26. Gulliver’s Travels

Oops! So I definitely haven’t finished this one. Am I ashamed? Well not really, there are hundreds of books I’d like to get through and try as I might I just can’t seem to make this one stick and enjoy it. I have a bad habit of reading out of compulsion rather than enjoyment so here’s to breaking a habit! Lemuel Gulliver, you’ve been… okay… but I’ve read The Colour of Magic  and started the Vagina Monologues in the mean time so I guess. It’s time to say goodbye.

Guliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Perhaps when I started this Reading Challenge I should’ve added in a get out of jail free clause, something along the lines of “If after 100 pages you still CANNOT stand this, put it down, find something fun.” Well, 160 pages in, and I’m pretty sure I could happily read on but I wouldn’t enjoy myself and it would take valuable time out of the year that could be better suited to enjoying something else (yes this is a difficult thing for me, the last time I put down a book I didn’t enjoy was well over 12 months ago). Nobody is expected to like everything they read? Right? Right?!?! Okay. Yeah rationally, we’ve had trouble with Jules Verne this year, and we had trouble with James Joyce, but this time, up with this we will not put. I am going to learn how to do this. I am steeling myself, going against everything I have been taught at university.

Gulliver’s Travels is an adventure novel about Lemuel Gulliver and his seafaring adventures (which are fortunately not overly worked this part of the journey is only ever a quick stone throw into the real adventure). Firstly he manages to find himself on an island where the inhabitants are very small, and they think he’s a monster of such and it so happens he easily learns language to communicate with them (and convinces them of otherwise).

He learns their customs and politics and then he has a falling out with the King so runs away to have to come back and leave. The second island, is much the same as the first, except this time, you guessed it, everyone is really big and he is really small. And much in the same formulaic way Gulliver learns the language, politics and gets in good with the royal family. Only this time he isn’t run out of town but snatched by a bird and then rescued by his own people who are bewildered at why he is raving like a mad man thinking he is tiny and they are large.

Then Gulliver is off again! And this time… he is picked up by an island that floats around the sky.

It was shortly after this point in the novel I stopped reading. I’ve read more challenging material and certainly more entertaining material. I really wanted to make some crack about the last island being something Atlantean, but, surprise surprise a quick google tells me that I have missed out on the wondrous island of the talking horses. Which is far better than any joke I could’ve cracked.

If I’ve put you off, I can understand why but this is still a novel of its time and you should at least have a running jump at it even if you decide its not for you. Me personally, I prefer H.G. Wells. But I guess, had I not left the book at home when I went to Spain I may have not given up on it.

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25. The Colour of Magic

“Wizards, adventures, and bloody tourists getting into trouble.” 

Hello! Yes I’ve been away for a while, mostly because I spent a glorious week in Spain and honestly didn’t get much reading done as I was so busy getting up to mischief, making friends, and drifting in the sea (mostly at the same time). I am pretty certain that stealing a week has done me the world of good, never the less I am still recovering and have been at home for two days now.

Before I left the UK, I slipped this little beauty into my rucksack – which didn’t get read on either plane, as on both of them I dozed and had very weird dreams about rooms of cake (yes, be jealous). The Colour of Magic was my introduction to the Discworld all those years ago and it is the first in the Discworld series – for those of you that don’t know the Discworld is a disk shaped world that is floating through space on the back of a giant turtle. Lately I’ve felt a distinct lack of comic fantasy in my life so this was a really perfect pick for travelling.

 

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

So, it was quite fitting to pick up and take travelling as the Colour of Magic follows Twoflower a very oblivious and naive tourist who is discovering the city Ankh-Morpork. Who by some strange circumstances meets and employs the ragged failed Wizard, Rincewind. The pair are forced to flee the city and travel across the disc after a bartender sets fire to his pub after Twoflower sells him insurance. Unknown to them their journey is actually part of a game that the Gods of the Disc are playing. Twoflower and Rincewind are the champions of the Lady, and are pitted against the champions of Zephyrus, (the god of slight breezes), Fate, and Offler the Crocodile God.

Within the Colour of Magic is also perhaps one of my favourite characters of all literature, Twoflower’s Luggage. If you’ve not read this novel you may be wondering what I’m talking about, but Twoflower’s Luggage is made from a particularly potent magical wood and this box follows him around regardless of how or when they get separated. It is also a man-eater, it has lots of tiny legs, and is usually very, very angry.

This is a winding story, where Rincewind is forced to rescue Twoflower and vice versa, from the most terrible forces on the Disc and also from their own shortcomings. It is a book that contains imaginary Dragons, wizards, powerful spells trapped in places they shouldn’t be, questions about the sex of the great turtle the Disc rides on, Gods making mischief, and also is generally a pleasure to read and a lot of fun and humour.

Even if you’re only a tiny bit interested in fantasy, read it. It’s great fun and Terry Pratchett is an awesome writer and for all of the winding changes in the story the narrative maintains a rich sense of self. It’s playful, it’s engaging, it’s an addictive world! I can’t say enough about it, just go and read it. Go and find out why the Luggage is just amazing!

 

24. If I was your Girl

“Young, transgendered, and brave.”

Happy Sunday! It’s a lazy sort of afternoon and in between my stupor of stuffing flapjacks into my face and reading poetry I’ve decided it is now time to discuss novel 24 of the year. If I was your Girl is a brave and darling young adult novel that tackles gender identity and sexuality in a very broad way. I am an advocate of YA fiction as generally it is slightly lighter reading and honestly can be very fun. However Meredith Russo’s novel covers a challenging topic, it is a different kind of coming of age story.

If I was your Girl by Meredith Russo

Trans teenager Amanda Hardy is the new girl in town, she’s trying to keep her past a secret whilst learning to fit in, making new friends, and falling in love with a boy. She meets friends who have their own secrets: a girl who hides her social life from her strict Baptist parents, another who has never ‘come out’ but has a secret girlfriend, and also Grant, her boyfriend who keeps his family from her.

She navigates her day to day in a teenage story of fitting into a new school and finding herself at ease with other people for the first time in her life. Amanda’s previous life as Andrew is intermittently spattered throughout the novel. Andrew’s fraught life at home, his parents fighting over his femininity and a way to curb the increasing bullying at school. An account of the start of the transition to Amanda following a suicide attempt and finding a trans support group.

It is really an easy story and it is uncomplicated in its broad handling of the topic. Amanda is lucky in her transition as she is quite young, her hormones are very early, her surgery is also easily funded by her Mom. She is feminine from the onset and ‘passes’ as her gender with relative ease (but not without anxiety). This is a novel that waters down the difficult topic of gender reassignment, and casts it under an easily accessible light. The violence in the novel is somewhat dimmed and faded in comparison to how I feel certain realities lie for the trans community. Googling the violence against the trans community brings up horrific results, like there is a transgendered individual murdered every 29 hours around the world.

But figures and realities like this, I feel are a back drop to If I was your Girl. The ease in which Amanda integrates with her new society, how her mother is always on her side, how her father ultimately fully gets on board with it too, how she is white, widely proclaimed as attractive, is heterosexual, ‘passes’ easily, and is in a relatively privileged position. These are things that are idealistic but optimistic and in some cases hopeful. I believe for how narrow a look it gives to the trans community it still gives important visibility. Through a geeky, relatable teenage girl. It may at times not feel like a fair representation of the trans community, but I’m sure there are some girls and women like Amanda rubbing shoulders with those with the daily struggle to ‘pass’. 

This novel also highlights something that I feel is very important about education and I was particularly interested in this novel because it is aimed at a younger audience. This is a simply a story about a teenage girl, with a little twist. It may fall short of some wilder struggles and some harder hitting material that is horrific, it may be written with the character in a position of privilege. But that is not the point. The point of this novel is to give visibility to a community that is there and for the novel to act as an access point for young people. Regardless of past physical struggles, Russo’s Amanda is undoubtably every teenage girl, falling in love, and running around finding herself.

This is an incredibly easy read and forthright and unapologetic. I’d recommend it.

23. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

“Notes from a Loud Woman, from fat shaming to rape culture.”

I may have gorged myself on this one. What can I say? It was a good read. Lindy West is not somebody who I have come across before, but I did not go into this book blind. I was told from the onset that this is a text that is funny and ranty and full of feminist topics that may interest me. Shrill covers, fat shaming, rape culture, abortions, periods, all topics so familiar to me as a young woman living in 2016.

Just to warn you to enjoy this text you don’t have to be in the USA (just in the world), or a woman (just a person living in society), or be fat (just have a body). But if you are interested in one woman’s account of her life to date, finding confidence within her body and femininity and her grasping her views by the scruff of the neck with a sense of humour, this is a text for you.

Shrill by Lindy West

Shrill is a memoir that maps both West’s life and career. She begins with the ‘fat’ female roll models she had as a child in an easy writing style which is rapid, conversational and funny. She moves into the cultural firing line with Fat Shaming and writes candidly about struggles with body image. She talks openly about her own abortion, numerous failed relationships with men who were ashamed to openly admit they were dating a ‘fat’ girl. Ultimately, Shrill moves through formative years which shape her as a defender of women within her career. It is apt that the climax of this memoir is West’s outspoken crusade against Rape Culture, the flippant use of Rape Jokes in comedy.

Shrill is potent and West actively distils emotion into argument. But Shrill doesn’t directly call for a cultural revolution, but instead celebrates the ability to absorb the fixed attitude of society and then realise that these attitudes are malleable.

“Every cell in my body would rather be ‘fat’ than ‘big’. […] Please don’t forget: I am my body. […] There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece.”– (p.15, Shrill).

Shrill also underlines the perception of the self and West’s personal journey within it, not only embracing herself but standing in defence of herself and others. However this isn’t just a memoir about body image and overcoming personal insecurity, it is also a memoir about trolls.

West has faced the front line of misogyny for an incredible length of time, she describes her three pronged attack in defence of her own mental health. As most of us being regularly told to ‘kill yourself’ or that ‘you are a fat bitch, get raped’ by hundreds of strangers would indeed develop a similar defence. Though this trolling and bombardment of abuse West ultimately uses to prove her point in response to a debate on comedy as to why ‘rape jokes’ are not acceptable. Such violence and the threat of this violence to any woman’s body in ‘joke’ form is culturally not appropriate and it is something that cannot be ignored. These chapters feel ranty, they feel full of bite, and passion and frustration.

Shrill is an empowering read. But this is not just a feminist text, and certainly not a feminazi text either. West also writes gently about personal loss and her father, her family history, her husband, her experiences growing up reading high fantasy, and never quite fitting in. She is unafraid with her language, she is balls out, filthy language, vibrant in her metaphors, and entertains.

I would say that it is incredibly accessible to anyone who hasn’t much knowledge on feminist issues, fat shaming, rape culture. Or someone who is simply is interested in the experience of a woman or is searching for something very fundamentally positive about body image or being a woman. It’s all laid out very easily and the arguments presented are concise, passionate, and hit home.

Shrill also does something very important also. It humanises and gives a response to issues that may not be initially thought about deeply, because accepting and forgetting is simply easier than challenging negative cultural slurs. The message at the heart of this memoir is to be good to yourself, confront negative slurs, and be radically good to everyone else.

“I am also not a uterus riding around in a meat incubator.” – (p.15, Shrill)

Read it. Buy it for you friends. Be radically good.

22. The Novice 

“Learning about Magic, social frictions, history, and secrets.”

It has been a long time since I last revisited Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy. When I think of this trilogy I remember the strength and potency of the second novel. The Novice is engagingly written, follows multiple narrative strands and has twists and turns which even after all this time whet the appetite.

The Novice by Trudi Canavan

This instalment of Sonea’s journey to becoming a Magician is concentrated firmly on her experiences in the Magicians Guild and her education. This is an overwhelming task for the slum girl who’s Magical talents developed naturally. Previously unable to read and write, her absorption and patience with magical theory is not the problem however, it is her peers. Regin is determined to torment her, being a talented rising Magician himself but with a cruel streak and perhaps also driven by jealousy. But Sonea’s struggle through her education is to be expected, as she is the first person outside of the Houses to ever be accepted by the Guild for training. Her greatest challenge is not Magic itself, but to overcome this rejection and become accepted by her peers as an equal.

But that’s not all.

More interesting that Sonea’s education and the social politics between her and her classmates are Dannyl’s travels. Dannyl leaves the Guild under the new role of Ambassador, as well as fulfilling his duties to his new job he has been instructed in a secret task. He is to research into the travels taken by the High Lord, Akkarin, years before his appointment to the head of the Guild. The truth of why Dannyl is doing this, is hidden from him, however he travels to Elyne to carry out his research. He finds Elyne to be a very different society to the conservative Imardin. Among its flamboyance and liberal social behaviours he meets a young Librarian, Tayend, who agrees to help him in his research. Tayend also instigates revelations in Dannyl that surprise even him.

But… that’s not all.

Administrator Lorlen is plagued with a personal struggle. A secret about High Lord Akkarin, Lorlen’s oldest and greatest friend, has been revealed to him and it is making him ill. Lorlen is determined to gather information and potentially gain the upper hand sends Dannyl on his mission to Elyne, but is both tormented with guilt and fear. Akkarin is unaware of Lorlen’s knowledge, and unmatched in strength Lorlen fears for the safety of the other Guild Magicians and Imardin. The city seems safe, until strange and unusual murders in the slums catch Lorlen’s attention and he fears the worst is coming.

But… there is still more… but you’ll have to read it.

This is a fantasy book that gathers really good narrative strands together. I enjoyed it immensely more than The Magicians Guild. The Magicians Guild is a very strong starting point to Sonea’s story, however the Novice reveals complexities about Kyralia that are absent from the first novel. It focuses more on social politics, Magic itself, and the history of Kyralia. However it does this with a very careful eye on balance, this is not a heavy book, it is rich in its complexities and interesting but very easy and engaging to read. This novel never feels like a labour.

I can’t tell you the last time I read these books, I remember details about them at best, but without a doubt they are confirming more and more that they have stood up very well to my previous opinions of them. As I said in my introduction, the Novice is the most potent of the three I remember, however I am looking forward to rediscovering the High Lord. I would without a doubt read these again and recommend them to anyone who would like an easy route into fantasy or anyone who is already familiar with the genre.