One of the things I love about Popsugar’s Reading Challenge is how vague, and open to interpretation, its categories can be. There’s “A book about a difficult topic”, for instance. Does that mean a topic that’s difficult for me, or difficult for society in general? Does that mean emotionally difficult, as in a story of abuse, or difficult to comprehend, as in a book about quantum physics? I tend to over think some of these categories, but that’s actually part of the fun.

I put several books on my “For Later” library shelf for this category, unable to decide in which direction I wanted to go. I finally decided to go for a topic that’s emotionally difficult for me, and also (I hope) society in general. Maybe it will be difficult for some people to comprehend.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, was first published in 1963. I downloaded it from the library and read it on my phone.The Fire Next Time

The book consists of two essays. The first essay is titled: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.

James Baldwin wrote this letter to offer hope and encouragement to his nephew – on both a personal and national level.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.)

He makes a point that every civil rights struggle is simultaneously unique and shared. He urges his nephew to be strong and recognize that there are those who will insist that he isn’t being oppressed – which is an act of oppression.

The second essay is titled: “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.

In this essay, James Baldwin tells about growing up in Harlem, and getting assaulted by the police at the age of 10, on his was to the library. He tells about finding Christianity at the age of 14. He wrote at length about “the Negro problem”.

Negroes in this country – and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other – are taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. The world is white and they are black.

He tells about his early Christian faith, and what it meant to him. He tells about what he thought Christianity should be, versus the way it was being used.

He turned to Islam for answers. Although he didn’t agree with everything the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam were saying, they did, at least, treat him better than the Christians. And yet, he writes, he didn’t consider himself Muslim, and he didn’t consider himself Christian.

The Fire Next Time is a powerful, thoughtful, and difficult book. Its two essays are filled with anger, pain, love, hope, beauty, history, politics, and humanity. It is a book about problems, solutions, and the problems with solutions.

It is a book about how flawed the United States of America is.

  • A book about a difficult topic

A Bangsian Fantasy Book

This was a tough category. How in the world do you find a book in a genre or subgenre that you’ve never heard of? The internet is the obvious place to start, but what exactly do you search for?

Then it came to me.

I searched for “obscure book genres”. This lead me to a list of genres, some of which I had never heard of, along with books within those genres. This lead me to “Bangsian fantasy”.

BestFantasyBooks.com defines Bangsian fantasy like this:

Bangsian Fantasy is a sub-genre primarily concerned with the afterlife and specifically with the exploration of the afterlife. The sub-genre gets its name from author John Kendrick Bangs. Bangs wrote stories about the afterlife and the supernatural, but with a humorous style. Bangs is not the first writer, nor the last, who wrote stories like these, but his work gave the sub-genre shape.

A common feature of Bangsian Fantasy is the inclusion of dead famous people and mythological characters. These stories tend (though not always) to have a genial tone. There are three main categories that Bangsian stories fall into: ghosts stuck in the living world, living people stuck in the world of the dead, and people who have died in a Heaven (or Hell). All Bangsian stories try to answer the question of: “So I’m dead, now what?”

A list of Bangsian fantasy books led me to The Ghost Bride.

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo, was published in 2013. I downloaded it from The Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone.

The Ghost BridePart One takes place in Malaya, in 1893. The narrator is a 17 year-old woman named Li Lan.

Li Lan’s father has asked her if she would like to become a ghost bride. It wasn’t a question, however.

A young man about Li Lan’s age, named Lim Tian Ching, had died a few months earlier. He was a member of the Lim family, one of the wealthiest families in Malacca.

The head of the Lim family had approached Li Lan’s father about marrying his daughter to Lim Tian Ching. The practice of marrying a dead person was uncommon, and used in only special situations, such as a marrying a deceased concubine so that a son could be legitimate.

Li Lan’s father had once been a successful businessman, but after smallpox killed his wife and scarred him, he retired from business. Now, he has very little money left. He sees marrying Li Lan into the Lim family as a way to give her a better life.

Li Lan had seen Lim Tian Ching once or twice around the city, but he’d made no impression on her. It is a mystery to Li Lan why the Lim family chose her.

Li Lan is invited to meet Madam Lim at the Lim mansion. The sprawling home is more beautiful than anything Li Lan could have imagined. There, she happens to meet the servant who maintains the mansion’s many clocks. She is quite impressed with this handsome, intelligent, and charming young man, and can’t stop thinking about him.

Li Lan learns of the connection between her family and the Lim family. She learns the identity of the clock-cleaning servant, and the reason behind the wedding proposal.

The night after her visit with Madam Lim, Li Lan meets Lim Tian Ching in a dream. In one of the dreams that follow, Lim Tian Ching asks Li Lan to marry him. Li Lan is disgusted. She tells him no.

Ghosts can be powerful beings, however – and so can mediums, who promise to protect you from ghosts.

Part One of The Ghost Bride is a historic drama. It tells of life in Malaya when it was a British colony. More specifically, it tells of life in the port city of Malacca. It’s a lively, melting-pot city of many races, languages, religions, ceremonies, and beliefs.

Part Two of The Ghost Bride is more of a fantasy. It takes place in the afterworld.

Li Lan is a spirit, but her comatose body is still alive. Her doctor tries to awaken her, while she watches, as a helpless spectator, from outside.

While learning the physics of the spirit world, Li Lan travels to the Lim mansion, where she uncovers layers of mystery surrounding the death of Lim Tian Ching.

Li Lan travels the streets of Malacca, as a wandering spirit. She learns from ghosts waiting for the right moment to enter the Plains of the Dead and face the Nine Courts of Hell. She learns from ghosts unable to move on. She learns to hide from demons.

She learns to enter people’s dreams, as Lim Tian Ching had entered hers.

Li Lan has a feeling that she needs to find a way to enter the Plains of the Dead, but she doesn’t understand why she has this feeling. All she knows is that getting there is going to be difficult, since Lim Tian Ching controls the border guards.

Part Three of The Ghost Bride is named “The Plains of the Dead”.

Ghosts in the afterworld have many of the same needs as a living person, including food, transportation, and money. A ghost receives these things from offerings left at their shrine. This presents a problem for Li Lan, since she isn’t dead. Li Lan is resourceful, however. With a ghost as her guide, and with the aid of friends in the land of the living, Li Lan travels across the vast Plains of the Dead.

Part Four of The Ghost Bride is named “Malacca”.

Existence in the Plains of the Dead is difficult. Finding your way back to the land of the living is more difficult. Knowing whom to trust is even more difficult.

Ghosts, just like the living, are not always who they claim to be.

The Ghost Bride is a complex story, and yet it was easy to follow. It’s a mystery story, and a young adult romance, and a tale of political intrigue, and a historic drama, and a ghost story.

I loved everything about this book. I loved the character of Li Lan, as well as the other characters. I loved learning about a history and culture I had been previously unaware of. I loved all the details the author, Yangsze Choo, wove into the worlds she created. I loved the twists and turns this story followed. And so on.

After the end of the story, Yangsze Choo provides further information about ghost marriages (which were practiced primarily in overseas Chinese communities, such as Malaysia, and almost unheard of in mainland China), as well as the Chinese vision of the afterlife, taken from parts of many religions. She provides more information on the history of Malaysia – known as Malaya at the time of this novel’s story. She includes information about Chinese dialects, and the names and words used in the story.

Yes, I absolutely loved this book.

  • A book from a genre/subgenre that you’ve never heard of

A Book In Another Book

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven, was the fifth book I read for the 2017 Reading Challenge.

Here’s a passage from page 194. It’s Violet’s chapter. Violet’s parents are having breakfast with Finch:

When [Mom] asks Finch if he’s thought about what he wants to do beyond college, as in with his life, I pay attention because I actually don’t know the answer.

“It changes every day. I’m sure you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Mom answers yes for both of them.

“Well, Robert Jordan knows he’s going to die. ‘There is only now,’ he says, ‘and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.’ None of us knows how long we have, maybe another month, maybe another fifty years – I like living as if I only have that two days.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, was first published in 1940.

Unlike Violet’s parents, I’d never read it before now.

For Whom The Bell TollsThe 471 pages in this novel span a few days in May, 1937.

Robert Jordan is an American in the International Brigades, assigned to a group of republican guerrilla fighters in Spain. They’re fighting against Franco’s fascists. As an expert in demolition, he’s been given the job of blowing up a bridge, at the right time, by a Russian General.

While sharing a meal at the guerrilla camp, Robert Jordan meets a woman with shockingly short hair, named Maria. Three months earlier, she’d been a prisoner at Valladolid, where they’d kept her head shaved. She’d escaped, and her hair has been growing back. Robert Jordan learns that Maria “belongs” to no one. The abuse she received in Valladolid has made her fiercely independent. Robert Jordan admires her and falls in love with her. He calls her “little rabbit”.

“He was violating the second rule of the two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish; give the men tobacco and leave the women alone; and he realized, very suddenly, that he did not care.”

And, Maria falls in love with Robert Jordan.

As Robert Jordan falls for Maria, he clashes with Pablo, the leader of the guerrillas. Pablo feels that blowing up the bridge is too risky, too big a job for their group, and that attempting it will get them all killed. He wants to take Robert Jordan’s dynamite away.

Robert Jordan is a loyal man. He was given the assignment to blow up the bridge, and he intends to follow his orders. Yet, there is some doubt in his mind. Pablo may be right, he decides.

As demolition day approaches, the colorful band of guerrillas drink wine, discuss death and philosophy, and swap stories of their pasts. Robert Jordan and Maria, meanwhile, talk of the future.

Pilar is Pablo’s woman, and Maria’s guardian. She considers herself old and ugly, and is a little jealous of Maria’s youth. Pilar is happy that Maria has found someone as kind and intelligent as Robert Jordan. (In Robert Jordan’s mind, it was Pilar who pushed him and Maria into the same sleeping bag.) Pilar considers herself the true leader of the guerrillas, since it is obvious to her that the men have lost faith in Pablo.

Robert Jordan has been living in Spain for twelve years. He speaks Spanish and Castilian fluently. He considers himself as much Spanish as he is American. The guerrillas don’t consider him a foreigner – when they call him Inglés, it’s in a sense of friendly jest. Because of his involvement with the International Brigade, if he were ever to return to Montana, he would probably be branded a communist.

And, as Finch reminded Violet’s parents, things do not end well for Robert Jordan. He is loyal, introspective, and a hero to the end, however.

I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days. You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky. I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story. It’s also a love story. It’s a story about loyalty, bigotry, religion, and political beliefs. It is a complex story. Hemingway put it all together into a masterpiece.

It lives up to its reputation as a classic. For Whom the Bell Tolls in a wonderful book, and I loved it.

  • A book that’s been mentioned in another book

The Eccentric Mister Psmith

Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse, was first published, in book form, in 1910. The story had earlier appeared as a magazine serial.

According to Wikipedia, Rupert Psmith (the P is silent) is the eccentric friend of cricket enthusiast Mike Jackson. Rupert Psmith was born Rupert Smith, but later changed the spelling of his name because there are too many Smiths in the world. He is a recurring character in a series of  four books (Psmith in the City is the second book), and several magazine stories. He’s a bit of a dandy, and often wears a monocle. Psmith was originally Mike’s sidekick, but eventually became the central character.

I downloaded Psmith in the City from the Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone.

Psmith in the CityMike Jackson is playing on a cricket team run by Mr. Smith (Psmith’s father). Mr. Smith is a “man of hobbies”, and is as eccentric as his son. Earlier, Mike and his chum Psmith had been discussing their plans for ‘Varsity. Mike wants to attend Cambridge.

“Between ourselves,” confided Psmith, “I’m dashed if I know what’s going to happen to me. I am the thingummy of what’s-its-name.”

(Like most of this book, I easily got the gist of what was going on, even when I understood neither the slang nor the cricket terms.)

During the match, some lout walks behind the bowler’s arm, causing Mike to lose the game with ninety-eight runs – just two runs shy of achieving a century. After calling this fellow an idiot, Mike learns that the gentleman’s name is John Bickersdyke, and that Mr. Bickersdyke went to school with Mr. Smith.

Mike is in a foul mood after losing the match, but his life is about to get worse. Mr. Jackson informs his son that he has lost a very large sum of money, and can’t afford to send Mike to Cambridge. Mike and his brother Bob will have to start earning their livings. Mike is disappointed, but faces the challenge like a sportsman.

An opportunity opens for Mike at the New Asiatic Bank, in London. He travels to the city by train.

Mike, on his own for the first time in his life, finds a cheap furnished apartment in Dulwich, near the college and cricket field. He reports for work in the Postage Department of the New Asiatic Bank.

The bank manager, by the way, is Mr. Bickersdyke – the same idiot who caused Mike to lose the match.

After Mike has settled into his new position, a fellow walks into the department. To Mike’s surprise, it’s Psmith. Mr. Rossiter, the head of the department, asks this fellow who he is, and Psmith launches into a lengthy and detailed family history. Mr. Rossiter is able to interrupt him enough to learn that Psmith is a new employee, reporting for duty. Psmith adds that his name is no longer important, since he is now proudly a cog in the machinery of industry.

Psmith’s enthusiasm for his new assignment is so great (promising at one point that the partnership of Jackson, Rossiter, and Psmith will make the Postage Department one that people will travel from America to tour) that it leaves Mr. Rossiter dazed.

But why, Mike asks over lunch, is Psmith working at a bank and not perusing ‘Varsity? Psmith explains how a casual remark was seen as an insult to Mr. Bickersdyke, who exclaimed that if Psmith were working at his firm, he’d teach him some manners. Psmith mistook that as a personal invitation to work at the bank. Mr. Smith, ever the hobbyist, went along with a whim, sending Psmith to work at the bank.

Psmith, full of self-importance, invites Mike to move in with him – as a paid assistant. Mike resists, at first. It’s tough to resist Psmith, however. Besides, Mike’s Dulwich apartment is miserable, and he doesn’t like his landlady, who he refers to as “a pantomime dame”. Mike moves in with Psmith.

Psmith in the City follows the various adventures of Mike and Psmith as they work at their careers in the New Asiatic Bank. Mike simply wants to earn a paycheck, keep his head low, and avoid being dismissed. Psmith has loftier goals.

Psmith, in fact, has a grand scheme in mind – one involving exploiting the weaknesses of Rossiter and Bickersdyke in order to “pacify” them. Psmith may be eccentric, but he has an excellent understanding of his fellow man (when his inflated self image doesn’t get in the way, that is).

But Mike Jackson is going to need Psmith’s help if his going to make a go of life in the city.

Psmith in the City is delightful, clever, witty, and hilarious. I loved it.

I had no trouble jumping into the story without having read the first book. (I chose to read the second book, because in the first one, originally named Mike and later renamed Mike and Psmith, Psmith doesn’t show up until well into the second half of the story.)

I made frequent visits to the internet as I read this book, searching Google for British slang, and searching YouTube for “how to play cricket”. I learned a lot while reading this wonderful book.

  • A book with an eccentric character

An Eccentric Immigrant

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, was published in 2005.

Short History of Tractors in UkranianInternet searches for “a book with an eccentric character” lead me to this novel. I downloaded the eBook from the Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone. I’m really liking that Libby by Overdrive app.

About a third of the way through the book, I decided that it was more about an immigrant than it was about an eccentric character. So I switched the book’s Category.

The story takes place in Peterborough, England. Nadezha and her older sister, Vera, are concerned about their 84-year-old, widowed father, Nikolai, who has announced his intent to marry a Ukrainian immigrant named Valentina. Valentina is a flamboyant 36-year-old woman with enormous breasts and an alleged degree in Pharmacy. Nadezha and Vera rarely agree with each other, but they both question the motives behind this upcoming marriage.

Nadezha is the story’s narrator.

Nadezha and Vera’s parents lived a frugal life in Ukraine, under Stalin’s oppression – mending rather than replacing, making rather than buying – until saving enough money to immigrate to Britain. When Mother died, Nadezha and Vera fought over her possessions. The sisters became bitter enemies, until Valentina brought them back together.

Nikolai doesn’t deny that he’s marrying Valentia so she can become a British citizen. Her visa runs out in three weeks, and she’ll have to divorce her Ukrainian husband before she marries Nikolai, but Nikolai is determined to help all suffering Ukrainians.

Nadezha reminds Pappa that Ukraine isn’t the same as it was when he left, as a refugee from World War II, fifty years ago.

Nikolai Mayevskyj is a man filled with love – love for Valentina and for Ukraine. He thinks with his heart. Even when Valentina leaves for Ukraine, without saying goodbye, with the 1,800 pounds he gave her, Nikolai knows she will go home, divorce her husband, return to Britain, and marry him.

Nadezha and Vera secretly contact the Home Office together, trying to stop Valentina’s return. Their father must never know what they’ve done.

Vera is using Valentina’s example to support her anti-immigrant stance. Nadezha can’t understand how an immigrant can be so opposed to immigration.

Nikolai is an engineer and a writer. Before he came to England, he and his fellow writers would write poetry in Ukrainian, defying the Soviet ban on all languages except Russian. He worked in a tractor factory, because it was safer, under the watching eyes of the Soviets, than working in an airplane factory. Now, Nikolai is writing his master work: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. He’s writing it first in Ukrainian and then translating it into English.

Excerpts from Nikolai’s book, which is about exactly what the title says it’s about, appear in the novel.

I actually found Nikolai’s book more interesting than the novel.

Actually, I didn’t like this book. The characters were one-dimensional caricatures, like they were walking into a sitcom. The book wasn’t funny, however. Valentina’s treatment of Nikolai bordered on elder abuse. The flashbacks to the genocide from the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Ukraine were gruesome.

And yet, the book obviously wants to be a comedy. Nadezha is a professor of sociology, and is constantly angered by people thinking she’s a social worker. One of the many broken down cars in the story is named Crap Car, and so on.

I’m sure there was more to Valentina’s side of the story than just her being a shallow gold digger, and I wanted to hear it. I wanted something to suggest that Nadezha might be wrong.

If you want to know the history of tractors, skim through this book until you find the excerpts. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it.

  • A book about an immigrant or refugee

A 2016 Bestseller

This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, was published in 2016, and was a New York Times bestselling Young Adult hardcover for 24 weeks, achieving the #1 spot.

This Is Where It EndsI downloaded the eBook from the Seattle Public Library, and read it on the Libby by OverDrive app on my phone.

It’s 10:01 A.M. at Opportunity High School, in Opportunity, Alabama.

The first sentence is: “The starter gun shatters the silence, releasing the runners from their blocks.

Claire is enjoying start-of-season track practice with her best friend, and fellow JROTC member, Chris.

Time is running out.” Tomás and his friend Fareed are breaking into the school records in Principal Trenton’s office.

Autumn is at an assembly, sitting between Sylv and an empty chair, listening to Principal Trenton’s same old start-of-semester speech. Despite Trenton’s inspirational words, all college will be, for Autumn, is a way to escape her miserable life. Ever since her mother’s accident, her abusive, alcoholic father won’t let Autumn dance. Autumn used to love dancing.

Sylv is at the assembly, looking at the empty chair next to Autumn – the chair where Tyler should be sitting. She’s glad Tyler isn’t here. Sylv wishes Autumn would open up to her about her mother’s death. Sylv loves watching Autumn dance.

The assembly is over, and it’s time for Sylv to head to U.S. History.

10:02 A.M. Tomás finds what he’s looking for: the permanent record of Tyler Browne. He learns that Tyler is a closet genius, with an astoundingly high SAT score. Tomás thinks: “Maybe that explains why, despite his bravado, Tyler never made good on any of his treats. He may be a maggot, but he’s the smartest kind: a harmless one.

Claire runs another lap with Chris. She wonders what’s going to happen when they both graduate. Claire decides that breaking up with Tyler was the right thing to do.

Autumn is asked by a girl named Asha about her auditioning for Dance. Autumn is uncomfortable. Sylv wishes she could be a better girlfriend to Autumn and encourage her more.

10:04 A.M. The assembly is over, but no one is leaving the auditorium. Autumn wonders why everyone is crowding around the doors.

Sylv figures it out; Some prankster has locked the doors.

Tomás didn’t learn much from Tyler’s file. He and Fareed agree to skip school for the rest of the day.

10:05 A.M. Inside the auditorium, Tyler begins shooting.

That’s a synopsis of the first four chapters of This Is Where It Ends. It continues for twenty-two more chapters, each covering a span of a minute or two. That doesn’t mean the chapters are short – it means the action is elongated. It’s 54 minutes, described in about 300 pages.

This Is Where It Ends is the fictional story of a school shooting, told in real time, from the points of view of Autumn (Tyler’s sister), Sylvia (who Tyler hates because of her relationship with his sister), Sylvia’s twin brother Tomás, and Claire (Tyler’s ex-girlfriend).

Claire and Chris literally run for help, pushing their muscles more than they’ve ever been pushed. Fareed calls 911, hiding his accent so the police won’t think it’s a terrorist attack and target him. Tomás and Fareed could easily climb out of a window and be safe, but they both choose to try to break into the auditorium. If only Autumn would sacrifice herself, if only one of her classmates would give away her hiding spot, Tyler might stop the killing, but she and Sylv and Asha are frozen in fear. Sylvia prays to God, and accepts that it will not be a question of getting out, but rather how much longer she’ll be alive.

Yeah, this was an extremely intense book. It was one of the more intense, emotional books I’ve read in a long time. The violence, the tension, and the fear was overwhelming. I had to stop reading every once in a while, and catch my breath. The minute-by-minute style of this book suited the story perfectly, and magnified the horror.

I couldn’t put this book down. I loved This Is Where It Ends very much. I cared about the characters, and their stories, and their thoughts. This Is Where It Ends is beautifully written.

As I was searching the internet for a 2016 bestseller, and I found This Is Where It Ends, I learned that Marieke Nijkamp is Dutch. She lives in The Netherlands. She wrote this very American book in English, her second language. I can’t wrap my mind around that.

  • A bestseller from 2016

Graphic Mythology

I saw the 2010 movie Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief  a long time ago. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with it, but I enjoyed it enough to want to read the 2005 book it was based on, someday.

Then the 2017 Reading Challenge came along, with a category named “A book based on mythology”, and I figured this would be as good a time as any to read the book The Lightning Thief as any.

I checked with the Seattle Public Library, and, of course, they had the book, and the movie – and a graphic novel. I didn’t know there was a graphic novel. I checked out the graphic novel, because it looked like fun, and I hadn’t read a graphic novel in a while. I’m a little confused about the order of publication, but I think this is a graphic novelization of the movie based on the book.

I didn’t remember much about the movie, so reading the story now was full of surprises for me.

The Lightning ThiefPercy Jackson & The Olympians, Book One, The Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel, written by Rick Riordan, adapted by Robert Venditti, art by Attila Futaki, color by José Villarrubia, was published in 2010.

Percy Jackson is one day away from failing the sixth grade at Yancy Academy. If he’s kicked out, it will be his sixth school in six years. He tries to be a good student, but Percy has dyslexia, and ADHD.

Strange things are happening around Percy. He didn’t touch that girl who was teasing him, and yet she somehow landed in the fountain. He’s attacked by Mrs. Dodds, and yet there is no Mrs. Dodds at Yates Academy.

Percy’s Mythology instructor, Mr. Brunner, and Percy’s best friend, Grover, seem to be conspiring to protect Percy. They’re both dropping hints that Percy Jackson is special, and needs to be protected.

Percy’s mother doesn’t seem especially concerned about Percy  leaving Yates. She has plans to send him to a school – more like a camp, actually – that Percy’s father wants him to go to. Percy will be safe there, she says. Percy has never met his father.

Percy and his mother go on a short vacation. Grover shows up – he now has goat legs – and warns that danger is coming. The three of them try to run, but only Percy and Grover manage to escape. His mother dies in an attack from a minotaur.

Percy Jackson wakes up in Camp Half-Blood. He learns that the Greek gods he’d been studying in school are real. Grover is a satyr. Mr. Brunner is a centaur, and his name is actually Chiron. He’s that Chiron – the trainer of Hercules.

Percy Jackson doesn’t have dyslexia. He has trouble reading English because his brain’s been hardwired for Ancient Greek. He’s hyperactive because his body’s been hardwired for battle.

Like every other kid in camp, Percy is half-human, with at least one parent a god. Percy is one of the “Undetermined” – since he doesn’t know who his father is.

Percy is bullied by Clarisse, daughter of Ares, and befriended by Annabeth, daughter of Athena.

Soon after battle training begins at Camp Half-Blood, Percy Jackson’s special abilities are suddenly revealed. It becomes obvious who Percy’s father is. Percy really is special. Just as suddenly, he is given a quest. He must find the lightning thief. His quest will take him into the underworld. He won’t be going alone, however. Grover and Annabeth will be at his side.

The three heroes travel across the United States, toward a recording studio in Los Angeles (the entrance to the underworld), in a race against time, in order to prevent a war of Olympian proportions.

The Lightning Thief is an exciting story and a clever take on ancient Greek mythology set in the modern world. The artwork of the graphic novel was good, but nothing really special.

It is, of course, “Book One”, so although the story is complete, it does end with an opening for the next book.

Overall, I enjoyed it.

  • A book based on mythology

This Could Be Fun

I saw this book on the used-book shelf in Phillip’s office and thought, “With a title like that, there’s no way this book can be any good.” Then, in the next thought, “This could be bad enough to be fun.” So, I bought it. The money I spent went to the area’s food banks, so that’s something.

Tanner’s Twelve Swingers, by Lawrence Block, was published in 1967.

Tanner's Twelve SwingersEvan Michael Tanner is “the most unusual spy who ever lived!“, according to the book cover. He’s a freelance spy. He loves to work for lost causes. The FBI and CIA are both watching him closely. He’s been continuously awake, 24 hours per day, for seventeen years, because of a piece of North Korean shrapnel that destroyed the sleep center of his brain.

Tanner lives in an apartment in Manhattan, and earns barely enough to pay the rent by writing theses and term papers for students. He is an unusual spy.

While in Athens, Greece, Tanner gave away his passport to someone trying to escape to London. Then, with the assistance of allies, Tanner makes his way to Macedonia to visit his infant son and the boy’s mother.

Macedonia is just a stop on his way to Latvia. Tanner had made a promise to smuggle a dear friend’s girlfriend, Sofija, a member of the Soviet Women’s Gymnastic Troupe, out of Latvia. To do this, Tanner is going to have to smuggle himself into the Soviet Union, somehow.

Tanner has a network of friends across Europe, who are willing to help him, in exchange for a favor or two.

It’s a complicated journey, and it keeps getting more complicated. He is talked into bringing a defecting Yugoslav official, and his 300-page manuscript, with him into Russia and home to the USA. As he and the official make their way across Eastern Europe, sneaking across borders, Tanner accumulates more and more things to smuggle back to America: microfilm, Chinese documents, a child, Sofija, Sofija’s sister, and ten other members of their gymnastic troupe.

Getting out of Latvia is going to be a lot tougher than it was getting in.

Tanner’s Twelve Swingers was not as bad as I expected it to be. It wasn’t great, but it had its moments. It had some good action sequences, and some tense scenes. The story flowed well.

The men in the story tended to be the same comrade-in-arms types. The women tended to be same naïve farmer’s daughter types. The book wasn’t big on character development.

When I saw the word “swingers” in the title, I was picturing go-go booted sexpots. (Perhaps I was supposed to picture that.) It turned out to be a different kind of swinger.

I won’t recommend this book, but it was fun to read.

  • A book you got from a used book sale

Another Recommendation

Elizabeth Guizzetti is the author of Other Systems – a book I read for the 2016 Reading Challenge. It was “A book recommended by someone you just met”. I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel: Light Side of the Moon, which I also enjoyed but never got around to writing a proper review.

Elizabeth Guizzetti has a channel in a quiet corner of YouTube. Among other things, she reviews books – too infrequently, in my opinion. Here’s her review of The Park, by Voss Foster:

OK, she made me want to read this book. Unfortunately, the Seattle Public Library didn’t have it, or anything else by Voss Foster. I thought about buying it, if it wasn’t too much, and contributing it to the office lending library when I (and maybe Phillip) was finished with it. The Park was out of stock at both Elliott Bay Books and Powells. Amazon had it. That was a possibility.

I remembered my Kobo Mini eReader. Ever since our computer suddenly decided that it wasn’t going to play nice with Seattle Public Library eBooks anymore, I hardly ever use my Kobo Mini. I logged into Kobo Books and discovered that they had The Park as a free download. That beat Amazon’s price.

The ParkThe Park, by Voss Foster, was published in 2015.

It’s January 1, 2074. Twelve people wake up in separate areas of a mobile home park, which is surrounded by electric fences and armed guards. They each remember where they were the night before, but none remember how they got to wherever they are.

They each find a letter from Evenstad Media, explaining that they are contestants in a new television game show. The goal is to be the only survivor. There are no rules, and no laws apply.  No criminal charges will result from anything they do. The winner will receive twenty million US dollars. The families of the losers will receive some compensation.

Shelter is provided for the contestants. Food is provided, but not replenished. They are each given a mysterious medallion (which seems to contain a random weapon), called a Contained Energy Source Unit (or CESU). They’re also given an electronic journal. Writing in the journal is encouraged, but not required.

The letter promises that there are more CESUs hidden in the park.

The Park is an epistolary novel. We learn about the twelve contestants through their journal entries. We learn about the game from the letter they find. We learn about Evenstad Media through internal emails. We learn about key events in the show from online reviews.

The story builds up slowly. Each of the short journal entries starts off as a self-introduction to the contestants, and their personalities. No one wants to kill anyone, at first. Friendships are formed. Two contestants fall in love.

But, twenty million dollars is a lot of money, and everyone does want to get out of the park.

The Park doesn’t have the most original plot ever, but that didn’t matter to me. It was a well-told story with enough twists to keep it interesting.

I have mixed feelings about the epistolary formant for this story. On the negative side, what’s the point of the journals? I never got a sense of how journal-writing fit into the television show, or into Evenstad Media’s mission. What’s motivating the contestants to write in them? What if any of them simply tossed the journals aside and worked on survival?

On the positive side, the journals gave each of the twelve constants an equal voice. It created a real sense that any one of them could be the one walking out of the park. It was a nice way to present multiple viewpoints of various events. The journals didn’t make sense to me, but they served a purpose.

I went into it with some skepticism: Even 57 years in the future, could a corporation – no matter how powerful – really get away with broadcasting murders on a television show? But, the book surprised me with a plausible explanation for that.

I enjoyed The Park. It had some interesting characters, and it kept me guessing until the very last ePage. The Park is the first in a series of Evenstad Media stories. I’m now curious what the other books have in store – which was, of course, the (brilliant) strategy Kobo Books had in mind when they gave away the first book free.

  • A book recommended by an author you love

(If you’re reading this, Elizabeth Guizzetti, please do more book reviews!)

A Lifespan

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was first published in 1922.

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonBenjamin Button was born in the summer of 1860. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button, were well off, socially and financially. They defied the custom of the day by having their first child in a hospital, rather that at home.

Benjamin Button’s birth caused the family physician to resign from their service, and nearly ruined the reputation of the hospital.

Benjamin Button was born a 70-year-old man. No one could explain it.

Although Benjamin looked, spoke, and acted like a 70-year-old man, his father insisted on treating him like a newborn baby. Benjamin wasn’t having it. He preferred the Encyclopedia Britannica to his stuffed animals.

Roger Button’s social status was nearly ruined. The only thing people could think of to complement this strange addition to the Button family was to say that he resembled his grandfather.

When he was twelve, Benjamin Button first began to suspect that he was, in fact, aging backward.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the humorous misadventures of a man who becomes younger as his age increases. He’s mistaken for his father’s father, and then for his father’s brother. He causes scandal when he marries a woman his age, when he appears thirty years older than her. He causes further scandal when, decades later, he’s seen as a young man married to an older woman.

When he’s old enough to enter school, he’s too old to attend. When he’s too old to enter school, he’s the right age to attend.

When Benjamin Button becomes a baby, his life fades away.

The copy I borrowed from the library is 52 pages long. That seemed to be the right amount of pages for this story of one man’s life.

One thing I found odd about this story is the absence of Benjamin’s mother. She’s mentioned as Mrs. Roger Button, but we never meet her. We never learn how she feels about being the young mother of a 70-year-old man. We never even learn her name. Maybe it’s a sign of the times.

I liked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s an hilarious, classic tale of social satire.

  • A book that takes place over a character’s life span