BONUS BOOK: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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“We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake in this room loving him in silence.”

Genre: Adventure, Mythology, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Achilles, ‘the best of all the Greeks,’ son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful – irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from him homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath. They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.”

Review: This is the best adult fiction I’ve read since Euphoria and Room! What a tremendous first novel by Madeline Miller. I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, but Miller breathes new life into this retelling of the story of Achilles. Given that she spent ten years working on this novel, the craftsmanship and detail should come as no surprise. While I was somewhat unfamiliar with Achilles’ story before reading this book, I knew from the very beginning that things couldn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers. Miller manages to write a novel that is equal parts romance and adventure, all while breathing life into a remarkable cast of characters. Patroclus is the real showstopper of the book, but I also loved reading about Thetis (Achilles’ goddess mother), Agamemnon (ruler of Mycenae and frequent source of conflict with Achilles), and Deidameia (mother of Pyrrhus). I was particularly impressed with Miller’s writing; she manages to be poetic and poignant without preaching or overstepping. I particularly loved how she tied the beginning and ending together with a very simple word: this.

“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”

“At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like spring-water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”

It’s beautiful, clean, emotive writing. I loved the short chapter format of The Song for Achilles, but felt that some of the middle chapters (particularly the ones focused on preparing for the war in Troy and the early years of the war) dragged; I would have preferred more chapters spent on the training Patroclus and Achilles received while living with Chiron, rather than the war. As a whole however, The Song for Achilles is an outstanding book and I can’t wait to read Miller’s second novel, Circe!

Rating:

Four_Star

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The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

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“Gilly, if he looks peaky, we carry him next door as fast as we can. I ain’t gonna be sued by no big Virginia lawyer.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “At eleven, Gilly is nobody’s real kid. If only she could find her beautiful mother, Courtney, and live with her instead of in the ugly foster home where she has just been placed. How could she, the great Gilly Hopkins, known throughout the county for her brilliance and unmanageability, be expected to tolerate Maime Trotter,  the fat, nearly illiterate widow who is now her guardian? Or for that matter, the freaky seven-year-old boy and the shrunken blind black man who are also considered part of the bizarre “family”? Even cool Miss Harris, her teacher, is a shock to her. Gutsy Gilly is both poignant and comic as, behind her best barracuda smile, she schemes against them and everyone else who tries to be friendly. The reader will cheer for her as she copes with the longings and terrors of always being a foster child.”

Review: As I was reading The Great Gilly Hopkins, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t until I looked up the book cover for this blog post that I realized I had read this book before (the cover of the version I borrowed from the library was different). As a child, I’m sure that I gravitated to The Great Gilly Hopkins after reading and loving Paterson’s Bridget to Terabithia. Apparently Paterson has an affinity for writing books that end up frequently banned or challenged (although The Great Gilly Hopkins isn’t challenged for the reason I initially expected; see below). I enjoyed reading about Gilly’s transformation from a confused, angry child into a capable and loving young adult. Her relationship with her foster brother, William Earnest, was particularly endearing. As in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson’s writing in The Great Gilly Hopkins was occasionally equal parts humorous and eloquent.

“To stop being a ‘foster child,’ the quotation marks dragging the phrase down, almost drowning it. To be real without any quotation marks. To belong and to possess. To be herself, to be the swan, to be the ugly duckling no longer – Cap O’Rushes, her disguise thrown off – Cinderella with both slippers on her feet – Snow White beyond the dwarfs – Galadriel Hopkins, come into her own.”

But there were also a number of sentences that didn’t make sense. Despite my best efforts, I can’t figure out what feeling Gilly was trying to convey by the following quote:

“God! Listening to that woman was like licking melted ice cream off the carton.”

Overall, however, I didn’t find The Great Gilly Hopkins to be particularly mesmerizing, and the fact that I didn’t even remember having read it as a child (whereas books like Walk Two Moons and Bridge to Terabithia have stuck with me for decades) reinforces that this book is not one of my favorites. I also found parts of the book to be offensive, as outlined below.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The Great Gilly Hopkins has been challenged because of Gilly’s occasionally profane language.

“Though Gilly’s mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks’ when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope.”  – Katherine Paterson

However, I was more shocked by the racist comments Gilly made in the first part of the novel. Exhibit A: the exchange between Gilly and Trotter after Gilly fails to bring Mr. Randolph over for dinner.

Gilly: “He’s gone. Some weird little colored man with white eyes cam to the door.”

Trotter: “Gilly! That was Mr. Randolph. He can’t see a thing. You’ve got to go back and bring him by the hand, so he won’t fall.”

Gilly: “I never touched one of those people in my life.”

There were a number of additional racist comments made throughout the book, which contributed to my two-star rating.

Rating:

Two_Star

 

 

BONUS BOOK: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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“My friend, I was born for soft days such as these.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the peace treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high. Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

Review: There’s no denying that Rachel Hartman is a talented and lyrical writer. The first few chapters of Seraphina actually made me feel like I was reading something in the same vein as Ella Enchanted (which is huge praise coming from me, as Ella Enchanted is definitely in my top ten books of all time).

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”

The descriptions of Goredd and the palace were excellent and I found the dragons of Seraphina to be unique and, by extension, fascinating. I particularly loved Orma, Seraphina’s draconian uncle with little sense of humor and no sense of irony. Concerning uniqueness, I don’t think I’ve ever read another book where music played such a pivotal and illustrious role.

“A feeling rose in me, and I just let it, because what harm could it do? It only had another thirty-two adagio bars of life in this world. Twenty-four. Sixteen. Eight more bars in which I love you. Three. Two. One.”

However, it took me a long time to wrap my head around Seraphina’s “mental garden of grotesques” (seriously… I had no clue what was going on). I also found that the plot moved at a really, really, REALLY slow place. It felt like Hartman made a trade off between world building and pacing. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of Seraphina was actually the “Cast of Characters” glossary at the back of the book. As it turns out, Hartman can be a very humorous writer when she wants to be.

“Regent of Samsam – the regent of Samsam

Abdo – a dancer in a pygegyria troupe

A pygegyria troupe – and there’s the rest of them now”

I wish she had incorporated more humor into the actual story, as it might have negated some of the plot drudgery. I do think Seraphina’s story – particularly her journey to self-acceptance – is inspiring, but don’t feel an immediate need to read the second book in the duology.

Rating:

Three_Star

BONUS BOOK: Wonder Woman by Nancy Holder

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“They were starting to overlap their sentences again – like lapping waves of words rising and falling into each other.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers… and her true destiny.”

Review: Like 99.9% of the rest of the world, I really loved the Wonder Woman movie. I went into it not understanding what all the fuss was about, and came out feeling empowered and wishing I had my own wrist bangles to “boosh” together. In my desperation to cling to the Wonder Woman high, I did something I’ve never done before: I requested the movie novelization from my local library. This turned out to be a mistake, for three main reasons.

  1. I almost always prefer reading a book before seeing its movie complement. I feel like seeing the movie first ends up spoiling the book, whereas reading the book first ends up adding to my movie-watching experience. However, when I have done things in the reverse order, I almost always still find the book worthwhile because even though major plot points have been spoiled, there are so many nuances within a book that simply don’t translate to screen. However, the issue with novelizations based on movies is that you don’t get those extra nuances. Every major quote, every major moment, is copied exactly from the screen.
  2. Novelization writers give you too much detail in some instances (what is Holder’s obsession with giving the exact specs of the guns used in Wonder Woman?) and not enough detail in others. Holder described an aircraft as being “as huge at the Loch Ness monster.” Given that the Loch Ness monster isn’t real, this description tells me nothing about the size of the aircraft.
  3. Perhaps this is not true of all novelizations, but there were SO. MANY. TYPOS. I’m not just talking bad grammar (ex. using the word “passed” when the author clearly meant “past”), but legitimate spelling mistakes as well. So many sentences just didn’t make sense without some self-initiated edits.

“He had no idea if the masks they wore would keep out the gas or they had been designed to protect the rank and file.”

Based on this experience, I will never read a movie novelization again. Sorry Wonder Woman, but you’re better suited to the big screen, comic books, and original novels.

Rating:

One_Star

BONUS BOOK: My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul

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“Everyone else had a passion; where was mine? How much happier I would have been to know that reading itself was a passion.”

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk. It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob. Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia. It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment. But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.”

Review: As evidenced by this blog, I’m an avid reader. Given a certain kinship I feel with other avid readers, I expected to love My Life with Bob: a book about books written by the editor of the New York Time Times Book Review, Pamela Paul. However, I found that Paul’s self-characterization led me to become increasingly frustrated and annoyed with her, which ultimately led to a lower book rating than I initially expected. On a positive note, I’ve rarely read a book that so accurately captures what it’s like to be an obsessive book nerd. It’s clear that Paul and I are cut from the same cloth, at least when it comes to our feelings about books. She was able to eloquently describe the reader/book relationship in a strikingly accurate way.

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”

I too have tracked my reading habits throughout my life, largely in the form of favorite quotes scribbled down in random notebooks. It wasn’t until just over a year ago that I decided to formalize my literary tracking and start an actual journal for book quotes. Since then, I’ve recorded every book I’ve read with at least one quote. In a similar vein, this blog has also become a book of books, and I certainly agree with Paul that these books of books are our enduring way of recording our lives without actually including the oftentimes humiliating details.

“Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals – I write in it still – and here’s why: diaries contain all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I want to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”

But I did find major issues with My Life with Bob, largely because I didn’t like Paul’s self-characterization. My annoyance began about halfway through the book and spawned into an established dislike by the time I finished. I constantly felt like Paul tried to pretend that she didn’t have a privileged adolescence and adulthood, when all evidence stood to the contrary. When she graduated from college, her dad gifted her a Eurail pass to explore Europe, which she lost. Calling her dad to “self-flagellate and grovel and beg for another,” he answered the phone and said “I thought you were calling to wish me a happy birthday. It was yesterday.” Her father also funded her trip to China, asking for only one thing in return: that she bring him back a spittoon. She didn’t. While visiting and working in Paris (which she did over a dozen times while growing up), she refused to speak English to American tourists, pretending to be a haughty Parisian instead. If I had to characterize Paul (at least adolescent Paul) in three words based on this novel, I would say privileged, narcissistic, and selfish. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but the last straw came on page 164, when she wrote about judging people based on the books they read. Her personal “test case” is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and she “has a hard time liking someone who loves it.” She goes on to say the following:

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by The Fountainhead, which shows up in Bob, but which I read in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a class on twentieth-century architecture.”

After finishing it, Paul threw the book into the trash, where “it would never hurt anyone again.” I read The Fountainhead as a senior in high school and really enjoyed it. It was the first time I became attached to a physical copy of a book; sadly, I dutifully returned it to the high school library once finished. I think all of this means that if Paul and I met in real life, I might not like her and she might not like me. But that’s okay. Something tells me we would respect each other as readers anyways.

Rating: 

Three_Star

BONUS BOOK: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

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“All I strive for every day is to convince my shadow I’m someone worth following.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath. So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace. The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love – a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.”

Review: I was really excited for Flame in the Mist after loving Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. Flame in the Mist, which is set in feudal Japan and has a Mulan-esque premise, was instantly enticing. But while I couldn’t stop myself from tearing through Ahdieh’s first two books, I found Flame in the Mist to be a much slower read. The plot moved at a sluggish pace for the first half of the novel. It felt like the characters spent most of their time traveling around and setting up the Black Clan camp. It wasn’t until Mariko accompanied Black Clan leader, Ranmaru, and his star warrior, Okami, to the tea house and nearly ran into her brother that the plot began to pick up. I also felt like it was very difficult to get a sense of who Mariko was. I knew what Ahdieh wanted me to think – that Mariko was an underappreciated but talented and intelligent young woman – but found it very difficult to actually reach those conclusions simply by reading Mariko’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. At least once per chapter, Mariko thought about her mission to track down the people who had attempted to kill her, and how she needed to “strike when they least expect it.” If I had a dollar for every time this line came up, I could buy my own copy of Flame in the Mist. On a more positive note, I did like the undercurrent of female empowerment that ran throughout the novel.

“There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.”

I was also very interested in the magical element of Flame in the Mist, but wished that Ahdieh would provide more explanation, especially of Okami’s powers. However, based on the novel ending, it seems like this will be addressed in the second novel. The feudal Japan setting was great, but I didn’t feel trasported in the same way that I did in Ahdieh’s first series. That being said, the novel pace picked up towards the end and concluded with a good cliffhanger, so I plan on reading the second book.

Rating:

Three_Star

 

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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“Another case of men devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less.”

Genre: Science Fiction, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Charlie Gordon is about to embark on an unprecedented journey. Born with an unusually low IQ, he has been chosen as the perfect subject for an experimental surgery that researchers hope will increase his intelligence – a procedure that has already been highly successful when tested on a lab mouse named Algernon. As the treatment takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment appears to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance until Algernon suddenly deteriorates. Will the same happen to Charlie?”

Review: This book gave me many flashbacks to watching the movie Awakenings, based on the real-life experiences of neurologist Oliver Sacks when he discovered a drug that temporally brought encephalitis patients out of catatonia, only to have the results be short-lived. As a whole, I found Flowers for Algernon very difficult to read (which I think was Keyes’ point, given that he was repeatedly rejected from potential publishers because he refused to change the novel ending). As Charlie’s IQ begins to skyrocket, so too do the number of flashbacks he has to his troubled childhood and adolescence. This is one of those books that reminds you how truly awful people can be to those with disabilities. While Charlie does find a few allies in his “new” life, he more frequently is hurt and abused by the people he thought were friends. It was particularly saddening to read about how his mother treated him and how the birth of his sister, a “normal” child with no intellectual deficit, greatly altered Charlie’s quality of life at home. I felt like the novel took a turn for the weird and trippy towards the end, with Charlie becoming increasingly neurotic.

“There will be great heat and unbearable light – the hell within hell – but I don’t look at the light, only at the flower, unmultiplying, undividing itself back from the many toward one.”

The best part of this book was the relationship between Algernon and Charlie. In my opinion, more time should have been spent exploring and expanding that relationship. I also found this book to be very predictable, which is why I ultimately went with a three star rating. As I whole, I certainly understand why Flowers for Algernon is a classic, but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read and I can’t see myself rereading it anytime soon.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: From 1990 – 1999, Flowers for Algernon was the 43rd most frequently banned/challenged book in the United States. From 2000 – 2010, however, it no longer made the top 100 list. This is likely due to more recently published books edging out older books and changes in school reading curriculum, but may also reflect a changing attitude towards Flowers for Algernon and recognition of its status as a classic. Most ban/challenge requests revolve around some “sexually explicit” scenes in the novel, as Charlie frequently grapples to understand his newfound sexual urges. There have also been complaints about perceived profanity and adult themes.

Rating:

Three_Star