who are of color.

This is further underlined when Carleson, or Laila, as the narrator, describes a moment in which she thinks of her female classmates as “whores” because of the typical American clothing they wear. While this might serve to illustrate Laila’s upbringing, it also once again stigmatizes Muslims and the Middle East in a way that is unnecessary. As a whole, Laila is neither a likable nor interesting character. Manipulative and selfish, she has few inherent traits that are about her. Anything that makes her interesting comes from external forces — her status as a de facto princess, for example. Laila consistently rejects everything around her and understandably so, having been plucked from her home and dropped in a foreign world in which the inhabitants believe the worst of her father. But as her defining character trait, this makes Laila difficult to cheer for or care about. What matters most, perhaps, is that Carleson hasn’t motivated Laila to any kind of concrete character development by the end. Instead, Laila remains as she has throughout the novel, her story only improved by circumstances.

Plot-wise, The Tyrant’s Daughter moves slowly and is enveloped in politics that influence Laila’s circumstances at a level well above her. She is unable to do much or be of significant agency, aside from a relationship that may or may not have romantic leanings with a young man who has come from her home country and may have a stake in the rebellion which killed her father. But Laila and her family are not, it would seem, in any kind of witness protection program despite the dangers their identities pose. As a former CIA officer, Carleson should know here, so she’s owed the benefit of the doubt, but it’s strange to not acknowledge the option, especially when it’s so prevalent in similar fictional stories.

One other small thing — the narrative is told primarily in the present tense aside from a few flashbacks. While this does help to differentiate between the flashbacks and the main events, the present tense is more distracting than anything and this differentiation might be better marked with another font style or a simple scene header describing the date or even simply before. In fiction, present tense often is useful when keeping readers in suspense as to whether the narrator will survive the story or when trying to obscure other potential events, but here, the present tense seems to be strictly a stylistic choice that has no real purpose.

A final aside — Carleson’s representation of librarians struck me as disappointing. After inquiring about information regarding her father, Laila is “assisted” by a librarian. In this instance, “assistance” means recalling an article about him in a magazine the librarian happened to have on her desk and handing the magazine to Laila with little other help. The librarian does not conduct any sort of reference interview (to ask questions such as is Laila, who the librarian doesn’t know is related to the man, interested in his personal life? political life? qualifications? downfall?) nor does she offer more substantial or official materials. I’m not convinced this woman went to library school.

 

 

The Tyrant’s Daughter isn’t what it could be. It’s misleading in its portrayal of Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees which may be forgivable to the extent that fiction is interesting because it’s about interesting people — the outliers — but it ultimately does damage to people who have and continue to suffer from a lack of education in those who are outside their groups. Carleson’s narrative structure and writing style are, simply, mediocre and it’s difficult to side with Laila or even find her interesting when the bulk of what does make her interesting has nothing to do with her character or personality. This is one novel that is perhaps best left to itself.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #10, “Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location,” and I leave it behind with one-and-a-half hearts.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Bantam Books, 1908, 309 pages*
Fiction

*The edition I read was published by Bantam Books in 1987, but I’ve maintained the original publication date for an indication of style and content.

It is decidedly odd to go about reviewing something so classic and well-known as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, but because it is part of my 2017 Read Harder challenge, I feel compelled to include it this time Anne of Green Gablesaround. Anne of Green Gables is the canon of my childhood. I grew up watching the Megan Follows adaptation on VHS and, later, DVD. I read the first few books once when I was a teen and recently decided to make another effort to get through the whole series, starting again at the beginning. In short, the first tale of Anne Shirley occurs when she is thirteen and newly sent to Prince Edward Island by mistake to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (siblings, not spouses). As Anne begins to heal from the trauma of being a mistreated orphan, she relies on her imagination and intellect to connect with the people in her community and become a shining star among them.

So many people seem put off by the idea of Anne. They imagine the book as Pollyanna-ish, and they’re not necessarily wrong. However, what makes Anne of Green Gables so timeless is that, while it certainly is hopeful and optimistic, it is also realistic at its heart. The recent Netflix adaptation really brings this to light: though Montgomery may handle it differently, if we really consider Anne’s situation, she is a young girl who is likely suffering from her upbringing severely. Based on the anecdotes she shares with her new family, there’s no doubt Anne was severely abused and, if we consider further, it’s likely her rabid imagination is in fact an escape from or even symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Without modern psychology, Montgomery might not have been aware of the true impact of her work, but the reality is, Anne of Green Gables is a much deeper story than many might think.

Montgomery doesn’t only set Anne up well with a well-defined personality. Anne’s growth over the three years in which Anne of Green Gables takes place is marked. Her evolution is clear, even in its slow movement and focus on character over plot. This coming of age is realistically handled and spurred by events that make sense, showing Montgomery’s attention to detail and dedication to realism despite Anne’s flights of fancy. It’s this striking balance that keeps Anne and her story at the front of modern consciousness. The one break from realism is, perhaps, Rachel Lynde, who has a cartoonish edge. Still, this aura serves Anne’s story in a way that contributes to its realism at the end of the day.

On top of this, Montgomery tells her story with beautiful, descriptive, and imaginative prose. It’s no wonder that so many people venture to Prince Edward Island to see the rolling dunes, secret forests, and authoritative cliffs Montgomery describes. Anne’s environment is so distinctly pictured that there’s no doubt she is anywhere but where Montgomery writes her to be.

The focus on character development and setting does mean a sacrifice in plot. Anne, of course, has a desire: she wants a family and a place to belong. She wants to be loved. This problem is basically solved reasonably early on, leaving Montgomery to track the conflict in Anne’s day-to-day rather than an ongoing issue that might be solved as a plot by the end of the narrative. Literary fiction, or character-driven fiction, is arguably more difficult to achieve in children’s literature. While the concept of children’s literature was only just emerging when Montgomery was writing (and certainly she contributed largely to it), it’s handled reasonably well here. I might not expect a seven-year-old to sit through the entire novel totally enraptured, but each chapter features a sort of anecdote of Anne’s life, making the novel a great option for bedtime reading that satisfies while teasing enough to encourage reading the next night. “What scrape will Anne get herself into next?” readers will want to know.

If that Anne of Green Gables is an easy-to-read, if slightly slow-paced classic is not enough temptation for you to read it, I can also tell you it is humorous and soothing, reminding us often of the best parts of humanity and childhood, even as Anne suffers from a sort of lack of childhood. Anne will surprise you in quiet ways and loud ways. The caveat, of course, is that Anne is a work of its time and there are moments that make its historical context evident. Perhaps due in part to the location, racial diversity is essentially nonexistent, though the themes are certainly universal.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #9, “Read a book you’ve read before,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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