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Book Report: The Heart of a Woman

Published February 20, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

As I said before, this next book is really appropriate for Black History Month.  In looking at the (uniquely finite) list of choices for Challenge #13 “An Oprah Book Club selection,” I was admittedly a bit torn, as Middlesex sounded like something I’d like to read.  (How many books have intersex leads?)  But in the end I decided to go with this one.

Rather than make any futile attempt on my own to describe the contents of the book in summary, let me quote the summary from the book’s Goodreads page instead:

Maya Angelou has fascinated, moved, and inspired countless readers with the first three volumes of her autobiography, one of the most remarkable personal narratives of our age. Now, in her fourth volume, The Heart of a Woman, her turbulent life breaks wide open with joy as the singer-dancer enters the razzle-dazzle of fabulous New York City. There, at the Harlem Writers Guild, her love for writing blazes anew.

Her compassion and commitment lead her to respond to the fiery times by becoming the northern coordinator of Martin Luther King’s history-making quest. A tempestuous, earthy woman, she promises her heart to one man only to have it stolen, virtually on her wedding day, by a passionate African freedom fighter.

Filled with unforgettable vignettes of famous characters, from Billie Holiday to Malcolm X, The Heart of a Woman sings with Maya Angelou’s eloquent prose her fondest dreams, deepest disappointments, and her dramatically tender relationship with her rebellious teenage son. Vulnerable, humorous, tough, Maya speaks with an intimate awareness of the heart within all of us.

While that does sum up most of the content matter, it doesn’t really do justice to the book.  There’s so much more involved, and the summary doesn’t put nearly enough emphasis on her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.  Also, it doesn’t mention that there are places where the narrative grips you so much that you have to keep reading, desperate to know what will happen next, even though the events all took place fifty+ years ago.

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Book Report: Ascension

Published February 15, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

All right, so this time I’ve tackled challenge #17, “A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author.”

I decided to go with this one in February because the heroine is, well, if there was a movie, she’d be played by an African-American actress.  (This being sci-fi, if these humans have any connection with Earth, it was so far back in their society’s collective past that they’ve essentially forgotten about it.)  The author, as you might guess by her last name, is of Asian ancestry, so in that sense it’s actually not appropriate for Black History Month.  Also it lacks, you know, history.  But the book I’ll be borrowing from the library today actually does have history and is appropriate, so that’s something, yeah?

Uh, right, but about this book.  This was a debut novel, according to Goodreads (and why would it lie?), and it’s a very impressive one.  The heroine/narrator, Alana Quick, is a “sky surgeon,” an engineer who works on starships, but thanks to the combination of an extreme economic downswing and the presence of the magic-like technology of the “othersiders,” people who literally came through a rift from another dimension, there aren’t many repair jobs to be had.  And Alana has more financial needs than most, because she — and her aunt, who’s her partner at their repair shop — has a particularly horrible degenerative disease called Mel’s Disorder which leaves Alana in pretty much constant pain, and if she doesn’t constantly take her preventative medication, the disorder will take over, destroying her muscular control to the extent that within a few short years her perfectly functioning mind would be trapped in a shell of useless, agonized flesh.  Alana’s sister Nova, however, is a “spirit guide,” a possessor of psychic abilities, whose powers and job take so long to become fully clear to the reader that I feel like if I go into any detail, I’ll be spoiling things.  The important thing is that Nova makes a lot of money, and at the start of the novel, Alana rather resents her, especially in that Nova actually owns the building that houses Alana’s repair shop/home, and has the gall to charge her own sister rent.  (Not that Nova is threatening to evict them, of course.  Instead, she’s threatening to forgive them their back rent, which would carry a heavy toll in pride and guilt.)  Then the Tangled Axon lands at Alana’s shop, looking for Nova.  Nova’s on vacation, and doesn’t want to be disturbed, but the Tangled Axon crew is determined to find her, and the ship calls out to Alana in a way that she’s never encountered before, so she decides to stow away on the ship, hoping they’ll hire her on as the ship’s engineer if she helps them talk to her sister.  They’re not looking for Nova for themselves, but for a powerful othersider named Birke, because they want Birke to do something for them, and they hope Nova will be the leverage they need to make her do it.  Alana agrees to help, but they’ve no sooner gotten Nova aboard the Tangled Axon than an act of unspeakable horror is committed, and the Tangled Axon crew is framed for it.  They’re left racing against both enforcers and the clock, trying to get to Birke before it’s too late.

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Book Report: Let’s Talk About Love

Published February 8, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I can’t believe it took me over a week to read this book.  (Especially when you consider that it took me half that time to read a book published in 1818, compared to this book published 200 years later.)  This was my selection for Challenge #10 “A romance novel by or about a person of color.”  And I think the big take-away here is that I really don’t like the romance genre.  Last year’s challenge to read an LGBTQ+ romance worked out great for me, because the book wasn’t actually about the romance:  it was about who’s trying to use magic to force Lucien Vaudrey to kill himself, why, can Stephen Day stop them in time, and when are the two of them finally going to start having the hot sex the back of the book promised?  (*cough*)  But this one…is really mostly just about interpersonal relationships, and that wasn’t enough to hold my interest for very long at a stretch.

So, there are two reasons I picked this particular book to read.  One, the lead is a biromantic asexual, which is totally awesome.  Two, that cover:  that is a fantastic cover, though it turns out to be a misleading one.  Misleading for two reasons, one big and one small.  The small reason is that our lead, Alice, has long hair that she keeps in braids, so the hair is all wrong in that picture.  (Like I said, very small reason.)  The big reason is that it’s tonally misleading:  that cover image promises a heroine who never lets anything bring her down, and always greets her life with an “I’m on top of everything” smile on her face.  That is not what Alice is like for the majority of this book.  She spends most of the book in a deep emotional funk for one reason or another.  If I’d known that was coming, I might have picked another book.  (Then again, I might not have:  it’s rare enough to come across an asexual lead in a book at all, let alone in a romance.)

But let’s talk about the story for a bit.  We start out as Alice is being dumped by her roommate/girlfriend, Margot, who just can’t stand the fact that Alice only has sex with her to make Margot happy, and clearly isn’t getting anything out of it.  Margot doesn’t understand — and doesn’t even want to — what it’s like being asexual, and does (of course) suggest that Alice should see a doctor about it.  That scene actually made me think of a movie trailer I saw recently (I think it was called Love, Simon, or something like that), for a movie about a high school boy who’s contemplating coming out (I guess?):  the trailer overall was mostly very generic and nothing I hadn’t seen before, but there was one really good bit where the boy wonders why only gay people have to “come out,” and then there’s a fantasy sequence of kids coming out to their parents as straight.  But the thing is, that wasn’t right:  it’s not just homosexuals who have to come out, it’s everyone who isn’t cis heterosexual, including asexuals.  (Though it’s less necessary for asexuals, particularly aromantic ones.  Most people aren’t going to know the difference between aro-ace and just-plain-out-of-luck-in-love, not when it’s in someone they don’t know super-closely.  I’ve known my (sort of) boss at work for longer than I’ve understood my own sexuality, but she had no idea about it until she and my other hetero co-worker were discussing the plans for the other hetero co-worker’s upcoming wedding, and asked me what I’d like my wedding to be like.  I mean, she was a little awkward in phrasing it (I am over 40 and unmarried, after all), but she was still really surprised when I explained that a wedding was an impossibility for me because I was aromantic and asexual.  (And yes, btw, I do only have two heterosexual co-workers.  Admittedly, I only have four total co-workers, but still.))

Um, sorry, got side-tracked there.  Anyway, so Alice spends a few chapters moping about Margot so heartlessly leaving her, and then, just as Romeo forgets his Rosaline after he meets Juliet, Alice practically forgets Margot ever existed after she lays eyes on her non-decoy love interest, Takumi.  (It’s not a perfect comparison.  Among other reasons, because this is not a tragedy and no one kills themselves, but also because Margot is still brought up a few times after Takumi is introduced.)  Takumi is described as having a divinely perfect appearance, but without much in the way of details (so I tried to imagine a twenty-something Gackt, because that sounds pretty damned divine to me) and as soon as she sees him, Alice starts acting like the stereotypical love-struck teenager.  Which, of course, she is.  She’s aware that she’s acting like a cliche, and doesn’t like it, but doesn’t manage to stop acting that way.  Maybe that’s how it really is when you fall for someone?  Having never experienced it, I couldn’t say.

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Book Report: Persuasion

Published January 31, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

In perfect time, I’ve finished reading my selection for Challenge #1, “A book published posthumously.”  I had some other books I was contemplating, until I was reminded that two of Jane Austen’s novels were only published posthumously.  Then I realized it had to be one of them.  (I will admit that I selected Persuasion over Northanger Abbey because a look at the table of contents showed that Persuasion had seven fewer chapters.  And since I really wanted to be able to start on February-appropriate reading come the first, that was a good thing.)

This cover image is not representative of what I read, though:  one of the first things I bought for my first Kindle when I got it was a collected works of Jane Austen.  (Also a collected works of Shakespeare, and a massive collection of ancient plays and epics.  (Because who wouldn’t want seven or eight excruciatingly stilted 19th century translations of the Odyssey, most of them using Roman names?))  None of the collected works covers on Goodreads matched the one I had, and after actually looking at the cover, I decided I was better off not showing it anyway.  (Seriously, it shows a woman in a bright red dress with a scandalously low neckline.  She looks like someone who would be a bar wench in a particularly salacious adaptation of The Three Musketeers, not someone at all appropriate to English drawing room dramas.)  It would have been appropriate to use the cover of the 1909 version whose illustrations were included in an exceptionally low-res manner, but Goodreads didn’t have that, either.  (Not exactly surprising…)

Aaaaanyway, before I get to the review, two things.  First, a basic idea of the plot:  our protagonist is one Miss Anne Elliot, still unmarried at 27.  She and her older sister Elizabeth (who couldn’t be less like Elizabeth Bennet if she tried!) are both unwed because of failed arrangements in the past; in Elizabeth’s case, nothing was ever firm, and he just withdrew from her society, whereas Anne was actually engaged to Frederick Wentworth, and was persuaded to break the engagement, as he (a mere naval Lieutenant) was beneath her station.  Because, you see, her father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a baronet and excessively proud of his title…even if he no longer has any money to go with it.  To compound their unmarried state, their younger sister, Mary, not only has a husband, but two little brats — I mean, boys — to take care of.  When the Elliot family finances sink to the point that the best way to keep them from going bankrupt is for them to move from their family manor to Bath and take in a lodger in the manor house in the meantime, Anne doesn’t go to Bath right away with her father and sister (having bad associations with the place), but instead stays with her sister and then with her great friend, Lady Russell, who had been a close friend of her late mother.  The lodger in the manor house is one Admiral Croft and his wife, who happens to be the sister of Anne’s former fiance, who is now Captain Wentworth, having made not only his career but also his fortune in the Napoleonic wars.  I’m sure you can guess where it goes from there, but the path it takes from point A to point B was not at all what I was expecting.

But before I can talk about that, there’s the other thing that needs to come before the review.  And that is a brief explanation of my history with Jane Austen.  Because it’s rather odd.  You see, I count Pride and Prejudice as one of my favorite novels of all times, but I’ve only read it a couple of times, and this is the first time I’ve read any other Austen.  (Though I’ve purposely avoided reading Sense and Sensibility because I love the movie so much, and I’m afraid that if I read the book then I won’t like the movie anymore.)

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Book(?) Report: Sparkler, Year One

Published January 26, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

So, to start with, a little background.  Sparkler is a monthly electronic magazine, modeled after the massive Japanese manga monthlys (the most famous in the West being Shonen Jump) and aimed primarily at a female readership, though I think male readers would enjoy it, too.  I became aware of the magazine when I stumbled across their Kickstarter to support Year Five.  (I shudder to think how much of my money Kickstarter has redistributed at this point…)  I ended up backing it at a tier that not only gave me a subscription to Year Five, but also gave me all the back issues.

All twelve covers!

That was actually a mistake, I think; I should have gone with “read as ebooks” rather than “read as a magazine.”  Trying to remember all the ongoing plots is sort of frustrating, and I think I was probably losing a lot of details in my head in the meantime….

Anyway, so my overall review is “yeah, this is a very cool idea, and I think when I’ve read the other four years, I’ll definitely feel like it was worth my money…though I think I may download as many of the free-to-members ebooks as I can to catch up rather than just counting on the back issues.”  But I thought I’d give you some individual reviews of the titles that I’ve read enough of to have a good grip on.  (Like, see the really cool cover on Issue 12, there, with the gorgeous art?  I couldn’t possibly review that one, ’cause I’ve only read the one chapter.)

I’ll start with the one that finished first.

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Book Report: A Bear Called Paddington

Published January 24, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Why are all my Read Harder 2018 books so far being “Read Easier” instead?  I feel like such a loser.  (But I’m almost done with Year 1 of Sparkler, so then I’ll be able to dive into some heftier reading!)  This time I’m reporting on Challenge #11, “A children’s classic published before 1980.”

For those of you who are somehow unaware of Paddington, he is so called because Mr. & Mrs. Brown find him one day in Paddington Station, with a tag around his neck saying “Please look after this bear.  Thank you.”  He explains to them that he’s just immigrated from “darkest Peru,” since his elderly aunt moved into a retirement home for bears (who knew there was such a thing?) and can no longer look after him.  The Browns are perplexed — both at finding a bear in a railway station and by the fact that he can talk and is so terribly polite — and decide to take him home.  (Giving him the new name of Paddington, since he insists that no one would be able to pronounce his Peruvian name.)  Of course, being the nicest, sweetest talking bear (except, perhaps, for Winnie the Pooh), he quickly becomes a precious member of the family, and forgiven for any trouble he might cause (flooding the bathroom, for example) because he just tries so very hard to fix everything, even when he doesn’t quite understand what went wrong.

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Book Report: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Volume 1

Published January 19, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

And it’s another fast one!  Because this time I’ll be reporting on challenge #8, “A comic written or illustrated by a person of color.”  And my comic of choice was written and illustrated by not one but four Japanese women, the manga master-team known as CLAMP.  (This would also work for challenges #15, 18, and 19.)

Of course, in a way this is me cheating, because it was a no-brainer that I would be reading this.  A) I read almost every CLAMP manga translated into English and B) I follow Cardcaptor Sakura with an almost religious zeal.  (Though I admit I haven’t started watching the new series (based on this new manga) yet.  Largely because that will involve signing up for Crunchyroll, and I’m notoriously slow about signing up for new things, particularly if I have to pay for them.)  Actually, the only surprise about me reading this now is the fact that it was published almost a month ago, and I only found out a few days ago.  (Amazon failed me yet again!  They’re supposed to notify me every time a new CLAMP book is listed!  And yet I still only find them by browsing the manga shelves.  I think they’ve only actually notified me once since I signed up for those notifications like two years ago…)

The original Cardcaptor Sakura manga (and the television show and movies based on it) was back in the late ’90s, so this is a twentieth anniversary sequel, but it takes place soon after the original.  (Sort of.  I was really thrown off by the sight of Eriol-kun talking on a freakin’ smart phone.  Those hadn’t even been invented yet when the original series ended!  So it’s like…the entire world of the manga jumped over nearly twenty years and no one noticed…or something.)  CLAMP has been doing some direct sequels to finished manga lately (Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles (which starred alternate versions of Sakura and her love interest) and xxxholic both got them, and Wish sort of got a stealth sequel) so the appearance of a new Cardcaptor Sakura manga isn’t as surprising as it might be.  From watching the trailer for the anime, I thought it was just going to be a series-length adaptation of the second movie, but that certainly isn’t the case with the manga, though it does seem to be borrowing at least one theme from that movie.

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Book Report: Fern & the Moon Rabbit

Published January 7, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, I’ve got one of these up sooner than expected!  Though I’m not 100% sure this counts.  (Book Riot hasn’t posted its list of suggestions for this challenge yet, but the people in the Goodreads group seemed to think this type of book was okay.)

Fern & The Moon Rabbit is a book I backed on Kickstarter.  (Which is where this image came from; click on it to go to the campaign page.)  It’s a series of images drawn by the author during “Inktober,” which seems to be a lot like NaNoWriMo, except that it’s drawings and in October.  These stories cohered into the story of Fern, a cute and strong little troll, on her quest to restore the moon rabbit to its proper place, facing off against a slew of dangers in the process.

Each picture is matched with four lines of verse, in the form of two rhymed couplets, to tell the story of Fern’s journey.  It’s half art book, and half children’s picture book, and all very imaginative.  This is the kind of thing I’d have liked to do with my fairy tale-like stories “A Tale o’ Seven Suns” and “The Story of the Many Moons,” only unlike my stories, this is actually really good.

Tragically, I don’t see anything on the Kickstarter page indicating that the book is available for sale anywhere; it looks like they only printed up enough copies to match the number ordered by the backers.  Which is a real shame, because this is a beautiful little book, with a heroine who could easily endear herself to the whole world if given the chance.

Anyway, this is my pick for Challenge #15, “A one-sitting book.”  Because “one-sitting” is very vague, and I don’t seem to read as much in a sitting as I used to, but this is super-short, and I literally read it all in a single bath.  (Yeah, I read in the bath.  So what of it?)

Looking at this year’s list, btw, I feel like maybe it’s a bit lighter weight than last year’s:  there are three challenges that specifically require a comic book, and one that specifically requires a children’s book.  Which isn’t to say that comics and kids’ books can’t be heavy-duty (or really long), but…I dunno.

Oh, looking at the comments on the Goodreads thread about the final challenge, “An assigned book you hated (or never finished,” I found myself being reminded of a number of so-called classic works of literature that I had to read and hated and have zero desire to re-read…but I also noted some people talking about how they thought books they had only been assigned to read selections of might count as books that they had never finished.  So that opens up a lot of possibilities.  Though most of them are really long and unwieldy…but maybe Gulliver’s Travels would be a good choice.  At the time I enjoyed the 3/4 of it we were assigned to read.  (They had us skip Laputa for whatever reason.  Possibly because my high school did teach Spanish.)

Book Report: Two Boys Kissing

Published September 29, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

I managed to finish reading my book for Banned Books Week after all!  Largely because in addition to being relatively short (it is YA), the last section of the book is one of those things where I couldn’t close the book again after I reached it until I’d finished reading the book.  Anyway, allow me to introduce you to one of last year’s top ten most banned/challenged books:

The cover photo is actually pretty misleading, in that one of the two boys is visibly taller than the other, and the text makes a point of saying that they’re the same height, making their challenge easier.  Oh, wait, I should talk about the book, not the cover!  It’s just something that really struck me suddenly about the cover image, and I had to point it out.

All right, so the book itself.  Probably the first thing anyone says about this book — though it’s not in the official blurb on the dust jacket, interestingly — is that it’s narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who have died of AIDS.  And it really is, except that in a true Greek drama, the characters on stage can and do interact with the chorus, and the chorus has no idea exactly what’s going on in the characters’ heads.  The “we” narrating this novel — and I think this is the only work I’ve ever encountered with a first person plural narrative voice, btw –know what the characters are thinking and feeling, not because they have some omniscience, but because they’ve been there, having lived through so many of the things these boys are going through, but no matter how much they shout at the boys, no matter how much they try to interfere, they can’t, because they’re dead.  It’s both a mournful narrative voice and also a supremely powerful and even rejoicing one, because while they’re gone and so many of their friends are gone with them, some of their friends are still around, and — much more importantly — the new generation is starting from a better place, with more chance of being accepted by their family and friends.  As to why these men are narrating our tale, I’ll let them give you an idea of that in their own words:

We no longer sleep, and because we no longer sleep, we no longer dream.  Instead we watch.  We don’t want to miss a thing.

You have become our dreaming.

While our narrators can turn their gaze at anyone they want, they choose to show us a handful of gay teens over the course of a weekend.  The two boys of the title, Craig and Harry, are preparing to break the World Record for longest kiss, which will require them to kiss for 32 hours, 12 minutes and 10 seconds.  Because they’re doing it to make a statement — both defiant and naïve, typically teenage — they got permission to do it on the front lawn of their high school, with their friends running cameras to livestream it onto the Internet, and teachers to act as witnesses.  There are also Neil and Peter, a close couple, Ryan and Avery, who only just met at the beginning and hit it off right away, and Cooper, whose story may have grabbed me more than anyone else’s, along with Tariq, a friend of Craig and Harry and whose story gets largely subsumed into Craig and Harry’s.  Some of these boys are out to their friends and family, a few aren’t, and one of them is a trans boy, making his life infinitely more complicated.  Some of the other boys get sucked into the drama around the big kiss, and others remain oblivious to it, caught up in their own lives as most people are most of the time.

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Book Report: TransAntiquity

Published September 26, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

I should be reading the next of the ten gazillion (seemingly) library books I have out for this semester’s research project, but I’m going to write this report on the first one instead, in the hopes that discussing it will help me to process the information and figure out exactly what my topic question is.

So, as you can see, the title of this book is “TransAntiquity:  Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World,” a title which is actually a bit misleading, as the modern concept of transgender is, well, modern, only a few decades old.  So this is more an approach from the modern perspective, with full understanding (and acceptance) of transgender.  (And this is, of course, the kind of book you don’t want to buy:  it’s priced for library purchases, not individual purchases, over $100 a copy.)

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I didn’t actually read this book cover-to-cover.  I’m researching a paper that’s going to be on the definitions of gender (and behavior towards transgressors of those definitions) in ancient Greece and Rome, and so I skipped over two of the essays in this book, because they really did not apply:  one was about Pharaonic Egypt, and the other was about a period I’d more consider to be the early Middle Ages than late Antiquity (y’know, post-600 AD) so it was actually concerned with Christianity’s reaction to gender transgressions, which is a completely different topic.  (Technically, one of the ones I did read also included a lot of discussion of early Christianity, but it also talked about pre-Christian Rome.  Plus…well, I’ll get to it in turn, and you’ll see why I had to read it.)

I’m going to talk about each essay in turn, but I’ll address the book as a whole first, briefly.  This grew out of an academic workshop held at the University of Pisa, and most of the contributors work at universities in Italy and Germany, with a few UK universities thrown into the mix as well.  Consequently, the authors and editors pretty much assume that if you’re reading the book, you must speak all the major European languages, and they don’t translate their French, Italian and German quotes.   (And I always seemed to be reading it in a time and place where I couldn’t just use Google Translate to get a rough idea of what was being said; all I could do was guess based on cognates and my rusty-to-the-point-of-not-really-existing Latin and German skills.)  The constant reminders that I’m just an ignorant American were kind of painful.  (I do want to learn other languages!  I just suck at them.  And have too much else going on in my life to take proper lessons.)

Anyway, as scholars of the ancient world, the authors are hampered by the existing evidence, and can only address what information survives, so behavior that would actually be identified as trans by modern standards is conspicuously absent for the vast majority of the book, because there just isn’t much surviving data to support a discussion.  There’s a lot of talk about cross-dressing, and about men who were labelled as effeminate, and some discussion of women who were labelled as masculine, and what function those labels served in their society.  So it was really useful to my project, but might not be so useful to other research endeavors.

Okay, so now I want to talk a little about each essay, to give an idea what’s in the book.  (Also to help me process the information properly.  What can I say?  I think better via fingers on a keyboard.  That’s just the messed up way my brain is wired.)

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