Read Harder 2019 is here!

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Read Harder 2019 is here! Thanks to the awesome Rachel Manwill of Book Riot, we get another year of excellent reading tasks to challenge our reading comfort zones. 

I like to try to decide ahead of time what to read for the Read Harder tasks. I almost always change my mind as the year goes on, of course, but if I at least have a preliminary list going, it helps me stay on track to get the job done. This year, I am going to try hard to make every book on this list by an author of color or a woman. Preferably a woman of color. Below is my tentative list for the new 2019 Read Harder challenge. I can’t wait to dive in! I hope you’ll share what books you’re using for your own Read Harder tasks!

1. An epistolary novel or collection of letters:

  • Possession – AS Byatt.
  • The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, which looks like it can also double dip for a humor book.
  • I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

2. An alternate history novel:

  • The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew.
  • The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson. PLAAAAAAGUE! Yay!
  • River of Teeth – Sarah Gailey. Hungry, hungry hippos!

3. A book by a woman and/or AOC that won a literary award in 2018:

  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (National Book award). Might be able to double dip this for a book with an animal or inanimate object as the main character.
  • The Stone Sky – NK Jemisin (Hugo)
  • Milkman – Anna Burns (Man Booker)

4. A humor book:

  • possibly Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. I suppose it depends on your definition of humor.
  • The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield.
  • Or the David Sedaris books that have been on my TBR forever.

5. A book by a journalist or about journalism:

  • Ten Days in a Mad-House – Nellie Bly.
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.
  • The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester.
  • Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women – Geraldine Brooks.

6. A book by an AOC set in or about space:

  • probably something by Michio Kaku. Love that guy! He gets so excited about space!
  • ORRRrrr, I could finally get around to reading the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor!
  • Dawn (Lilith’s Brood series) – Octavia Butler.

7. An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America:

  • Maybe Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Not sure if that is #ownvoices or not, though. Have to do more research on this one. 
  • Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel. Can also double dip for a book translated by a woman.
  • The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind – Meg Medina.

8. An #ownvoices book set in Oceania:

  • Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Maori). I hear the book is way better than the movie was.
  • Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel (Fiji).

9. A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads:

  • The Scarlet Forest – AE Chandler.
  • Roses in the Tempest – Jeri Westerson.
  • The Long, Long Life of Trees – Fiona Stafford.
  • The World, The Flesh, and the Devil – Reay Tannahill.
  • On Night’s Shore – Randall Silvis

10. A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman:

  • The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George.
  • The Vegetarian or Human Acts – Han Kang.
  • My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante.

11. A book of manga:

  • I….yeah, I got nothing. I have no earthly idea. This will require a lot of research on my part because I really don’t have much knowledge of manga. Comics of any kind are generally not my jam. I’ll honestly have to see what the hivemind on the Read Harder Goodreads community recommends.

12. A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character:

  • Black Beauty – Anna Sewell. I can read this with my daughter!
  • The Bees by Laline Paull.
  • Tomorrow: A Novel by Damien Dibbins.
  • KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley.

13. A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse:

  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (Asperger’s, #ownvoices).
  • A Girl Like Her – Talia Hibbert (#ownvoices).
  • Made You Up by Francesca Zappia.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

14. A cozy mystery:

  • Murder in G Major – Alexia Gordon.
  • The Tale of Hill-Top Farm – Susan Wittig Albert.
  • Homicide in Hardcover – Kate Carlisle.

15. A book of mythology or folklore:

  • Deathless – Catherynne Valente.
  • Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life – Joan Gould.
  • The Myth of Morgan La Fay – Kristina Perez.
  • OR, finally get around to reading Norse Myths or reread American Gods – Neil Gaiman.

16. An historical romance by an AOC:

  • An Extraordinary Union – Alyssa Cole.
  • Freedom’s Embrace – Kianna Alexander.
  • I think an argument can be made that Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a romance.

17. A business book:  

  • The Four-Hour Work Week – Tim Ferriss.
  • You Are A Badass : How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero.

18. A novel by a trans or nonbinary author:

  • All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders.
  • Small Beauty – Jia Qing Wilson-Yang.
  • Peter Darling – Austin Chant.
  • Lizard Radio – Pat Schmatz.

19. A book of nonviolent true crime:

  • The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams.
  • Mrs Sherlock Holmes by Brad Rica.
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger – Lee Israel.

20. A book written in prison:

  • Le Morte d’Arthur – Sir Thomas Malory.
  • The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius.
  • Civil Disobedience – Thomas Paine.

21. A comic by an LGBTQIA creator:

  • Fun Home – Alison Bechdel

22. A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009:

  • One Crazy Summer – Rita Williams-Garcia.
  • #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women – ed. Lisa Charleyboy

23. A self-published book:

  • The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Not technically self pubbed, but nontraditional, because he wrote in a made up language and traditional publishers didn’t want him, so a crowdfunding publisher by the name of Unbound stepped in. Just like with a Kickstarter, Unbound launched The Wake as a project that allowed hopeful readers to pledge their support for Kingsnorth’s work. [https://electricliterature.com/11-books-that-prove-theres-nothing-wrong-with-self-publishing-b507ef16d4e5].
  • Still Alice – Lisa Genova.
  • The Martian – Andy Weir (a reread for me).
  • Hand of Fire or Priestess of Ishana – Judith Starkston (both would be rereads for me).

24. A collection of poetry published since 2014:

  • the sun and her flowers – Rupi Kaur.
  • The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One – Amanda Lovelace
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Author Interview: Sherry Thomas

I am writing an article for the Historical Novel Society about Sherry Thomas and her awesome new book in the Lady Sherlock series. However, I thought it would be fun to post the raw interview Q&A here since my finished article for HNS will be quite different. 🙂 Thank you very much to Ms. Thomas for taking the time to respond to my questions! I always love seeing author interviews and Q&A, so I’m delighted that I get to share this with my own readers as well.

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Sherry Thomas, courtesy of sherrythomas.com

Her Grace’s Library: The interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles is so interesting in your novels. There’s just so much to unpack with gender identity in the Lady Sherlock series, especially in The Hollow of Fear. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times before, but what made you want to write a Lady Sherlock series to begin with?

Sherry Thomas: I am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, in which Holmes meets a female partner every bit as formidable as himself. That’s the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own, but I didn’t have any concrete idea what I want to write about so I didn’t do anything.

Then came the BBC Sherlock, which was so dynamic and stylish, and which did such a fantastic job updating the character to the 21st century. That’s when I said to myself, hmm, if BBC Sherlock already made Sherlock Holmes thoroughly modern, and Elementary on CBS made Watson a woman, then the only thing left to do was to make Sherlock Holmes a woman.

So that’s what I did.

HGL: Can you comment more about Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine? I love her references to her “maximum tolerable chins.”

ST: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a casual user, taking to cocaine when he doesn’t have any stimulating cases. And he turns down plenty of cases if he finds them of insufficient interest. That’s because, as it is often deduced, Sherlock Holmes comes from either minor aristocracy or upper gentry, and has an independent income and doesn’t rely on his work as a consulting detective to pay the bills.

Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation. She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing. But of course she wants to still fit into her clothes, and “maximum tolerable chins” becomes her gauge for judging whether she can indulge in an extra slice of cake or must regretfully refrain.

HGL: What is the hardest part about writing a character who seems to experience the world so differently than the rest of us? Is Charlotte supposed to be on the autism spectrum?

ST: Charlotte would probably be considered on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, if she lived in this day and age. And it isn’t hard at all, as strange as it seems, to write how she experiences the world. Very freeing, in fact, because she sees the world as it truly is, with all the niceties stripped away.

HGL: What was your favorite scene that got edited out of The Hollow of Fear?

ST: The first ten thousand words I wrote for The Hollow of Fear were thrown out entirely, because they were about séances in Scotland, whereas the final version of the story concerns itself with neither séances nor Scotland.

But I didn’t have any favorite scenes from that, because it was just an exploratory draft to show me what not to do. Very seldom do I have good scenes that get cut because I typically underwrite in my preliminary drafts—usually due to time pressure—and in later drafts I need to fill in the scenes that should be there or should be written to greater depth.

It’s not a bad way to write. It ensures that every scene that is in the book is there only by necessity.

HGL: I read on your website that English is your second language. That’s amazing to me; I don’t think I could ever write very well in another language, let alone a well-crafted novel! Can you talk about how writing in a language that is not your native language has impacted your writing? What is the hardest part?

ST: English might be my second language, but by now it’s my primary language. (I arrived in the U.S. when I was 13, and that was 30 years ago.)

I don’t know that I ever found the language part of writing difficult. Storytelling is hard. Good ideas do not drop into my lap very often. But because I think in English, expressing ideas in English has become as natural as breathing.

I do sometimes wonder whether the fact I write largely historical fiction is because I learned English reading a lot of historical romances and even at age 18 possessed the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady.

Certain tenses in the English language elude my grasp. My critique partner is always correcting my usage of would/will, because I don’t do the subjunctive tense properly. Then again, I don’t think most of the reading population know or care about the subjunctive to the extent she does!

HGL: Who are some of your favorite authors/ literary influences?

ST: I read a great deal of martial arts epics when I was growing up in China. When I arrived in the states I read a ton of romance and science fiction. Later on I glommed onto fantasy and mysteries. So you can definitely say that I am a reader—and a lover—of genre fiction.

HGL: What are you reading right now?

ST: I just got done with The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett last night. And am also reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

HGL: What’s on your playlist right now?

ST: I just finished a YA adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan (nothing to do with Disney). And for some reason, when I write a martial arts story with romantic elements, I always play Josh Groban’s My Confession on a loop.

HGL: What is the best thing you have learned about writing?

ST: That it’s like working with clay. It’s malleable. And readers can’t tell by the final product how ugly it was in the interim.

HGL: That last line of The Hollow of Fear…gah! The wait for the next book might kill me. Can I ask if there is a fourth Lady Sherlock book in the works? Will there be finally happy things in store for Livia?And Charlotte and Ingram? These poor, tormented characters! Or is it poor, tormented readers? We love it, though…

ST: Yes, I have already signed a contract for books 4&5 in the series and am busy working on book 4. Dear Livia will definitely have interesting things in store for her. Lord Ingram will be there too. And I don’t know yet what exactly will happen in this book, but I certainly hope characters will change and grow in the course of an exciting venture, which is the goal I have for every book I write.

A Year of Literary Holidays

As a child, two of the best days of the year were, of course, Christmas and my birthday. My cousins and I were spoiled blind by doting grandparents, so there was a glut of presents at Christmas. I was an only child from a broken home, so my birthday usually ended up being The Week of Me, receiving parties with my mom, my dad, with friends… Since I have always been a giant booknerd, my gifts were almost always book-related. Yay! It was an embarrassment of riches, except I’m an only child so I feel no embarrassment.

Over the years, I gradually began building, quite inadvertently, a calendar of events centered around my favorite books and authors. After I became aware I was doing so, I started crafting actual holidays around them until I had my own bookish traditions. They give me something to look forward to each month, to have friends over to help celebrate, or just to contemplate on my own.

Below is my personal year of literary holidays. Read More »

Fairy Tales – You’re Doing It Wrong

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Little Red is hiding a Glock in her basket!

I’m a big fan of reimagined fairy tales. Huge. I’ll read just about any kind of Arthurian legend I can get my hands on. I love a good retelling of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. The darker, the better. But a recent NY Times article about the NRA retelling fairy tales sent me from zero to “what the actual fuck?” in zero point six-eight seconds flat. Read More »

Llywelyn the Great

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Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

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Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

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The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?

Book Perfumery, please

If you’re anything like me, books and scent go hand in hand. There is nothing like the smell of a new book, the crispness of the pages and the sharpness of the ink. I take a deep breath every time I enter a bookstore and instantly feel better about everything, no matter what. There is a special way new books smell, and it’s the same no matter where you go, and it is a comfort to me. If I am traveling and get homesick, a bookstore will still smell the same wherever I am as it would at home, and I feel more steady.

I’ve always associated places with scents, as well, and used books, too, have their own scent. Some, like ones I order from England, smell of old musty buildings and flowers, reminding me of centuries of people walking over the same stone floors and seeing much the same view as perhaps I have seen when I have visited. One, and I don’t remember where it came from except that I ordered it from one of the sellers on Amazon and it was listed as “very good condition,” reeked of cigarettes and smelled up my entire house in a matter of hours. Even setting it out directly in the heat of the desert sun didn’t kill the stink of it and I had to throw it away. That bookseller got a strongly worded email regarding the definition of “very good condition.” If only it was as strong as the stench emanating from the book they sent to me. Holy shit.

My point, of course, is that books and scent are inextricably linked for many of us. But to take it further, for me, books often make me wish I could distill the scents from the story and bottle them as a perfume. As a bit of a perfume junkie – I have dozens of bottles of perfume from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab – I would just love to be part of a project to translate some books into scents. BPAL already is literary in the extreme, and has entire lines of scents devoted to books and characters from them, so this isn’t an unrealistic dream. Maybe I should hone my networking skills…

Some books that are simply begging to be made into perfumes right now are:

The Night Circus. Rose, ice, and sugar. Caramel and autumn leaves. Roses, dew, moss, and dirt. The language of the book was full of scent-filled imagery.

Uprooted. What does a Heart tree smell like? Sickly sweet and woody? Green leafy? And Agnieszka’s spell she chants with the Dragon? She needs a scent of her own, as does Sarkan himself.

When Christ and His Saints Slept. Eleanor of Aquitaine must have something rich and complex, yet subtle. Maybe something somewhat exotic, jasmine and sandalwood with  a topnote of lemon. Henry would be all male, leather and salt and perhaps a touch of cypress and lavender.

The Mists of AvalonThe Princess Bride. The Dragonriders of Pern. Just about anything written by Holly Black or Francesca Lia Block. I could go on all day long with this.

What perfumes would you make based on books you’ve read?