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 Based On Its Cover

It’s a great cover, this one! It’s bright and eye-catching and full of hints of Spring and renewal. Maybe that’s what really hooked me into buying it. The title isn’t bad either – A Book That Takes Its Time. With the rushing of the world around us and the anxiety and stress that skewer me weekly, I think this just spoke to something in me that needed uplifting. I’m all for anything that will give me those rare moments of peace and contemplation, allowing me to sort out my mind. If only there was a word for that…hmmmm.

Something like…mindfulness.

That’s the crux of the book – mindfulness. Flow Magazine, a mindfulness publication, put this book together with many of their stylized ideas in one volume. With tasks like taking one really memorable picture that you purposefully frame instead of bursts of forgettable shots, or making a list of things that give you energy, or taking 15 minutes from your day to work through the section on self-care exercises, this book gives you small tasks you can focus on for short amounts of time, tasks you can and should fully concentrate on while you’re doing them. Write notes to yourself or others, try new spices, purposefully let shit go. (They don’t actually say that last one – it’s my own interpretation!) Practice kindness, thoughtfulness, and uni-tasking. Take some time to take your time.

It’s hard, this mindfulness concept. Hard to give up multi-tasking, hard to concentrate fully on just one thing. I read an article several years ago about Google making us dumber. The gist of the article is that we as a society no longer have to search and read through volumes of information to get a factoid or a definition, much less larger concepts. Google is now a verb and it’s super quick and easy to get anything we need without thought or concentration. We don’t have to think or filter or research for many, if not all, of our daily needs. We’re used to instant gratification and we pay the price for it.

This book has a really crafty vibe, so that could be a problem if you don’t like crafty things. The idea is to take the time to think about mindfulness and find your own way – it’s still a really useful and attractive book even if you’re all thumbs with paper crafts and glue! Mindfulness as a concept is all the rage in the self-help section, too. If you don’t like this book for yourself, there will surely be something else for you nearby. Titles like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Artist’s Way, any of the books on Danish concepts Lykke or Hygge, the Swedish Lagom, or the innumerable books on adult coloring. Whatever helps you find peace in a hectic life, grab it and hold it close!

Sci-Fi and Fantasy for Women – Part 2

I’m referencing the Book Riot article I mentioned in the previous post, and taking a look at some of my favorites from the last half of the list.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – Really a Steampunk Western, this is the story of (can you guess?) Karen Memory, a prostitute in late 19th-century Seattle Underground – an alternate universe version, of course.  Gold miners come through on their way to Alaska, but airships float in the skies overhead.  Karen and her fellow prostitutes come up against a madman with a scientific mind control machine and a Jack the Ripper wannabe who is leaving dead prostitutes on the doorstep of the brothel where Karen and her comrades ply their trade.  I would have liked more of the steampunk element, but overall it was a good book.  Not sure it would make my top 100 by women, but it was a fun read nonetheless.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – Can you tell I have a thing for King Arthur stories?  This is another favorite of mine, ranking right up there with the Mary Stewart series I discussed in the previous post.  This take on the legend is from the point of view of the women in the story, which made it unique at the time.  Much like real history, women don’t always get the credit due to them for their influence on the course of human events.  Legends are often the same, and Bradley is a master at the take on this story.  Not to be missed, especially if you are an Arthurian enthusiast.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – Reading it now, so I’ll have to let you know, but I really like it so far.  I know the book has received great buzz since it came out, but I didn’t research too much for this post since I don’t want to accidentally read any plot spoilers.  Huge pet peeve for me!  You’ll have to research this on your own until I finish…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Just a classic!  Our heroine, Meg, and her brother and mother find an unearthly stranger in their kitchen one night.  From there, the story unfolds in a way that is beyond description if I want to avoid spoilers.  (If you don’t know how I feel about spoilers, see the blurb of Sorcerer to the Crown!)  I read this many moons ago and hope to find time soon to read it again, plus the other four books in the series.

As I stated in Part 1 of this post, many of the other books out of the 100 are either on my TBR list or I’ve read other books by the authors, but not the ones listed.  It’s a still a selection of some great choices, but I would have to read all of them to say whether or not I would include them on a similar list of my own.

What’s missing or worth consideration, at least?  Here’s a few books I would throw out there that I found highly enjoyable…and are written by women.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Not what you think the story will be at all, and has some gender-bending plot points similar to Ancillary Justice.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice – If we’re going there with the vampires and what not in Dead Until Dark, then let’s really go there with Anne Rice and her glorious Mayfair witches.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – Each November, water horses emerge from the ocean and it’s up to the bravest (or most foolish) riders to try to get these bloodthirsty mounts to the finish line.  A young woman, Puck, is forced by circumstance to enter, risking her life for her family in a way similar to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy by Women – Part 1

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two of my favorite genres to read, especially fantasy.  If it’s not your thing, I get it, but I implore you to not overlook this post or this genre.  Remember, a reading list is about trying new things and you can find all sorts of comments on society in the pages of these books.  Moreover, there’s often the classic hero’s story a la Joseph Campbell; some read like historical fiction; some have Dynasty-level family drama (looking at you, Game of Thrones); some are dreamily romantic; some are downright funny.  Browse the book stores or look at Good Reads and give something in this genre a try.  I came across this great list on Book Riot of what the author of the article considers to be 100 of the “must-read” books in the genre…by women.

(Me getting on my soapbox)  I’ll get my little gripe out of the way first.  I really have mixed feelings about the codicil “by women” or any other similar categorization.  I get that people want to emphasize diversity and make sure all groups are represented and I’m all for that!  Truly!  However, I can’t help but feel that the tags also take away from the authors and their works by making them seem like they don’t stand on the same ground as works by men (or whomever) and have to be judged separately. Can’t we all just get along and say “must-read” without putting them into any other category than genre? (Me getting off my soapbox)

Anywho, it’s a great list.  I think I’ve said that.  Most of them I’ve heard of, many of them are on a TBR list that never seems to end, and some I’ve had the great pleasure of reading and highly recommend.  Here’s my favorites for the first half of the list…

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – What a great book!  I had the pleasure of having a Skype visit with Ann Leckie for a book club where this was our selection.  She was wonderful!  To overly simplify a complicated plot, the story revolves around an android who is part of a space ship – these androids act as the eyes and ears of the space ship and keep the captain informed of what’s happening in multiple places at once.  Boots on the ground, if you will.  Very Big Brother-ish or like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Yes, I’m THAT kind of nerd!) Treachery happens, as it often does, with the main ship being destroyed and only one android, Breq, is left to figure out what happened to the ship and captain and seek revenge.  The truly remarkable part of this book is that Breq could be male or female – the story (and the author) don’t confirm anything. It’s not a sexual plot line, it’s just that, to Breq, male and female have no relevance (just like me on my soapbox).  The Radsch empire (Breq’s home) makes no distinction between male and female in their language, so you really never know if any given character is male of female.  It really makes no difference to the plot either, but it kind of blows your mind as you’re reading it – just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t!  I haven’t read the sequels yet, but they’re on my list, and I’m for sure going to read this one again.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart – I loved this series! An oldie, but goodie, Stewart takes on the King Arthur saga and brings a realness and depth to the characters that makes you believe they could have existed.  This first book focuses on Merlin and his early life, mixing in historical details of Britain in the fifth century – details that make the book seem like historical fiction.  Don’t miss it or, if you’ve read it, read it again!

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris – aka the television series True Blood, this book introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse and her quirky, deadly entourage.  I haven’t read all of the books in the series, but I really did enjoy the early ones and mean to get back to them one day.  I did watch the television series through to the end and, from what I gather, the book series and the TV series diverge at some point, giving me a chance to see potentially different outcomes for favorite characters – kind of like a choose your own adventure!  This series has the swooning romance and the gruesome gore, so you definitely get bang for your buck. (Fang for your buck?)  Harris has another series I enjoyed even more about Harper Connelly, who can sense the final location of a dead person and see the last few seconds of their lives, and uses this knowledge to help bring closure to murders.  The first in that series is Grave Sight.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I mean, come on.  It’s Harry Potter.  Get on the knight bus and read it, if you haven’t already.  I’m still checking the mail everyday for my letter from Hogwarts.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I fell in love with this series, right up to the very end.  It’s dark and gritty and also full of humanity.  Collins has said that the fascination our culture has with reality shows like Survivor greatly influenced the formation of this story and it doesn’t disappoint. Can we debate the ending, though?  You know what I’m talking about!  With social commentary hidden in a futuristic world, do not pass this one by and don’t think you know the book just because you’ve seen the movies.

Post to be continued…

Book That Takes Place At Christmas

Plum Pudding Murder by Joanne Fluke

Here’s my dilemma…  I have a series of books that I can’t say that I like, but I continue to read them.  I mean, really.  I buy all of them, too.  No lie.  I don’t especially like the characters, the setting is very humdrum, the prose is often incredibly annoying – but I sit down and breeze through them when the mood strikes me.  I’m not obsessive about this series like I am with some other book series.  I haven’t read all of them yet, and I don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for the next one in the series to be written the way I do for some authors (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin!). However, like some weird low-maintenance, co-dependent relationship, I just can’t walk away.  I go back to this series over and over again.

The specific book in question is Plum Pudding Murder, where a dastardly crime takes place at the local Christmas tree lot and our plucky heroine is there, plum puddings in hand, to save the day.  The premise of the series is not much different from other cozy mystery series where the mystery is light and the local village is full of quirky characters.  Hannah Swensen is the star of this series created by Joanne Fluke.  Hannah’s not too old, not too young, and not too beautiful; very wholesome and very well-liked in her small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota.  Hannah is the proprietor of a cookie shop, The Cookie Jar, and stumbles into detecting in the first book in the series, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.  Hannah isn’t without her own dark secret – a heart-wrenching college relationship soured her on premarital sex, so she dates both a sexy cop and a sensible, earthy dentist without giving it up to either one.  Both men adore her and her cat and the male suitors are great friends with each other!  Could it get any happier? No.  Not until murder comes to town in each installment.  Then, Hannah and her suitors pursue murderers and cookies with equal vigor until all is well in Lake Eden again. Each book comes with a host of recipes, which are pretty tasty if you take the time to try them.

There are elements to the series that I enjoy.  I know a large part of the appeal to me is the lack of substance in the series – it’s cotton candy for my mind, which is a balm for me.  My brain tends to be in overdrive most of the time, so the mental relaxation is incredibly calming.  However, there are certainly other “brain candy” books I’ve read that I’ve loved more. The peripheral characters in the book are tame, but enjoyable. The recipes in the series are a draw, plus you have the added fantasy of running your own little cookie shop!  How fun would that be?  Until I had to get up at 4am to start the cookies, but I digress…

So, where does this series go so wrong for me?  We’re boiling it down to two points of contention.  First, the prose is annoying at times.  The author creates dialog for the characters to explains details of references that don’t need explanation.  These side conversations are unnatural and dumb down the reading experience for me.  For example, there is one exchange between unpretentious dentist, Norman, and Hannah’s sister, Andrea, where Andrea asks Norman not to relay some information to her husband.  Norman promises not to relay the information because he knows sometimes the messenger takes the blame, as in “Don’t kill the messenger.”  Andrea, appalled, wants to know if the people who killed the messenger went to jail.  Norman and Hannah, condescendingly and a little sanctimoniously, go into great detail to explain to Andrea (who couldn’t care less) that the phrase has been around for ages and stems from a play by Sophocles.  Also, Hannah goes on to say that such greats as Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde have borrowed the spirit of the phrase in their own works.  When Norman and Hannah finish their lecture, the scene then jumps back to Andrea’s husband’s arrival and the story continues.

Really?  The account of the messenger reference is such a random jump in the story to explain information that, again, does not need to be explained and is apropos of nothing to the rest of the story.  Sure, we might not remember where “don’t kill the messenger” comes from, but do we really need to be reminded here and now?  Hannah’s backstory includes an English degree in college, so Fluke uses every opportunity to have Hannah give grammatical corrections and random factoid lectures that don’t add anything to the story.  Sometimes, she even drags other characters into the trivia circus like poor ol’ hapless Norman in the example above.  It happens throughout the series and is just a big turnoff for me.  I much prefer authors leaving the reader to use their own wits to explore (or not) a random bit of information if they want more encyclopedic knowledge.  That’s part of the joy in the literary journey.

Second, this love triangle between Hannah and Mike, the sexy cop, and Norman, the dentist, has run its course as far as I’m concerned.  We’re about 12 books and a few novellas into the series, and you mean to tell me that both men are content with the openly dating and declaring their love for (and not having sex with) Hannah?  As the series goes along, Mike gets a little more disreputable and Norman gets too sugary-sweet, and I’ve started to be creeped out by both men.  I keep hoping a new and different type of guy will move to Lake Eden and sweep Hannah off her feet, leaving Mike and Norman in the dust.  I’m not asking for 50 Shades of Grey, but a more realistic story would make the series infinitely more interesting.

Another series I used to love but have dropped is the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.  As much as I loved it, the love triangle in that series dragged on forever and the madcap adventures of Stephanie and her band of misfits became monotonous to the point that I couldn’t differentiate one book from the other by the time book 20 rolled around.  I’m almost to that point with the Hannah Swensen series, but I have a feeling the cookies will keep drawing me back!

Is there a series that you’ve let go by the wayside?

Book Recommended By A Friend

Father and Son by Larry Brown

I hate realism. Truly. It’s my least favorite genre. But, the list is unforgiving, and I must follow the call.  I wanted a recommendation from a friend who reads completely different works than I do, and did I ever hit paydirt with this one.

Father and Son is the hard as nails story of Virgil Davis and Glen Davis, father and son. It’s also the story of other fathers and sons in the book, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. Set in 1968 Mississippi, the characters are harsh and prospects for what most of us would consider a happy life are bleak. Glen Davis has just been released from prison and most people aren’t throwing anything close to a welcome party. Glen has always been bad news and those who know him are just waiting to see what trouble of his own making will befall him next. They don’t even have time to pop the popcorn…

Bad things happen when Glen is around. Bloody, dreadful, life-altering tragedies. Glen is so mired in his own misery and hatred, he can’t stop his behavior. In fact, he doesn’t want to stop his behavior. He is a psychopathic juggernaut launching into this small town, smack in the middle of secrets and lies, bringing death and destruction as his two best friends. There isn’t much to like about Glen. Nothing, in fact, that I can find. Even as his past is disclosed, Glen is so awful that I really just didn’t care why he is the way he is. Over the he five days that the novel takes place, I just hated him more and more.  There is murder, rape, the senseless killing of animals… Truthfully, I skimmed a lot of the book because I just couldn’t read the details and I wanted the whole thing to be over. However, a lot of people love this type of story (Oprah, that’s why I’m not in your book club), so please try this one if that type is story speaks to you.

Despite my not liking the story it has to tell, Father and Son is well written and has great reviews. This link to a NoveList review goes into much more detail regarding the plot, but there are spoilers! Author Larry Brown is compared to the “Other” author from Mississippi, Mr. Stark Realism King himself, William Faulkner. I’m also not a Faulkner fan, so there you go. Not to say I don’t appreciate the bare bones writing and the grit in the storytelling, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. I like my murder and mayhem dressed up in fantasy. However, I did try something new and that’s what reading lists are all about!

Book You Can Read In A Day

Life and work soooo interfere with reading!  Even vacations this year haven’t lent themselves to reading like I thought they would.  I mean, I was vacationing on my vacation so why should I be complaining, right?  I have a deeply delicious stack of books just waiting for me to discover their depths and yet…no time to do it. You know what has been a bonus though? Discovering a handful of books which can be read in a day that I’ve managed to sneak in. One more category checked off of my list!

Today’s selection is a book that is definitely one of the most (fill in the blank with intriguing? eclectic? infamous? provocative?) reads I’ve picked up in a long time.   Auletris: Erotica by Anais Nin is my first foray into Nin’s work although I have certainly heard of her and her penchant for titillating stories. Auletris is composed of two separate collections of stories, “Life in Provincetown” (previously unknown until this 2016 publication) and “Marcel” (a portion of which was published in Nin’s Delta of Venus). I’m no stranger to my share of racy books with highly descriptive paragraphs of what happens when the birds and bees meet. However, Anais Nin’s prose is nothing short of magic.  She elevates the genre to heights beyond the reach of mere mortals.  Here’s an example:

“…one assumed she had a beautiful body, but somehow one only looked at the mouth.  Somehow or other one imagined the other mouth to be equally luxuriant, equally prominent.  Just as one felt that the thin-lipped mouths of Puritan women must be the exact replicas of their thin-lipped sexuality.”

Nin doesn’t just go straight for the action verbs.  She’s langourous in her descriptions, evoking the imagination and placing the voyeuristic reader right there in the room.  Her allusions are smart and shocking.  Whether or not you’re a fan of the subject matter, Nin’s literary muscle cannot be denied.

Having said that, this book won’t be for everyone.  From an Anais Nin blog, “Auletris breaks many taboos—there are tales of incest, sex with children, rape, voyeurism, cutting, sadomasochism, homoeroticism (both male and female), autoerotic asphyxiation, to name a few…”

If Fifty Shades of Grey is your only exposure to erotic works, you are truly allowing yourself to be duped!  Here’s an article from The Guardian that will guide you through some other choices. Plus, for lighter but still super hot fare, check out Bertrice Small’s classic Skye O’Malley series, works by author Zaneor anything by Ellora’s Cave publishers, for example. There is also the period erotica from the Victorian era, The Pearl, which also breaks taboos like those in Auletris; not so nicely written, but certainly a staple of the genre.  There are plenty of “traditional” erotica choices, and then there are the kinkier niche areas like dinosaurs or Bigfoot – stories that seem straight from the tabloids or a weird reality show on cable TV.  I kid you not. Here’s a few choices from this article in The Daily Dot.  There is literally something in this genre for everyone. I’m not sure they can all be read in a day, but they will keep you turning pages until late in the night. Laters, baby!