Read Harder 2017

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Looking back on Read Harder 2017

Published December 31, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Because it’s something to post about.

So, this year is finally going to be over (good riddance to bad rubbish!), and it seems like a good time to look back on the only reading challenge I’ve ever taken part in.  (Aside from, like, children’s summer reading things from libraries.  I think I did some of those.  But it was so long ago that I don’t remember for sure.)

Anyway, here’s the recap on Read Harder 2017: Read the rest of this entry →

Book Report: A History of Blood and Glitter

Published September 21, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Wow.  This is…I have no words for what this is.  No single words, that is.  I should be able to string together a lot of them to give some vague idea of what this is.

One thing I can say simply, though, is that I sure picked a doozy to finish up the challenge with!  This was my pick for the last remaining challenge, #14, “Read a book about war.”

So, let’s start with a simple idea of what this book is about.  It’s about a war in the fairy city of Ferrum, though the fairies aren’t fighting it:  the gnomes and the tightropers are.  Now, before I get to answering the question you’re undoubtedly asking yourself (i.e. “what the heck is a tightroper?”) let me first dispel a few misconceptions you’re undoubtedly harboring.  First off, that image you’ve got in your mind right now of Tinkerbell?  Wipe it out.  These fairies have no wings, naturally grow glitter in their skin (which flakes off like dandruff), and they’re immortal.  So immortal, in fact, that they can never really die, and are fully capable of feeling any bits of them that become detached from their bodies (including that oft-falling glitter!) and even controlling those bits, if they’re large enough.  So at the start of the book, the heroine Beckan takes her father with her everywhere, because he’s just an eye and an ear in a jar.  And as to those gnomes, if you’re thinking of saccharine little garden statues with pointy hats and long beards, forget them.  Forever.  These gnomes are more like a cross between Tolkienian dwarves and Gollum, only with pointier teeth and long mole-claws for digging.  And they love to eat fairy; nothing is more nourishing to a gnome than fairies, and even a small mouthful will support them for weeks.  As to the tightropers…we never get a very clear description (because our very unreliable narrator already knows what they are and what they look like) but they seem to be very spindly people with a spider-like ability to produce “ropes” out of their mouths.  (And yes, I know that’s not where the webbing comes out of a spider.)

As you may guess from that description, this book is set in a very unusual and rather disturbing world.

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Book Report: Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Published August 29, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

One more down, this time for Challenge #24 “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.”  I know I saw this book suggested somewhere for that challenge, but in a way it kind of doesn’t fit, because there’s only one POV character.  (Though in between chapters there are messages and sections of histories, but the identity and ethnicity of their ‘authors’ are unknown.)  However, I’m counting it anyway, because.

It’s really, really hard to know what to make of this book.  There are a lot of conflicting aspects about it, and from looking at reviews on Goodreads (and I had, in fact, looked at some reviews before buying the book) it’s definitely a book on which there is little consensus amongst readers.  But let’s look at the three major aspects in summary first. Read the rest of this entry →

Book Report: The Story of Hong Gildong

Published August 15, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

For Challenge #17, “Read a classic by an author of color,” I eventually settled on this one.

The back of the book proudly exclaims that “The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the most important work of classic Korean fiction.”  It’s a tale about Hong Gildong, the son of an important minister by his concubine, which leaves Gildong a second class member of society, unable to climb the usual social ladders, despite his overstated gifts.  He eventually tires of being treated as less than a proper member of the family — he is always complaining “I cannot even address my father as Father and my older brother as Brother” — and leaves home.  Through a series of events, he ends up leading a bandit army, usually only robbing corrupt targets, leading to an inaccurate comparison to Robin Hood on the back of the book.  And that’s only the first half of the book; one thing no one could complain of is that nothing happens in this book.  There are a lot of other things one could complain about, but I’ll get to them later.

There are two very important things to keep in mind when reading this book.  First, this is a pre-modern text, and does not follow the same story rules and expectations that a modern novel does.  Second, it’s the product of a culture very different from a modern Western culture (and in some ways very different from modern Korea as well), so one shouldn’t judge it out of its proper cultural context.

The latter makes it more interesting to read, as it functions as a window into pre-modern Korea (the exact period of its writing is unknown; it has traditionally been dated to the late 16th or early 17th century, but the evidence presented in the introduction makes a very compelling case for dating it to the 19th century), presenting the modern Western reader with various aspects of the culture, particularly in the way people react to each other and their opinions on their own relationships.  The former, however, presents some problems.

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Book Report: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

Published August 3, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Yay!  I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while now!  This is for Challenge #15 “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.”

This was one of many books I discovered through Book Riot’s list of suggestions for books for this challenge, a list I never seem able to find again.  (I’ve already read two of the others, and have a couple more sitting here waiting to be read, and more than that on my unpurchased TBR list.)  The book wasn’t even out yet when they put it on the list, and they summed it up very briefly as two young men off on their Grand Tour of Europe, and I think they put in some kind of expression of the fact that they were each others’ love interests.  Very bare bones suggestion of what the book was about, but it was more than enough to pique my interest, especially since the model on the cover makes me think of Brian Slade.  (Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, I know.)

So, a more detailed hint at what the plot is would go something like this:

Young Henry Montague — Monty to his friends — has recently been expelled from Eton, and is now being given one last chance to redeem himself.  He’s off on his Grand Tour, and upon his return, will be forced to take over his father’s estate and live a respectable life.  Of course, he’s determined to make the most of his year-long tour of Europe, especially because he’ll be travelling in the company of his best friend, Percy Newton, with whom Monty is intensely in love, though he’s never had the nerve to say so.  (Monty’s sister, Felicity, is to travel with them as far as Marseilles on her way to finishing school, but Monty isn’t particularly interested in that.)  The plans for their Tour have been laid out with care, ending in Holland, where Percy is to attend law school.  Of course, the more carefully laid plans are, the less likelihood that they’ll turn out the way they’re supposed to…

So, a few words on our three main characters.

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Book Report: A Wrinkle in Time

Published July 26, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

I’m still a little conflicted about counting this one.  For Challenge #16, “Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country,” I went to look at a page that had a lot of lists of banned and challenged books.  (I think the lists were from the American Library Association.)  As I was looking at the list of year-by-year challenged or banned books (most of them merely challenged, or banned from school libraries, rather than banned entirely), there were a lot of interesting books, to be sure, but most of them either not quite something I felt like reading, or something I had read before.

Then I ran out of annual lists and looked at the Top 100 banned or challenged books from 2000-2009, and A Wrinkle in Time was on the list (admittedly down about 94 or so, I think), which was already on my TBR list because a) I had picked up a copy on a buy 2 get 1 free sale at Barnes and Noble a while back and b) somehow I’ve never read it before.

It’s hard to know what to say, of course.  This book is a classic of children’s literature from the 1960s, and it’s important to remember both the age of the book and the age of its intended audience.  I don’t have much experience (as an adult) with children’s literature, so while I’m doing my best to keep its status in mind, I’m not 100% clear on what all that implies.  For example, the heroine, Meg, spends most of the novel not really doing a lot and depending on others, but is that because it’s from the ’60s, is that because it’s for children, or is it to give her character growth?  Probably the third one, maybe the first one, likely not the second, but…yeah, dunno.  I like the fact that Meg’s personality doesn’t fit the traditional “feminine” tropes:  she’s good at math (though not so good at most other subjects) and short-tempered, even a little prone to violence.  But there seemed to be a hint of a romance shoe-horned in that was entirely unconvincing, unnecessary, and even slightly inappropriate.  (Not inappropriate due to anyone’s age, mind, just inappropriate to be in the story, because the characters really shouldn’t have been wasting energy thinking about things like that while going through so much else.)

Anyway, the main thing I can think of to say about this book is that it has a huge tone shift about halfway through.  It seems to be a normal(ish) story about a girl trying to cope with her life with a father who disappeared years ago, problems at school, and a differently abled younger brother who has the reputation of being an idiot because the other people in their little town don’t understand him.  Then, suddenly, things become very different, as three mysterious old women take the children and their new friend Cal to rescue their father.  And yet, despite the tone shift, it’s a smooth read and you don’t feel terribly jarred by it.

I kept wondering why it was banned/challenged.  I’m assuming it was probably because of some of the things that happened during the rescue — especially to the younger brother, Charles Wallace, who’s about five years old — but…gah, could be anything.  Those year-by-year lists gave reasons for most of the bans/challenges, and most of them were pretty ludicrous.

One thing I was especially struck by was the initial description of the place they had to reach to find their father.  In places it was reminiscent of some earlier works, but what it mostly reminded me of was the kind of thing you find in much later, purely visual works, like Edward Scissorhands and Eerie, Indiana.  And I’m sure a lot of other places that I just don’t know about.  (The former is probably the more apt comparison than the latter, since the description was about conformity more than anything else.)  So this is a book that’s had a big impact on things that have come after it, and it’s always interesting to see the history of a concept.

Of course, now I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, because it doesn’t come to a very full ending.  But being written for young audiences means it won’t take long to read the rest of them, so that’s not a big deal.

I’ll probably have my next of these posts pretty soon, because it’s quite grabbing me.

Book Reports: Oscar Wilde and Velvet Goldmine

Published July 22, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Several reports at once here.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde that I’ve got on Goodreads, so here’s the closest cover I could find.

The one I have is a Barnes & Noble edition from 1994, long before they were doing the leatherbound thing.  (Which I found at a local used store.)  It’s got this photo on the cover, but a bit smaller, and tinted slightly blue.  And despite that it calls itself “Complete” it isn’t really complete.  The things most people want to read are all there — Dorian Gray, the plays, and the short stories — and there’s a lot of poetry, though I haven’t bothered to look up if it’s all the poetry.  (And it claims to have an introduction by George Bernard Shaw, but what it actually has is a letter from him to an early Wilde biographer recounting his own memories of Oscar Wilde.  Which is far from being an introduction in any standard sense.  It was interesting stuff (and in one place wonderfully useful to me) but not an introduction.)  But there are only a handful of letters and essays.  Which, for most people, is probably not much loss, because most people are likely to only want the fiction, whether in prose or play form.

And no, I haven’t read the entire thing cover to cover.  It’s about 1200 pages, so that’s a lot of reading.  But I have some reports on the individual pieces I have read.  (And I plan to read more of the pieces later.) Read the rest of this entry →

Book Report: The Story of Egypt

Published June 20, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, it’s been a very long time since my last Book Report, hasn’t it?  That’s because my choice for Challenge #11 “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” was this:

(Oddly, according to Goodreads, this is the paperback cover, but it’s the image on the cover of my hardback copy.)  So, before I get to the book, let me give a little backstory on why I had this sitting around waiting to be read.  In my family, everyone writes Christmas lists every year, so that gift-giving isn’t a pain in the backside.  Because a list of nothing but DVDs/Blu-rays would be excessively dull, I always make sure to put some books on there, specifically ones that feel appropriate (the one about the mistresses of Charles II, for example, did not seem holiday-appropriate) and usually hardbacks, typically new releases that I find browsing idly at Barnes & Noble.  Last year’s list had a paucity of books at first, but after another browsing, I spotted this one and figured “may as well add it” even though it didn’t particularly scream out that I needed to read it.  So naturally this is the one my mother decided to give me. (Should I have ever expected anything else?)  I chose to read it at this time because the other Christmas gift waiting to be read (which would also have worked for this challenge) is a book about Mycenae that’s about the size of a coffee table.  Not really convenient to read unless you do all your reading at a table, which I don’t.  Aaaanyway, that’s all somewhat irrelevant, so I’m not sure why I’m going into it.

Now, you may be wondering if it would normally take me a month and a half to read a 368 page book.  (The page numbers go up a lot higher than that, of course, but that’s due to the notes and bibliography and such.  The text stops on page 368.)  And the answer is “absolutely not.”  The reasons it’s taken me that long are multi-part.  One, I haven’t had as much time to just sit around reading, due to one thing and another.  Two, because I’m swimming again, I’m not taking baths very often, and I usually read in the bath.  (Why waste water bathing when I take a full shower after getting out of the pool?)  Three, this book was very frustrating to read.

Number three, of course, is the big one.  This is a very heavily researched book, but the author tried her hardest to obscure that fact.  Not only are there no in-text citations or endnote markers, the endnotes themselves are horrible.  Basically, only quotations are cited, and they’re done in the most infuriating way I’ve ever seen.  If you see a quote, you have to turn the back, where you’ll find a list (in order, thank goodness!) of all the quotations, listed by chapter but without any reference back to which page they were quoted on, which then gives you a source, by author’s last name and year of publication only, so you have to flip still further back to find the author’s works in the bibliography to see where it actually came from.  And if you want to know where some of her non-quoted information comes from?  You’re just plain out of luck.  There were many times when I wanted to know what her sources were on things that weren’t quotes, but she didn’t cite them, so for all the evidence she provided, she could have outright made those things up.  (I doubt that she did make them up, of course, but any teacher on the planet would fail her for such miserable citations.)  And when I say there are no in-text citations, I mean it.  Any time she wants to admit she’s quoting someone, she’ll just say “an historian said” or “according to one ancient source”, sometimes being as “specific” as Greek or Roman…but she never gives the historian’s name.  As if anyone would be reading a nearly 400 page book on ancient history who’d be put off at seeing the name Herodotus in the text?  Not giving the names of modern historians I can understand, but avoiding naming the ancient sources is not just annoying, but downright misleading;  knowing something came from Herodotus is very different than it coming from Plutarch, Diodorus, or whoever else.  And given the way these citations were handled, I wasn’t about to sort through them to look up which ancient source said every thing she quoted.  Some of the translations she chose for the ancient historians were entirely inappropriate for modern works, particularly the one for which I’ll present the entire citation:

‘a thieving effeminate ballet boy in curlers’, Cicero in Graves  1968, p. 96.

Seriously?  “Ballet boy”?  Ballet didn’t exist for another 1500 years!  How is such an anachronistic translation appropriate to a scholarly work?  And as to “Graves 1968″…it is not in the selected bibliography.  So what book is it?  Assuming that “Graves” means the classical scholar (and novelist) Robert Graves, one can go to Goodreads and see what he wrote in 1968…and find nothing.  According to Goodreads’ sort by original publication year, Robert Graves had things first published in ’67 and ’69, but not ’68.  So is it a reprint?  Is it someone else named Graves?  Fletcher doesn’t tell us.  (Admittedly, given the decidedly old-fashioned manner of dealing with an ancient Roman insult to a man’s masculinity, it’s almost certainly Robert Graves, and undoubtedly simply something that was reprinted/re-edited in 1968, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that she quotes and cites something without providing the most basic information on the work.  And in this case, she ought to have stated which of Cicero’s works it came from, so the reader could have sought out a more accurate translation if desired.)

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Book Report: Curses, Inc.

Published May 3, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

This one didn’t take long, did it?  It’s for Challenge #22, “Read a collection of stories by a woman.”

The theme of the collection is witches, though sometimes the connection is more tenuous than other times.  It also includes a bit at the end where she actually answers every author’s least favorite favorite question:  “where do you get your ideas?”

The stories range from humorous to actually rather frightening, with settings that are equally varied, from unspecified ‘medieval-like’ to very modern indeed.  (And yes, there’s a good reason for the cover image of a witch using a computer, btw.)  Some of them really play with your expectations, too.

As is to be expected from a collection of stories, some of them were more to my taste than others, but there weren’t any of them that I actually disliked.  Overall an entertaining (and fast) read.

…and I seem to suck at reviews today.  (Maybe because I logged on and found out that my post on Monday decided not to post itself even though I had hit publish?  So now my brain’s all scrambled by confused expectations?)

Well, no use forcing it.  I can’t figure out what else I should say, so I’m just gonna leave it here.

Book Report: Girl Mans Up

Published April 30, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Now that I’ve finished my class work for the semester (even though class won’t actually end until the 8th), I finally have time to read again.  So I’ve finished the next book for the challenge, though again I’m not sure which challenge to list it for.  It could work for challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” or challenge #15, “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.”  (For people living in other places, it might work for the within 100 miles or the over 5000 miles, but neither of those applies for me.)

This novel is the story of Pen(elope) Oliveira, a girl in high school in the (fictional?) town of Castlehill, Ontario.  She’s dealing with the usual teenage problems:  love, friendship, family, and making important decisions about how to become her own person (or if she even will).  What makes her story stand out from others is that she’s a lesbian, her family are Portuguese immigrants, and she’s always put out such a masculine vibe that people often mistook her for a boy.

From looking at the small blurbs on Goodreads and Amazon, I thought this was about her becoming (or just deciding to become) a transgender man, but that isn’t actually the case.  It’s more about how society’s gender definitions are antiquated and needlessly limiting.  In fact, I think many of the other characters in the story would be more comfortable around Pen if she was trans, because then she’d be conforming to social expectations (sort of), instead of being herself regardless of what everyone else thinks she ought to be.

I marked a couple of passages that really sum up Pen’s gender situation, but I think just the first one will get it across well enough:

Everyone wants something different from me.  It’s like one second, I should be a better dude.  I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up.  Then, it’s the opposite:  I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right.  I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.

The thing is, I’m not a boy, but I don’t want to be that girl either.  I just want everyone to screw off and let me do my own thing for once.

I should back up a bit on my previous statement.  The book isn’t about how society’s gender definitions are antiquated and needlessly limiting; that’s more the setting, the background against which the action takes place.  The actual subject of the book is…um…hard to describe in a few sentences without just giving a summary of the story.  I guess the best way to sum it up is to say that it’s about relationships — not just romantic ones, mind you, but about all the major types of interpersonal relationships:  family, friendship, and romance.

So, as a teen drama about interpersonal relationships, this is exactly the kind of book I don’t normally read.  Usually, I like to read books where the world needs to be saved, adventures need to be had, tyrants must be stopped, heists have to be perpetrated, et cetera.  (Well, that’s if you’re talking about fiction.  Non-fiction is another matter entirely.)  Therefore, I don’t have much frame of reference here.  But reading outside of your usual zone is one of the points of the Read Harder Challenge, so that’s cool.  And, more importantly, I did enjoy the book.  (In fact, I was sucked in so well it took me half the book or more to consciously notice that it was in the present tense.)

Pen  is very well developed as a character; she feels like a real person, both sure of herself and who she is and also still questing after her own personal identity at the same time.  (She is, after all, a teenager.)  The supporting cast are also well developed, though necessarily not quite as transparent to the reader as Pen, since we only have access to the inside of Pen’s head, and not everyone else’s.  The progression of events feels very natural, and like real life, there are decisions where you wonder what someone was thinking, and others where you feel like characters made a good choice.  Nothing world-shattering happens (not much even life-altering, in fact), just the passage of time and the events that accompany it.  (Though some of the events are naturally more important than others.)

…hmm.  I feel like maybe I should be saying more than that, but I can’t really think what else to say.  (My brain has yet to recover from that last stretch of class work, apparently…)

I guess really all I need to say is that here’s a book about a really kick-ass girl who faces social adversity on a daily basis, and if that sounds like something you’d like to read about, then you should look into this book.

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