Read Harder Challenge 2017

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge has definitely broadened my reading horizons in 2017.  Since my progress report in May I’ve braved fantasy, artificial intelligence and a graphic novel  – I hardly know myself anymore!


Read a book about books

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun

The narrator reads a book & goes off to find the meaning of life & win his beloved Janan. Slow to start, I was soon immersed in Pamuk’s rich, lyrical prose. His sentences are intricate, but so exact they stop you in your tracks. I love the layers of meaning & imperfect characters. (My full review is here).

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

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean

I love the originality of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s work (although rooted in the tradition of such greats as Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and his rhythm – taut & lyrical, the prose flows beautifully with a wistful tone: “the nostalgia for things that weren’t yet lost”.  He creates a strong sense of place – Colombia from the 1960s to 1980s – and a story within a story. Antonio’s slow, believable decline is matched by the sympathetic characters Ricardo, Elena & Maya.


Read an all-ages comic

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chang, Matthew Wilson and Jared Fletcher

Not my usual genre!  This was a fun, beautifully illustrated, fast-paced comic. I loved the strong protagonists (12 year old girls), smart, sometimes wrong, dialogue – showing the 1980s era – and detailed pictures. The inventiveness took me back to my youth, but it’s unlike anything I read when I was young.

Image result for paper girls

Read a travel memoir

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore

Tim Moore has the somewhat mad idea of riding a 1967 shopping bike from the German Democratic Republic the length of the Iron Curtain (20 countries, 9,000km). The result is a mix of travelogue and memoir of a previous trip in 1990, mixed with history. Moore has a wonderfully self-deprecating style; it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. He paints a dismal picture of soviet Russia, and is glib at times, but also savours moments of friendly goodwill. A unique trip.


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

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

A slow start but I enjoyed this – in the end the thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading. The isolation, and the settlers’ cruelty to the Aboriginal inhabitants of South Australia depressed me (knowing it’s based on fact). Would be a good discussion for book clubs.  My full review is here.

Read a fantasy novel

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

I struggle with fantasy because it requires that extra suspension of disbelief, but Philip Pullman succeeds in creating a rich world with human concerns.  I’m glad I read this, inspired by Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words, who are (re-)reading the series in anticipation of The Book of Dust, with La Belle Sauvage due out on 19 October.  Lyra is a great protagonist: a strong, street-smart but caring 11-year old girl who goes on a quest to save her friend and uncle.  Pullman creates vivid, alternate Victorian England and Lapland settings and nuanced characters.  A well-crafted fantasy with much to think about.

Read a non-fiction book about technology

It’s Alive! by Toby Walsh (to be published in the US as Machines That Think)

Artificial intelligence & the possibility of ‘thinking machines’ is fascinating – & happening faster than we think.  Robots can already write poetry and make music, so there is no reason they cannot learn to be more creative. We don’t know how conscious they can become though. My brain starts to hurt when I think about this.

Toby Walsh cuts through the hype to explore the likely advances, the benefits and dangers – in particular he warns against autonomous weapons, or ‘killer robots’, in war. Wonderful engaging style, clear writing & he brings expertise & thoughtfulness to the topic. Recommended.

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

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (banned in Chicago schools and challenged in other states)

This is Marjane Satrapi’s story of her childhood in Iran during the revolution and Iran-Iraq war.  It has not been banned or challenged in Australia to my knowledge, but it was a great prompt to read a book I would not otherwise have discovered.  The beautiful pictures capture movement and emotion and her words are honest, to the point and unsentimental, with wry humour.  I loved the feisty narrator and was troubled by the parents’ decision to stay when they had the choice to leave, amidst oppression and war.

Read a book about war

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

The story of children in a Warsaw ghetto in the Holocaust. Aron falls in with a gang, but he is still an innocent, troubled child: his relationship with his mother is beautifully described.  A sense of sadness & foreboding pervades the book. There is humour early on in the kids’ teasing & banter but this fades, as they move into survival mode & watch friends & family die. Dr Korczac is a hero to his orphans. An unflinching portrait.


Read a book published by a micropress

Mikumari by Misumi Kubo, translated by Polly Barton, foreward by Naomi Alderman

Fantastic, I recommend it.  Strong writing, the protagonist schoolboy is funny but sympathetic and his lover, Anzu, a cosplayer, is interesting.  Kubo has been compared to Han Kang and this reminded me of Murakami in the best sense.


Read a collection of stories by a woman

Fen by Daisy Johnson

An extraordinary collection. Spare, accomplished writing with wonderfully controlled weirdness. Characters are raw, honest and sometimes turn into animals. Despite these magical elements, the stories feel poignant, true and rooted in the earth.

Nearly there – I have five tasks to go, so will update again soon!




I’m playing catch-up today with a long overdue post.  I joined DiverseAThon in January – a great prompt for me to read more books by diverse voices.  I do read widely, including many books in translation, but when I looked at my shelves I realised these are mostly European (and mostly men).  Here’s to broadening my reading horizons.

So, what diverse reads did I have on my shelves at home?

DiverseAThon reads

Still pretty mainstream, but a good start.  I’m going to aim for more diverse reads this year and keep reading in translation (books in translation perhaps a blog post in itself).

Some quick reviews:

Shelter by Jung Yun:  A pity I can’t show you this one because the cover was beautiful! (different to the one in the link).  This was a drama centering on a Korean-American family.  It was challenging as I did not warm to the characters, but real and compelling: I wanted to know what would happen next.  I must say, I didn’t enjoy it, but it has stayed with me as an honest, strong, well-written book.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: I absolutely loved this.  Strong, fizzing, inventive prose and on-point commentary about racism and Amercia.  Beatty skewers, subverts and glorifies in race issues and America’s uncomfortable past and present.  I laughed out loud, stopped to think and otherwise just enjoyed the ride.  Highly recommended.

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla.  An excellent collection of essays – fresh writing, highly readable.  An important book if for no other reason than to open our minds, remind us what a diverse world we live in but bring home that things like humour, wanting to connect and the magic of a good haircut are universal.  But mostly just a great read!  Darren Chetty writes a wonderful essay on teaching children to write using characters from their own background – the resulting stories are stronger with more emotional engagement.  Varaidzo, Miss L (on being cast as ‘the wife of a terrorist’) and Salena Godden were also highlights.  A shout-out to the London Book Club for this winning Secret Santa gift!

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: this is where my DiverseAThon went off the rails … I was 40 pages in and really enjoying this – it’s warm, engaging and transports you to New York with some lively characters.  Then I saw that Litsy was doing an Infinite Jest buddy read (excellently hosted by Jen P of the Reader’s Room) – this has long been on my TBR, so I jumped at the chance to read it in the company of friends. Starting a week late, I dived in and … wheee yo mamma!  That’s for another post…

I’m also doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge – who wants to join me?  Another fun excuse to read out of my comfort zone and find new authors to fall in love with.  Although at the rate I’m going, I’ll have to make Infinite Jest fit into all of the categories. 😉

And yes, I know, I have not updated on my holiday reading from December/January.  Yikes!  While I think about how many blog posts I need to catch up on and all the books I’ve read over summer, and all the books still to read, here is a photo of Carrickalinga Beach.

Carrickalinga Beach, South Australia.

What have you been reading?  Do you have any diverse or Read Harder recommendations?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Book Riot alerted me to it, Oprah celebrated it, Colson Whitehead disarmed me with his self-deprecatin30555488g humour on the Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast (on reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as he was writing his book: “I’m screwed!”) and it’s been nominated for a National Book Award.

So, it was like a rock star had finally come onto the stage when I saw The Underground Railroad for sale in London this month:  I had to read it.

The subject-matter – slavery – was as somber as the expectations were high.  So, I’m happy to report that, whilst relentless and confronting, it is not a heavy read.  Whitehead writes with supple prose, moving the story forward (and occasionally back); the action and imagery akin to cinema.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slaves for cowrie shells and glass beads.  It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

The story centres on Cora, a slave in Georgia.  Cora runs away with Caesar via the underground railroad (historically, a network of people helping slaves to escape to the north pre – Civil War).  Whitehead reimagines this as an actual railway, giving those scenes a slight Alice in Wonderland feel.  It’s just plausible enough to be realistic: no flights of fancy required.

Cora travels through South and North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, pursued by the slave-catcher, Ridgeway.  Stories of Ridgeway are interspersed, along with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry and her mother Mabel.  Whitehead does this well, as an interesting digression, so it doesn’t obstruct the narrative.

Ajarry was separated from her family and we discover on page 4 that they died, but she imagines them working for “kind and generous masters” and perhaps freeing themselves.

“These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.”

This is matter-of-fact writing – clean, beautifully edited – the tone warm and engaging, but depicts scenes of horror.

“She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning.”

I was compelled to read on, enjoying the pace and Cora as a feisty heroine.  Whitehead achieves a balance between this and the atrocities going on all around, which stop you in your tracks at times.

I came to this book knowing little about slavery.  I had no idea of the violence, including torture; and the sinister methods in some states which used slaves as medical guinea pigs; down to the everyday examples of segregation.

I learnt how pervasive was the social norm to keep the slaves repressed.

“Antislavery literature was illegal in this part of the nation.  Abolitionists and sympathizers who came down to Georgia and Florida were run off, flogged and abused by mobs, tarred and feathered.  Methodists and their inanities had no place in the bosom of King Cotton.  The planters did not abide contagion.”

The book shines a spotlight on slavery in all its forms, while Cora moves from place to place and meets diverse characters, who take risks to help her.  Cora is symbol of the slave struggling to be free; and at times her story is secondary to the larger picture, of slavery at work in different parts of America.

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

Whitehead’s descriptions of the violence done to slaves are to the point and lucid, but make uncomfortable reading.  Ordinary people would, for example, enthusiastically watch a hanging as Friday night entertainment.  How can humans (ordinary people, of their time) be capable of such cruelty?

At this time (with modern day slavery affecting 21 to 46 million people and racism seeping into the US election, Brexit and the European debates over refugees) – at any time – this is an important discussion.  Whitehead brings the issues to life with great clarity, without being preachy or judgmental.

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all.  The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land.  To kill Indians.  Make war.  Enslave their brothers.  This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.  Yet here we are.”

Much to think about, and I was taken from the story into the world of ideas.  The only slight drawback – worth the trade-off – was that I saw the characters as actors in a bigger story rather than feeling they were real, with flaws and ambiguities.

This is a book filled with ideas: eloquent and powerful, it will be talked about for a long time.  It is a must-read.

51chbcocdkl-_sx325_bo1204203200_India reportedly has the highest number of slaves today.  This brings me to another book I read recently, not on this topic but on the theme of running away: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota.  It tells the story of three Indian men who go to England, fleeing dire lives (though nothing like Cora’s experience) and a woman, Narinder, who marries one of them, Randeep, to help him obtain a visa.

Sahota stays on the more intimate level of the men and Narinder, and their stories; it does not make pronouncements about immigration.  It is looser than The Underground Railroad.  But I found it immensely enjoyable and stayed up late to finish it, wanting to know what happened to the characters.  In the process I gained a new understanding of people who come to places like London, and their struggles.

The characters are deliciously flawed – you would dislike one on one page, and be on his side on the next.  Their conflicts and mistakes make them human.

It quietly raises issues that are complex and hard – what to do if you are in England illegally, supporting a family back home and desperately need work – would you accept poor pay and conditions?  In a capitalist world, every individual for themselves, when is employment exploitation? Slavery?

As a post-script, I saw that the police raided the Shiny Hand Car-wash in Carlisle recently, reporting “no offences” in terms of modern day slavery or immigration.  A far cry from Cora’s trials, but the issue has not gone away.

Is there anything positive to emerge from slavery?  No, but its survivors had children, and one of their descendants is Michelle Obama – a bright, shining star as far as I’m concerned and unafraid to have a discussion, about the White House being built by slaves or sexism in the presidential campaign.

What to read next? I’m inspired to follow up with Beloved by Toni Morrison and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  What do you think?