2019 Reading Women Challenge – The End of the Road

Hooray, I did it! I completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m glad I took the opportunity to explore the wealth of female talent out there, from the 11th century writer Murasaki Shikibu to modern visionaries like Anjali Sachdeva. Here are my thoughts on the final books I read, which may contain spoilers!

Challenge #16 – A book by an Indigenous woman

For this challenge, I chose Heart Berries: A Memoir by the First Nation Canadian writer Terese Marie Mailhot. It doesn’t read like a traditional memoir, with its disjointed timeline and poetic style. It also eschews easy lessons or neat resolutions as it recounts her mental health struggles and her relationships.

It is, frankly, a mess. At times it is a beautiful, inspiring mess, but at other times it is like holding your chaotic friend’s hair back while she word-vomits all over the place. Mailhot doesn’t come across as likeable, and I doubt she intended to. Her rawness is exhausting and I had to read it in small doses.

Challenge #1 – A mystery or thriller written by a woman of colour

Murder in Montego Bay is the first book in the Preddy and Harris series of detective novels, and I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the others as this one just wasn’t my cup of ganja tea (Detective Preddy’s favourite brew).

The pace is leisurely, bordering on glacial, for the first half of the novel. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were more depth to the characters, but none of them seem particularly complex or interesting.

When events kick off towards the end of the novel, there are one or two neat plot twists, and the whole thing develops a filmic, blockbuster kind of feel. Unfortunately, the lack of depth lets the novel down again when the killer is revealed. I didn’t find their motivation entirely convincing, so it worked for me as a “whodunnit” but not as a “whydunnit”.

Challenge #7 – A book featuring a woman in science

I really wanted to like this one, but The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict was a disappointment. It’s about Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, who was also a physicist and is claimed by some historians to have helped him considerably with his ground-breaking theories.

This novel portrays Mileva as Albert’s intellectual equal, who (SPOILER ALERT) comes up with the theory of relativity herself while grieving for her daughter, who dies of scarlet fever. Albert claims the idea as his own, and Mileva’s genius is lost in the shadows while Albert becomes increasingly famous.

Despite an intriguing plot, I didn’t like the book. I found the writing flat and exposition-heavy, and Mileva is portrayed as unrealistically flawless and selfless. Even when she’s angry about not getting credit for her ideas, it’s not for her own sake – it’s because she wanted the ideas to be a tribute to her daughter. It didn’t ring true for me, and I would have rooted for her more if she just wanted fame and recognition because she earnt them, dammit!

Challenge #10 – A book about a woman athlete

Trudy’s Big Swim by Sue Macy is a lovely picture book about Gertrude Ederle – the first woman to swim across the English Channel. It should appeal to a wide age range, as younger readers can enjoy the main story and illustrations, while older readers have background information such as sports timelines to read before and after the main story.

It’s an ideal book for sporty girls (and boys, of course). It’s full of fun little details like people on a boat singing songs to encourage Trudy, and passing her fried chicken in a net to keep her strength up. But it doesn’t try too hard to be a “kids’ story”, and the illustrations are realistic, with Trudy looking more like a real swimmer than a Disney princess.

Challenge # 15 – A book written by a South Asian author

It’s not hard to see why The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997. It’s just magic. Go read it!

It’s the story of Estha and Rahel – twins from a complicated family. It can be difficult to write from a child’s-eye view, but Roy manages it with aplomb. The minor characters are also fully formed, so that nobody is a hero or a straightforward villain (except perhaps the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, who is a POS).

There’s some very dark content in the story, but it’s told with wit, a surprising streak of scatological humour, and a real playfulness with language. The structure can be confusing at times, but a novel this rich is worth a few mental gymnastics.

Challenge # 12 – A Lambda Literary Award winner

I don’t read much hard sci-fi, but Autonomous: A Novel made me want to read more of it. Set in the 22nd century, the world-building is phenomenally detailed and imaginative. The future isn’t presented as a hellscape (people routinely live past 100 and eco-friendly technology is commonplace) but there are also some very Orwellian elements.

Some of the characters aren’t as fleshed out as the world they live in. Threezed’s sarcasm is “told” more often than shown, and I never understood why Eliasz got so hung up on being attracted to a male robot rather than a male robot. Is LGBT+ acceptance so crappy in the future that it’s seen as more acceptable to fancy robots than someone of the same gender?

Despite these flaws, this novel takes a brave stab at tackling huge issues like identity, capitalism and personal freedom, and it’s also just a damn good adventure story with great action scenes. Overall, I’d say I’m ending the 2019 Reading Women Challenge on a high.

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