Poem

If you think you don’t like poetry, you’re not doing it right. Especially if you’re trying to get guys (or tomboyish girls) to like poetry that they envision to be sappy, sweet love junk – fuhgeddaboudit! But, there is poetry and then there is poetry – long, epic, story-telling poetic verse that catches you up in the telling of it and transforms everything you thought you knew about the genre.

Now, we turn to Beowulf, that old English hero who has inspired so many other tales through the years. If you don’t have a love of blood and gore and violence in your tales, then you may think Beowulf is not for you. Hold your disdain, though, because you won’t find a more lovely description of gnashing and killing in the whole of the English language.

To recap (Cliff Notes version here), if you’ve forgotten the tale or (gasp!) never read it, Beowulf is a hero of the Geats (modern day southern Sweden) who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar’s hall has been terrorized by the villain, Grendel, who has been killing and eating the Danes and generally creating bloody chaos. As part of the poem reads, Grendel attacks one of the warriors and “tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly this the lifeless corse was clear devoured…” How can you not love that?!?

Beowulf and his squad lie in wait for Grendel and Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and Beowulf kills her with the sword of a giant that he finds in her lair. In glory, Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes King of the Geats. His last great act is to slay a dragon that terrorizes his land, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight and dies. He is cremated and given the highest honors of his people.

And, from one of my favorite commentators on books of all kinds:

https://youtu.be/Xh8akuq-MDI

For this “reading,” I actually listened to the audio version. It’s an abridgement, but the abridged version is compiled by Seamus Heaney, the late, great poet/playwright/translator whose translation of Beowulf is widely popular. Heaney also reads the audio version, so you have the joy of listening to the tale with Heaney’s Irish lilt and bold voice bringing Beowulf to life. Beowulf is believed to have been largely an oral recitation, and it really makes a difference in the hearing of it, much like Shakespeare’s works are different when read or spoken aloud.

My favorite of the Beowulf retellings is Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. It’s based on a real, unfinished manuscript of an Arab man, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who travels north and lives with and makes observations about the Vikings. The book reads like an ongoing journal as the Arab and the group of Vikings embark on a similar journey to help a King fight off a particularly nasty villain. The book was made into a movie that I also enjoyed quite a bit, The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas. The book and movie make great supplements to the original hero’s tale and do justice to the mighty legend of Beowulf.

I’ve included a list of other famous epic poems including familiar stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon with a post on the sappy love junk, too!

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Book With A Color in the Title

A young girl is pulled from obscurity to lead a rebellion – read that in The Hunger Games.

A young girl is elevated to royalty to make a difference in a dystopian future – read that in The Queen of the Tearling series.

A queen orchestrates the slaying of her king in order to put her son on the throne – read that in Game of Thrones.

I picked this book because I like the dystopian fiction genre, but also because one of the books in the series was just released and I wanted to give it a go. I wouldn’t say I disliked this book. I just didn’t find anything new or different in the genre. (It could also be the narrator on the audio version, because I did dislike her.) Our heroine, Mare Barrow, is a Red Blood, the lower caste of society. Silver Bloods are superior in every way, complete with magical powers that the Reds don’t possess (and real silver blood). As a result, the Silvers rule and the Reds are kept oppressed and deprived of privilege and opportunity. Somebody has to stand on the corner and wave as the Silvers go by, right?

Our girl, Mare, gets by as a pickpocket and thief with no valid trade in store for her. The future awaiting her is forced service in the military when she turns 18. Her father has returned home from service physically broken, and her three older brothers are also off fighting. Mare’s friend, Kilorn, thought his future was was military-free since he apprenticed as a fisherman. However, his benefactor dies suddenly and he comes to Mare with the news that he will be off to the military in a week. Desperate to escape a bleak and uncertain future, the two hatch a plan to escape.

I won’t spoil all of the events that transpire, but Mare is put into a situation where it’s revealed that she has the power to create and control energy and lightning. The Silvers are known to have extraordinary powers like creating fire or mind control, but no Red has ever shown this capability. The King claims Mare is from a long-lost noble family and betroths her publicly to his youngest son. She is brought into the royal fold and cut off from her family. Resentful, Mare plays along but gets pulled into a group planning a rebellion and is ultimately a pawn for them and the royal family.

It’s a fairly good read and I’ll probably pick up the sequels at some point, it’s just not high on my list for originality in the genre. This book doesn’t quite transcend the Young Adult genre to escape the teen angst and romance that threaten to distract from the story. Having said that, Mare has a lot of grit and determination. The author has parts of the world she created that hint at a post-apocalyptic upheaval and I’m interested to see how that plays out. If you like dystopian YA literature, there are additional suggestions here, including the City of Ember series which I loved!

Romance

I’m reaching pretty far back here, picking Fantasy Lover by Sherrilyn Kenyon. This book was published in 2002 and is also the first book in Kenyon’s popular Hunter- verse, which is a big part of why I chose it.

Now, I’m a big fan of romance as a genre, and I started reading romance probably about 7th or 8th grade. I cut my teeth on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Mistress of Mellyn, and an assortment of Harlequins ( I remember The Winds of Winter by Sandra Field fondly). I graduated to Jude Devereaux, Johanna Lindsey, Beatrice Small’s Skye O’Malley, and Janet Dailey’s Calder series. I moved on to other genres through the years, but dipped back to Amanda Quick, Brenda Joyce, Mary Balogh, Karen Marie Moning and lots of the paranormal trends. Kenyon’s novels have been extremely popular, and I bumped this up the top of my TBR pile because I had surprisingly never read any.

The romance genre has a good mix of things I like and things I don’t like.You read romance, above all else, for the interaction of the hero and heroine and that can be anywhere on the board from sweet to steamy, Amish to medieval, mystery to sci-fi, humor to dramatic. I like a variety of all of those and had high hopes for this book because of its popularity. Fantasy Lover has some sexy sizzle, for sure, but it also has a huge dollop of cheesiness to it, and I can’t get on board with that. I try not to put spoilers in my book discussions, but this book is old enough that I may discuss some things that could be slight spoilers. Fair warning.

Where to start? Julian of Macedon is a warrior, a general, who is the son of Aphrodite and a mortal man. After a series of events, Julian displeases the wrong gods and is banished to a book for eternity, only leaving the pages when he is summoned as a sex slave. Not just any sex slave. He stays for a full month to pleasure a woman but can never find his own release. Then, he’s back in the book until his next summoning. This has gone on for 2000 years. Our heroine is Grace, a 29-year-old sex therapist who has only ever had sex once. How does that work? I’m not sure how you can do a job like that and be afraid of the physical act, but whatever. Grace’s parents were tragically killed when she was 24 and the cad who deflowers her was collecting virginities on a bet. I get that she was treated terribly and the dude was callous about the physical hurt he inflicted on her during her first time. It still seems odd she wouldn’t find other relationships to explore further, especially since she’s a… sex therapist. I have a hard time with that. Can you tell? Grace is also described by herself and other characters as plain and slightly overweight, but that’s really all we get on a descriptive. A little more on the self-esteem or body image issues might have gone a long way to convince me of her reasons for never having sex again. Of course, Julian finds her simply scrumptious as any hero worth his weight in gold should. So, Grace’s friend helps her summon Julian to help get her past her sex hang-ups and a little moonlight and wine-soaked incantations later, and Julian and Grace are set to spend the next month together.

It’s no stretch to think they will eventually want to break the curse of Julian’s imprisonment in the book. A variety of gods and goddesses make appearances and there is melodrama surrounding Julian’s feelings of self-loathing, his loneliness throughout his life, and his revulsion at being enslaved. As with Grace’s issues, these seemed forced for the sake of having some internal conflict and kind of get dumped in the middle of the narrative.

*Spoiler alert* This is more of a spoiler alert than some of the other things I mention, but part of breaking the curse requires Grace and Julian to start having sex before the stroke of midnight and stay “joined” until sunrise. No slippy-outy or all bets are off. Seriously. I mean, maybe I’m just old, but I would have to pee sometime during this six or seven hours. That would be awkward. And require some logistical effort on my part. Guess I won’t be summoning any demi-gods from ancient texts. Also, the curse can only be broken by a woman “of Alexander,” which I thought would mean Grace has some lineage to Julian’s time and add some heft to the plot. Nope. Her last name is Alexander. That’s the magic connection. Really.

All in all, it’s not the best romance I’ve ever read but it’s also not the worst. The parts that I guess were supposed to be humorous were just cringe-worthy to me. The melodrama could have been more developed or just left out altogether; make it either campy or serious but not both. The ending was a abso-fucking-lutely eye-rolling. What do you do with a Macedonian general in 2002 New Orleans when he has no birth certificate, no current employable skills, no record on the grid? Mighty Aphrodite steps in with all the answers.

There are lots of mixed reviews on Goodreads if you want to take a look at those here. Due to the popularity of the series as a whole, I’ll probably try one or two more to see where it goes. Happy reading!

Book Recommended By A Friend

It’s the rare book that makes me want to read it again as soon as I finish it, but The Song of Achilles is a rare enough treat that it does exactly that. This tale of Mythological characters is larger than life but reads as intimately as the best of any historical fiction. You do believe that gods and goddesses walk among mortal men, that centaurs are real, and prophecies foretell the tragically inescapable fates of men.

As the title suggests, the story centers on Achilles, the greatest warrior of his generation and arguably the most golden of all of the Greek heroes. If you are shaky on your Greek mythology, Achilles is the son of a mortal, Peleus, and the minor goddess, Thetis. With such parentage, Achilles has destiny weighting him down. This is a story of tragedy, of love, of jealousy, of pride. Would you expect any less of the Greeks?

First, though, we meet 9-year-old Patroclus, an outcast prince who is exiled to the home of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. Peleus has taken in other such exiles and made a home for them in his land. He feeds them, educates them, and trains them to fight for him. Peleus is not a fool. An exile himself, the fact that Peleus sired a son with a goddess brought him much renown and he was a self-made King, to boot. Patroclus arrives, scared and lonely and angry at the world. His anger centers on one boy in particular – the charming, athletic golden child who is popular with everyone in the kingdom, Prince Achilles. Patroclus has always been an outsider and Achilles is everything he is not. The two boys are the same age, but worlds apart in many ways.

Just when I thought a darker nature of Achilles would come to light, exposing him as a bully and ruffian, the exact opposite is revealed. The young Achilles makes a point to befriend Patroclus and include him in the camaraderie of the other boys. The reader sees an early glimpse of why Achilles is so beloved – his kindness, his warmth, his loyalty, his utter lack of meanness or ulterior motives. His character shines as brightly as his golden hair. The two boys bond and Patroclus becomes the lifelong companion to Achilles.

As the two grow older, Achilles appears comfortable with his destiny, something he doesn’t yet fully comprehend. He only knows that he is and will be the greatest warrior of his time. It’s what he was born to do. We see Achilles through Patroclus, and watch as the two form a strong friendship and an even stronger romantic attraction. Achilles will go nowhere willingly without Patroclus, and Patroclus will tirelessly search out Achilles when twists of fate forcibly remove him.

When the boys are 16, war erupts – a little event you may have heard of called the Trojan War. A guy likes a girl and kidnaps her from her husband and nations destroy each other for honor and glory. The destiny of Achilles has arrived. He is Aristos achaion, the best of the Greeks.

All of the Greek all-stars are there – Odysseus, Ajax, Menelaus, Paris, Helen, Hector, and Agamemnon. It’s a bloody years-long campaign. As Achilles is hailed by the Greeks and their allies and feared by the Trojans, his pride and honor take a toll. Achilles loses his deeper, kinder nature and Patroclus takes on the task of salvaging the shreds of the man he once knew.

I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers by saying the the story doesn’t end well. And, yet, it does. Miller has written an engrossing, captivating account of one man’s journey to heroism and, more interestingly, the journey of his significant other as the hero transforms in front of him. Patroclus knew from an early age that Achilles was destined for greatness, was already great, but his public crowning as hero was bittersweet and Patroclus is both in awe and in fear of what this all means for Achilles.

While not all of the myth surrounding Achilles shows up in the book, Miller interweaves the most logical pieces in her narrative. One glaring omission is Achilles being shot in the heel, his one vulnerable spot. However, her use of his pride as his own Achilles’ Heel is thought-provoking and clever. There is a great interview with Madeline Miller here and see her discuss The Song of Achilleshere.

Book In a Series

Heart Trouble by Mary Kay Andrews is fifth in this mystery series, which starts with Every Crooked Nanny. It continues the story of Callahan Garrity and her merry band of housekeepers who solve crimes. Callahan is a former police officer who quit to become a private detective. Detective work didn’t pay the bills, though, and Callahan bought a house cleaning business and gave up detecting work – or so she thought. Every Crooked Nanny is Callahan’s foray back into the detecting business when she runs into a former sorority sister who needs a house cleaned and a thieving nanny found. Jump several books forward, and Heart Trouble has Callahan dealing with her irascible mother’s heart condition and doing divorce work for a disgraced Atlanta socialite who is divorcing her heart surgeon husband. Callahan is working through her own emotional heart troubles as well.

This book could fit several categories for my reading list, not the least of which is reading a book set in your home town or state. Atlanta was a home to me for many years and this series gives shout outs to many of my favorites – kudzu, the Varsity, the Braves and Dale Murphy, and the University of Georgia. This is a new series to me, but was written and set in the 90s, shortly after I left. Everything mentioned as far as landmarks are familiar and part of the reason I like it so much. The other reason is, of course, Callahan Garrity . She’s a great female protagonist – sarcastic and tough and funny and vulnerable. Her business, House Mouse, is run by her and her mom and has side characters who provide comic relief, but Andrews does not shy away from grim and divisive storylines surrounding the actual mysteries and Callahan’s daily life. Throughout the series there are major health concerns, complexities of relationships, racial tensions, and other heavy topics that weave in and out of the plots.

The ability for Callahan to use the cleaning business as a ruse for her detective work is believable especially when you think about the time period these books take place – ubiquitous cell phones and social media were years away. It also helps provide some lighter aspects to the story. I would categorize this beyond a cozy mystery but not as violent or graphic as the grittier mysteries out there. It’s a pleasant, entertaining read and great for anyone who thinks they don’t like mysteries. So much of the story is about relationships, the reader can sometimes forget the mystery altogether to focus on the Garrity clan and their quirky entourage! Mary Kay Andrews originally wrote these under the name Kathy Hogan Trocheck, so you might find them in a used bookstore under that name, but most are rebranded under the Andrews name if you are looking in the bookstores or libraries for this series.

(A note on the audio versions: I’ve listened to all of these on audio so far. They are really good productions and I like the narrator, Hillary Huber. My only complaint is that some of the local place names or words are mispronounced, but it’s probably not noticeable to anyone but a local. It’s a little “nails on a chalkboard” to me, though. I did notice that in this book, Huber focuses more on a version of a Southern accent, too. Haven’t decided if I like it or not, but, again, that’s a local quirk. Fair warning to any of my Southern brethren who may take a listen!)

Book Set In a Different Country

I know what you’re wondering and I’ll answer that question first. Yes, there are erotic stories peppered throughout this book. The stories are beautiful and well-written and I would read a whole collection of them if Balli Kaur Jaswal chose to write one. However, there is so much more to this book. There is mystery, romance, tragedy, and the underlying clash of “death before dishonor” India versus the modern Brit Indian who has embraced Western culture and chooses to leave the old ways behind.

This book reads like the best of Maeve Binchy but with Indian voices instead of Irish. Our main character, Nikki, lives in London and is the daughter of Indian immigrants who are fairly progressive in comparison to other families in her community. Nikki applies for and is hired to teach a class on creative writing. Her students, however, show up to be taught how to write. Period. As in how to read and write and learn the Punjabi alphabet which they only speak. Forget about the English language. The group is mostly illiterate and widowed and were recruited by Nikki’s boss to fill seats in the class to make numbers look good. Nikki tries to make the best of the situation and by happenstance, the widows and Nikki decide that they can spend class time to tell erotic stories as a means of creativity and one classmate who can read and write will transcribe them. So begins our tale.

The erotic stories slip out into the community, attracting unwanted attention. The class also makes Nikki aware of the tragic death of a young woman in the community. The scandals interweave, and the community becomes torn between the traditional role of women in the Indian community and the desire for a more important voice as agents of influence on their own lives and destinies.

If you like family stories, this certainly falls into that category as well. Nikki and her sister have very different views on romantic relationships, and there are the universal conflicts any cultural group struggles with for children trying to please parents, and parents projecting their hopes and dreams on their children. There are funny moments, too, plus the subplot involving the tragic death of a young, modern Indian woman that nobody wants to discuss.

It’s a good book, both entertaining and thought-provoking. I listened to the audio and it gives you a real flair for the accents and immerses you in the story in a way I’m not sure I would have gotten from just reading it. However you prefer your stories, put this one on your list!

Cookbook (As A Literary Work)

Do you love cookbooks as much as I do? For a long time, I scoured flea markets and antique malls for those little church potluck publications or someone’s old handwritten recipe book. I have family recipes, too, and I love to shop new cookbooks as they come on the market. Somewhere along the way, however, I started to value cookbooks for their literary value more than the actual recipes. I’m not sure when that happened for me, but my favorite cookbooks have become the ones that tell a story.

Smoke and Pickles by Edward Lee is an outstanding choice in this category. You might know Lee from his 2012 turn on Bravo’s Top Chef or because he’s been a finalist twice for a James Beard award or, like me, saw him on a weekend morning news show where I was intrigued enough to go searching for his cookbook. If you don’t know Lee? Well, let me tell you. Or, better yet, let him tell you himself…

Lee was raised in Brooklyn, part of a Korean-American family. He spent formative years as a graffiti brat before getting a job at fifteen busing tables at Terrace 5, “a small, snooty restaurant” on the 5th floor of Trump Tower in New York City. This was a time in the world where “the cult of food had not yet been born.” Chefs performed well, were largely uncredited, and certainly weren’t stopping to sign autographs and take selfies with the masses in the streets. Lee, through circumstances you can read about in the book, found his way to Kentucky. He found a unique relationship between his Korean food influences and those in his newly adopted American South. According to Lee, smoke (as in bbq and spicy pork) and pickles (as in fried or kimchi) are the common ground in his culinary mashup of two distinct cultures, allowing him to add a new taste to Southern fare.

Among his recipes of Edamame and Boiled Peanuts, Pickled Chai Grapes, and Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles, Lee talks about his family, his passions outside of food, and his acquired love of both buttermilk and bourbon. This is a cookbook, yes. Have I actually made anything from it? No, not yet. Have I thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling that pops out between the tasty-sounding recipes? You betcha! Lee’s mantra is, “What I cook is who I am.” Pour yourself a bourbon, and discover for yourself in this great cookbook.