2019 Good Reads Challenge Check-In

Although I decided to select themes for the year rather than adopting specific New Year’s Resolutions, seeing a friend’s jubilant post about completing her 2018 Goodreads challenge to read 100 books (100!) compelled me to download the app and set myself a lesser (but not inconsiderable) challenge of 70 books. I read a lot but have no real idea of how many books I read each year, so didn’t know if this number would prove to be a laughably lofty goal or a breezy blow-off.

Plus, I’ve been happily settled into the YA, Fantasy and Mystery (and Fantasy-Mystery, Dresden Files whoo!) genres for a few years, so I hoped that tracking my books on Goodreads would help motivate me to read a more diverse group of books.

Well, three months into the year, and I’ve read 25+ books…and lost a lot of sleep! It turns out that I hate looming deadlines, a fact I already knew, but didn’t realize this would carry over into reading. I feel like I’ve been reading feverishly…just last night, as of writing this, I started– and finished–the 400+-page novel, “What If It’s Us”, not going to sleep until at least 12:30 a.m.! Which is pure foolishness, as any mom should know. “When you can sleep, sleep.” Even if your kid is now four years old, sleep is just the best. Instead, my eye has been twitching off and on for a solid month now, and…zzzzzzzzzz….

Not wanting all this reading to go to waste, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite reads of the year so far–and, in celebration of the recently passed International Women’s Day–these are all books written by women with female protagonists who really “kick butt,” whether that’s hacking at zombies or risking her life to save a child. So, in the order of which I read them, here are some recent books I’d very much recommend.

*Spoiler Warning: There will probably be spoilers.*

1. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

I never read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (although for some reason, I did find myself in a theater watching “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” at some point)–horror isn’t really my thing, but somehow I came across a recommendation “Dread Nation” and had to read it. It is, put simply, a re-imagining of the Civil War/post-Civil War era, with zombies.

Less simply, it tells a fantastic yet plausible tale of how pervasive racism is–and how those in power would use even the “zombie apocalypse” to maintain the status quo. Protagonist Jane McKeene is just one of many Black children who have been freed from slavery, only to be drafted into a zombie-fighting “army”–although in Jane’s case, that takes the form of attending a special boarding school where Black students learn to defend themselves–and a future white employer–from a zombie attack.

Despite the undead presence, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the biggest threat comes from powerful men who want to keep Jane (and others like her) in “her place” and see her as little more than zombie fodder. Despite this, Jane does what she needs to to save as many innocent–and sometimes not-so-innocent–people as she can, even if it means rising to her role as the most-well-trained zombie combatant in her town, rather than her role as a servant–taking over command from those who don’t deserve it, even though she knows that once the zombie threat is gone, she herself may be in deeper trouble. Jane is smart–if a little coarse–entirely capable and loyal to her friends and family–and she can wield two curved blades like nobody’s business. I loved this book and can’t wait till the second one comes out (because my one disappointment was that I thought it was a stand-alone until the last couple chapters when I realized that there were WAY TOO MANY loose ends to get tied up by the end of the book. So be prepared–there will still be loose ends!)

2. My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

I first heard of Tananarive Due through the Writing Excuses podcast–in particular, if I remember correctly, they were recommending her horror novel “The Good House,” which is what I was hoping to find when browsing the Tulsa Library’s Overdrive selection. They didn’t have it, so I turned instead to “My Soul to Keep,” the first of Due’s “African Immortals” series.

The setting of “My Soul to Keep” starts out very familiar–a working mom journalist, her husband (a professor-turned-stay-at-home-dad dubbed ‘Mr. Perfect’ by one of the wife’s colleagues) and their precocious daughter. It’s a fairly typical modern urban/suburban setting–until you realize (I don’t think this counts as a spoiler because it’s pretty obvious early on and is even stated in the Amazon description) that her husband underwent a ritual that turned him immortal–400 years ago–and that he will do anything to keep his secret, including murder.

Jessica, the protagonist, may not be a trained fighter like Jane or some of the other women I’ll mention below–she’s a “normal” working mom, with relatable insecurities: Am I the third wheel in our family? Does my daughter love my husband more than she loves me? Is this my fault because I work a demanding job? etc. But she overcomes these fears when she realizes that it’s up to her to protect herself and her daughter from the person they trusted most.

Then, (spoiler) when the worst happens, Jessica doesn’t grow bitter or turn into a monster like her husband, David–out of her pain, she clings to her faith and finds love and generosity and a determination to turn what was evil into something that can be good.

3. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

I couldn’t tell you when or where I first heard of this book, but I feel like I’ve seen it everywhere. According to Amazon, it was “an instant #1 New York Times bestseller,” so that makes sense. And according to Huffington Post: “At age 24, Tomi Adeyemi is a prime example. Adeyemi earned widespread acclaim in 2017 when she secured a multimillion-dollar publishing and movie deal based on her then-still-unreleased YA book, Children of Blood and Bone. The deal was reportedly one of the largest ever offered to the author of a debut novel.”

More than the previous two, I found this book really stressful to read–Which isn’t a criticism, there are just a LOT of powerful people who want to see the protagonist(s) dead–and it’s more than her life at stake, it’s the fate of an entire people group, a group who has been robbed of their (literal) magic and treated inhumanely (the slur of choice is “maggot”).

When asked, in that same Huffington Post article, where her inspiration for her characters came from, Adeyemi said,

“Creatively, I had discovered the Orisha about nine months before I started writing, and the short way to explain them is that they’re West African gods and goddesses. It’s more complicated than that because it’s a religion, it’s a mythology, it’s spread throughout the world because of the slave trade. But I’m very inspired by visuals and when I saw it, I’d never seen black gods and goddesses before. I’d never seen people who were darker than me breathing fire and commanding oceans, so I instantly knew I wanted to do something with that.  

But in the world, that was when I realized how bad police brutality was and how bad racism still was. And the reason I say it like that is because, for me, until I went to college, I’d just thought racism meant idiots judging me, and that that didn’t matter because … they’re idiots. [Laughs] I was like, ‘That’s not gonna have any bearing on my life.’ But then, with Trayvon Martin and the not-guilty verdict in his case, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Racism still kills.'” (For more, read Adeyemi’s blog post “Why I Write: Telling a Story that Matters” )

Adeyemi does a phenomenal job of portraying racism and all its devastating, complicated effects. Her protagonist, Zélie Adebola, has been traumatized by the death of her mother and the destruction of her father–and yet she is clearly a fighter, being reprimanded at the very beginning of the story for not holding her tongue when officers stop by to inspect their training facility (disguised as an innocent room where the girls learn sewing) and demand the ever-increasing, ever-impossible-to-pay “maggot tax”: a special tax just for being born in the wrong class. Zélie’s brother is often frustrated by her seeming inability to just keep her head down and to consider how her ineffectual outspokenness may harm the rest of her family. But Zélie is also afraid of coming into her power and assuming a true role of leadership.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the friendship between Zélie and Amari, runaway daughter of the emperor responsible for wiping out magic and the murder of Zélie’s mother. Naturally, Zélie hates Amari at first; while Amari in turn has experienced deep trauma and, although a member of the ruling class, been dismissed and hurt by her family her whole life. Amari also lives in fear and has to take her own journey toward power; in the middle of all of this, the girls develop a respect for one another that eventually turns into friendship.

4. Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Sadly, I missed author Mindy McGinnis’s event at the Tulsa Library on March 11–probably about the same time I was reading one of her works for the first time! Another of her books, “The Female of the Species,” has been on my Amazon wishlist for probably over a year now, but again, that one wasn’t available on Overdrive.

Here’s the event description from the library’s website:

“Get to know best-selling young adult author (and Sequoyah Book Award winner) Mindy McGinnis as she discusses her nuanced exploration of morally complex female characters.

Whether living in a future world ravaged by disease and climate change, or a 19th century insane asylum, or a claustrophobic small town, Mindy McGinnis’s female protagonists are complex and nuanced in their responses to difficult situations. Learn how the author creates worlds in crisis and characters who must respond to those crises when no choice is morally clean or simple. Ask McGinnis questions about your favorite book of her books or about how to write morally complex characters in a variety of settings. Light refreshments will be provided; books will be available for purchase.”

Now that I’ve read “Not a Drop to Drink,” I’m really sorry I missed out!

Since the description brings up “moral ambiguity,” yes, that does play out in this book. Protagonist Lynn was raised by her mother to defend their pond against intruders–to the death. They live in a world without enough water–people living in the city have to pay exorbitant prices to get any, and people living in the country–like Lynn–have to defend their stake if they want to live. Lynn is a sharp-shooter whose life revolves around survival–from protecting the pond, to spending hours a week purifying their water, to making sure they have enough food stored for winter. She and her mother are utterly self-sufficient and utterly alone.

It was when I first started reading this book that I realized I’d been reading a lot of books about women in pretty intense situations this year, and “Not a Drop to Drink” maintains that intensity to the very end (it’s also part 1 of a series). However, what I like about it is that the focus of the story is not just on survival–it’s about Lynn’s need to learn how to build community, to quit seeing everyone outside of her family-circle-of-two as a threat–to learn how to trust, work with and even love, others. Maybe Lynn’s particular, extreme situation isn’t terribly relatable–but the themes that we can be stronger in community than in isolation, and that sometimes you have to take risks in order to live a better life, are.

Well, if you read it this far–thank you!, and please let me know in the comments if you’ve set yourself a reading challenge this year and how it’s going–Or, let me know what I should add to my reading list next! 🙂

Categories: Spaghetti on the Wall